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Saying goodbye to gyaan.in

By on Oct 30, 2013 in Personal | 6 comments

Back in 2009 when I was on a gap year, I had a conversation with two friends from the quizzing circuit: Rishav Dey and Prateek Vijayavargia. We all felt that, at the time, while there were many resources in the form of quizzing blogs run by university quiz clubs, there wasn’t much in the form of discussion going on. This was back when Orkut, and not Facebook, was popular in India so there wasn’t even a pervasive social forum where these discussions could be held. Through this brainstorming, primarily driven by Rishav, the idea of starting a quizzing forum came about and we decided to call it “gyaan.in“. I registered the domain name on 26th January 2009 (it felt symbolic making the purchase on Republic Day), put up a joke landing page proclaiming “Never tickle a sleeping quizmaster” and that was that. But there was something about the idea that kept drawing us back to it. Behind-the-scenes, more people came on board as they found this idea fascinating too. A crucial role was played by Vishesh Kumar, who came up with the gyaan.in logo through a process of iteration. With the branding in place, it took many more months to bash out what gyaan.in would be about. This is what the team came up with when we launched gyaan.in on 20th July 2009: Nothing Official About It At gyaan.in we intend to extend informal interactions between members. For too long in the quizzing circle people have considered each other in a mildly to overtly hostile manner. Informal interactions – members getting to know each other as real people – instead of simply ‘competitors to defeat’ should make a nicer quizzing world. Don’t Be Evil An extension of point 1, at gyaan.in we intend to ensure that no sort of politicking kicks in. To maintain sanity (actually, to combat spam) we will have moderators on the forum but we do not intend to have any sort of ‘positions’. You – the user – have your say in matters and the community decides collectively on its future. What we will have, instead, are evangelists / moderators within the community to spread the word. If you’re interested in being more actively involved in organizational matters then please get in touch with us at contact [at] gyaan [dot] in. Quizzing, But Not For Points We do not intend to have a league table to keep track of who’s getting how many questions right on the gyaan.in forum or events. Partly this is intended to ensure that members who arrive late to the scene aren’t disadvantaged by early adopters who have had a head-start in answering questions. The main reason, however, is that we don’t want it to become Yet Another Place To Look At Other People As Competitors. IRL Once members get acquainted with each other on the Web, we would like to extend the interaction by holding ‘offline’ meets where you can get to converse with members IRL (‘in real life‘). Some of these meets could be where a small quiz is conducted, others could be simply informal meets. Quality Content Providing regular, quality content quizzes, articles, news, archives. Giving you a platform where you can share such resources easily – with our dedicated team of gyaan.in moderators providing editorial support. Content would cover oft-ignored topics in quizzing circles too such as technology and contemporary music. Promote Quizzing In Delhi, Especially In Schools Compared to other cities like Bangalore, Kolkata, Pune, Chennai, Mumbai etc Delhi is often considered to be ‘lagging behind’. While that isn’t entirely true, we do feel that a lot more can be done in encouraging schoolkids to take up quizzing. Our first focus would be to make significant progress on this front in Delhi. The only equivalent around at the time for discussions were quizzing groups on Yahoo! Groups, many of which are still around (but perhaps not that visited – I haven’t checked for a while). Anyway, the point being that Yahoo! Groups was a clunky forum software, and the communities involved more often than not had a competitive bent to them. The gyaan.in team wanted to avoid that: the idea was to have a “safe place” where quizzers could congregate online and share knowledge just for the fun of it, rather than for competitive reasons. There was palpable excitement in the air, driving even usually stoic Karmanya to claim a revolution had begun. *** Although the idea was to be a forum for any kind of quizzing, perhaps because of the fact that most of the moderators on the website were my friends from high school who’d only recently left school or were still at school, the discussions tended to focus around school quizzes. Over time, gyaan.in became the de facto forum for any kind of school quizzing related discussion in India. I’m not exaggerating here. Take a look at the visitor charts (split over StatCounter and Google Analytics)… Over its lifetime, gyaan.in had 0ver 100,000 unique visitors and over a one million pageviews from a community of just slightly over 1000 users. I’m not rounding out those figures for the sake of it, but that’s what it has actually worked out to! Since its very inception, gyaan.in’s community was highly engaged with more than a quarter of the community spending five minutes to more than an hour per day (at least 10% of the visitors) – stats...

