Manas Tungare

You know what I did last Summer?

This, covered at the Official Google Book Search Blog.

While it is easy to share links, photos, videos, and opinions on the Web, sharing books with your friends online used to be tough -- and tougher even, to share individual clippings from a book. This summer, I worked with the Book Search team to add clip-sharing features to Google Book Search.

You can now highlight a section of text in any public domain book in Book Search, create a clip from it, and share it with the world. You can post your favorite clips to your blog along with a personal annotation, collect them in a Google Notebook, or share them with friends anywhere you decide to embed the link. Your clip looks exactly as it appears in the book, or if you prefer plain text, we have that too.

Also at the Official Google Blog, about collecting, sharing and discovering new books.

We've also launched a way to let users, select, copy and embed segments of public domain books (like the Newton quote) in any web page. We hope to make it as easy to blog and quote from a book as it is from any web page. Like many innovations at Google, a stellar summer intern worked on this.

Of course, no project is a single-person effort: Bill Schilit, my mentor; Nathan Naze, JavaScript God; Adam Mathes, Venu Vemula, and the rest of the Book Search team laid the foundation and were an integral part of this feature.

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Public Transit as a Third Place

Public transit seems to share many of the characteristics of the third place, as Ray Oldenburg calls them in The Great, Good Place. They're full of people from all walks of life, having random conversations, and brings several of the same people together with amazing regularity.

Sitting at a café as I write this, and having used public transit for the three months of my internship at Google, I've wanted to pen these thoughts down for a long time. Every morning and every evening, I used to hang out with the same set of people. Sometimes a few fresh faces would make their way onto the bus; sometimes one of the regulars would sleep in late and miss their bus.

Whenever I happened to take a later bus than usual, some time around noon, the commuter crowd would have shrunk down to a trickle, and most passengers would be headed to finish off errands, or simply out and about the Bay Area. These passengers had an even greater rapport with the bus driver: I've been part of thoroughly engaging conversations with these people, who I do not know the names of, and probably never will. For them, it was a natural group that had formed because of their respective travel habits.

Public transit is markedly absent in America, but it is alive and kicking in most other countries: I've seen it in Dublin, I've seen it in Montréal, I've seen it in Bombay. The local trains of Bombay are the lifeline of the working population. The frequency and timeliness of the trains is something to be proud of (regrettably, the same cannot be said of the rest of the population.) Thus, groups of commuters who travel by the same trains day in and day out form their own cliques. There's even a name in the local lingo for it: "train friends." Just as you have family friends and work colleagues, this is a part of your social life that stays with you for a significant part of your life. You don't visit the homes of your train friends; you hardly talk shop with them; and you hardly meet them outside of the commuter context. But the place is a third place, after all.

As in all the other instances of the third place having a strong existence in Europe and all over the world, but lacking in America, the "place" of public transit exhibits similar properties. In USA, commuters are holed up in their oil-fueled cars and vans and SUVs, all the while blaming the other guy for causing all the traffic jams on the 8-lane highways. It is obvious that this causes at least a small amount of increase in stress levels of the driver (though I can't be bothered to look up a citation for that right now.) Compare that to urban populations elsewhere that share conversations on a bus or a train.

Ray Oldenburg could probably add "keeping stress levels low" to the ways in which third places affect the daily lives of those who inhabit them.

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The Hedonistic Properties of Food

No one can deny that good food makes you happy. For some of us, especially so. But when one refers to "food that's good for you", it turns out invariably to be based upon purely nutritional criteria. Why is the "goodness" of food not evaluated on how much psychological pleasure it brings to the eater?

Of course, taste forms no small part of evaluating food — ask any restaurant critic. But taste varies from palate to palate, and I'm rather referring to the hedonistic properties of food than its culinary properties. Certain foods make me happy, some make me ecstatic, and others make my day. But not all of those foods fall under the category of "food that's good for me". Why not? If a particular food lifts my mood up, gives me pleasure, and enhances my psychological well-being, it should be "good for me", right?

