The 5-Minute Games

Gaming. The one thing most people having access to a computer have done at some point in their lives. Sure, it might have been an old-school game on your Pentium 3 machine (Aladdin! Hercules?); or perhaps a soul-sucking (in a good way), addictive Grand Theft Auto title; or one of the N first-person shooter titles based on World War 2 (yes, Call of Duty – I’m looking at you).

It used to be different. You needed to pay attention to the game. From hearing the development rumors, anticipating the release, buying or ahem … borrowing the game, and then making it the sole purpose of life for a few weeks, to feeling empty once the game was over – used to be an experience.

Nostalgia :-(

Nostalgia 😦

Enter smartphones. From the moment Apple opened its App Store for third-party developers in 2008, gaming got a new dimension. Was it the first time we saw good games on a mobile phone? Hell no! Snake was one of the most addictive, challenging, and satisfying games of its time. Nokia N-series phones had some decent games. What changed, then?

A new class of games was born. One that took casual gaming to new levels. One that didn’t require to pay much attention to the game. Games that became a part of your daily routine; ones you played for months or years without realizing! Angry Birds, you say? Cut The Rope! No. Not those. Not games where there is a definite objective and you have level after level of the same.

I’m talking about Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, Farmville etc. You have most likely played (or heard of) at least one of these. Titles that appeared on the app store as simple, ‘time-wasting’ games, have made their studios millions.

What makes these games tick? The fact that you have to play them in ‘small bites’; logging in at least once a day? And the fact that you have to buy in-game items to progress faster? Wouldn’t that make you want to play the game less?

Patience is a (money-saving) virtue. Image: Clash of Clans

Patience is a (money-saving) virtue.
Image: Clash of Clans

If a friend of mine said to me ‘Dude, you need to play this mobile game. To complete the objectives and reach a high level is going to take you months!’, I’ll proceed to ask him about the substance he has been smoking recently. But maybe that is why these games have become so successful. Let me explain.

To become a ‘l33t’ player or a professional gamer in any traditional computer game requires one to put in massive hours at an age where your reflexes are at an all-time high, and your parents’ patience at an all time low. Kids have given up education, dropped out, and done all sorts of things to become world-beaters at the game of their choice. And if you’re thinking that’s horrible for their financial future, Sumail Hassan, a 16 year-old Pakistani-American won more than $1.1 million a couple of months ago by winning the fifth DOTA 2 international tournament.

But that’s not a requirement on these mobile games! Most of them have a ‘freemium’ business model, where you can play the full game for free, but there is some time restriction – forcing you to come back to the game at regular intervals. Want to get to the top in a couple of days? Spend a few hundred dollars, and you could become the best in the world! Of course, you may say that the number of people who can spend such a ridiculous amount of money on a mobile game are few. And I agree with you. So what about us mortals?

If the game forces you to wait to play more, you wait. Can’t attack with your armies yet? No problem. Cannot harvest your crops just yet? Not able to update your base defenses for another day and a half? No worries. The casual gamer doesn’t really care. And so we keep playing these games for a surprisingly long time! Months, even years! Sure, it’s never more than five or ten minutes per day, but still. How many things can you decide to do for five minutes every day, and then follow through for six months straight?

Of course, not all of these freemium games are successful. Some of them appear to be money-grabbing apps that don’t deliver (I’m looking at you, Roller Coaster Tycoon Mobile!). But successful ones have changed the way people look at mobile gaming.

Will these games stand the test of time? Who knows. But for the moment, they’re here to stay on our iPhones and Galaxys.

Which mobile games do you play regularly?


Thanks for reading! 🙂 Do spread the word if you like what you see!

P.S. – You’ve got to try Boom Beach. What an amazing game!

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No Donut For You: A Remembrance

Back in 2005-06, things were different. Birthdays were remembered; photo sharing happened at someone’s place with people crowding around a monitor; and friends generally didn’t say wonderful, flattering things to each other’s face. That was life before Orkut, the first social network for many in India.

Was Orkut the first social network? Nope, successful ones like MySpace already existed by the time Orkut came along. But it was certainly the first one to gain a large user base in India. And boy was it popular. Of course, its popularity was rather short-lived due to the quick, tectonic shift to Facebook by a large number of people. But for me, and many others I’m sure, Orkut was the first social networking experience. And now (unsurprisingly) Google is shutting down the deserted social network on September 30th.

