On Annotating Your ebooks

June 9, 2018

For almost a week, the people I follow (and the ones whom the algorithm shows me anyway) on Twitter have been polarised about this tweet:

and the reply to it:

The responses I have seen to this have ranged all the way from people who run book clubs or discussion groups and think that these sort of features would be very welcome; to outraged readers who don’t want yet more Silicon Valley algorithmic social feeds messing up something that has been quite joyous for them right now.

I myself fall more towards the outraged end of the scale than the enthusiastic end. The reasons for this might be boring, but in the process of discussing them, I will end up sharing what I think is the best way to annotate books and share them; and that might be useful to the public at large. So, here we go.

My first reactions to the original tweets were:

  1. Good lord, this already existed eight years ago. It was called a book blog.
  2. Existing apps already do this! What more do you want?

That was then. Now, I am trying to write out a less snarky, more useful, response. The problem is, I don’t know what the original posters want to do with either their or other people’s annotations and marginalia. So I will list out the reasons highlight things in books, and take things from there. I went through the past few months of highlights, and counted the following reasons I might have highlighted a passage:

  1. In sheer appreciation of the language or how well a sentence or paragraph was constructed. For example: “Call me Jimmy. Your mother’s brother’s wife’s sister’s second husband is my father. Blood is thicker than water.”
  2. I read something interesting and decided to set a quiz question around it.
  3. I read something that somebody else (one person, multiple people, a group of people, or multiple groups of people) would enjoy reading, and want to share it with them, with or without context.
  4. I find it intriguing and would like to blog my thoughts about it.
  5. It’s a reference to another book, and I want to make a note to get that book as well.
  6. As a slight variant to #5, it references say a movie or a piece of music, or even a product or something to eat, and I want to make a note to watch, listen to, or buy it later on.

Other people will have their own reasons, of course. There’s an important point to make here though. Except for #1, all these reasons require me to perform some mindful action beyond simply highlighting the passage.

  • Setting the quiz question will need me to actually rewrite the factoid in the highlight (along with perhaps two or three others), or download related photos or media; and then save the final question somewhere
  • Blogging my thoughts about what I’ve highlighted means I have to clear my head, put my thoughts together, and write the blogpost out
  • Getting the book means searching my libraries and reserving it; or adding it to a shopping website wishlist
  • For listening to a referenced piece of music; or watching a referenced movie, or buying something, I would have to search for it and add it to a queue to get to when I have the time to devote

What about the case of sharing it with somebody who might be interested? It sort of dovetails with what the original tweets were talking about, but the thing is, this sort of sharing is best when I am providing some context to what I am sharing. For example, “Remember when we were talking about how terrible and scary the street lighting in Delhi is? This is what Jane Jacobs wrote about safe streets.” Yes, there are going to be times when I share something without context, if the passage is just intrinsically funny, or touches upon an injoke or shared experience so close that it needs no context, but without the ability to provide context – by typing it out, or adding a voice note, or in any other way, sharing is going to be quite useless. In fact, by adding to the stream of notifications which the recipient is already receiving through the day, it might even be a hostile act.

Compared to all the actions I listed above, actually retrieving the highlights is a very quick and painless procedure with existing technology. The difficult part isn’t retrieving highlights, but being disciplined enough to do things with them.

If you have the discipline, the existing Kindle app for Android already lets you do all this with a few taps. If I could build up the discipline, this is how I would do it:

  1. Read the book on a Kindle, so that my device wouldn’t interrupt me with other notifications while I was reading.
  2. Highlight along the way.
  3. Before starting the next book, sync my Kindle, and download the read book to the Kindle app on my phone as well.
  4. The copy on my phone has all my highlights. I can open the highlight view, and then deal with each highlight one at a time, using the relevant Android share method, as follows:
    1. If I had highlighted something for a quiz question, share it to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of quiz questions; and then consult that notebook or board whenever I was sitting down to set questions
    2. If I wanted to share it with somebody, share it to my email, or messaging app, and forward the highlight, with necessary context
    3. If I wanted to write about it, share the highlight to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of writing ideas
    4. If I wanted to buy something, open goodreads, or amazon, or any relevant shopping website on my laptop at the same time, and add it to the relevant wishlist
    5. If I wanted to listen to, or watch, something, add it to a queue on youtube, or a todo list where I was saving things to look for

I’m reasonably sure non-Kindle ebooks let you do this easily enough as well; and for that matter, if you come across something interesting even in a paper book, you can take a photo and let OCR do the initial work before sending it on the relevant app.

