New York, New York!

It’s been a little over 2 weeks since I moved to the Big Apple for the summer. Much like my last visit to NYC in 2007, this time I’m working for the another dotcom company .

NYC is a seriously awesome place. There’s so much stuff going on that it became a little hard to pick exactly what to do. Being the lazy person that I am, I decided to crowdsource this decision. So I put up a Facebook status update: Arnab wonders what to do in NYC. Suggestions? Within a few hours, I had 16 suggestions! Here’s an edited list. I’ve also added a few of my own suggestions:

The plan is to strike each one of these off my list (in addition to the usual stuff like going to see a Broadway play, etc). Let’s see how this works out!

University of Michigan Museum of Art Reopens

The UMMA reopened this Tuesday, celebrating the addition of an extension building by inviting all of the university’s students to a huge party with food and live music. The opening was a grand success in my view; I’ve never seen these many people in a museum before.

I really liked the museum’s interior, which does a very good job of combining the gallery spaces of the new and old buildings. The exterior, however, looks unfortunate. I don’t understand this trend of juxtaposing classic architecture with brash, boxy shapes for the sake of modernism.

The most entertaining collection on display was the rather meta “Museums in the 21st Century” exhibit, showcasing drawings, posters and scale models of new and newly renovated museums from around the world. Since I’m a big fan of architecture, this was a nice treat. One of the pieces I was impressed by was the MAXXI National Centre of Contemporary Arts by Zaha Hadid, which integrates modern, urban lines into a conventional setting. It reminded me a lot of the Tokyo subway maps for some reason.


y!Vmail - voice mail for your Yahoo! Mail

Yesterday Dan, Pradeep and I presented “y!Vmail: voicemail for your Yahoo! Mail” at the Yahoo! University Hack Day Contest, winning the award for the 2nd best Hack! (jump to the demo video )

Our team with judges Paul Tarjan and Rasmus Lerdorf

The adventure started when I heard about Yahoo!‘s Hack U event:

Join Yahoo! web experts including Rasmus Lerdorf, the creator of PHP, for a week of learning, hacking and fun! You’ll hear interesting tech talks, hacking tips and lessons, and get hands-on coding workshops where you’ll work with cutting-edge technology. The week’s events will culminate with our University Hack Day competition—a day-long festival of coding, camaraderie, demos, awards, food, music and jollity (it’s a real word, look it up).

Years ago when I was in my teens, I was an avid participant on the school / college tech fest circuit. Almost every major institution in and around Delhi would organize annual technical festivals, hosting programming contests and software demo competitions. This was where I got a chance to showcase my creations and meet other hackers. Winning these events became a good way for me to pay off those telephone bills — web development in the dial-up age was an expensive hobby!

I decided to enter the Hack Day contest just for fun; it had been a while since I participated in one of these. It wasn’t about winning this time; I just wanted to do the whole “idea to execution to demo” thing with a group of friends, and spend hours screaming at each other over STUPID hard-to-find bugs that are actually staring at you in the face, high-fiving every hour as a feature milestone was scratched off the todo-list. The reward: to be able to stand in front of a group of people and say “Hey guys, look what I made!.” (If it’s hard to appreciate what this feels like, this video might help.)

Yahoo! gave away a bunch of t-shirts, this was on one of them

3 days before the Hack Day, I had an idea about building a phone-based interface for email. The idea was simple enough to build in a day, but fun enough to make an enjoyable demo. The only problem: I was already in the midst of a “hack” daymonth of my own; VLDB was due 3 hours before the start of the Hack Day, and I was already sacrificing sleep for LaTeX and Python for more than a week. There was no way I was going to be able to do this alone. Enter fellow grad students Dan and Pradeep. I told them about the contest and my idea. While they are both expert hackers, I totally forgot about the fact that people in Operating Systems research don’t really do a lot of Web Programming: “PHP….? I’ve never…” said Dan. I pointed them to the Yahoo Developer Network site and returned to my research paper writing madness. Hopefully by Friday evening, I would have a web-savvy hack team.

On Friday, I took a quick nap after my paper deadline, and walked over to the Hack Fest area to meet my team (who had become PHP and telephony wizards by now) and load up on caffeine and sugar that the Yahoo! folks had set up for us.

They even had my favorite candy !

We split the work into two parts; Dan would build the phone interface while Pradeep and I would figure out the email and contacts API to write an email client backend. 7 hours later, we had the first version of our product up and running. We could call in and read emails. Happy with our progress, we decided that it would be wiser to go home and show up early next day. We ended up wasting a few hours the next morning worrying about the presentation: the lecture hall had spotty cellphone coverage, a deal-killer for a phone demo! Pradeep made a breakthrough here, discovering that an obscure panel on the wall was actually a secret speakerphone. Having resolved demo issues, we resumed coding and plugged in the remaining features: navigating through emails, email summarization, and email prioritization. The friendly timestamps feature (“4 minutes ago”) was stolen from my blog’s code (i.e. the Status header of this blog).

Around 3:30pm on Saturday, we updated our hackday entry:


by Arnab Nandi, Daniel Peek, Pradeep Padala

“Not everyone has a computer, but everyone has a phone.”

This hack allows people to access their Yahoo! mail through a 1-800 number, using ANY touch-tone phone.
Press 0 to open, * and # to navigate, 7 to delete. We figure out which emails are important, and read them first. We summarize long emails so that you dont have to listen to all of it. If you want to talk to the person, just press 5 — we’ll connect you.

