Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Ice House Lincoln

Readers might know that Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Mass., was once "harvested" for winter ice, which was shipped regularly to Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras in the 19th century. If you didn't know about this fascinating trade, or the crazy entrepreneur Frederic Tudor who started it, you can read a review of "The Frozen-Water Trade" here.

But that trade is a gift that keeps on giving. Last Saturday a rare Lincoln stamp was sold for over four hundred thousand dollars. The stamp was on an envelope sent by a New England ice merchant to India:
Markings on the envelope reveal that it traveled across the Atlantic, by train through Germany and Italy, by ship to Egypt and again from Suez to Bombay, and then by train across India.

(see article in today's NYT here). Cheers.

Composing plain text messages in fixed width fonts

A pet peeve of mine:

Many people don't know how easy and convenient it is to compose messages in plain text with a fixed-width font. Apparently, the people who wrote the google mail application don't, either. So, here are my reasons:

1. Better keyboard feedback - each character I type moves the cursor ahead by a good amount, whether it's a narrow character like a comma or a wide character like a "w". You can type faster this way.

2. Ability to quickly format a short table or list in the message without using the mouse. Not having to use the mouse helps you type faster.

3. Plain text messages are easy for people on diverse mail systems to read exactly the way they are formatted, since they are usually presented with fixed width fonts.

4. Plain text is a simple, elegant, and efficient way to communicate -- smallest size per content.

It should be very easy to add this option to gmail. But when I had asked this question a few years ago by sending email to google help, I never got any replies or acknowledgement. Lack of this basic feature is the reason I don't use gmail as much as I otherwise would.

Come on, Google Mail team. We're not asking for much.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Rajeev Motwani, the Enabler

Rajeev Motwani died last Friday in a freak accident at his home, and Silicon Valley is now a poorer place. (Article in the Mercury News).

Not just because he was a key investor in startups and helped found many dozens of them (summary here). I always knew he was a cool dude because of his original PageRank paper with Sergey Brin and Larry Page (see paper). PageRank was the technology at the heart of Google.

But the outpouring of grief on the web is totally unlike anything I had expected to see. He appears to have touched many, many people. He had the knack of quickly getting to the crux of a problem and help his listener understand it. A few minutes of conversation with him has often changed people's lives. Google cofounder Sergey Brin puts it well:
his legacy and personality live on in the students, projects, and companies he has touched. Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.

(Sergey Brin's full blog post is here).