For now, I’m still mystified at what the original tweeters wanted to do with their friends’ highlights, marginilia, or even summaries that they couldn’t have done by reading reviews or notes from somewhere else. And though I touched upon it before, I’ll mention again that without knowing just how these highlights are shared, there are real problems of noise and spam in this sort of indiscriminate sharing of what somebody has highlighted.

  1. What are the privacy settings on what I’ve highlighted? I don’t want the public to know if I’ve highlighted something to set a quiz question on it. But I might also want exactly one other person to see the highlight if we’re setting the quiz together.
  2. In this hypothetical service where my highlights are open to the public, just how does the public see what I’ve highlighted? Are they going to see everything? Or is a Facebook News Feed type algorithm going to decide what is worth seeing?
  3. In this hypothetical service where I get to see everybody’s highlights, am I able to receive a highlight that has been picked out by my friend for me? Or am I only getting a firehose of notes and marginilia, with no way to decide what is relevant?
  4. And is this feed of my “social reading” going to be filled with ads?

In conclusion, I personally would not pay extra for books if I could see what my friends had highlighted. But if I really trusted my friends’ books recommendations and ability to pick out amazing passages, I would encourage them to do this with thought, word, deed, and cake; and if I really trusted strangers’ book recommendations, I might well encourage them to blog a lot more by contributing to their Patreon. I just hope that more people do the same before reading recommendations go the way of Facebook.

Google Gali View

January 5, 2014

I came across two different news stories about Google’s mapping initatives recently. (Hat tip to Udhay Shankar for at least one of them.)

First up, there’s this long New York Times profile on the history of Google Maps, and what comes next.

And here’s a Verge piece on the Trekker, the human mounted imaging and mapping thingamjig that Google is using to map out trails, rivers, and places where Street View cars won’t go. Money quote:

The resulting Trekker is still relatively heavy at 42.5 pounds. A long neck extends from the backpack to the orb-like camera array, which comprises 15 cameras that capture images at a combined 75 megapixels. Trekker’s batteries last between six and seven hours, and fills its hard drive with 256 GB of data. And yes, Trekker floats — it’s watertight to 60 feet.

Google has already come up with self-driving cars to automate Street View picture taking. Now that they have come up with the Trekker and are also acquiring robotics companies, I hope they also come up with an autonomous walking robot.

Why you ask? Because it would be so damn useful in mapping Delhi’s urban villages. These villages, which existed back when Delhi was farmland and scrub forest, were eventually surrounded by planned neighbourhoods, but never actually replaced by them. They lost their farmlands, concretised themselves, and now function as fascinating parallel economies and legal / regulatory zones.

What’s important is that many of the villages have alleys rather than roads. Getting through an urban village is like a parkour challenge. A car couldn’t do it. But a walking robot might.

My little flight of fantasy is in large part spurred on by the joyous prospect of seeing a Google robot make its way through Mahipalpur and Munirka while the local Jats look on with “Dude, WTF” expressions. But urban villages aside, an articulating, narrow robot could do other useful stuff – map sewers, back alleys, and probably even more tasks that would only be obvious when the robot was actually built. So I hope it does happen.

Damn Hoverboards, I Have Bluetooth!

June 16, 2012

I’ve been thinking about the future recently.

What got me started was the news that Total Recall is getting a reboot. I mused that at least it was a reboot that was coming much longer after the original than the Spider-man reboot, and that in fact it might even be getting rebooted well after the time period setting of the original movie.

Thanks to my twitter-addled life and short attention span, before I even bothered to check this out, I then wondered if we were already past the date in which Back to the Future Part II was set. (I did check it out now, while writing this post, and I couldn’t find a fixed date for the first movie, and the original Philip K Dick story definitely doesn’t mention a date.)

