NYC Trip – After Day 1 of the Conference

25th April 2005. Letter to Aunt in Ontario, Canada. Writing from Hotel Room in Armonk.

Hey! I’m just back from a wholly unplanned trip to downtown Manhattan! It was SO much fun! First, I rode a train from Armonk to New York’s Grand Central Station. This place is like nothing you’ve seen before! Then I went right to where the Staten Island Ferry leaves for the Status of Liberty tour, so I actually got to see the Status of Liberty from, well, a distance. Not too close, unfortunately, but then I didn’t have a lot of time for the Ferry. Next time, then (if there *is* a next time!). Then down to the financial district, down Broadway Street (or is it Avenue?), up Wall street – and right up to the Bank of New York, the New York Stock Exchange, and a whole lot of other stuff my fevered mind can’t even remember!

However, one thing stood out. This city is more like Mumbai than I can ever imagine! I mean, right down from the way commuters travel – by train and bus, to how busy every one is, to the entire atmosphere of the city – everything keeps moving all the time, – I LOVE this place! This is just like going to Churchgate or something, only cleaner! ;-) And people are generally very helpful. A couple of ladies whom I struck up a conversation with en route to Grand Central, offered me an entire $10 map booklet for NYC – just like that! People everywhere I asked directions, helped me by going out of their way! Finally, an IBMer from Financial Services dropped me to the Learning Center, where I’m staying, even though it was the opposite way for him. Great fun! I have about 40 photos for the day – I don’t know how I’m going to share them all with you, but I so badly want to!

Anyways, thanks for all the advice in your emails – makes me miss Mom a bit less!! Oh, and don’t worry about food – my uncanny sense of bargains led me to this obscure pizzeria on Wall Street where I got a huge, 10′ pizza for $4.45! I almost couldn’t finish it! How’s that for a good deal for a good meal!

NYC Trip – After Day 2 of the Conference.

28th April 2004. Letter to Mom. Conference ended 27th April in the evening. Writing from hotel room.

I’m writing at 3:00 in the afternoon on the 28th; I guess you guys’ll receive this on the morning of the 29th. I’m taking the day off today, not going anywhere. I felt really tired today morning, and I realised why when I just went over all what I had done the last three days!

Anyways, the highlight of today, was the trip down to Corporate Headquarters! HQ isn’t too far from where the Learning Center is, so I caught a shuttle there. Too bad they only have visitor tours on Mondays and Tuesdays. I did have a good enough look around, though. It’s eerie to realise that Sam Palmisano and guys like Steve Mills (the de-facto second-in-command) are only a few tens of feet from you somewhere!! Boy! What an experience! No photographs allowed, though! :-( It’s a very quiet place, nothing too spectacular. Not the towering edifice, the sort of magnificent monument to technology I had expected!

Well, yesterday was an incredibly packed day! Got up at 4:20, as usual, rehearsed my spiel (which I can now do in my sleep, for God’s sake!), and left for breakfast.

< Longish narration of Conference Day Two, and what happened and what I did and who I met. Eliminated from blog entry because my employers would have a blue fit if they saw me making public my honest, straightforward, often critical description of a Conference on an extremely sensitive topic at an extremely sensistive venue – T. J. Watson Research Centre, HQ of IBM Research!>

… we went down to Grand Central *again*, only this time, we headed out the other way, and walked up to the Empire State Building! :-D Surprisingly, you don’t notice it from miles around, because your view of the skyline is severely restricted by all the massive buildings around you! Average building height in that area? 25 stories, at least! Then, at one particular corner, though, one building stands out. It never ends, no matter how far up you gaze. Up, up, higher, until the steeple appears to rise into the clouds themselves.

Welcome to the Empire State Building.