Healthy eating is a relatively recent phenomenon. Not because our forefathers didn't eat healthy. It's because they didn't have to coin a phrase to explicitly tag their diet 'nutritious' — it was always like that: healthy. At the same time, it was also tasty hedonistically-inclined food.

Let's face it, food is much more than just vital life-sustaining organic material being ingested regularly. Food is a central aspect of every culture; in fact, an inseparable part of it. So much so that some cultures are best-known for their food preparation practices, often masking their other, more significant achievements and traditions. Answer this one: how much do you know about Thai culture, other than Pad Thai and Masaman curries? The Szechuan? Malvani? Cajun? Mongolian? Penang?

After such rich culinary traditions, the current century has managed to create a divide between tasty and nutritious — in response to another 21st century phenomenon, the widespread global obesity epidemic. Junk food is nutritionally, well, junk, but it has made a permanent home in some people's lives (and in most cases, in their tummies too.) Obviously, there is something about it that makes people want to eat it. It's no different from an addiction, really. Put in another way, the hedonistic power of food trumps its perceived nutritional value to a significant number of people.

What if they didn't have to choose? What if they could get nutritious with tasty? Obsessed with making every food item extremely nutritious and "good for you", we have, in the process, killed its taste. What if we could backtrack just a little bit, to the point where food used to be tasty as well as nutritious (maybe not as much as current 'health foods', though)? To find this middle ground, perhaps we can look at our past and derive inspiration from some of the older recipes.

After all, we are living, thinking, pleasure-loving human beings who sincerely enjoy our regular excursions to the dining table, not just disinterested ingesters of nutrients.

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A Proposal to Integrate Site-Specific Search Boxes into Browser Chrome

Why do I have to search for the search box on any site I visit, before I can type my query into it? Given that almost every well-designed site has a search field, and it has been recommended as a good usability practice since 2001, why is it sometimes hidden deep inside the layout? Here is a suggestion for a change in the browser UI that will enable users to find the search box faster. Even faster than other suggestions so far. It only involves a little semantic markup on part of page authors and some redesign on part of browser makers.

The search box within the browser is underused.

The search box is one of the few basic design patterns omnipresent on the Web. It is also a de facto usability practice to place this search box towards the top right corner of the page. Yet, every site has it at a slightly different location (and some, even towards the bottom.) The user needs to search visually for the search box, or at least glance around until she finds it.

During this entire time, the search box within the browser chrome typically lies unused. It has a default search engine defined where it directs all queries typed into it. Why can't the currently loaded website take advantage of this in-built search field for its own site-restricted search?

How it would work:

When a user is browsing a site that supports this feature, any searches conducted using the browser search box will send the queries to the site in question, and be able to display search results directly. When no site is loaded, the queries are directed to the user's default search engine, just as it is now.

This proposal does not require any significant changes to any markup language -- all that is needed is to enhance the markup with semantic knowledge, and microformats are just the answer! Simply marking up a <form> element with the CSS class "search" should be enough to tell the browser that this is a search form that should be promoted to the browser's search box chrome.

Prior work on similar problems

HTML 3.2 (yes, 3.2) defines a link relationship type for search pages. Adding <a href="/search" rel="search"> indicates that the outgoing link is to a search page. Browsers currently don't do much with this information (please correct me if you are aware of a browser that does something intelligent with this information). OpenSearch is (in their words) a simple format for the sharing of search results. Useful as it is, OpenSearch is more geared towards large-scale general search engines, and browser makers are adopting it as a standard for letting their users pick and install search plugins in browsers.

However, being able to customize the search field on a per-site basis with zero configuration on part of the user is not addressed by any of these proposals.

Addressing Potential Criticism

A few critics might argue that such usage dilutes the purpose of the search field ("It's meant for searching via a search engine, not on a per-site basis") or be concerned about possible user confusion ("Is my query being sent to a search engine or to the site I'm now visiting?").