And yikes! We’re only three years away from 2015, which is when the (future bit of) Back to the Future II was set. This got me wondering what would be different if Back to the Future  were to be remade today, with the past sequences thirty years ago and the future sequences in 2042. This is an exercise that would be lots of fun if it was a bunch of fans sitting around and talking about it, but I dread how awful it would be if a reboot actually happened.

We’ll get back to Back to the Future in a bit. Right now, time for the other thing that got me thinking about the future.

Yesterday, this was delivered to my apartment: the Creative D200 speaker bar. The sound quality probably isn’t exceptional, but I’m not an audiophile so I don’t think I’d notice even if it was . The important thing about this speaker bar is that it’s wireless. Not as wireless as I hoped, though. It runs on a power cord and has no batteries, so my hopes of pulling a Lloyd Dobler in Chennai have been cruelly shattered. (I’d even found a cutie with her own balcony! We can ignore the likely outcome of what she’d have done after my boombox manouevering.) But it’s still wireless enough to be absolutely awesome, for it takes the audio input not only through an aux cable port, but also through (this is the part where I rub my hands with glee) Bluetooth.

Here is what this means.

There are mp3 files on my phone. My phone is in my pocket. I am in the bedroom. The speaker, on the other hand, is in the drawing room, and at the far end of the drawing room at that. I can set the songs I am listening to from a device in my pocket, while they’re actually played at the other end of the house, and loud enough for me to hear them anyway.

I asked Beatzo on GTalk if it was wrong of me to be so thrilled about this, and he said “Of course not! Welcome to the future!”

Minor aside. If I had asked Neal Stephenson, he would probably have said it was wrong, considering he is slightly grumpy about how in the past few years, so many people in technology would rather be passionate about making smartphone apps than about making rockets:

When he was asked, toward the end of lunch, where he thought computing might be headed, he paused to rephrase the question. “I’ll tell you what I’d like to see happen,” he said, and began discussing what the future was supposed to have looked like, back in his 1960s childhood. He ticked off the tropes of what he called “techno-optimistic science fiction,” including flying cars and jetpacks. And then computers went from being things that filled a room to things that could fit on a desk, and the economy and industries changed. “The kinds of super-bright, hardworking geeky people who, 50 years ago, would have been building moon rockets or hydrogen bombs or what have you have ended up working in the computer industry, doing jobs that in many cases seem kind of ignominious by comparison.”

Again, a beat. A consideration, perhaps, that he is talking about the core readership for his best sellers. No matter. He’s rolling. He presses on.

“What I’m kind of hoping is that this is just kind of a pause, while we assimilate this gigantic new thing, ubiquitous computing and the Internet. And that at some point we’ll turn around and say, ‘Well, that was interesting — we have a whole set of new tools and capabilities that we didn’t have before the whole computer/Internet thing came along.’ ”

He said people should say, “Now let’s get back to work doing interesting and useful things.”

Digression over. Now, back to Back to the Future.

We have three years left and portable fusion reactors, flying cars, and hoverboards are nowhere in sight. On the other hand, lots of other things that Back to the Future II showed as commonplace are in fact commonplace: flat screen TVs, ubiquitious videoconferencing, and electronics embedded in all sorts of machinery (though not quite accurate on how exactly this panned out). There’s a wiki on Back to the Future, so you can check out the page on the technology of the fictional 2015, and see for yourself how much it got right and how much it missed. There’s quite a decent hit rate, actually, when you consider how tricky this prediction business is.

So tricky, in fact, that a 1996 movie got one detail about 2063 even more badly wrong than 1985’s Back to the Future II got 2015 wrong. The 1996 movie was Star Trek: First Contact, and the detail in question (and this is where things all come together) is wireless music streaming.

As you see in this clip from the movie, Zefram Cochrane, while launching Earth’s first faster-than-light spacecraft, decides that he wants his tunes, and so slips a tiny octogonal, transparent disc into a music player.  Optical media! Teehee! How quaint!

