I was just browsing through this paper on “Generating summary keywords for emails using topics” and was fascinated by its usefulness, especially because it “selects words that describe each message in the context of existing topics rather than simply selecting keywords based on a single message in isolation.”

Imagine if we had a smart email client which will automatically show the summary of the email in a few words rather than simply junk/not junk classification. That would help us a lot to triage our email.

On another tangent, how about an email client that sorts your inbox by importance and not by time? Importance can be automatically determined by how often you reply to the sender, what topics you reply fastest to, whether the sender is from the same company, etc.

We have websites like Amazon and Yahoo! that automatically customize their websites based on our usage patterns, why can’t email clients do the same?

Email clients have been around for so long, can they become smarter than a sorted grid with folders?

P.S. While email is the big fish, there is a lot that can be done for personal information management.

The weekend before last, BarCamp Bangalore 7 was held. The session that I was most looking forward to was the ‘cycling to work’ session initiated by Pradeep B V (of MapUnity fame). What made the session interesting was that people were asked to cycle to IIMB and showcase their bicycles in an outdoor session, and encourage others to take up cycling.

The idea by Pradeep to have it in the open area outside the cafeteria just after lunch was a brilliant marketing ploy, because people would just walk out of the cafeteria and then they would see all the cycles and then out of curiosity, they would come closer and end up chatting with the cyclists. It was nice to see people hopping on and going for rides just to check out the cycles.

The stars of the show were undoubtedly Vikram and Varun because of their cycling clothes and their advanced bikes which have features such as special shoes that lock into the pedals as well as ability to unhook the wheels for easy transportation.

We had a lot of fun talking to people and answering many questions from curious Barcampers and turned out to be a successful session. Among the curious people, there was also a reporter from the Bangalore Mirror. It turns out that we ended up in an article in their Sunday edition yesterday:

Photo of the Cycling To Work page in Bangalore Mirror on 21st September, 2008 Sunday

BANGALORE MIRROR, SEPTEMBER 21, 2008, Page 9 : Rising fuel costs, never-ending traffic jams, have made travelling quite a problem in Bangalore. So it came as no surprise that young techies, who cycle to work, created a stir at Barcamp 7 in IIM last Saturday – Renuka Phadnis

The Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore was full of activity last weekend. The auditorium was the venue for an interactive session of Headstart, a group that supports entrepreneurship in the technology sector. In the corridors and break-out spaces of the management school, there were parallel discussion sessions going on of Barcamp 7. But the one group that attracted the most attention here was the one that pedals their way to work. Varun, Vikram and Swaroop, the three directors of Ion Lab, cycle to their workplace.

And when they are stuck in any of Bangalore’s infamous traffic jams, the trio simply lift the bikes and walk out of the jam. Vikram used to cycle to his office in Bosch earlier and is still cycling to his new workplace. He cycles up to 50 km a day and has even pedaled to Mysore. The cycle he uses is a ‘Giant’ that has as an accessory shoes that swivel into the pedals of the cycle.

Varun has been cycling in Bangalore for six months after he got hooked on to it in the US.”A lot of people complain about the traffic but I like it,” he says. Once in a jam, he lifted the cycle and a guy in a car told him, “Dude, I am here stuck in this traffic and you are getting away?” He likes the fact that cycling keeps him fit too.

When you ask Swaroop if he does not find cycling a challenge in Bangalore, he says,
-“Cycling isn’t, but driving a car is!” He says it is a lot safer and easier in the city. He has been cycling from Jayanagar to Domlur for the past two years.

… (see the picture for the full article)

Factual errors aside, it is a good article and really encourages non-cyclist skeptics to consider cycling. The other upshot is that the red bicycle you see on the top of the page is mine, so if I ever want to sell it, I just have to say “As featured in the Bangalore Mirror”, heh. And also, this is the first time ‘Ion Lab’ has been mentioned in the press.