The first impression is that it’s apparently being dangled from the skies! You’ve got to see it to believe how tall it is. Perhaps it won’t even appear all that impressive in my photographs (in part to my nascent, tyro-esque photography skills), but it *is* tall. Period. It has 102 floors, not including the steeple on top, is 443-odd metres tall, and was completed in one year and 45 days, in 1931. Tell that to Mehul V. and his builders, please.

We walked all around the ground floor of the ESB, which houses all lot of office space. In fact, most of the ESB (all of it?) is commercial property. (I wonder what the property rates are within the ESB!!) These guys sure know how to promote their stuff. In spite of all the paranoia these days, there’s a lot of freedom visitors enjoy here. Back home, a visit to any landmark is almost stressful and stifling, given the restrictions we’ve got to face. I wonder why policy-makers in India don’t learn basic stuff like this from all their foreign tours.

After (very reluctantly) leaving ESB, Times Square was next on the agenda. This is the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street, and was named for the former New York Times office building. (The building still stands, but apparently it isn’t owned by the NYT, which is still in the neghbourhood. Got to check that fact out). Here is a link to a photograph – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Largeviewtimessquare.jpg.
This is where I stopped at a grocery store for chocolates! Lots of chocolates! Luckily, there was some sort of in-your-dreams-only sale there; ek ke daam mein do. Of course, this being the Meccca of Capitalism, I’m sure they’d racheted up the prices sky-high anyway. Though I’ve got a few kilos for $22.80! The only question is how I’m going to haul it back to Thane. For that, I’m going to pack my bags with mystic techniques only known to the Mumbai Train Commuter, for He can pack Matter into spaces smaller than the laws of physics allow!

But I drift from the narrative. Where were we? Oh, Times Square. Yes. Then we footed it up to the U.N. Headquarters. You know, the last sentence sounds almost disrespectful in terms of how casually I said it! I mean, you don’t just ‘walk up’ to the UN HQ!! But such are the vagaries of touring Manhattan. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and nowhere is it more evident than in a tourist’s description of Manhattan. He/she has seen too many legendary landmarks and sights in too short a time, and irreverence inevitably sets in. Yes, the building is splendid. Magnificent. Bathed in the lights from its immediate surroundings, the 39-storey UN Building appears breathtakingly beautiful. I’m betting that the view at night is better than the daytime one. Tragically, that same fact does not hold true in the world of photography, especially when the photographer in question is an over-excited 22-year-old whose hands quiver harder than a cell phone vibrates in silent mode. No, but seriously, the only way to capture sharp images at night is to increase the exposure time to a few seconds, and hold the camera perfectly still for that period of time. This isn’t possible without a tripod. Which is my next purchase. There don’t seem to be any night-time pictures of the UNHQ on the internet, nor any decent large pictures, but here’s a good one nevertheless : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Nyc-un-building.jpg . Interestingly, the UN HQ property is international territory. It belongs to all of the international community, has its own police and fire forces, and issues its own stamps. If you’re wondering if I had a tour guide along with me all day yesterday, you’re mistaken. Like a good travel writer (I am, aren’t I?), I’m doing a good bit of Google-ing on the side!

OK. That was about the most exciting part of the trip. Unless, of course, you want to hear about us catching the Metro back to the city of White Plains, to the Research Lab guy’s hotel – losing our way there at 10PM in a near-freezing drizzle, then booking a taxi to take us to Armonk, which then lost *it’s* way, fortunately taking a crucial correct turn (I’m sure that was the Hand of God on the steering wheel just then, not the clueless cab driver’s!). That’s how I arrived, half-dead, at 10:45 PM. I only realised I’d skipped dinner yesterday, when my tummy roared louder today morning than Chaphekar’s tempo van does when Vinod revs it up at all ungodly hours in the morning. Today morning, the chef at breakfast insisted I have his ‘espesal’ (Spanish chef, in case you’re wondering) creation of waffles topped by strawberries and blackberries in heavenly syrup. I’ve wolfed up most of the food I got from Thane – except the laadoos – which I’m sure are mating and multiplying there in my luggage – how is it that they’re always the same number, no matter how many I eat? – and one solitary Methi ka thepla, which is wondering why it’s been singled out. Don’t you worry, I’m eating it as I’m typing.