Okay, more seriously. Bluetooth was created in 1994. Flash storage was also invented at about the same time, but I remember that the first time I ever came across a commercial USB flash drive was in 2004. They both took so long to go mainstream, that back in 2006, the most futuristic thing the writers of Star Trek could conceive about playing music was a tinier, differently shaped CD. We now take the ability to whip out a palm sized device and have it send any music we like to any nearby speakers for granted – but Zefram  Cochrane had to hunt for a particular disk and physically shove it in. Wow.

To be fair, Star Trek’s 2063 is a post-World War dystopia where most of humanity and civilisation has been wiped out, so it’s conceivable that there was a flash memory shortage, or a bluetooth shortage, and the war’s survivors had to resort to optical media all over again. Which makes the story even more remarkable  – this is a world with no Bluetooth, but they were still able to build a faster-than-light propulsion drive. Whatay!



How to Read Interesting Links on Twitter on Kindle Later

February 12, 2012

I tweeted earlier this morning about automatically sending interesting links I find on twitter to my Kindle. Since two people (@saffrontrail and @_a_muse) asked me how this was done, and it won’t fit in tweets, here’s a blogpost that explains the process. Hopefully it’ll benefit other people also.

First here’s what you need:

  1. A Twitter account
  2. A registered Kindle
  3. An instapaper.com account
  4. An ifttt.com account

Here’s what you have to do:

  1. Create an instapaper account.
    1. Once this is done and you’re logged in, go to Instaper’s Kindle settings page
    2. You’ll see an email address which is something like kindle.xxxxx@instapaper.com. Save this for Step 2.
    3. You’ll have to fill in your Kindle’s email address. At this point, you’ll have to run Step 2 in parallel.
  2. Set up your Kindle to receive email. To do this:
    1. Login to Amazon. Find the link that says Manage Your Kindle and head there.
    2. Click on ‘Personal Document Settings’ in the sidebar.
    3. You’ll now see your Kindle’s email id. Take this back to the instapaper Kindle settings page, and fill it in.
    4. Also, in the ‘Approved Personal Document Email List’, click on ‘Add a new approved e-mail address’. Now, fill in that @instapaper.com email id.
    5. Proceed to Step 3
  3. Now, come back to your instapaper Kindle settings page. Make sure that the ‘Send my Unread articles to my Kindle automatically’ box is checked, and tweak the sending settings to your preferences, depending on how much you read and how often you send new articles to your instapaper queue.

All right! So at the end of Step 3, any new article you add to your instapaper reading list will automatically go to your Kindle. But right now, you’ll still have to open every article before you can send it to instapaper. The next step is the nice part – you can add interesting links you find on twitter to instapaper without opening them. Here’s that process:

  1. Create an ifttt.com account.
  2. Now, go to this link, which is an ifttt recipe which scans your new favourited tweets, and if it finds links in them, sends them to instapaper.
  3. You’ll now have to authorise ifttt to link to both your twitter and instapaper account. This does mean entering your passwords for both these services. Don’t panic – the password is not going to ifttt, only to twitter/ instapaper to allow them to authorise ifttt.
  4. Create the task. Don’t worry about the text box fields that ifttt shows you – you can leave them empty.
All right. The automation is now done. So now, the next time you’re logged into twitter, and you see a tweet with a link that looks interesting, all you have to do is favourite (star) that tweet. The next time you sync your Kindle, you’ll get it in your instapaper delivery.

Note: Maybe you’d rather use Pocket or Readability instead of Instapaper. You can, and the principle is the same, but I’ve never bothered to set it up myself. You’ll have to use an ifftt recipe that links Twitter and Readability or Twitter and Pocket. Linking Readability to Kindle is easy, here’s the page to do it. Pocket, unfortunately, doesn’t send directly to Kindle, and you’ll have to use the third party en2Kindle website, adding yet another step. But if that works for you because you love Pocket, great.

Software Development Models and Weddings

June 23, 2010

In comments, BJ says that he has a fair idea of why I think TamBrahm weddings are like ERP implementations, and asks me to confirm his suspicions with a post on this. I don’t know if he is zinking what I am zinking, but here goes.