Orkut

As a teenager just out of high school, the impact of the social network was substantial. A lot of new acquaintances suddenly became ‘friends’ and started sharing stuff. Posting ‘scraps’ on each others profiles became a thing. A very weird thing actually. Why did I have to say things to a friend ‘in public’, where everyone could eavesdrop? I didn’t have to, but I did, just like most of my friends. Many people (I’m guilty as well) had weird profile names; a crazy fad where you used the first and last name fields to write messages. I think this continued even after Orkut added a status field. Fan groups were also quite popular with Orkut. People created pages for everything and everyone; a trend that still continues in Facebook today.

And then there was the rating system! If I recall correctly, people ‘rated’ friends on three ‘parameters’: friendliness, attractiveness and coolness. If that isn’t cringeworthy, I’m not sure what is. But people did it anyways! No wonder Google hasn’t been too successful at social networking (even though they did take down the ‘ratings’ feature). But the most important, and fun feature was the ability to write testimonials for friends. And of course, having your friends write one for you. In fact, testimonials were so popular that back then there were Facebook add-ons for testimonials! Not that they became popular (thankfully).

Orkut tried. Maybe not too hard, but they changed their interface, style and privacy controls to stop users from moving to Facebook. It was born out of the ‘20% project time’ at Google where employees can work on something other than their job responsibilities. And you somehow got the feeling that Google always treated it that way. It would have been interesting if Google was serious about social back then. But they weren’t, and they’re still paying the price for that today.

Social networks have certainly had an impact on our lives. And Orkut was the first one for many of us. While it won’t be missed, it will be remembered for sure. So if you want to download and save those first, awkward social moments, pictures, and other things, Google has provided a way to do so. Save them! They’ll be fun to look at a couple of decades from now. After 30th September, there’s no donut for you 🙂

– 0Mk@r ~ OrKut R0cK$

P.S. – That was never my profile name on Orkut.

How Dropbox Tricks Us: An Illusion of Private Space

Most of us use the popular cloud storage service Dropbox. In fact, some of us love it so much that we store files directly in our Dropbox folder while working with them. One of the reasons why Dropbox and other cloud storage services have become popular is that these services give us an illusion of private space. The folder we see on our computers, phones and tablets is a nice little folder that is replicated on the data centers of these storage companies. Not quite. While these companies do have a humongous amount of data storage available at their data centers, it certainly costs them a lot to maintain such centers. They are constantly trying to figure out ways to optimize, compress and simplify file storage mechanisms to save costs and improve performance.

One of these things is file deduplication. Without going into too many technical details, the concept can be explained in three simple steps:

  • User uploads a file to the cloud storage.
  • The storage service realizes that some other user has already uploaded the same file.
  • The service shrugs its shoulders (not really!) and just keeps one copy of the file instead of storing a duplicate copy for the two users.

This illustration should make things clear –

File Deduplication

File Deduplication

But the process doesn’t end there. The service maintains a list of users who have uploaded the same file. So when a user wants to download the file they ‘uploaded’, the service simply checks if the user is listed as one of the ‘owners’ of the file and if yes, allows them to download the file.

Of course, the above process is only useful if the file is popular enough to be owned and uploaded by multiple users. Think mp3s, movie files or ebooks. So even if most of our files on Dropbox, Google Drive, Box or Skydrive are personal documents, file deduplication is certainly a useful technique to save space. But wait, what about privacy?! For that and more, check out this wonderful blog post.

Hope this short post was interesting! As usual, please leave your feedback in the comments sections. Thanks for reading! 🙂

– Omkar

 

How Torrents Work and More – A Simple Introduction

This post was published 4 years ago on my older blog. Re-posting it here. Most of the things discussed are still relevant.

The spread of broadband internet in India has triggered a vast downloading community. Movies, softwares, music or anything digital for that matter can be downloaded from the internet.

One question occurs to most of us: Where is all this content available? How to download it?

The questions that follow are: Is it legal? What is the internet speed requirement for downloading? Is there a risk of viruses/trojans in the process?

I’ll start right from the basics:
There are three ways of downloading data from the internet:

  1. Direct download from websites (FTP)
  2. Peer-To-Peer Network (P2P)
  3. Torrents

I won’t be discussing about direct downloads (maybe sometime later!) and proceed to the other two.

Peer-To-Peer (P2P):

P2P (Peer-to-Peer) is a data transfer technology that is quite similar to BitTorrent (discussed later) in nature. What happens in p2p is that the client (implying the user, through his software) is connected to a network that is created by a particular software network or a combination of networks.