I have no plans to go anywhere this evening; just relax, write about the trip (gosh, I can hear you exclaiming, haven’t you written enough already?!) But I’ve hardly written about *life* in the city. I wonder if I’ll be up to writing my obervations about NYC and the people of this country in general – and whether I can keep my keyboard from phyically falling apart after the pounding it’s just received in the past hour-and-three-quarters. It turns out I shouldn’t have brought over half of my clothes with me here. A lot of them are being brought back unused. OK, one keeps learning.

NYC Trip – On my way back.

11:30 AM German Time, Frankfurt Main

Well, here I am again! This time, the airport has a lot more life to it. The last time I was here, at 6:00 AM, the buildings themselves seemed to be rising from their slumber, awakening bleary-eyed to the morning. Anyways, I’ve had the chance now of actually moving around Frankfurt. Pretty nice place. Not a patch on Changi, but definitely vibrant enough to improve my opinion of it over the last time. Last time I saw Frankfurt, I thought it had less life to it than Hitler will next week.

Last evening, I spent 9 hours at JFK!! I had to check out at 1:00 PM, else there’d be a $75 late checkout fee (danm them! don’t they face this all the time?). I arrived hours before check-in, though, so, to avoid carrying all my baggage around when all I wanted was a bite to eat, I put my suitcase into Baggage Storage at the airport (highway robbery at $4 for just a few hours!). Spent most of my time reading, listening to music from my Creative MuVo (those Eveready batteries I fitted in are such goddamned low quality! They’ve discharged in a just few hours!)

Another thing I did, of course, was to watch all sorts of passengers arrive at the airport, check in, and finally board the plane. Indians – they stand out! They’re ONE of a kind! There was this gang of 10 people who arrived, noisily, spent a lot of time saying their goodbyes, each one hugging the other in turn – every permutation possible – then lots of crying and tear-dabbing, followed by a fresh round of hug-a-bye-baby, touching feet, and then, amazingly, precisely TWO people boarded the aircraft! 8 of them had come to say good-bye! Which is not too different from me boarding last Friday – I had 5 people come see me off! Of course, there were no hugging sessions, no tears, no falling at feet then. But here at JFK, NO one else apart from the Indian community came with their families! What is it about everyone else? Or what is it about us?

My (First) Home Computer Setup

First, the Hardware.

This is a really old PC – I bought it on 11th August 1998.

It’s a Pentium II running at 266 Mhz. In some ways it’s like a kernel that’s peen patched far too often. In other words, it runs the same processor as it always used to, uses the same cabinet, but has had so many components upgraded over the years, that it’s hardly recognizable as the machine that was delivered on my doorstep roughly 5.5 years ago.

Right now, it’s got three IDE hard disks: a 40 GB one from July 2002, an 8.4 GB one from March 2000, and the original 2.1 GB from August 1998. I’ve pumped the RAM up to 384 MB, up from the 16 MB it came with. The video card and sound card are both onboard.

The sound system is something I’m proud of. It’s a Creative something-something (can’t quite remember the exact name). It came with two satellite speakers – the 7cm x 7cm x 7cm thingies pack in a huge punch – and a subwoofer. It’s the smartest investment I made when I bought the PC. It cost a bomb then, but I’ve never felt the need for a separate music player – I simply rip all my CDs to my hard disk.

My only grouse with this machine is the 14-inch Samtron monitor. It’s served me beautifully over the years, but it’s so goddamn small! I’ve worked on 17″, 19″ monitors, have seen a 21″ one, and realised what a huge difference a large monitor can make to your computing experience. Even if I just traded in this monitor for a larger 19″ one, I have no guarantee that the puny onboard video card will support resolutions like 1600×1200 or higher.