As someone who had only seen Arya Samaji weddings (and also one sardar wedding) up until the age of 21, I was utterly flabbergasted the first time I saw a TamBrahm wedding. The whole point of Arya Samaj was that if you were going to involve yourself with religion, you should bloody well understand what you’re getting into. So if you don’t speak Sanskrit, the priest must translate everything, and give a proper explanation while he’s doing so.

In contrast, at TamBrahm weddings (and any religious ceremony for that matter – we did a bhoomi poojan at the Kanchipuram factory with local priests), the involvement of the concerned parties is minimal. They just sit around while the priests chant stuff they don’t understand.

This makes TamBrahm weddings very much like the common, or garden-variety ERP implementation. The ERP consultants are parallel to the priests. Because nobody can understand them, you have to take their word for it that they’re experts and know what’s going on. Then, there is a long and painful period in which the priests/ ERP consultants do lots of stuff that looks impressive, but nobody actually knows if it’s accomplishing anything. Finally, they collect their fees, and leave the company/ happy couple to sort things out on their own.

Extending the analogy, Punjabi Arya Samaji weddings are like installing Windows. You’re given the opportunity to read the whole end-user license agreement and cancel if you’re not happy with it. But everyone is so excited about the bling and cool new features that they skip reading it, or just nod along to whatever the shastri says and install it. After the honeymoon period, you suddenly realise that this thing is taking up far more resources than you’d anticipated.

North Indian Sanatan Dharmi weddings are like the Apple App Store. Everything looks incredibly cool and blingy, but the license agreement is completely opaque and nobody has any clue what they’re getting into.

Living in is like installing and running Linux without a GUI and only with a console. And that too by compiling the source with gcc and not from some cool Ubuntu disc or Red Hat Package manager. It seems hardcore and revolutionary, but when you get down to the specifics, is really just a lot of housework without any bling.

The analogy has now gone far enough. That’s it for the post.

Linkbunch Are Strong!

February 16, 2008

I’ve been looking for a Firefox extension that let’s me bookmark a collection of links into one bundle, which I can then open any time later – like a session manager which saves multiple sessions instead of just the latest one. This is useful for when you’re planning to blog about something which links to lots of pages, but the blogging can’t be done in one go.

Udupendra recommended LinkWad, which was horribly unusable, and added an unwanted toolbar to Firefox.

But last night I discovered Linkbunch (from aalaap’s twitter, which I reached via Volupturo’s twitter). It’s still in beta, so it doesn’t have all the features which would make it truly awesome, but it’s already pretty damn cool. What it does, is create a single web page with a short URL that contains a bunch of links. You can install a Firefox extension which lets you add all your current open tabs to this page. Sweet! Two clicks, and the collection of links you’ve got open is filed away for retrieval on any net-connected PC.

Stuff I’d like to see as features are added:

  • The extension sitting in the status bar instead of the menu bar, or a keyboard shortcut – it’d make bookmarking easier.
  • A faster way to find the linkbunches you’ve created – right now I’m saving them in Google Notebook, which makes things cumbersome. How about a meta-linkbunch that links to all your linkbunches?
  • del.icio.us style social linkbunching.

Innovation in the Third World

January 21, 2008

This Boston Globe oped (free registration might be required) is astonishing. The author, somebody named Jeremy Kahn, has violated the Sominism-cheat-sheet and Neelakantan’s guide to writing about India left, right, and centre. He appears to have actually understood the nuances of what he’s writing about! And he doesn’t mention caste, growing inequality, pollution, or elephants on the road even once!

OK, that’s the sarcasm out of the way. Seriously, the oped is a very good read. It’s about how Third World conditions are forcing cellphone companies, banks, and Tata Motors to innovate and come up with low-cost technology, and how this means that design and innovation is now splitting up and being driven by two different things: luxury in the First World, and productivity and low costs in the Third World. In the bargain, First World and Third World innovation are both leading to high technology, and the Third World is now actually in a position to export technology to the First World.


This might seem like a classic example of the Third World struggling to catch up with the First. After all, people in the United States and Europe have been using ATM cards and the Internet for years to perform the simple banking tasks Das is only now able to do. But look again: The technology used to bring slum-dwellers like Das their first bank accounts is so advanced that it isn’t available to even the most tech-savvy Americans – at least not yet.

