Manas Tungare

My Blog

My custom LaTeX styles

By popular demand, my custom LaTeX styles are now available for download. (All of them have been dedicated to the public domain, I disclaim all copyright.)

There are four for now, but the set will grow. The first lets you use OpenType fonts (which is pretty much any system font); the limitation is that this works only with a single distribution, XeTeX, available only for Mac OS X, and a new experimental build for Linux. A second style typesets all chapter titles, sections, subsections and subsections in a sans-serif font (instead of the default serif). Very effective when used in conjunction with the OpenType style.

The final two adjust margins to require less paper for draft prints and such. Be good, be green.

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One-button Phone Number Sharing

Send this Phone Number to the Current Caller

How often have you found yourself calling a friend to get the phone number of a mutual friend? And then having to hold the phone while your friend pulls up the contact list on their phone, then recites the number to you, and then you write it on paper because your phone won't let you add contacts while you're on a call, and then you misplace the number you wrote on paper, ad nauseum. Why isn't there a single button that says "Send this Phone Number to the Current Caller"?

It's a common problem. You're out and about, and realize you need to call a specific person, but you don't have their phone number (or more often, you have it on your desktop computer, or your laptop, but that doesn't do you any good in the current situation.) So you decide that the best thing to do is to call a mutual friend and ask them.

When they receive a phone call from you, they're fumbling to hold the call while they look in their address book. (That is, if they're lucky, and if their phone actually lets them open the contact list while they're on a call.) More often, what happens is that they tell you to hang up while they consult their address book. And then you have to hunt for a piece of scrap paper because your phone won't let you add a number to the list like that.

What the world needs is a button next to each phone number in the contact list that only appears whenever you're on a call. The button, when pressed, sends an SMS from you to the current caller, and contains within it the information from the contact record you just selected. It doesn't have to be too fancy, a two-line VCF record should do nicely.

If the recipient's phone understands this method of contact transfer, it can prompt the user and import it automatically. If not, the user can still read the SMS herself, and dial the number. No more paper, no more fumbling, no more "let me call you back".

It's so easy, a caveman could do it. If only phones implemented it!

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My Research Philosophy

I wrote this recently, not as a blog post, but for another purpose. I figured I'd post it here like I do everything else.

Re•search: noun. Investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws.

—Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

The last part of that definition has always been the chief motivator for me in my research — practical application. While all research seeks to discover universal truths and deeper meaning, I strongly believe that researchers have a responsibility to contribute to society in other tangible ways as well.

Just as Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1439 made literary works accessible to everyone, the Internet is likewise speeding up the propagation of knowledge now and will continue to do so in the decades to come. We are on the brink of a cultural revolution where ideas, prototypes, discussion and research know no boundaries of location or time. The Free Software Movement is promoting users' freedom to understand and explore computer programs. The Creative Commons project encourages authors, scientists, artists and educators to distribute their creations under licenses that foster the sharing of ideas, encourage discussion, engender a culture of openness, and speed up innovation. This provides enormous opportunities for researchers to collaborate in real-time across institutions, countries and continents, and to serve the community by disseminating their research results via public blogs, videos, slides, prototypes and designs.

As a researcher in Human-Computer Interaction at the Dept. of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, I have developed several tools and prototypes that would be of benefit not just to researchers but also to computer users. It is by studying their habits that I designed these tools — to them, I owe these tools. I work in the area of Personal Information Management (PIM), and study how users access and manage information such as files, calendars, email messages, contacts and bookmarks on multiple devices. I release all such tools and software to the world at my web site under licenses that permit anyone to inspect the source code, build upon it, and benefit from it.

In the process of my research, I developed a program to access Google Calendar which now has over 25,000 users. A calendar converter program I wrote is used by an average of more than 200 users per day. During Sustainability Week 2008 at Virginia Tech, I released a Blacksburg Transit Schedule application for cell phones to encourage Blacksburg citizens to take the bus instead of driving. It is used by about 300 users every month and growing.