Last year, I bought a 5 button Mercury optical scroller mouse. I learnt a few things from this purchase – one, even with the extra cost, always choose an optical mouse over a normal mechnical one. It’s way, way smoother, doesn’t get dirty and requires no cleaning, and can run on almost any solid, opaque surface. Second, the more buttons the merrier – but only if Linux detects them. The 2.4 series were unable to recognise the two “exotic” buttons my mouse has on the sides. Even xev wouldn’t record any input when I pressed these buttons. The 2.6.x kernels, however, instantly mapped my buttons to right-click and middle-click, which I was able to change later – to launch xterm and the IceWM start menu! Finally, a scroller is a godsend when you’re working with a lot of documents and code. Warning – a week with a scroller, and you won’t be able to use a normal mouse again!

Then, the software.

Well, with about 50 GB of free space across my 3 hard drives, what OS(es) do I run? Several, actually. There was this point in time when I was new to Linux – around early 2001 – that I wanted to try out as many Linux distros that I could get my hands on. That’s when I had upto 8 operating systems on those hard disks – and I didn’t even have the 40 GB one yet! Now, of course, my installed base is down to a sane two OSes.

This is how my hard disks are organised: The 40 GB one is entirely Fedora Core 1. There’s a 600 MB root partition, 7 GB /usr partition (these distros are getting SO bloated!), about 10 GB worth of “experimental” space, usually used to try out new distros, and finally, a 23 GB /home partition. (Update: I recently reorganised my hard disk the first time after I bought it, so the experimental partition is gone, /usr is larger, and /home is now 30+GB). The smaller 8 GB hard disk has Windows XP installed on it. The 2.1 GB one is a single large FAT32 partition. Now it’s been months since I’ve booted into Windows, so I won’t say much about it.

The following paragraphs will probably make sense to only those who have had some prior experience running Linux. For those among you still unfamiliar with the Wild Wild World of Open Source (read Linux virgins), the content that follows will provide you with a view into our crazy fevered minds, and perhaps offer an explanation to what makes us so attached to, of all things, software!

Fedora Core 1 is a wonderful OS. It’s in that sweet spot between, say, Slackware or Debian, and Mandrake or Windows XP. I don’t want my distro to try to do things for me that I’d much rather do myself. That instantly disqualifies the Microsoft family, Mandrake (though I rate Mandrake 8.1 as being a phenomenally advanced distro for its time), SUSE, and others like Lycoris, Ark and Lindows^H^H^H^H^H^H^HLinspire. I also don’t want to spend 25 hours everyday in the supposedly joyous experiences of constantly “hacking away” at your system (I do suffer from the occasional “hack frenzy”, though), “tweaking” it to perfection, and “optimising” it to squeeze every bit of performance from your hardware, making sure not a single needless instruction is EVER executed by the processor. So no Debian or Gentoo. (Mind you, I am, however, entertaining the thought of installing Slackware 9.1 or even Vector Linux on that test partition).

That leaves only Redhat’s offerings, which I’ve used since release 5.2. Fedora is good-looking out of the box, has system configuration files that are still easy to edit – as compared to Mandrake and SUSE, and has wide application availability. If there’s ever a small dependency to be satisifed, I know I can google for an RPM specially packaged for Fedora Core. I’ve been using it since it was released sometime in early November 2003.

My only complaint with Fedora is the HUGE installation size. Even a simple desktop system install will take about 2GB of space. Surely there’s no need for that much stuff? Since Redhat’s installer Anaconda doesn’t offer too much choice regarding fine-tuning package selection, I’m left with no option but to select a custom installation, and then check the “everything” box to install about 5.4 GB of stuff. Now I hear that Fedora Core 2 has a full installation size of 6.9GB! That is clearly unacceptable. However, I have no dearth of disk space for my needs, so I’m not too upset.