As we all know, the keyword(s) related to the data we want (generally songs or short videos) is entered in the search box. What the software does next is search for files on the entire network that match our keyword(s). If any files are found, they are listed and a number appears next to it along with other attributes. This number is actually the number of people on the network that have the file u want!

So u start downloading a particular file from the list. When I say downloading, I mean that your software is connected to the people on the network who have the particular file and they ‘supply’ you with the file. Hence, it is partially logical to say that the lesser the number of people having the file, the lesser the speed.

Coming to speed, there are various factors that affect the download speed. The first and most important factor is the bandwidth of your internet connection (commonly referred to as the ‘net speed’). Having a higher bandwidth increases the chances of getting a faster speed. Why I’m using the word chances is because you having a higher bandwidth doesn’t mean there are enough ‘suppliers’ to provide you with the additional speed. This can be explained with a simple example. Consider a water pipe carrying a fixed amount of water. Now, the diameter of the pipe is increased. But it is not logically right to say that more water flows through the pipe just because it’s size has increased. For that to happen, the supply to the pipe will have to be increased. Consider the pipe to be your internet connection, it’s diameter as your bandwidth and the water as the actual data …

Another factor is the internet speed of the people who ‘supply’ the files. You must have experienced the case where a file having higher number of ‘suppliers’ is downloaded slower than a file with lesser number of ‘suppliers’!

Other factors include, the other applications running simultaneously on your PC (web browser, online games etc), your internet service provider’s settings etc.

Moving on to the third way of file sharing …

Those people who have friends that download a lot have most probably heard this word. And that too a lot, I think! Torrents are a very powerful way of fast sharing of large files. Some basic questions are answered below:

What is a torrent?:

A torrent (proper name: BitTorrent) is a basically a protocol (a method of data communication) that is used for transfer and distribution of data over the internet. The basic principle for a torrent network is the same as a P2P network i.e. it involves the sharing data amongst users of the network. Then what is different? We can say that torrents are an advanced version of p2p (this is not technically correct but we can say that for practical use).

In a torrent network, the ‘suppliers’ (as they were called so far) are called seeders. I’ll explain how file sharing through torrent network takes place using a non-technical example.

Suppose, in a class of fifty people, the teacher gives an assignment. It is five pages long. The brightest student in the class finishes the assignment first and everyone else wants to copy his assignment. It can be done in two ways:

  1. The entire assignment is given by the brightest student to another student. He copies it and passes on both (his own and the original) assignments to other students. This is how the sharing takes place (sharp people may have noticed that this is similar to the sharing principle of p2p!).
  2. The original assignment is of 5 pages. So, 5 people are given 5 different pages. They each copy it and pass it on to a student who does not have that page. Also, they look for the other 4 pages of the assignment which they don’t have and copy them! Thus, more number of people are are able to start on the assignment and time is saved!

The second case explains how torrents work. A file that is to be shared is put on the network by a host (the person who has the file – the brightest student, in the example above). Parts of the file are downloaded by different users of the network and they themselves start acting as seeders of those parts!

So how does that help? Well, the load of providing all the downloaders of the file with data is shared between everyone! You give and take! Most importantly, it reduces the heavy and costly hardware requirements that a person would need to host (provide) the file alone!

This picture from Wikipedia illustrates the concept well:

The colors are parts of the file. Observe how the pieces are shared amongst users.

How to actually download files through torrents:

Downloading files through torrents is slightly more complicated than downloading through P2P. Have you ever seen a small-sized file appear on your computer after you clicked on ‘download torrent’ on a website? That file is the torrent file which connects the user to the torrent network. How to use that file? The torrent file must be opened with a torrent software. One of them is mentioned below.

The software asks you where you want to store the file(s) and starts downloading. You’ll also notice that there is an ‘upload speed’ column. That’s the speed with which you are sharingthe data of the file you have. An important point: In most torrent softwares, reducing the upload speed directly affects the download speed! So don’t be selfish!!

Requirements:

Broadband internet connection is highly recommended for using both the networks. P2P can be used on dial-up connection to some extent but use of torrent networks is almost impossible.

Risk of viruses and trojans:

Viruses and trojans are to be expected in any form of file sharing as they thrive on that! It may be discouraging to know, but a good anti-virus software and experience are the only two things that can prevent damage caused by viruses, trojans and malwares. It should be noted that pornographic material is a very common carrier of viruses and trojans. P2P networks are more vulnerable to them than torrent networks.

Legal?