In the spirit of working on real products that are used by real people, I interned at Google three times during my Ph.D. (2005, 2006, 2007.) In 2007, my project enabled users of Google Book Search to clip personalized content from books and embed that into their own web site or blog. This enables teachers to excerpt from literary classics for their class home page, for literature scholars to debate the nuances of texts, and for commentators to dissect parts of books. My intern work was covered by several news outlets, chief among them, at Google's Corporate Blog.

Academia encourages published work—publish or perish, they say—while original contributions such as new ideas and untested directions are undervalued in the traditional ways of evaluating research. The Internet changes that too. Several times when I have come up with ideas that may or may not be viable research projects, I have written about them on my blog. The public scrutiny and invaluable feedback I've received made it easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. My advisor has always been supportive of those ideas that were encouraging research directions: the latest among them resulted in a paper that has been nominated for the ACM SIGCHI Student Research Competition 2009.

An area that I have recently been concerned about is the open publication of raw data sets. I perform human experiments which are reviewed by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for ethical compliance. There is inherent tension between the privacy implications of human experiments and the Open Science dream of being able to publish all experimental data publicly so that others may analyze it in novel ways. I plan to investigate the ethical, moral and legal responsibilities of such an endeavor, recognizing that we as researchers owe two allegiances: to our experiment participants and to the scientific community, in that order.

I am happy to be a researcher at a time in our history when competitive collaboration trumps closed confidentiality. Science and innovation can only progress faster when information is freely shared among researchers, scholars and citizens.

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10th Anniversary of my First Shareware Paycheck

10 years ago, on this day, I received the first payment for a tiny shareware program I wrote. It was a one-trick-pony, a birthday reminder program.

Folks around me will tell you I'm bad at remembering things, and always choose to write everything down. So I wrote a program to keep track of friends and birthdays, and popup a reminder on the right day, perhaps a few days earlier if I needed to buy a gift first. As a teen writing and distributing my first-ever commercial piece of software, I had named it eponymously as ManasTech Birthdays. I wrote it, released it, and sold a few copies (nothing astronomical, but yeah, it was fun to see the checks coming in.)

My First Shareware Payment

As I look back nostalgically, several thoughts cross my mind today. The more things have changed, the more they have remained the same. I loved writing software then, I love writing software now. I used to sneak out of classes and stay up late nights to code up the latest idea that crossed my mind. Today, I procrastinate on my research and take time off to write little scripts and tiny widgets, that -- before you know it -- have hundreds of users and need regular maintenance.

Then, the norm was to release products as shareware, without the hassles of finding a publisher or having to stock shelves with packaging. All you needed was an Internet connection and a program that solved a need. Today, the norm is to free your software, and release it into the wild. The Free Software Movement has been gaining ground ever since.

The most interesting aspect is perhaps the domain in which I've been working. The Birthday Manager helped store your personal information -- contacts and calendar events. Today, I'm involved in Personal Information Management research, which is pretty much the same topic. I even wrote a paper detailing how people manage their calendars. Little had I known 10 years ago that I would be fascinated enough with personal information to pursue a career in it.

Sometimes I wonder what the next 10 years will be like.

Update: P.S. For those curious about how I got hold of the check image for this blog post: yes, I'm a digital packrat and have a copy of all my files dating back to 1997 on my current laptop.

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HOWTO Make your Mac speak over the Web

Randall Munroe's XKCD has inspired interesting product features in the past. A recent one has sent a lot of Mac users scurrying to set up an audio doorbell on their Mac Minis.

Here's how you can do it.

The Source Code

<?php
if (isset($_GET['say'])) {
  $cmd = sprintf('say "%s"', preg_replace('/[^\w\d ]/', '', $_GET['say']));
  `$cmd`;

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Personal Information Backup - Twitter, Gmail Contacts, Google Calendar, Reader

Make a New Year's Resolution to start backing up your data regularly. Not just local files, but even data from the cloud. Here's how to backup your data from a few of the most common online services. More importantly, I've also included instructions on how to restore from that backup.

Twitter

How to backup?

Copy this URL to a new browser window.

https://twitter.com/statuses/user_timeline/USERNAME.xml?count=10000

Then replace the string USERNAME with your actual Twitter username. Press enter to start downloading. If your browser does not prompt you with a file download box, but instead opens the file showing a bunch of text, choose File > Save As to save your backup to a secure location.