Here’s how my desktop environment’s made up:

I alternate between several window managers. My all-time favourite has to be IceWM, which I started learning to love, ironically, when I was using Mandrake Linux 8.1! IceWM is a minimalist window manager with a Windows 95 look-and-feel. It’s got a taskbar at the bottom, with a start menu, a system tray, and support for icons on the toolbar, like the QuickLaunch bar on the Windows 98-onwards versions of Windows. That’s where the similarity between Icewm and Windows ends, though. Icewm is meant to be very simple, fast and unobtrusive. It has a set of extremely simple configuration files to manage the menu structure, the toolbar icons, the keyboard shortcuts, and overall preferences. IceWM is often called the “impersonator”, for its excellent themeing support. With some work, it makes a credible attempt at mimicking Windows XP, MacOS 9 and OSX, even Solaris! For more detailed information on IceWM, here’s my IceWM page.

My current love is

Fluxbox, which is even lighter and minimalist than IceWM (Update – I’ve returned to IceWM!). For a newcomer to Linux, staring at a default Fluxbox screen is intimidating, to say the least. There’s only a small bar centred at the bottom, and nothing else. The applications menu is accessed via a right-click on the desktop.
However, just like IceWM, there are a few simple configuration files to edit: one for the menu structure, one for key bindings, and one for settings while Fluxbox starts. Fluxbox comes with a fair bit of documentation, and the key bindings are very flexible and comprehensive. More on Fluxbox on my Fluxbox page.

My terminal is xterm. I’ve heard that rxvt’s lighter. I tried rxvt – compiled and ran it, but it wouldn’t display man pages correctly. I’m sure that’s because I didn’t pass the configure script the right options before the compilation stage, but I’m too lazy to try rxvt again.

I’ve never felt the need for a graphical file manager often enough, to actually go hunting for one. On the rare occasion that I do need one, I take the trouble of waiting for Konqueror (strictly speaking, kfmclient in its filemanagement profile) to start up.

On the Internet applications front, I use Opera for browsing, though I still use Dillo for viewing local HTML pages. My email client used to be Evolution, but it was too large and slow for my liking, and I didn’t really need a lot of its very good features. So I settled on Thunderbird for my POP3 email, It’s attractive, easy to use, and is themeable. The only grouse I have, is that it’s not at all clear how to change the password for the incoming and outgoing mail servers for a particular account, in case you’ve entered it incorrectly. GFTP is great for all my FTP upload/download needs. In fact, this website is administered using GFTP.

For instant messaging, it’s GAIM all the way. A project that initially started out trying to build a Linux-based replacement for AOL Instant Messanger, has now grown into a full-fledged integrated IM client, with support for MSN, Yahoo!, AOL, ICQ, OSCAR, Jabber, IRC… you name it, GAIM’s got it – or will have it in the next release! GAIM’s plugin-based architecture makes it easy to add support for additional protocols. And your buddy lists are all integrated – you can either organise them by protocol, or group them into your own categories, independent of the protocol, or view them as a single list. You can also choose to have multiple chats open up as tabs in the same window. Like a well-behaved, standard-compliant app, GAIM adheres to the freedesktop.org’s system tray standard. This means it can reside in the system tray of any WM that follows this standard – that includes KDE, GNOME, Windows, IceWM, among others. My only gripe? No support for buddy pictures under the MSN protocol, where I have most of my buddies.

One tool I must mention is wget. This is a gem of a program – a command-line-based, scriptable download utility. It supports FTP and HTTP downloads, can be configured to download entire web sites (by functioning as a limited spider), can perform interruptible, recursive downloads, can read input from both the command line as well as from a file, can be run from within a shel script, giving you complete control over how it’s called and when… wget will suffice for all your needs. I use it to download entire distributions. I even used a single-line wget command to download the entire SuSE 9.0 distribution via FTP – all 4.1 GB of it, replicating the entire directory hierarchy. I’d call wget a work of art, nothing less.