The fact is that most of the transfers on these networks are illegal (i.e. copyrighted material is shared. The softwares of both P2P and torrents cannot be sued for these transfers because they provide a means of sharing data. What data is to be shared depends on the user. Use of torrents and P2P can lead to legal action/fine in some countries where cyber laws are strict.

Some popular P2P softwares (Links):

LimeWire
BearShare

Some popular torrent file sites:

Torrentz
Torrentspy

Torrent software:

uTorrent

Visit the Wikipedia page if you are interested in knowing more (technical stuff) about file sharing.

Please feel free to ask questions/post comments below. Thanks for reading!

 

– Omkar

Why Social Networks Want You To Upload Photos

Think about how much time you spend on Facebook (or Google Plus if you’re amongst the 2%) looking at, commenting on, liking and sharing photos. No seriously, think about it. Founder Mark Zuckerburg has mentioned in interviews that most of Facebook’s success is due to its photo sharing aspect. So it’s easy to conclude that social networks want us to upload and share photos for the sake of keeping you non-productive at work. But that is not the only reason they love your photos.

This topic has been discussed on the Internet quite a few times but surprisingly I still find most of my friends are not aware of this. So here goes.

Photos taken from any modern digital camera (standalone or phone) have something called EXIF data attached to them. What is EXIF data? In case you didn’t click on the Wikipedia link already, here’s a quick breakdown:

  • EXIF data is information – technical and non technical – about the image. So it has things like the date and time when the picture was taken, the camera’s exposure, ISO, aperture settings etc. It also has a unique device number representing your camera.
  • Camera phones and newer digital cameras with GPS can also store where the picture was taken.

The second point is the key thing. Photos contain location information which can be collected by social networks. After uploading a photo on Facebook, we typically see the ‘Where was this photo taken?’ field next to the photo. But you know what, in most cases Facebook already knows! Thanks to the location information in the EXIF data of the photo.

Now why would social networks be interested in your location?

  • To show relevant ads! We’re more likely to click on that ‘50% off’ ad banner if it belongs to a store in our city.
  • To find out about your travels. And then show relevant ads! Hmm, this user seems to travel a lot. Let’s spam her with hotel booking website ads!

Of course, that’s not the extent of it. Social networks mine user data to the point of having creepy knowledge about their lives. Location is just one aspect of it. And it’s legal. After all, we voluntarily (after signing the Terms and Conditions) upload these photos.

Now that you know about all this EXIF mumbo jumbo, you might be interested to know if there’s any way to prevent this and still continue to upload sepia-tinted self-portraits on a daily basis. Yes, there is; softwares like ExifTool remove EXIF data from photos. So now you can simply put all your photos through such a software before uploading then on social networks. Is it worth the trouble? Depends on how much your care about strangers knowing where you’ve been ever since you started uploading photos.

Feel free to ask questions/post feedback in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!

– Omkar

A Great Way To Remember … You!

Journal writing is something I’ve always been inclined towards. And I’ve tried to maintain one many times in the last eight years or so – failing, of course.

Then I discovered this app called DayOne. Even though it may look like one, it is not just another journal or diary app. DayOne has a feature which prompts you to write an entry after a fixed interval of time. This is really great because otherwise, most of us who try to write a journal, do it at a specific time in the day. But many a times, the ‘I need to write an entry in the journal today’ thought simply doesn’t come or we’re too lazy to execute it.

DayOne puts a text prompt (on the Mac) and all you have to do is type a few lines (maybe more) and press save. That’s it! This way, even if you’re in the middle of something, you may actually take out 30 seconds from your busy schedule and type something. I have so many entries in the journal that go something like ‘Working!’ or ‘Grad lab on a Sunday morning. Nothing new.’ Of course, when you do have the time, you’d want to write a detailed post about things happening in your life. 

The app will also suggest you things you’d want to write about if nothing comes to mind. Once, it prompted me to copy-past an email! It’ll also give you inspirational messages, should you choose to receive them.

And the experience is worth it! I started using this app in August 2011. Now when I look back at the entries I’ve written, it feels really weird! Good weird! Obviously, I’m going to remember a lot of things that happened just a year ago but it’s the small details that make it such an amazing read! Things like what made you happy on a particular day or a small joke you shared with a friend … these things will make you nostalgic! I’m sure most of us will find looking back at such detailed ‘snapshots’ of our lives interesting, if not an amazing experience!

But there’s a waiting period of course. You can’t start writing a journal and be fascinated by what happened on last Tuesday! Give it time, keep writing and experience something amazing!

The developers are amazing and listen to the users’ feedback/requests and incorporate new features into the app. Hope they keep it up!

