Category Archives: Internet

Big Brother is watching you

Ever get that feeling? It is pretty well understood that there are companies that make their living by watching what you are doing, what you like, what preferences you keep and what is buzzing in your immediate vicinity that is of interest to you.

It is also pretty well understood that Internet as a medium boasts of bridging the gap between the “you” and the “them” in the most effective and non-intrusive manner. In fact, let it be known that for every second that you spend in front of the browser, you are dropping a part of your identity back for someone to gain some knowledge about you. While there are tools that allow you to build up a social profile of yourself online [like Facebook and Myspace], there are others that are a lot more subtle about the manner in which they gather information about your tastes [like Youtube for visual medium, Google for almost anything, Last.Fm for music]. There are, in addition, social aggregators that build up an interest profile of your self by aggregating niche interest profiles from each of these online tools [like FriendFeed].

i have no grouse against leaving my identity traces behind for everyone to see. Otherwise, you would not see me blogging here and you would not see an aggregated list of my activities online here [via Friendfeed]. In fact, you are served content better suited to match your interest profiles and the Internet companies can show finer targeted ads for you, resulting in a win-win situation for everyone. But sometimes the sheer power of the availability of this data in someone’s hands scares me.

So why this age old ramble of privacy issues with respect to data available with companies and the chances of their misuse? Well, today i posted a comment on Facebook about how i enjoyed some chocolates the other day. Within an hour, Facebook shows me an ad asking me to become a fan of M&Ms. Scary?

I think what shocked me here was that the ad was not shown as a result of me being in a group of chocolate addicts, or me having watched and liked the movie Chocolat or me having added an application that had anything to with chocolates. It was an innocent one liner comment that resulted in that ad being rendered. Food [or cholocate] for thought?

Ayn Rand vs Che Guevara

The past weekend, i completed a relatively unique double of reading through two distinct texts with strong communist influences; The Motorcycle Diaries and Animal Farm. The former recounts the journey carried out by Ernesto Che Guevara accompanied by his friend, Alberto Granada aboard ‘la Poderosa’ while the latter describes the Orwellian tale of an uprising staged by animals of various “classes” in a farm in England in hope of better living conditions.

While “The Motorcycle Diaries” chronicles the formative years of Che’s eventual revolutionary life, these very influences are presented in a very subtle manner wherein Che encounters deep class, societal, cultural and economic divides in his travels across Latin America while he himself battles tough medical and economic conditions. What essentially starts of as a humourous series of thoughts and situational anectodes penned down by Che towards the start of the journey eventually transcends into a soulful recording of the punishing conditions the native Latin Americans are subject to in their own lands. All this, while Che manages to keep the humourous thread running and at the same time, provide a poetic narrative of the mystic and enchanting lands that he visits as a part of his expedition. That the text might be called ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ while ‘la Poderosa’ gave up less that halfway through might appear strange. That is an academic anomaly in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable book that does not give much of a scope for one to crib through.

In addition to these texts carrying deep socialist undercurrents, i have also had the privilege of reading throught the thoughts of one of the faces of capitalist societies: Ayn Rand. And the distinctions between the two are pretty easy to see. Reading through Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged had left a lasting impact on my thoughts at that time and it was very difficult for me to think in any other terms other than those propounded by those in Ayn Rand’s utopian world. And in hindsight, i must admit that they tend to be quite damaging, especially given today’s glocalization and mass movement of economies world wide to a democratic setup. Ayn Rand’s societies consisted of few men [and women, yes ok!] of strong virtues pitted against a mass society that tended to be parasitic in nature. And this corruption of character manifested itself not solely in individuals in trade but also those who practiced and created art. And her argument against the corruption of such societies was to revolt against them through non-cooperation. And in this manner, it had a very Gandhian edge to the revolt. But while the Gandhian way of life talked about reformation of the instigator, Ayn Rand preferred to profess destruction of the corrupt society in the absence of the ‘prime movers’ of the world.

But coming back to why i felt this outlook could now present damaging consequences, the basic fault lies in the very utopian society created by Ayn Rand herself. The only parameter against which an individual was judged was by his/her virtues to individualism while leaving out a number of very pertinent factors [which are prevalent today] like culture, historical class bias and education. And these are the very factors [or biases] that caused Che to eventually don the revolutionary streak.