Let’s reiterate over the benefits of cycling to work:

  1. You do not need a separate time to exercise, because you’re cycling to work. You save one hour everyday.
  2. Save on fuel costs, and in turn make the world less reliant on oil fuels.
  3. Reach your workplace faster. It’s a myth that cycling is hard and slow and you’ll be late. On an average, I used to motorbike to my (ex-) Yahoo! office in Domlur in 45 minutes, but used to take 30 minutes on cycle.
  4. Don’t get stuck in traffic jams. Just lift your cycle and push it along on the sidewalk. (Please do not cycle on the sidewalk, you’ll be annoying pedestrians)
  5. A good exercise before you reach your workplace will really pump up the endorphins and put you in a positive mood to get lot of work done throughout the day.
  6. And you’ll be a lot healthier!

Convinced yet?

(more…)

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

It’s been nearly 5 months since I last quit my job. Five months. Wow. It’s weird because it doesn’t feel that long.

I spent most of the first few months whiling away, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I did have some plans though. For one, I was hoping to go for an M.S. in the USuAl places but the American universities didn’t think well enough of me and asked me to stay back, heh.

I wasn’t disappointed though. I thought I’ll spend some time in gaining some skills and get back to another job in the computer science areas that I wanted to explore.

But as John Lennon would say “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Vikram and I were working on reviving our iPod Charger business and since I didn’t have anything in particular to do, I did some of the running around. However, we still didn’t have a big picture in mind, just that we wanted it to continue.

Suddenly one day, Vikram called from USA and said that he had a brainwave to improve one of our ideas. We had last discussed it nearly six months earlier and shelved it because we didn’t think it would work. It suddenly dawned on us that the improved idea passes all our viable business criteria, especially the parameter that it is actually useful to people, it is doable, and it belongs more in the must-have category as opposed to the nice-to-have category.

After that conversation, everything changed.

Vikram quit a nice cushy job in USA, ditched his H1 visa and is back in Bangalore. He was so sure about this that his colleague Varun also got convinced about the idea and moved back to India.

Here we are, three people who have quit their jobs and working to create a new product. I hate using the latest buzzwords, so I’ll just say, yes we have our own company now. We don’t have any salary and we have lot of work.

A domain name I had registered long ago suddenly came into use. It was going to be the name of our company – IONLAB:

The ion was our first product we created, manufactured and marketed during weekends. Excited by its success, we are now working full-time on making our own products. Hence the “ion” in our name.

We are focused on designs and ideas, and match them to our capabilities. Hence the “lab” in our name, which emphasizes that we are about taking ideas to execution.

We have been having a ball of a time working on our own ideas full-time and gaining experience in expanding our ion business.

Regarding our specific idea, there’s no point in talking about it this early but we’ve described it a bit on our products page.

FWIW, I have no idea how far we will go and what will happen in the future. You may never even hear about us or our product. But one thing’s for sure, we’re going to give this our best shot and we’ll work to make it happen.

As we wrote in our company weblog’s first entry:

We love putting in effort. After all, it’s our dreams and ideas. What can be more exciting than that? As Mark Cuban once said, “The one thing in our business lives is effort. Either you make the commitment to get results or your don’t.”

Singapore Day 05 016

IONLAB is our dream, our destination.

The next experiment has begun!

There have been two recent changes on my website – the redesigned theme and the book-as-a-wiki. They are related developments. The reason I needed a new theme for my website was because I wanted a blog and a wiki integrated into the same website with a seamless theme.

If you visit the blog and the wiki, you will not immediately notice any difference except for the sidebar. This is intentional so that there isn’t a abrupt transition between the two software. After all, the content is more important than how it is being displayed.

But why a wiki?

Ever since I read about Tantek’s personal wiki, I have been fascinated with the idea. Having a wiki of my own to post anything seemed useful. As Tantek said:

“It’s also a place I’ve kept notes or documents that I expect to keep current / update in place, as opposed to blog posts, which are more like snapshots of thoughts in time.”

LifeHack also has a good introduction to personal wikis.

The advantage is that anything that can be benefited by many eyeballs can be put up on the wiki. For one, I can send it to people and get their feedback and improvements. Second, people can always stumble on to it via google or yahoo and they can contribute as well.

