Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Outlook Engineer

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'"

—Isaac Asimov

Some time back, Nikhil Marathe wrote an article on how even after being in an IT environment, we still are oblivious to its full meaning. I would like to rant further. He poked with ideas of efficient bookkeeping, wielding technology as a weapon to win the war against everyday life. I would like to join his crusade against mediocrity and ignorance.

Avoid The Inertia Trap

For some time now I have come to believe the final year of your undergraduate studies is a fun phase. Other then the fact that you do only 3 hours of examination in the whole year, you get a lot of epiphanies. One of which is how being an engineer, one needs to be more like a possum. If you ain't peeping in tunnels and digging further, you ain't looking to improvise. Hence not fitting in the definition of an engineer. You need to be nimble and avoid the inertia trap.

I am about to complete four years in an engineering institute, one of the elite, as some proudly put it. Here, we have a decent environment. I pity the regional institutes where kids have to go home after study hours. They deal, innocently and ignorantly, with the perils of dividing energies in two worlds. Here, there is an element of consistency, a homogeneity where one can merge academia and personal development. It is not two networks, it is an integrated ecosystem. Free 24 hours internet is the single greatest advantage that this place has over others. Good laboratories, infrastructure and the like are synonymous to the inventory shop. The blacksmith can work as hard as he wants and produce the finest of weapons. Alas! They will only hang on his walls for he does not find soldiers worthy enough to wield them.
We Need to be Less Like Blondes Basking in the Sun and More Like the Solar Panel.

My words are aimed at the slugs sitting in the room; for whom internet and Facebook are synonymous. When you get to learn about a new technologies in a lecture, know that something is seriously wrong with you. Wake up, read more. Google got invented. 

Once a certain technology is widely accepted, it is for the world to settle into it and use it till they are fed another technology. But the line is cut out a lot more asymmetric for the engineer. Shaping the technologies might seem astronomical expectations, but looking out for new ones, being vigilant should be a given.

For example, Greplin allows you to search through your social network accounts. Daniel Gross, the founder of greplin, was only 18 when he started working on it. So blindly using google is not a great habit.

Recently, Google opened its new service for Researchers, Professors and students, Google Scholar. Till now, researchers used to find it cumbersome to sift through all the pages that google showed up while searching. Now, they are indexed by author, date of publish and place. 

Subscribe to Good People

A good thing that happened early after the birth of Information Technology is that some people stood up and said, "We won't let Internet become like Printed Text. It will be like spoken language, free and open; only that you will have to take the effort to learn it". A few good men write and spread technology even as they shape it. Open Source Developers, Open Source Entrepreneurs maintain excellent blogs. This blogpost by Brett Victor earned me a AA on a course on Modernity, Modernism and Art. (Please appreciate the man's vision). Google Talks like this one (on git by Linus Torvalds) and  Cory Doctorow's address at SIGGRAPH '11 are legendary pieces of public exposition.

Computer World is an excellent place for digging. Linuxgazette is a fantastic place where totally cool experiences are shared. Linuxwireless is an organization who delve into everything wireless for linux. FreifunkNinux et. al are people actively involved in furthering mesh networks. Pardon me for  my examples are biased to networks. But I am sure, people in different fields will find like minded enthusiasts if they search for it.

The Customized Way

All of today's information technology effort can be divided into sections. One, developing new technologies. Two, making intelligent use of current technologies. Engineers should make good housewives. An engineer must always be on the look out to reduce effort and in the process use cool new technologies. Bookkeeping, Organization, Planning are everyday concepts in everyone's lives. For engineers, the job is made even easy with a google account. A google account will give you everything you want, from a calendar to an event planner, to a storage space. Some time, sit down and try to click the 'more' button on the top on google homepage.
The single greatest reason why Linux has overtaken Windows (in the world where people use brains) is that Linux lets you customize. Let the computer function the way you want it to. That, is pro-active engineering. Living life the same way makes sense. 

For the Ignorant Ones - VOIP 

Just to end, I would like to introduce a new wave of communication technology. Everything has become packetized now. GPRS, 3G, 4G, LTE and every single term you hear in Telecom and Networking circles is to do with packetized digital communication. Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is the technology that lets you talk to people over the internet. Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) will be the world's next most important protocol. People, please go and have a look at the software coming out for VOIP.

Here's a head start: 

Linphone - is a SIP client. Install it on your system and use it as a telephone.
Use case: When you are sitting in your room and you want to call someone who is also sitting with an internet connection. Please do NOT use your cell phone., Use this. Imagine room service.


  1. "They will only hang on his walls for he does not find soldiers worthy enough to wield them." If by soldiers you are referring to students, then the problem is not that the soldiers aren't worthy enough, but that they don't want to be soldiers!

    I think we can learn a LOT about how to run a city, a country, or the world, and how to treat each other simply from the original fathers of the Internet, and the egalitarian, meritocratic systems they put into place at organizations such as the IETF (I speak of Kahn, Postel and the like). In a perfect democracy, where every human was as smart and rational as these people, it could actually work. So the next target is to try to make everyone as smart and rational and curious as those people. Net neutrality, spreading complexity to the edges, all of these are wonderful ideas :)

    Everyone should absolutely read some of Doctorow's stories and essays, for he of all people has a very firm grip on what the immediate tomorrow is going to be like (unlike science fiction writers), and he has a hell of a way of explaining it. Of particular importance:

    Printcrime - http://craphound.com/?p=573
    Lockdown - http://boingboing.net/2012/01/10/lockdown.html
    Scroogled - http://blogoscoped.com/archive/2007-09-17-n72.html

    He also has fantastic writing about productivity and general living in a technologically dominated world. All his writing is legally free and available online at craphound.com. In keeping with our institute's policy, there are no books by him in the RC though :)

    As an aside, The Linux Weekly News (lwn.net) is an in-depth, *highly technical* magazine that has consistently fantastic writing.

    Here is to lesser mediocrity!

    1. Thanks!Fabulous critique!

      1. I have tried to aim my points at the mentality of an engineer. People need to be nimble. Tried to keep the resources at a primary technical level.

      2. Nikhil, as much as I love the prospect of perfectly rational world, it is a shade foolhardy to imagine it in practical life. Meritocratic worlds are still possible but perfect democracy..

      Cory Doctorow's vision and opinions are indeed enlightening.
      Also, I forgot to mention TED Talks.