This represents a stunning reversal of the traditional flow of innovation. Until recently, consumers in the Third World also had to tolerate third-rate technology. Africa, India, and Latin America were dumping grounds for antiquated products and services. In a market in which some people still rode camels, a 50-year-old car engine was good enough. Innovation remained the exclusive domain of the developed world. Everyone else got hand-me-downs.

And as they do, companies are confronting the unique challenge of making high-tech products cheaply enough to make a profit. In some cases, this means shifting jobs for talented designers and engineers to the developing world – not just to save labor costs, but in order to better understand the markets they are now trying to reach.

“Developing markets offer the best opportunity for global firms to discover what is likely to be ‘next practice,’ as contrasted with today’s best practice,” Prahalad has written. “The low end is a new source of innovation.”

In a globalized world, people in emerging markets want first-class products – but at prices they can afford. Meeting that demand, particularly in countries where basic infrastructure is weak, requires more creativity than designing a product for a more advanced, affluent market.

Read, read. It’s worth the two-minutes it takes to register.

The Other Retail Story

August 8, 2006

My last long post was on retail as a barometer of reform. On the subject of retail, Neelakantan also has some very good posts up (here, here, here, and here), most of which deal with Reliance Retail.

All of these posts deal with the retailing of physical merchandise. But there’s another retail story brewing in services, and it’s slipping under the radar as far as I can see. Remarkably enough, the company on the leading edge of this retail story is the other Reliance: Anil Ambani’s group.

Reliance-ADAG runs the Reliance WebWorld cybercafe chain. However, WebWorld goes beyond being an ordinary cybercafe like a Sify IWay or an independent outfit. The cybercafe is only where it begins. Webworld is much more than that; it’s a platform for cross-selling other services and goods, including:

  1. Reliance phones
  2. Kingisher Airlines and Air Deccan tickets
  3. Reliance Insurance
  4. Reliance Mutual Funds
  5. (some minor merchandise like mugs and T-shirts, which are shipped rather than purchased on the spot- or you bring your own T-shirt).

The insurance and mutual funds started recently. What you need to look at is the profile of what they’re selling: except for the phones, these are all things where they need to carry no physical inventory.

Can this actually work, though? Converting a cybercafe chain into a profitable retail platform will depend on a bunch of stuff, including:

  • Converting single-service customers to cross-sell customers. The idea of using existing infrastructure and real-estate space to sell intangible, high-margin services os attractive, but will it actually happen? Cross-sell might be the holy grail, but if my employer’s experience is anything to go by, it’s bloody hard to do. Can you really convince someone who’s come by only to pay a phone bill or check his mail to buy mutual funds or insurance? It’s hard enough convincing someone who’s come by to check his bank balance.
  • Putting the marketing into place. I might see WebWorld as a retail opportunity, but are Amar, Akbar and Anthony going to think of WebWorld when they want to buy financial products? That needs branding and advertising, and more importantly, capability.
  • Getting the skilled people. You need trained insurance agents and investment advisors in each WebWorld if you want to cross-sell. Certification is the easy part. Training them to be effective salespeople is going to be much tougher.
  • Expanding the product range. To start attracting more walk-in customers and brand itself as a service retailer, WebWorld would have to sell a whole lot more than what they’re doing now. Off the top of my head, I can think of hotel and vacation bookings, job recruitment services (not for engineers and MBAs but for private tutors and maids), small money transfers (which would bring them into direct competition with postal money orders- I am not sure about whether financial regulations would actually permit this), and booking one time medium-ticket services, like movie tickets or A/C call-taxis.

I can think of two-ways for Reliance to immediately start pulling in more walk-in customers for stuff beyond mail checking and phone bill paying.

  1. First, move past paying only Reliance phone bills at WebWorld. Pull in customers by letting them pay any and all bills- rival telecom operators, utilities, personal loan instalments, and so forth. This can be done easily, really, if Reliance cuts a deal with EasyBill, which has taken the kirana distribution route till now. In fact, EasyBill could become a strategic acquisition target just for its back-end.
  2. Start a line of co-branded credit cards, or enter the credit card business themselves. I’m a little skeptical of whether co-branding would work. Who would do it? The PSU banks won’t, ICICI is in direct competition with Reliance for investments and insurance, and the MNC banks don’t have the reach. HDFC could do it, though, or perhaps Reliance could bypass banks entirely and do a tie-up with Amex.
    Once they have customers with established credit track records walking in to pay their credit card bills, their base of prospects for investments sales suddenly becomes a whole lot bigger.