History has been witness to the vast social injustice inflicted upon various races by colonialism ranging from suppression to mass extermination of races. These consequences of colonialism are most apparent in some of the most troubled of states today like African states of Zimbabwe and South Africa, contensted territory like Kashmir and vast colonization of Australia by European colonists after mass extermination of native populace.

This note is not meant to serve as a treatise against colonialism; what i am trying to convey is that Ayn Rand’s vision of the world was extremely lopsided and could not account for a number of factors that would eventually present themselves to the global polity and economy in the times to come. And with the divides across the world today brought down to their knees by equalizers like the Internet, free trade and consumerist culture, Ayn Rand’s vision of individualism reeks of a defeatist attitude that would not do the world any good.

The world economy today needs new consumers and new markets. The success of an individual today depends upon another individual halfway across the world; the failure of one also brings down another equally antipodal. So the essential need to is general upliftment of peoples across the world, making them contributors to the world rather than subjects of charity and building a local market thus perpetrating general good. And in this, Che’s vision of upliftment of the suppressed classes makes more sense that Ayn Rand’s vision of their destruction.

Renewed vigour on visual search

Image search has got to be the obligatory burden that search engines need to carry around. In spite of the equally vast amount of spidering required, all that any self-respecting search engine can show are bare images strewn around, hopefully relevant. There seems to be absolutely no incentive for any service to throw up a decent set of image search results because in its native form, it is absolutely non-monetizable unlike its richer cousins like text or even other multimedia like audio and video.

Given that, the image search landscape was, by and large, filled with the big search players like Google and Yahoo! which indexed images by names and then threw out the best possible results. The primary incentive to serve relevant results was to siphon off most of these users to the more lucrative search categories and hence, gain a significant overall market share. Yahoo! went one up recently by exposing the vast database of images it possesses via Flickr as search results. Since the images are geo-tagged and presents readily relevant and indexed data, it was a natural progression to make them available as search results. Incentives as a result of this measure were added volumes in user engagement [capturing the user and his/her immediate social network via forwarding] and hence, a higher probability of the user conversions to signups for Flickr premium services.

The landscape, surprisingly, has seen mushrooming of a new set of players [like Polar Rose, Riya, Picitup] who base search results upon radically different approaches. A definite advantage these players enjoy is that these ventures are centered wholly around image based search and hence, their economics [or lack thereof] are not the same as those involving the traditional search engines. These services use the cheap availability of massive compute power to process images to determine patterns within them as against name/tag based approaches.

It goes without saying that relevance is of utmost importance; however, even bigger problems exist in terms of content and monetization. To counter that Polar Rose, being primarily centered around people based search, have introduced a Firefox plugin that helps bridge the content and relevance gap. The plugin scans the images loaded per page for human-colorized regions [much smarter of course] achieving near 100% accuracy in identifying faces in the image. That done, the plugin allows the user to tag the person as someone recognizable and the relevance is improved when that image is tagged again by someone else. Relevant results then get shown in the search results page. Overall, a healthy cycle that only allows better content and relevance as time goes by.

Riya has been around for some time and have recently introduced that aims to target shoppers who are visually attracted to certain products and on that basis, suggest similar products that might also appeal to the user. Tie-ups with small retailers and seeking a margin from the sales being driven by the visual search engine is, essentially, the revenue model being adopted by the venture. It remains to be seen how successful this turns out to be and how far it affects the profitability of the visual search space.

Picitup, meanwhile, is a late entrant in this field and employs a rather strange method of sourcing images, as explained in the Techcrunch article and which i have borrowed from below

An image search on Picitup begins with a textual search actually queried on Google or Yahoo. Picitup will display a set of results only from one of the two—the basis of the decision is the speed and quality of the results. The user can then select which image Picitup should fetch similar images for, or filter the results by Faces, Products, Landscapes and Color. The analysis is made in real time and is based on 100+ parameters including a propriety color space the company developed.

All said and done, its promising to see a number of players in the visual search space pitted against the traditional biggies and it would be interesting to see how the space pans out in the market share front. Picitup, as an initial arrangement towards that very goal, has introduced a celebrity match service that matches the facial impression of an uploaded image with those of celebrities and returns back those that match with an acceptable level of accuracy.


  • Polar Rose as a facial recognition engine has been discontinued and has since been acquired by Apple.
  • and have discontinued their services and have since been acquired by Google.
  • Picitup has since diversified to allow retailers bridge gap between online and offline shoppers by offering image based visual search as a platform to help find products.