Considering an intentionality-driven approach to design, this UI is perfectly aligned with the user's intentions. If a page has been rendered in a browser window, the user's intention is likely to search within that site. If the user wanted to perform a search using a search engine, there is always the possibility of loading a new tab and then searching via the same field.

Issues of Mode

This also brings up the question of whether such a UI is inherently mode-based. (Modes in a User Interface are said to exist when a single input can result in two or more possible outcomes, depending upon the state of the UI at that point. It is generally considered bad design to employ modes in a UI because it invariably leads to user confusion.) In this case, it is arguable whether or not this UI employs modes.

The user task is "to search", and the current site can be considered a specialized search engine (the specialization is that they only search within their own site). Given that a lot of sites employ site-limited versions of generalized search engines (e.g. Google's Custom Search Engines), this notion is not very hard to think of. Hence, I argue that these are not two different modes, but two different search providers for the same box, just as current implementations offer users a choice among Google, Yahoo, Altavista and others.

Indicating the currently active search providers in browser chrome

It is also easy to indicate the destination of the search queries in a visually accessible format. Safari (for example) displays the word "Google" in the search field. When a site-search box is displayed in its place, it is trivial to display the name of the site instead of the word "Google". It is also trivial to reuse the favicon for the same purpose.

Why not?

What do you think about this idea? Comments, suggestions, enhancements appreciated!

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Virginia Tech Shootout

A terrible piece of news was announced to us this morning while writing a test. An unidentified gunman opened fire on two separate occasions today, killing one person at Ambler Johnston and several more at Norris Hall. The current fatality count stands at 22 — now updated to 32 — this is absolutely, positively horrifying, especially for a rural campus like Virginia Tech.

Two bomb threats, last one two days ago

The campus has been plagued by law-and-order trouble most of last year; we had two bomb threats for buildings on campus, on April 2 and April 13 (just two days before today's shootout!). On both occasions, the respective buildings were immediately evacuated and all events suspended until police could conduct a more thorough inspection of each building. Following the last threat on Friday, the three buildings were closed until Sunday night. The university sent a campus-wide email Sunday evening that those buildings would open at 7:00am Monday and all events scheduled for today would resume.

Second shooting led to more fatalities

So we went off at 9:00am, right after the first shooting. At that time, if we had known about the first incident that occurred at 7:15am, we sure as hell wouldn't have ventured out. We only heard about it later, some time around 9:26am, via email from the University. While we were on the bus to campus, it was probably exactly that time that the killer moved from Ambler Johnston Hall to Norris Hall, where the second shoutout occurred. Most of the fatalities occurred at the second shooting. If that could have been prevented — oh well, hindsight is always 20/20.

First, curfew; then, evacuation

The first email from the University asked us to stay indoors, lock the doors, and away from windows. The second one told us that the campus was being evacuated, and we should leave the building as soon as possible. We left at around 11:30am from Whittemore hall, and a classmate offered to drop us back home. The status of the Blacksburg Transit bus service was not known.

Shock at home

The real shock came when we reached home, because accurate information about the happenings of the morning was not available until after President Steger's statement released at noon. The sheer number of fatalities and injuries — 22 dead, 21 injuries — was mind-boggling. It is expected that the death toll may rise as more information is available.

Is anyone going to do something about this?

Or should we just expect the National Rifle Association to convene at Blacksburg later this month? If you don't know what I'm talking about, please see Michael Moore's documentary, Bowling for Columbine. I've written about this topic before: it's high time someone does something about this.

22 32 innocent lives lost, not to mention all the victims over the years, is reason enough to do something about the root of the problems, the easy availability of guns.


This blog entry was posted before we learned that Minal Panchal was missing. After we heard, most of us have been on campus or at Montgomery Regional Hospital trying to locate her.

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