The app is (unfortunately) available for iOS devices and Mac only. And it is a paid app. I don’t know if the developers are making an Android/Windows version but I hope they do! This app is too good to be restricted by platforms.

 

 

 

The Unsung Hero

This post was originally posted on my old blog. Recently, while having a conversation with a friend of mine, I realized that this topic needs to be discussed more.

 

We watch movies, listen to songs/albums and read books. If we like these works of art, we immediately think about their creators and transpose our liking of their works – ‘Wow, great direction!’, ‘Awesome guitar riff!’, ‘Brilliant writing style! What a page-turner!’ and so on – onto them. That’s how it works most of the times, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, most of us don’t think about or give enough credit to the people who support these artists. Not support as in ‘family support’ or ‘moral support’ but technical associates and assistants who put in a lot of hard work to refine and fine tune the work of art created by someone else.

To a certain extent, I don’t blame the general public. For a reader to appreciate the work put in by an editor, they must first be aware of the kind of work he does. How does their job affect the final, published novel? Surely they must be doing something more than just spell-checking! The same can be said about studio engineers, album producers w.r.t music and editors, assistant directors, cinematographers w.r.t film making (just to give very few examples.)

As a bassist who’s performed with a band and as someone who has been ‘behind the scenes’ a few times observing recordings, I can say that the final song/album of any artist has everyone’s fingerprints on it – the artists themselves, the producer, the recording engineer (his assistants even!), the mixing and mastering engineers and even the record label executives who decide the platform on which the music is going to be published!

Let me go into detail about the role of a  producer in the music industry.

In India, many people aren’t even aware of an album producer. That’s because –

  1. Bollywood accounts for a huge chunk of music production in India – where there is a music director and no producer as such.
  2. People tend to think of a producer as ‘the guy who finances the production’ only.

The producer, in fact is one of the most important people in any album’s production. To sum it up loosely in one line, a producer is ‘the person who tells the artist what the album should sound like as a whole and sees to it that it does’. The producer generally does not get involved in the composition directly. Of course, even within the music industry, the producer’s role changes with the genre of music.

To illustrate this, I’ll use an example. We’ve all heard Michael Jackson’s songs. We’ve also heard the awesome guitar solo in ‘Beat It’, the funky groove in ‘Thriller’ and the kick-ass bass line of ‘Bad’. Also, in songs like ‘Heal The World’ and ‘Earth Song’, we can hear violins and other string instruments in the background. Now, it’s pretty well known that MJ himself did not play any instruments and so hired musicians had to be involved. Who got the musicians? Who decided how ‘loud’ each song should be? Who made sure that every musician’s work ‘fit’ perfectly in the songs? The producers of his albums. Of course, MJ was also consulted and involved in these processes. A producer in the music industry is analogous to a director in the film industry.

Michael Jackson with Quincy Jones – The producer of his most successful album ‘Thriller’

To explain how a producer’s role varies by genre, let me take the example of a little known band called Linkin Park. As every single Linkin Park fan must’ve observed that their last two albums – Minutes To Midnight and A Thousand Suns – are drastically different from their earlier albums like Hybrid Theory. The band wanted to experiment or change the sound. And so they hired a new producer for Minutes To Midnight (Rick Rubin). Initially, the band discussed their ideas about how the album should sound like, with him. Then they proceeded to create more than a hundred ‘rough’ tracks for the album keeping in mind the overall theme and feel of the album; 12 songs were shortlisted and finished after discussions with the producer.

The band had said they wanted the next album to sound more ‘mature’. The result? The album is much ‘softer’ compared to their earlier work with more emphasis on the melodies. Chester Bennington screams his head off in just one song in the entire album! Also, one should note that Linkin Park still have their ‘signature’ in every song. Be it Joe Hahn’s loops or Mike Shinoda’s rapping. Linkin Park’s guitarist Brad Delson had no solos in their albums prior to M2M. That didn’t mean he couldn’t play solos! So what did the producer do in Minutes to Midnight? He changed Linkin Park’s sound while maintaining their personality.

The aim of this post was not to be ‘technical’ or precisely defining things but to spread awareness about a vital person in the music industry who almost always goes unnoticed.

I’d like to specially thank my guitar professor and a wonderful musician, Shitalchandra Kulkarni for explaining many of the above things to me. Also used as references are many articles on music sites, blogs and videos.

Thanks for reading this rather wordy post! Hope you found it informative! Feel free to give your feedback in the comments section below.