How to restore?

You cannot restore this data into Twitter (neither to your own account, nor to a different account.) But you will have access to your witticisms and interesting web links that you posted to amuse your friends. Do with it as you please.

Gmail Messages

How to backup?

Use an IMAP client such as Mail.app on the Mac, or Thunderbird on any platform. Make sure it's configured to download and cache every email and every attachment.

How to restore?

You can access your messages from these programs even if Gmail is down. If you need to transfer messages to another account, add that new account in the same program as a new IMAP account, then drag-and-drop messages from your old account to your new account to transfer them there.

Gmail Contacts

How to backup?

Login to your Gmail / Google Apps email account, then open the Contact Manager. Click on the Export button in the top-right corner. For maximum compatibility with other applications, choose the third option for data format, vCard format. (It's a standard format for contact information exchange.)

How to restore?

The vCard format is fairly standard. Gmail itself can read back the same file without trouble. To import into Mac OS X Address Book, simple double-click the .vcf file and let the import proceed. Microsoft Outlook also supports importing addresses from vCard files.

Import Contacts into Gmail Contact Manager

Google Calendar

How to backup?

Google Calendar publishes feeds of your calendar in the iCal format. If you save this feed to a file, you can use it as a backup. On the left side of your main calendar, there is a list labeled "My Calendars". For each calendar that you want to backup, click on the little downward-pointing arrow next to the calendar name, and select "Calendar Settings".

My Calendars > Calendar Settings

On the Settings page, under Calendar Details, locate the section labeled "Private Address". Click on the button labeled ICAL and copy the URL there. Open a new browser window and paste the URL there. This will start downloading a file; save it to a safe location -- this is your calendar backup. Lather, rinse, repeat for each calendar you want to backup.

Calendar Details > Private URL > ICAL

How to restore?

The iCalendar format (also abbreviated as iCal or .ics) is a standard calendar format. You can import the backed up calendar file into Google Calendar, Apple iCal or Microsoft Outlook simply by opening it.

Google Reader

How to backup?

Login to Google Reader, then come back here and click on this link: Export Google Reader subscriptions as OPML. Save the file that your browser will prompt you to download. This is your backup.

How to restore?

Google Reader and lots of other feed readers know how to import OPML files. In case of Google Reader, go to Settings > Import/Export to import it back. For desktop software, try looking for an "Import from OPML" menu item somewhere.

Need instructions for more services? Write a comment and I'll try to provide them.

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Book-as-Blog: Encouraging Reading by Posting a Chapter at a Time

I realized I haven't picked up a book in weeks, (non-academic book, that is), but I've read more than my fair share of blogs in that same time. I wonder if part of the reason is the longer time commitment required by a book. This prevents it from being read quickly and keeps it forever on my wish list. If so, then how about a service that breaks down books into blog-post-sized chunks and publishes them every few days?

The idea is inspired by, -- nay, stolen from -- Kevin Kelly, who is reissuing his 10-yr old book as a blog (hat-tip to Seth Godin's post on the topic). His reasons are different, though. The book is out-of-print, and is already available as a downloadable PDF from his web site. Making it available as a blog is just another way of spreading his ideas wider, which is a great idea.

But apart from that, I like the idea of chopping up a book into chapter-sized chunks and making them available to readers one at a time. Not for any economic reasons, but because attentional resources are so scarce these days. A few times during the day, I have some free time which I use to read a few blog posts. If I ever thought about picking up a book during these breaks, I wouldn't do it, simply because of the (arguably artificial) time commitment issues it raises in my mind. But talk about a chapter-sized, or even smaller blog post, and I'd read it.

Of course, not all book content has an affordance for this kind of splicing and dicing. If it takes several minutes for a reader to re-establish context from the last blog post, the purpose is lost. Some authors would consider their books a work of art too precious(ssss) to split it up into anything smaller. That's also the reason why bands are often reluctant to sell singles instead of entire albums (apart from the record labels preferring to sell you 9 lame tracks bundled with 1 great track for $10 instead of $1, thank you very much.) But several non-fiction books could verily adapt to such a format.

