November 21, 2005

MMORPG + the Matrix : a brave new world

After years of reading about MMORPG Worlds, I finally managed to find a reasonably good one that allows you to play for free see ... Planeshift After a few initial hiccups with the software, I finally managed to create an account, create a character ( avatar ), upload it and finally join the game. It was good, though I understand that the popular commercial ones are better ... But as they say in Bengali, a blind uncle is better than no uncle at all. Jokes apart, joining this game gave me a fairly good understanding of what these games are all about.

So what are they all about ? It is about a simulated world peopled by different races of people with each having slightly different characteristics. Is it not the same in our 'real' world ?

In such a world, you have the ability to create one or more 'avatars' or characters and through them enter the world. Initially it is a very lonely place, as it would be if you were dropped into another planet and asked to find your way through.

What can you do ? I am expected to strike deals and earn money, actually funny money with game currency, and use this to further my goals in this world. I could also explore new territory and find out new and wonderful things about this world.

What makes this games different from a normal computer game where you play against the AI-capable program of the computer is that there are other 'avatars' created by other live players. This gives it an element of reality ( and randomness, or non-determinism) that may be difficult to achieve in a pre-programmed environment.

However there are more effective doses of reality.

First the computer graphics are superb. You really feel that you are walking through a subterranean world ( in this case the setting is subterranean but there are other games that have different settings). The degree of reality is of course a function of the money that you have paid for the game ... after all the graphics designers would expect a decent salary if they are expected to work on the detailed graphics. But money is not the only solution to improving reality ... technology is.

Graphics on the screen is good but one would need other stimuli as well if you would like to replicate reality. Sound is easy and 3D imagery is almost here, thanks to lasers and holograms ... but touch ? smell ? and taste ?

Theoretically speaking, it is not impossible to recreate all this ... but could we really extend the user-interface to a totally new level of experience ?

We have all seen the Matrix. The original is ofcourse the best and 'demonstrates' the technology through which sensory stimuli can be sent directly into the brain. This means that one can experience stimuli without the pair of signal converters : screen-eye for visual images, speaker-ear for sound, and the corresponding pair for the three other senses.

Is this possible ? Is this feasible ? Of course it is. Just look up the embedded technology that has been pioneered by Kevin Warwick where he uses implants to exchange machine readable electronic signals with the actual nervous system. Similar technology has been used to help quadriplegic patients to control wheel chairs ... by simply using their 'will' to take action.

My hypothesis is that while advances in AI technology will make MMORPG games even smarter, the real smartness will come from having more and more people join the game and contribute their own intelligence towards making the game more compelling. However the introduction of direct, Matrix-style, nerve implants that do away with traditional user-interface technology will give a qualitative jump to the sheer richness of the game playing experience.

When will this happen ? I would say that this is not more than ten years away.

November 16, 2005

Privatisation of Tax Collection ...

Every year the Finance Minister tinkers with the tax rates. But let him also focus on the collection strategy.

The income tax department is generally viewed with suspicion and there are many stories about corruption, extortion plus rude and irrational behaviour. Identical behaviour was the hallmark of DoT and the nationalised insurance companies. However there has been a sea change with the introduction of private operators in these fields. Both BSNL and LIC and it sisters are now far more user friendly AND efficient.

Let us adopt the same strategy for tax collection. Let there be Tax Collection Regulator ( like SEBI, TRAI, IRDA ) and let it license multiple private agencies for tax collection in each tax circle.

Each agency can be given a tax collection target and let them compete for 'business' from existing and potential tax payers. The finance ministry will set the tax rates and guidelines but the implementation will be done by these private agencies. Remuneration for the agencies can be on a licence fee + revenue sharing basis. Enforcement can be through civil and criminal suits filed with existing tribunals and courts.

The idea may sound initially ludicrous but with the passage of time would certainly prove to be immensely beneficial.

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idea originally posted in Thoughtshoppe on 10 Feb 2005, and reposted here ...

November 14, 2005

Who is a Manager ? Lead, Follow or Get out of the way

Managerial effectiveness is a subject on which millions of words have been spoken and written about but there is sufficient scope to write a million more .. Here is my contribution to the evergrowing corpus !!

A manager makes decisions ...

If the decision turns out to be correct, he credits the team that has implemented his decisions. If the decision turns out to be incorrect, he takes the blame on his chin. Victory has a thousand fathers and there is no harm if that is the case, but defeat should not be an orphan. This inherent asymmetry between decisiveness and the consequences thereof is true not only in the field of corporate management but has a wider impact. In the armed forces or in the government, this reflects in the relationship between 'officers' and 'other ranks'. An officer takes decisions in the field and credits the team for success but takes the blame for disasters.

However this analogy with government agencies is correct only up to a point .. because

A manager is NOT an administrator ...