APIs used: BBAuth, OpenMail, Contacts API, Term Extraction API

Hack presentations started at 4:00pm on Saturday. I started with a 20-second powerpoint pitch, followed by a rather entertaining demo. Using the lecture hall’s speakerphone we had the lecture hall call our service. Entering the correct PIN logged me in, which resulted in an entire roomful of people were now hearing the words “Welcome to y!Vmail. You have 5 new emails…”

Me pushing numbers on the phone

Here’s a short video walk through of our app:

More details at

A few minutes after the presentation ended, the prizes were announced. We ranked second. The winning hack was Brandon Kwaselow’s “Points of WOE”; a native iPhone app that allowed browsing and creation of placemarks on Yahoo! Maps. Congratulations, Brandon!

Overall, this was a very exciting and enjoyable event; I had a rocking good time hanging out with the Yahoo! folks and getting a cool project out the door with around 15 hours of work. I end with some lessons, acquired over years of doing demo contests:

  • Be creative, but avoid feature creep.
  • Split up into sub-teams, but make sure you’re pair programming most of the time.
  • Get Version 0 done Super Super Early. Then polish, polish, polish.
  • Reuse (with attribution) as much code as you can.
  • Take lots of breaks, make friends, and have fun.

Image credits: Rasmus, Erik
Shout outs: Folks at Twilio for making the coolest telephony API in the universe!

Day Two

Cool things at work:

  • [cannot talk about thanks to NDA]
  • [cannot talk about because it’s too boring]
  • [cannot talk about because I don’t understand it]

Things I can talk about: Had dinner with fellow intern Nilanjan at Udupi Palace. Good food, good price. One great thing about Bellevue / Redmond is the large Indian population here; resulting in a competitive and thriving demand for Indian restaurants and grocery stores. Looking forward to check out Mayuri next time we go out for Indian food.

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Recursive Food

From Everything2:

A CS professor once explained recursion as follows

A child couldn’t sleep, so her mother told her a story about a little frog,
who couldn’t sleep, so the frog’s mother told her a story about a little bear,
who couldn’t sleep, so the bear’s mother told her a story about a little weasel…
who fell asleep.
…and the little bear fell asleep;
…and the little frog fell asleep;
…and the child fell asleep.

It goes on to explain fractals as:

A mathematical figure that is self-similar; that is, as you zoom into it, you will see the same pattern repeated over and over again.

I should point out to all my non-geeky readers that recursions and fractals are an important part of computer science culture. We used to sign up for programming competitions in high school / undergrad as Recursive Nightmare(where a guy has a dream in a dream in a dream in a dream… stack overflow, head explodes!), and I’ve seen text books where the index contains jokes like “Recursion……. see recursion”.

Obviously, such intriguing contexts have to be applied outside computer science, and what better place to try this out than the wonderful world of food? Here’s presenting the wild world of recursive food!

We first start with an extreme version of the Terducken. The Terducken is an extreme Thanksgiving dish, “consisting of a partially de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck, which itself is stuffed with a small de-boned chicken”. Anne Petch, of Heal Farm in Kings Nympton, UK took this a few steps further, making a mind-boggling twelve bird variant of this; “turkey on the outside, goose, chicken, pheasant, three ducks, poussin, guinea fowl, partridge, pigeon squab and quail.”

The next bite of awesomeness comes from the awesome folks at Evil Mad Scientist, who created Fractal cookies:

Our final bit of awesomeness is… The Fractal Pizza!:

The fractal pizza is made by first making a bunch of small, itty bitty sized pizzas. These are then used as the topping for a larger set of pizzas. These pizzas are then used as the topping for the final big pizza, the recursive monster pictured above.

So, what fractal food can you think up?

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The Fuzzy Threshold Problem

this one is for all you Cake fans

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training starts today!

Now that VLDB insanities, and St. Patrick’s Day’s festivities are behind us, I begin my uphill climb towards getting rid of all the evil life-shortening substances I have put in my body over the last few months. The goal is to not embarrass myself at the Dexter-Ann Arbor 10K run, which is on the 1st of June. I have 2 months and 12 days to do this; so hopefully this isn’t an impossible task.

The plan is to detox and switch to a strictly healthy diet first. So dear friends, if you ever see me eating anything that says “McDonalds” or “Milky Way” on it, please feel free to slap me in the face and shake some sense back into me. That’s what friends are for, after all. The second plan of attack is to start running Monday, Wednesday, Fridays along with strength exercises, and go swimming Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays. Sunday is rest day. For March, let’s keep running at 3 miles a day, and 500m swimming. Thankfully I’ve been doing 60 push-ups everyday already, and have been running once in a while, so my body should not collapse by April.

To be honest, I’m not looking forward to the sugar and fried food cravings. But I’ll do anything for a T-shirt, and this should be worth the trouble. Expect weekly updates on this front!


food fight!

This is pretty awesome:

I like the ending.



In the light of the American Media Machine, I find this article very disturbing:

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.

I’m really looking forward to the day when they’ll have a “Top Story” about how eating organic food inside hybrid vehicles causes certain chemical reactions in the food that trigger “bouts of homosexuality”.

sunday cookathon

Spent a few hours today cooking for the week. It all started off with a desire to make mushroom stuffed capsicums (or peppers, as the firangs call it here). One thing led to another, and I ended up “cooking up a storm”, as they say, completing 5 dishes in one non-stop session. I was pretty exhausted by the end, but at least I have food for the week, especially since the week is going to be a crazy one, and i wont have time! Here’s the menu:

Baked Corn and Mushroom stuffed Capsicum

Cream and Pepper Vegetable Stew

Vegetable Stir Fry

Baked Okra

And the grand finalé…

Malay-style Chicken Biryani