The book-as-blog need not be free (as in no charge.) Sure, charge me for it. Implementation would be easy, charge me a micropayment and give me a secret watermarked feed URL. With so much new content licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license, it's also possible to develop a web service that does this for liberally-licensed and public domain works. This is compatible with Creative Commons Attribution (BY), Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA), Attribution-Noncommercial (BY-NC), and Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike (BY-NC-SA) licenses (but I'm not a lawyer, this is not legal advice, blah blah.)

Maybe something like this will finally get me back to the several-books-a-month club I used to be a member of, until I discovered this newfangled shiny thing called the Internet.

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Software and the Democratization of Production

The availability of consumer software in this century has democratized the production of ... well, everything. Parts of the current creative landscape seem no different than Marxist philosophies of workers owning the means of production, with one exception: the workers aren't doing it for money, they're doing it for fun.

I recently watched Be Kind, Rewind, that's what has inspired this post — at least the spark behind it. In the movie, two video store employees recreate popular movies using a video camera when the original tapes get erased by a mysterious magnetic force. Their videos were, of course, of very low production quality, but the general idea was still valid: that amateur-grade equipment is approaching professional grade equipment.

That made me realize how easy (or at least, possible) it is to create movies with affordable software on consumer hardware. When things were still in the analog domain, you would need specialized hardware to be able to shoot on film, capture audio on expensive multi-track recording equipment, and edit it all by splicing film together. Now, all you need is a digital video camera and a general-purpose high-end computer (which, incidentally, can also be used for other tasks, so is cheap.) The barrier to entry for amateur film-makers has almost been removed.

Ditto with music production — it is possible for a musician to set up a studio in his/her basement with cheap equipment that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. The quality of recordings made with these tools is comparable to what the studios churn out.

Publishing is no longer the domain of the publishing house — Gutenberg's printing press now inhabits every single computer that has a printer attached to it. High quality design tools and cheap reproduction has made publishers out of everyone: flyers, posters, announcements, articles, books — all of them required professional assistance in the past. Newer genres such as wiki articles, blog posts and Usenet postings have been made possible by the Internet.

An entire "prosumer" grade of still cameras has made its way into the hands of millions of photographers. Shooting digitally has minimized the variable costs associated with photography, thus unshackling the amateur from budgetary constraints that professionals never had to bother about. That brings them one step closer to competing with professionals, e.g. by selling their shots as stock photos online.

As the economy turns digital, distribution is also taken care of democratically. Earlier, it would take a promoter, someone who could invest the initial millions, to take a creation to market. Today, it's as easy as uploading it to YouTube or selling it on iTunes or printing a book on Lulu or making a shirt at CafePress. If it's good, it will go viral. Simple as that.

Nowhere is this change more apparent than in the recently-concluded Presidential Election in the United States. Barack Obama is spoken of by many as the first YouTube president. Indeed, the numerous amateur videos posted by his fans to YouTube and Twitter and on their blogs played a major part in spreading the word about his ideas — in a way that pre-Internet generations could never have.

If I were an anthropologist circa 3000 AD, the last three decades would show up as a significant inflection point in a graph of human achievement and creativity.

Here's to software!

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Email should have Expiration Dates

The entire idea behind this blog post has been summed up in the title, so all I need to do now is to explain why I think email should have expiration dates, and how that would make personal information management better.

Email, as we all know, started off as a way of sending short messages to colleagues within a department. It has since evolved into a monster of a tool that does everything it was never designed to do. The paradox is that it is exactly the kinds of messages that email was designed to handle that cause me the most trouble these days.

  1. I often receive email from my friends about meeting up for lunch. This is important, but only for that particular day (and that too, if I receive it before lunch time).
  2. My research collaborators send me email when a paper submission deadline is near, with the draft attached to it. Those emails are not nearly as important after the deadline.
  3. My friends and I exchange travel plans over email, but is it as useful after the trip is done?

These are the kinds of messages I'm talking about: important but time-sensitive. Then there are others which are not really important, but simply one-time notifications that I can take action on and then forget ("bill is due in 2 days", "X added you as a friend", "your order was received", "your package has shipped", "free donuts in break room", "we are not meeting today", etc.)