When he takes a decision or orders a specific action he should be in agreement with the decision and fully supportive of it. He cannot take shelter in the fact that the decision is imposed upon him by a superior manager and he is only implementing the decision. If he does so, then he vacates his high ground as a manger and, irrespective of his designation, joins the ranks of 'other ranks'. If he wishes to retain his position as a manager he should challenge and argue with every decision that is imposed on him and only when he agrees to a decision should he implement it. Perhaps this is why our stalwarts in the IAS would never make good managers.


A manager is a thoughtleader ...

The team should look up to him not because he holds a higher designation but because he is in some way superior to them. This could be technical superiority in the chosen field or superiority in the way he handles clients or superior in the way he spots and identifies patterns of the way ahead. I am told that Mr Azimji Premji, when he took over from his deceased father as the head of the nascent Wipro empire, was advised my many that he should relinquish management to more senior people who knew the family vegetable oil business better than he did. Fortunately for India, he did not but it just goes to show that even though he did not know software, he was not handicapped in leading his team ... simply because he saw the pattern that was emerging.

Being a thoughtleader is important because in the knowledge industry that is one of the very few personal attributes that command respect. Perhaps the only other attribute is ..

Personal Honesty ..

A manager must be personally honest in thought and deed. Being honest merely with Travel Expenses is not enough, the manager must be intellectually honest. He must not show favouritism towards any member of his team and when he showers praise ( or even rebukes ) he should not only be fair, but like the Caesar's wife, should be seen to be fair in thought and deed. Life, and a delivery project, is not a bed of roses. There will be lots of thorns and the way these thorns are distributed is what earns the loyalty of the team.

Taking decisions, owning decisions, being a thoughtleader and exhibiting personal honesty .. these are easy things to ask for but sometimes very difficult to deliver. There could be instances where the manager, because of his personal circumstances, cannot deliver on these fronts.

Well he can sink into helplessness, throw up his hands and give up. But in that case, he is not a manager ( or officer ) anymore. Irrespective of his designation he has moved 'down' to join the followers in the 'other ranks'.

The only advice for them is "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."
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Thoughts put together for an address to young mangers in Calcutta

November 09, 2005

Measuring & Monitoring Judicial Efficiency

The recent judgment of the H'ble Supreme Court of India that in principle nullified the action of the Bihar governor dissolving the Legislative assembly but in fact could not give action to its own order because of the delay in passing the same highlights a fundamental malaise in the Indian judicial system. It is a live example of the cliched term : Justice delayed is justice denied.

Millions of words have been said and written about the incredible latency in the system and the usual excuse trotted out is that there are too many cases to be tried and too few judges to try them. Why too few judges in a country of a billion people ? I will not try to answer that question here but shall propose a solution from a corporate management perspective.

First judges ( and that includes magistrates, tribunals etc ) must understand that in a democratic setup, they are government servants and so are liable to be answerable to the public who are paying their salaries. Obviously the accountability should be through the judicial heirarchy itself.

This means that a judge is personally liable to dispose of the case as soon as possible .. the onus is on him to expedite matters. He is paid to do a job and not only must he do it well, he must do it in time as well. He must understand that he is a service provider, on par with those who repair taps, paints houses, performs at a concert or performs any other service that is paid for. This may seem heretical to people who prefer to be addressed as mi'lords but the fact remains that he is paid to pass a judgment and it is only fair that he does it as soon as possible.

It may be argued that judges are not responsible for all delays. Litigants and their lawyers use devious methods to delay justice. This is true but it is also true that the judge has the best means at his disposal to take a call on the legitimacy of delay and enforce speed on the process. The system needs to make sure that each and every judge makes full use of these means to expedite the process.

In management jargon this means that the annual appraisal for a judge should be based on certain key performance indicators (KPI) that reflect his ability to expedite the process of law. From this perspective I suggest two KPIs
  • K1 : The number of judgments delivered per week, per month, per quarter and per year should be formally recorded
  • K2 : The total elapsed time for a case as measured by the number of days from the date of the first hearing to the date of the delivery of the judgment should be recorded and the average for all cases for which a judgment is delivered should be calculated. Again the average over a period of week, month, quarter and year should be calculated
With these two KPIs in place it would be very easy to determine which judge is doing a good job of pushing cases through the system and who is not. These KPIs should be used by the higher judiciary to evaluate the performance of those who are heirarchically junior and should play a role in their promotions and career promotions.