Grey Matters 2012 quiz

By on Aug 16, 2012 in On A Whim | 0 comments

I haven’t posted anything on my blog for so long that I’m at the point that I need to write about not having written anything. Chances are that I will have time once I’m back at university. Don’t hold your breath though. :/ Grey Matters, DPS Vasant Kunj’s annual inter-school quiz, was held this year on 1st August. I wish I could have been there to co-conduct it like last year, with Vivek. That was not to be as I was tied up this year with my internship. Vivek, I’m sure, had many mini-freakouts where he silently and privately cursed me for being a lazy bastard, and I won’t be surprised if he thought we’d be pulling off an all-nighter actually researching a majority of questions like we did last year. I have to thank Bhavika and Prateek for really saving our asses and doing a lot of the heavy-lifting with the research. And then Vivek and I piled on with our own set of diabolical questions, many of them hashed out over Skype sessions. I think we did a good job by the end of it. Massive, massive thank you to both of them for making this happen, and to Vivek who carried off what I hear was a well-conducted quiz. Without any of the on-stage stripping that I did last time. So…click here to download Grey Matters 2012. I hear there was a massive upset in our speciality ‘6 by 9’ round in the finals. Here are some things I had in mind – and which I discussed with Vivek – when we donned our hats as Game Makers: I hate long and pointless questions. I feel strongly that there is no need to waffle on with a 20-lines of details. ‘Workable’ does not mean adding as much information as you can, but adding crucial bits of information. And so, we tried to limit question lengths. Quizzing is a spectator sport – even when you don’t have an audience, if your question is so long that it takes three minutes to read out, other teams on stage will get tired. Participating in a quiz with long questions is like playing a test match – a noble profession, surely, but incredibly taxing. So we tried to keep the questions snappy while still trying to leave enough details to allow answers to be ‘worked out’ or guessed. The quiz is very trivia-heavy. Even when we have question on current affairs (questions on Olympics, US elections…) they have been phrased in a way so that it isn’t a direct “Identify this bloke in the news recently” type questions. Keep the rounds varied! This doesn’t just mean have ‘dry’ rounds and straight audio visuals. We mixed things up by keeping infinite bounce rounds, mixing audio/visuals at random into standard rounds, and having formats like ‘hangman’ with cryptic clues, progressive clues, 6 by 9. This keeps things interesting for everyone – as a quizmaster it lets you not get worn out; as a participant, it allows team members with different strengths to shine in different rounds. Everyone could be smart but some people work better with ‘raw’ questions, some are better at cryptic…and then the finishing touch of 6 by 9 brings it down to the wire by allowing for huge upsets (up to 100 points can be earned in that round). Ask questions about things that are usually not covered in quizzes. This is one of my pet peeves about quizzing in Delhi: contemporary pop culture is so short shrifted. Why should ‘music’ always mean 60-80s English rock and Hindi songs? I’ve yet to ever attend a quiz that has asked questions on contemporary music, beyond VERY mainstream stuff. The newest things I’ve heard ever at a quiz are early 90s Nirvana or Coldplay, and every other music question belong to before that era. Films, books…everything seems either pre 90s era usually. Upshot: there’s a huge confirmation bias in what quizzers ‘study’ or expect. Or that someone who likes more recent music would hate / suck at the music rounds of most quizzes in Delhi, and hence only people who are into old Bollywood / classic English rock will ever do well in those rounds.  For instance, there was a question on identifying The XX feat. Florence Welch which none of the participants got…but guess what, many people in the audience from a random classroom that was called in to sit in the audience did! There’s a huge disconnect because there are so many topics that rarely ever get touched in quizzes, generally. Sure, Vivek and I have our biases too but we tried to avoid questions that felt ‘standard’, for whichever ones we came up with. We wanted to come up with questions on weird and wonderful trivia that nobody has ever heard of. The perfect question for me as a question setter is one that nobody can answer…but one which when you hear the answer for, makes you go “THAT is fucking cool”. So, by trivia I don’t mean asking what’s the name of Kim Jong Il’s eldest son…but asking a question in which I get to tell you that Kim Jong Il wanted to solve starvation by breeding giant rabbits, and that his eldest son is in exile in Macau after trying to smuggle himself into Japan on a fake Dominican Republic passport because he wanted to visit...