For all my text editing tasks – whether its coding, writing email, or creating documents, I use GVim. I’d consider GVim as God’s gift to the Open Source Community. I am not going to get involved in the classic EMACS v/s Vi flame war, because my experience with EMACS has been next to nothing. What I will say about Vim (and GVim, its GTK+ port), is that it was designed with productivity, and nothing but productivity, in mind. Every single aspect of Vim’s usage is designed to maxmise typing speed and minimise finger/wrist movements. Looks and intuitivesness can take a walk. Vim is also configurable, to an extreme level. I’ve discovered dozens of keystroke combinations and configuration file directives, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of Vim’s configurability. Occasionally, I also use Nedit.

For listening to music, XMMS rocks! I’ve tried

Rhythmbox, tried JuK. Nothing is as fast and zippy as XMMS. I don’t need a ten-tonne behemoth for a music application which is going to play a 200-song playlist, minimised, in some far-off virtual desktop. My only grouse with XMMS is that it doesn’t write ID3v2 tags, though I think it reads them. That can be annoying at times.

For all other forms of multimedia – video CDs, DivXs, movies, it’s always MPlayer. MPlayer is another masterpiece from the Open Source commnunity. It can handle an astonishing variety of multimedia formats via its numerous plugins, has an optional graphical interface, and has keyboard shortcuts to handle all operations that would normally be performed via point-and-click. What I’m looking for right now, is an MP3 to OGG converter, which can do batch jobs. I also would appreciate pointers to an efficient ID3 tag editor. EasyTAG is good, but not good enough.

Finally Nero Burning ROM has a worthy competitor. Until recently, K3B was a CD-writing app which promised a lot but failed to deliver. No more. K3B has all of Nero’s features, and , I dare say, a more intuitive interface. I use it to burn audio/data CDs, erase my CD/RWs, all with a simple drag-and-drop interface. It remembers all of my drive’s settings – read speed, write speed, default ISO directory, whether to create multisession CDs by default or not, and the like. There’s an animated icon for the system tray which is black-and-white at the beginning of a burn job, and fills up with colour, clockwise, as the burn job progresses. In the true UNIX spirit of the GUI being a simple frontend, the actual task of burning is performed by command line tools that’ve been around for ages, like cdrecord and cdrdao.

Whenever anyone sends me documents in .doc/.xls/.ppt format (which I absolutely detest – I’m a big proponent of ASCII files), I grudgingly turn to OpenOffice.org. I’d use AbiWord/Gnumeric, but OO.org offers much better interoperability. It takes a lifetime to start up on my puny machine, though.

Technology For The Sake Of Technology?

I found this thought-provoking article on the Web. It debates what continuous adoption of (often disruptive) technology, without considering the ends which they may help us achieve, is doing to us as a society. The author terms it our “hollowing out as human beings”.

The article’s been written some time ago, because it mentions the Heaven’s Gate Cult Suicide of 1997 as a relatively recent event. It’s scary that this “technology overload”, as it were, had its beginnings at least seven years ago. Imagine how much technology we’re bombarded with today. Why are we, then, almost unaware of this phenomenon? Have we adapted to this, are we now able to keep up with the pace of technological evolution? Or is this like a ticking time bomb – one fine day might we all reach a limit and collectively scream “no more!”?

It’s a topic about which I’ve lately thought about, too. It’s easier for me, involved in the computer technology industry, to realise the implications of what the author’s talking about. Maybe I’m a victim of this “hollowing out” also. Let me explain. I work exclusively on the Linux platorm at home. I’ve been doing so for the past 3 years. Now the Open Source Community churns out software updates at an alarmingly fast rate. This includes the Linux kernel itself, Linux distributions, development tools, productivity software, internet software, and the like. I like to keep my system populated with the latest versions of whatever software I use. These include browsers, email clients, code editors, music players, IMs, and more. I find myself spending a lot of (paid) Internet time simply downloading the source for these updated releases, compiling and installing them, and deleting the older versions. Then I start up the application again, confirm the newer version number, and get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside about “living on the cutting edge”.