However speed should not be the only quality for a judge. His judgments should be 'good' and acceptable to the public who is paying for his services. Hence we need to have a second set of KPIs to measure this aspect. One way to determine this is to measure how many judgments are appealed against in a higher court and of these how many are upheld or overturned. Thus we have two more KPIs ..
  • K3 : Number of judgments that are appealed against. This is a measure of the public perception of fairness.
  • K4 : Out of the K3 that are appealed against, what fraction is overturned. If we have a high perception that are overturned, then the public perception is valid and can be considered as a fact.
Now that we have four KPIs it is tempting to come out with a mathematical formula that determines the efficacy of a judge but ofcourse that would be rather naive and simplistic. Appraisals are after all a matter of subjective debate but these four KPIs serve as good indicators to the extent that
  • K1 should be high
  • K2 should be low
  • K3 should be low
  • K4 should be low
People who understand the nuances of the judicial process can perhaps refine, refine and benchmark these measures but it may be good idea to start keeping records of this data for each and every judge in the country.

November 08, 2005

Trams on the Eastern Metropolitan ByPass

Trams in Calcutta have a chequered history. While they are picturesque part of the colonial heritage, trams are often viewed as an impediment to the entire process of traffic management in Calcutta. On the other hand, trams have a charm of their own since they are non-polluting and are more people friendly when compared to the monstrosity of smoke-belching, ramshakle buses and the pestering annoyance the ubiquitious auto-rickshaw.

However who ever has taken a tram ride through the Maidan area from Kidderpore to Esplanade would certainly wish that they could keep on going for ever and ever .. so delightful is the experience of breezing through the great open spaces. ... and that is the genesis of my suggestion.

The Eastern Metropolitan Bypass is a vast highway that connects the emerging Rajarhat area to southern suburbs of Garia and beyond. Why not have a tram service that runs along this route ?

Anybody who has travelled along this emerging corridor would see clumps of hapless people waiting for transport at each of the 'nodes' : the Saltlake stadium, the Chingrihata flyover, the Science City/Park Circus connector, the Ruby Hospital / Kasba connector .... and of course the terminal points at Ultadanga and Garia. So there is no dearth of commuters or customers for this service. Moreover the new high rise apartments that have come up, or are coming up, along the highway would supply a ready pool of willing commuters who would prefer the tram to a ramshackle bus anyway.

The bypass currently runs through relatively empty land. So there are no shanties to be demolished, no alternate housing to be provided. There is enough land along the bypass so that laying of tram tracks would not create any new traffic bottleneck. Ten years later, these advantages would have disappeared completely ... so the time is now. The government needs to act fast.

We have heard of an elevated rail system that will connect the airport to the southern fringes of the city but that is still a pipe dream at the moment. Given the politics and bureaucracy in the system, it will be years before anything will come out ... and by that time it will be too late.

Instead, we have a today an existing, if not dysfunctional, tram company. Why not privatise it, at least partially, and use the proceeds to lay new tram tracks from the Airport, through Rajarhat, through the Saltlake Electronics City, upto Chingrihata and then along the ByPasss all the way past Science City, past Ruby Hospital, through Ashoknagar, upto Garia ... and with a bit of luck upto the new township of Baruipur itself.

In parallel, tram services should be withdrawn from the downtown, so that the narrow congested streets of North and Central Calcutta are freed up. Valuable land locked up as tram depots in the heart of the city can be sold for a profit and the proceeds utilised to fund the new tram route. No one needs to be retrenched so there is no labour issue ...

And Calcutta will have a wonderful new tram service that connects the two emerging hubs -- Rajarhat in the North and Baruipur in the South -- in an elegant manner.

It would be wonderful if the government can think along these lines.

November 06, 2005

MMORPG Virtual Worlds

Shape of things to come

I was first alerted to the world of MMORPG by an article on Everquest ( one of the more prominent MMORPGs) that appeared in, of all places, the Statesman ... that was nearly five years ago and since then, the more I have read about this idea, the more it seems to me that this concept will play a very significant role in societies of the future.

But before that, what is an MMORPG ?

The acronym stands for Massively Multuser Online Role Playing Game .. but let us see what it means. In a standard computer game, a player assumes a role, say a combatant, or a race car driver and fights or competes against characters that are created by the computer program. Exquisite three dimensional graphics and intelligent computer programs have come together to create a very realistic environment ... and this is a cause of addiction to many dedicated gamers.

In an massively multiuser online game, the player competes, not against a computer program, but against other other users on the internet all of whom are connected to a central server. Conceptually, this is like a chat room, where multiple users connect to a chat server and 'interact'. In a chat room, the interaction is confined to exchaning messages through a fairly basic user interface. In an MMORPG game, two things happen .. first the interaction is complex, ranging from competitive to collaborative behaviour and the user interface is the usual vivid 3D game interface. In effect this means that instead of exchanging a hello or a curse with a fellow chatter in the chat room, one can get a character to smile-at or punch-the-nose-of another character controlled by another player who may be physically sitting far away ... and the two characters will 'interact' in a user-interface ( "screen") that could resemble a street, a room, a field or any other real or fantasy environment.

Why are MMORPGs important ?