Falstaffian Footnotes:

  1. I realised while writing this that the petrol retailers could employ the same strategy. WebWorlds have a better retail ambience though (IMO of course). I’d love to see this backed up by some figures on how many footfalls the petrol pump convenience stores get, and how that compares to similarly sized kiranas in residential areas. Or what the comparative sales are for that matter.
  2. Intuitively, I can see a big hole in the price range of WebWorld products. Surfing or gaming would have ticket sizes of R. 100-Rs. 500 per transaction, while insurance premiums usually start at Rs. 5000. Mutual funds SIPs can go as low as Rs. 1000 a month, but the effective entry level is usually Rs. 2500. Buying airtickets would again be at least Rs. 5000 per transaction. That means WebWorld’s regular customers are small-ticket spenders, to whom they’re trying to sell much bigger-ticket services. It can address the gap by bringing in a greater range of small-ticket cross-sell services- like employment registration.
  3. I know my next big post was supposed to be about what industry can benefit from network effects as much as telecom. Trust me, this post is a bridge to that.

The Trouble With Civilization

June 4, 2006

I refer not to the concept, but the bestselling game series.

The premise of Civilization is simple. You’re the leader of a civilization (a tribe or a nationality). You start out in 4000 BC with only a settler. The settler founds a city. The city then produces more settlers, which found new cities. All these cities produce military units, improve themselves with things such as aqueducts and city walls and factories, and even Wonders of the World. And so it goes until 2020 AD, by which time you will hopefully have researched a lot of technology, have a huge military, and spread your civilization over as much of the world as possible.
Of course, there are other civilizations, being played by the computer (or by other people), which are also intent on world domination. You just have to conquer them, or make sure you establish your empire over virgin territory before they get the chance.

The series is now up to Civilization IV, and this particular sequel has hit a particularly sweet spot. There are enough features to make it fun and interesting, but the micromanagement isn’t so high that it becomes too challenging or tedious. The features include religion, great artists, great merchants, trade, diplomacy and a whole lot besides.

Being able to control all these things- religion, commerce, art and culture- is a lot of fun. But it is also the problem- it’s horribly inaccurate- which the game developers freely admit.

They originally built the game so that religions spread slowly along trade routes, invisible to the game player. This was no fun at all, so they eventually created something that gave the player more control- a missionary that could travel from city to city and spread religion faster than by normal means.

So here is the problem- Civilization is played in such a way that it is fun only when you have control over something. So if you add a feature that mirrors a concept in real life, it is only fun when you can control it yourself. But unfortunately in real life you don’t have that control. National goverments and individual cities and religions and merchants and scientists and artists are very rarely under the control of a single leader. They might be anatagonistic or cooperative or at outright war, but they’re never marching in lockstep to somebody else’s drumbeat. Fun comes at the expense of accuracy.

You could get both fun and accuracy, but the game would no longer be Civilization. But you could have a game where you do have competing civilizations- but at the same time you have competing elements within a civilization- if you could play a Chinese merchant or a Muslim cleric instead of just the Chinese leader. As the Chinese merchant you would interact with the Chinese government, merchants from other civilizations. You could lobby the Chinese government for mercantile policies or for free trade. If you were a very successful merchant, you could commission Wonders of the World in cities where you had influence. You could provide musicians and thespians with patronage. You could have run-ins with Buddhist or Taoist clergy over who got to control the levers of power. You could finance scientists to help discover the next technological breakthrough. You could gain sufficient power to have a say in whether your country went to war or not. You could eventually transcend your civilization, and control power in the American and Arabic and Aztec and Indian civilizations too.

Does something like this already exist, but with the Civilization-like features of immense complexity and turn-based-play? Or will I have to wait for Civ6?