But lately I’ve come to question the very purpose of doing this. I spent the last two weeks downloading Fedora Core 2 (a four CD set, now – see this article on OSNews about software bloat). I only get free broadband access on Sundays, so the last few Sundays (and today) have been spent downloading FC2 full-time, which meant that I had to cut down on my browsing. Now I’m thinking – do I really need FC2? What does it offer me over FC1? New software? No. I’ve already updated the programs that I run, so much so that they’re newer than those that FC2 includes. And why am I obsessed with running the latest versions of my applications? Take Gaim, the ubiquitious Instant Messenger for Linux, as an example. Now that I think about it, the only time I actually needed to upgrade was when Microsoft introduced a new standard for communication via its MSN protocol. I don’t even know (or even care) what new features Gaim’s introduced since then. I certainly don’t notice anything new. That goes for almost all the applications that I use. I’m just using up my Internet time and bandwidth with them, I guess. I have friends who are happily running Redhat 8.0 or even 7.3 – over 2 years old.

Of course, what I’m giving you is just the user’s perspective. What the original article talked about was the actual development of technology, from the producer’s point of view rather than the consumers’. In terms of Open Source, though, this kind of “technology for the sake of technology” is acceptable. After all, most developers of such software work on it during their free time (ok, so they actually free up some time for these pursuits, but the logic is the same) – they have a day job that provides for their families. The problem here lies with the users of such software. I’m sure there are scores like me – who upgrade for the sake of upgrading.

One of the oldest adages we learnt was “Necessity is the mother of invention”. I wonder if that’s even valid anymore. It’s more like “Invention begets necessity” these days. A new technology finds itself a use, rather than the other way round. But why does society accept, often blindly, new tools that become available with such frenzied frequency?

I’ll take mobile phones as an exmaple. Mobile phones now are so rich in features, like 32-bit color screens, wireless connectivity, cameras (some with zoom, for God’s sake!), “polyphonic” ring tone capabilities, and on and on – that it makes me wonder how many of these features we really use. In India (OK, in Mumbai, at least), owning the latest and snazziest mobile phone isn’t even a status symbol anymore – everyone’s got the best. But scan the list of features above, and think for a while how many of them are really useful – useful for the basic purpose of a mobile phone, which is communication. Perhaps we’re spending too many resources innovating in the wrong areas. Instead of polyphonic ring tones, how about researching smarter notification techniques; instead of 32-bit color screens how about working on smarter, easier-to-use grayscale interfaces? It’s been pointed out over and over that the one factor that will limit innovation in phone displays is the size of the screen – so how about working to overcome that? The dimensions of photographs taken with a typical mobile phone camera are way too small and awkward to find any practical use. I know there are phones with cameras that allow for full, 800×600 pixels or better resolutions, but they’re outrageously expensive, and that’s because the cost of the camera is far greater than that of the phone.

And what does that last point indicate? Simply that too much innovation obscures the fundamental purpose for developing that technology in the first place.

There’s another side to this argument, though – and it would become another essay in itself – that we do not have any idea of future uses for today’s outlandish research. The vast majority of the public thinks that research into subatomic physics, into deep space astronomy, and into putting mega-pixel digtal cameras into ever-tinier mobile phones (!) is a collosal waste of time and money. Also, research into technologies such as cloning, and high-tech weaponry, is downright dangerous and should be Stopped At Once. These things are viewed as “Technology for the sake of technology”. But we can gaze only so far into the future. We have no way of finding out if today’s research into what appear to be useless/dangerous fields, actually turn out to be the base for some tremendously useful technology, one that solves a major problem, or makes life unimaginably richer. Are we stifling our future by limiting such research? Are we denying a possible better life to our future generations by insisting that today’s innovators solve today’s problems?

That’s one debate that’s far from being settled.