MMORPGs represent an important milestone in the evolution a networked society, comparable in impact to eMail and the WorldWideWeb. As player interactions grow beyond combat and conflict to encompass complexities like trade, commerce and persistent personal relationships that reflect the "real" world equivalences like friendship, partnerships and even marriage we would see the emergence of parallel virtual worlds that would become increasingly indistinguishable from reality.

In fact this is already happening. Trade and commerce has become so important in these worlds that many virtual worlds have started with their own currency and this virtual currency can very often be converted into real world dollars .. much as Foreign Exchange traders today convert national currencies. This is functionally equivalent to a closed economy, like that of China and India of the past, opening its doors and allowing currency convertibility with the open market economy of the US dollar.

However for this to happen, the "virtual" economy should be big and vibrant enough ... there must be enough useful things, or services, to buy and sell and the total turnover of these goods must be adequate to justify a serious exchange, not a toy like Monopoly.

But there are two major differences ...

First .. in the real world, each individual has a single identity as declared in his passport, voter-card, bank account or whatever. He or she has a name, parentage, address, qualifications and more importantly, certain characteristics. In the virtual world, an individual can create one OR MORE identities for himself. He can change his gender, his physical appearance, competency, his background, his likes and dislikes and his behaviour in general.

Secondly ... The degree of realism, the amount of feasibility is an objective fact in the real world but is very subjective and variable in the virtual world. In reality I cannot fly across the sky and propose my love to girl in the street but that is not so in the virtual world.

However as the games mature and evolve the second difference can be narrowed to a large extent. For example, the extremely realistic 3D imagery that is evident in some of these games has to a large extent obliterated the gap in physical realism. When you are interacting with a character it is very difficult to distinguish between an image of a "real" individual beamed, say, through a video-conferancing channel and a "virtual" individual that is controlled by a player. What this means is that when talking to a young girl who appears in your screen you can never be sure that "behind" the young girl whose image you see, there is a bearded man who is operating the software. And once you have become accustomed to accept a bearded man masquerading as a young girl, it is just one more step to accept a bearded man masquerading as a horned extra-terrestrial from a Star Trek movie ! Nothing is impossible any more.

So is the case with social rules and regulations. Crime or inappropriate behaviour in the real world is punished with certain actions ... say denial of freedom ( you are thrown out of a house or put in jail ) and the same could, and does apply to the virtual world. You may not be allowed to play anymore .. unless you log-in as someone different.

Net-net many, if not most, of the behavioural patterns that exist in the real world can be replicated in the virtual world ... and as we move forward, the difference between the real world and the virtual world will become narrower and narrower.

Will they disappear totally ? That is what we will need to explore further ... from technical as well as philosophical perspectives.

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the most popular games at the moment include World of Warcraft and Asheron's Call but you can get more information from this and similar websites ... http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=6582

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If you want to try out an MMORPG for FREE you can try PlaneShift. Perhaps not the best, but it is free and actually works, unlike many others, and will give you an idea of ..

visit http://www.planeshift.it/main_01.html to download the software ..

remember it is a270 MB download, so you need access to a corporte LAN, BUT the game does not run through a firewall, so you have to play from home.

I have installed and run the software and can certify that it works

November 05, 2005

Transcending Memorylessness !

Peeping into the future to spot patterns is something that I have been doing for quite some time and before I forget, let me first jot down trends that I had seen and which subsequently revealed themselves to others. This is more to reinforce my own personal feel good factor.

First the Internet itself. In 1996 I had quit my career in Database Administration to stake my fortune in the web, internet and what subsequently become known as eBusiness. Despite intense scepticism, I was the sole evangelist for the eBusiness practice of PwC .. a practice that subsequently became synonymous with all technology itself. Today, there is no information technology that is NOT eBusiness enabled.

Within eBusiness, I had predicted the emergence of platform independent, browser based applications : based on the Universal Client. This is something that has become a reality today. I had predicted that corporate ERP applications would be web enabled to move forward into the eCRM space ( to reach out and touch the client) and backward into the eSCM space ( to integrate vendors ). Once again this is a reality today.

Beyond business, I had predicted that web enabled teaching, as pioneered in www.intellitutor.com would become an important channel for selling educational services. This is happening today through sites like growingstars.com

I had predicted the convergence of the cellphone and payment systems through a technology as basic as SMS. This has gone live today as well.

Massively multiplayer online role playing games would emerge as a defining feature of human civilisation and we see the contours of this as well, though not so much in India because of connectivity costs.

Finally I had predicted that bio-technology services would be offshored, much like programming services are today and India will become the hub of "in-silico" back office processing. This is just about to start .. so watch this space.

Where did I go wrong ? I had thought that cable TV would be dominant mode of internet access but thanks to the primitive state of the cable TV business this did not happen. And what killed it ofcourse was the immense success of wireless telephony, both GSM as well as CDMA. Perhaps I was a bit off the mark here. But then I suppose I cannot be right all the time

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