And then, there’s always all the goodness of MediaWiki such as versioning, ability to undo and rollback edits, good anti-spam features and even generate PDFs, thanks to PediaPress.

All these advantages of the wiki led me to recreate my book into the wiki, and it is already achieving great results. How else would a 20-year old student who lives in the Amazon work on a Brazilian Portuguese translation of a Python book and collaborate with others?

All the content is under a Creative Commons license so that the information belongs to everyone.

I’ll be slowly adding my tidbits, notes and link collections on different topics to the wiki. Of course, they will be always in a state of work-in-progress. Many things can go in there – right from trekking howtos (I get quite a few emails on that, surprisingly) to some entrepreneurship resources in the Indian context, and so on.

However, it’s important to keep in mind is to NOT add to the information overload, but to simplify things and cut the crap out.

You are welcome to add your suggestions and comments on the wiki using the discussion pages.

After a gap of 3.5 years, I’ve finally updated the ‘A Byte of Python’ book.

The interesting news is that it is updated for the upcoming Python 3.0 language making it probably the first book to be released for Python 3.0.

The book is now a wiki too at www.swaroopch.com/notes/Python which means you can contribute too!

The book and wiki are now under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The Non-Commercial clause present in the previous edition of the book has been removed. It was becoming a hurdle for translators as well as people who wanted to use the book for genuinely good activities, so I decided it to drop the clause.

Since it is a wiki, volunteers can directly create their translations on the wiki. This eliminates the need to learn DocBook XML and its tools which had become a hindrance for many translators, and I’m glad to see this already bearing fruit with Eirik Vågeskar starting off a Norwegian translation at www.swaroopch.com/notes/Python_nb-no:Forord.

I will soon be making a printed version of the book available as I have had many requests for this.

So back to the main question: Why an update after nearly 4 years? Two reasons.

First, because of foss.in. I dedicate this new release to the foss.in community for their spirit and enthusiasm over the years which have rubbed off on me and kept me working on the update of the book.

Second, Over the past few years, the readers’ reactions have been simply splendid:

Neil (bigdealneil-at-yahoo-dot-com) said:

“(I) got an if else to work and I can follow your tutorial, which I have never been able to do no matter who wrote the thing! you’re a genius Swaroop!”

Gao shuai (ejwjvh-at-126-dot-com) took the effort taken to write an email to me in English:

dear swaroop:
I am a chinese student.My name is gao shuai,”gao”is my family name.
Although your book is easy to understand,but my english is bad,so what I read is the chinese edition.
I have made some programs now.It is interesting.I like it very much.

I emailed back and he replied:

Mr Swaroop:
I am exciting to read your back. _(Editor’s note: I think he means ‘reply’)_
Tt is the first time that I talk to foreigner though the internet.
I saw that you have your own mail ab.I think You’re a great man.
Thanks for your back!(*^_^*)
regards,
gaoshuai

The interesting part is that this student somewhere in China was being benefited by this book and he “talked to a foreigner through the internet for the first time” and that person was me. It was truly humbling.

People are even putting ads for it, and I had no clue about it until I chanced upon it myself:

An ad for 'Byte of Python'!

If that wasn’t enough, I found out that there are 8-9 university courses officially using the book, including Harvard and other institutions. And apparently even NASA is using the book in their Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Users have suggested that it should replace the official tutorial but I really wouldn’t go as far as that :)

Recently, I had sent a sneak peek for the book’s group of readers and within a day, I had the first 10$ donation by Horst JENS. I remembered seeing that name somewhere, so I searched my emails and found this:

On Mar 4, 2007:

“Hello Swaroop, i teach a class of (3) Children how to program in Python. Just want to thank you because without your ‘a byte of python’ (that i read one year ago) i would maybe never have begun to code in python and consequently would never leaved my old job to become a Python teacher.”

A person in Vienna, Austria changed his career from a sys-admin job which he didn’t like, to teaching children about programming, a job he loves. Wow! Again, this is so humbling. I could have never imagined that a small book can make such a difference.

The point is that I’m grateful for all these people writing to me and sharing their delight and stories. The book is still alive and kicking thanks to all these people.

Happy programming!