Why do they linger on in my mailbox for years? They become indistinguishable from the really important email that I need to save for years, such as some very interesting and intelligent discussions I have had with others. Note that I'm not including spam in this discussion, because in my opinion, there are adequate spam-filtering tools circa 2008 that perform well enough for most users for the most part with an acceptable false positive rate. Not perfect, but acceptable.

The Keeping Problem

Email is no longer ephemeral -- people hold on to their email for years. This is what results in the Keeping Problem in Personal Information Management: there is so much of information coming at us that we don't want to spend the time to decide what to keep and what to trash, so we end up keeping all of it. We hope we never have to do spring cleaning, and instead rely on search to find what we want.

Filing is not the answer

Many people file and tag their email, but the question is, is the cost of doing so (time as well as attention) worth the payoff at the end? Consider the two alternatives: spending 10 minutes each day filing your email, versus spending an hour a month looking for that one email. Pretty soon, the second alternative starts looking better while swimming in a sea of email with no signs of abating.

Same needle, bigger haystack

The bigger the haystack grows, the harder it is to find the needle. The solution is to reduce the size of the haystack. Automatically. Most other solutions empower the user to filter, sort, file, tag and do other sorts of things to their email that do not scale very well. That's where Email Expiration Dates come into play. For it to work, they need to be (1) defined and (2) honored.

Defining an Email Expiration Tag

Email expiration tags can be defined in several ways by several entities that handle the email message at some point of time in transit.

  1. By the sender of that email who cares about the recipients;
  2. By the email client (MUA) used by the sender, automatically inferring from certain common-sense words; e.g. subject contains lunch and body is less than 100 bytes;
  3. By the email server software that intelligently tags email based on common patterns seen across multiple users;
  4. By the recipient's email client, based on heuristics;
  5. By the recipient's email client, based on a user-defined rule set;
  6. Or explicitly by the recipient in a spring cleaning session.

Honoring an Email Expiration Tag : Fully standards-compliant

RFC 822 allows custom tags (Sec. 4.7.5). These are commonly referred to as X- headers, since the specification requires that all such tags be prefixed with "X-". Many applications built on email make use of such tags: mailing lists use the X-List-* headers to specify the list name, subscribe URL and unsubscribe URL in a mail message. Spam filtering software such as SpamAssassin assigns a score to each email, saved as an X- header. Mail clients are free to interpret these tags as they see fit.

An expired email will not be automatically deleted if the user does not want it to be. This is important for archival purposes and to satisfy the stringent reporting requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. But now the user can make a one-button choice about whether or not expired emails be deleted, archived, moved away or kept around.

With help from legitimate bulk email senders (not spammers)

Bulk mail such as Facebook notifications could have expiration dates set to "one week after receipt". Bill reminders could set the expiration date to be "2 days past deadline" (and then send another notification if payment is not received by then.) Donut announcements could expire at the end of the day. Talk announcements could expire at the end of the talk.

Fixing the post-vacation blues

Returning from a vacation is no longer refreshing, as we are thinking about the sheer volume of email we need to process once we get home. If I was on vacation when the donuts were on the table, I should not be bothered about it when I return. Go away! If it's an invitation to a talk that happened while I was away, I don't need to hear about it now.

What will it take for adoption?

Defining a standard is no use if it isn't used. The best way for such a solution to be adopted is for a major email provider implement it themselves, perhaps in a limited beta? On the interface side, this requires two additions: one for sending, one for processing received messages. The widget at the sender's end is simply a calendar picker, or a drop-down with relative dates ("tomorrow", "next week", etc.) At the receiving end, it's a three-way radio button that lets users "Delete", "Archive" or "Leave alone" expired messages.

Till then, it's back to manual spring cleaning. Oh well.

Acknowledgments: I have had several stimulating discussions with my advisor, Manuel Pérez-Quiñones, and my colleague, Pardha Pyla, about our respective email filing strategies, (that mostly began as venting sessions). This idea no doubt borrows from my analysis and conclusions based on some of those conversations.

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श्री गणपतीची अारती — Shree Ganapatichi Aarti









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