Shoutouts for some lovely people

By on Sep 11, 2011 in On A Whim | 18 comments

I wanted to do a few quick shoutouts for some lovely people, wrap them up in one post. First up is Moazzem, my roommate from last semester who’s participating in a reality show by Bloomberg Television called Techstars about the next big thing in tech and he needs visits from as many unique visitors on this URL to make it on the show. Why him? You need balls to me an mechatronics engineer and still kick ass at programming, like he does. Be nice and click on the link, okay? Then there was Esya 2011 at Indian Institute of Information Technology, Delhi that was held last weekend – oh god Espèra is so going to have my scalp for this because I promised to write about this before it took place – a code jam / tech treasure hunt / quiz. I so wish I could attend this because Espèra (and other friends like Utkarsha) were on organizing committee. Speaking of tech events, last month also saw Code Wars 2011. Pulkit and Aditya upheld Code Warriors tradition by pulling together the best tech symposium conducted this year (from what I’ve heard) with an able and committed as ever involved. I’m proud to look back at these guys and hear about what they have pulled off, because I know how much hard work went into it. This is the first time in five years that I’ve missed a Code Wars event; I feel a curious mix of a sense of loss and pride. Kudos to Arjun, Vivek, Karthick and all other alumni for their contribution too – and they certainly pitched in with crucial inputs on research! NOW LOOK AT COOL VIDEO. I also conducted – with Vivek Nair as co-host – a general inter-school quiz for the DPS Society at DPS Vasant Kunj on the one day I got to spend in Delhi before flying to the UK. This has been in works for a long time and I’m glad to see it come to life, be a part of the first edition. Most of the credit should rightfully go to Vivek who worked on logistics months in advance of the event while I was in Singapore, worked on a majority of research for the quiz, and a charming albeit nervous first-time co-host. On my part, I’m fucking tired of quizzes stuck at 60-70s classic rock and 50s Bollywood with contemporary Indian heritage, so one of my main objectives was to make an ‘international’ outlook quiz. I may have veered a tad too much towards South-East Asia but if in the end it makes more quizzers go back and read about these places, I’d be happy. Along the way we had ‘fun’ moments: my ‘wardrobe malfunction’ when I tried to take my t-shirt off on stage (with Chairman, Director of DPS VK and staff of participating schools in attendance) where I accidentally flashed the audience; gifting a duty-free sealed kaya spread bottle along with a book to ‘Learn Mandarin in 60 Minutes’ stuffed with condoms between its pages (unused packed ones, in case you get the wrong idea); giving out clues that made participants call Dominos Pizza in Bhatinda at midnight…Comprende Nair and I tried to make a quirky event not just with question but by trying to give this a unique, how should I put this, editorial voice. Hope everyone enjoyed the event! Download DPS VK Grey Matters 2011 quiz archive here (~43 MB, zipped). Have a look at the archive, tell me what you think – I’d love to have feedback from blog readers as well as participants from the...

July 2011

By on Jul 31, 2011 in Personal | 2 comments

I’ve been away from my blog for such a long time that it’s easiest to get over with in list style: I turned 21! This was my first birthday spent away from family, the first birthday away from school friends – and I was a touch saddened by that. Then again, my awesomesauce friends in Singapore made sure it was a memorable day. Do I consider this a milestone (kilometrestone doesn’t have the same ring to it)? Definitely, especially, because I spent the better part of a year in Singapore. I spent the past two months working on a research project in NTU. I was under the Division of Information Engineering, in a team working on a next-generation touch computing interface called STATINA. My task was one of the branch-offs associated with the touch computing project: to make a continuous speech recognition engine that could work with Asian accents. The basis of my project was on the ubiquitous Cambridge University Engineering Department software toolkit HTK, based on data recorded at NTU. This was fun, as speech recognition has been one of the areas that has drawn me in over the past months and I got something meaty to chew on while contributing to an existing research project. I was glad to have a supportive professor and PhD mentor to provide me guidance throughout the research project. If I had to single out one thing, I think my main contribution would have been using my readings on linguistics to approach the problem from not just a technical standpoint. The research project was under the Summer Research Internship Programme (SRI) run by NTU and sponsored by the Singapore government (I think, at some level). I highly recommend it to everyone for the exposure it gives you to ‘real’ research. Don’t expect to change the world in the eight weeks or so that you get, this is more like a taster. It pays well too – about S$3000 for two months – and you get experience the culture of an alien country. It’s just incredible to meet 50-odd people from around the world and go through this journey of discovering Singapore all over again through the social events organised – we had regular parties and events to bond over in the weeks here. If this video doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will! I will be leaving Singapore for good – at least for the foreseeable future – on the 4th of August. I’ve lived there just a week or two short of a full calendar year, and all the events of the past year make this one stand out in my life so far prominently. I loved and lost (long distance really doesn’t work out, so it’s better to live in the moment) and loved again and lost and then some more. The past 2-3 weeks have been pretty eventful in ways more than one (and not just because of my birthday) including some wicked parties (71st floor of Swissotel – on a helipad!). I have also been to more traditional, ‘heartland’ Singapore and partaken in activities and food that makes Singaporean citizens cry tears of joy. I dyed my hair blue-black again with less than spectacular results. Not impressed. Semi-permanent dyes seem to give a stronger effect but last less; when they start fading they look hideous. Permanent dyes stick longer but getting the shade just right is hard. Still, almost-there blue-black is better than being a ginger as I once was. Despite the punishing my hair took when I bleached it, I think my hair’s in better health now than it was a year ago. Carry rubber with you at all times. Like, seriously. I found a year-long undergraduate placement in the UK! This had been a huge challenge, as only a handful of companies ever agreed to interview me over phone or video conferencing. I was also actively exploring the option of working in Singapore (most actively pursued, although visa issues were a major hiccup; furthermore, tech companies mostly have business / sales presence here rather than a technical one), Malaysia (Penang is a hotbed of electronics manufacturing), Hong Kong (opportunities were mostly in the business / finance ), Taiwan (d’oh, the electronics industry here is HUGE!). I’m glad to find a company that I really like though, which I will be joining in mid-August. I won’t be returning to my university as this job is based out of Fareham in a company that deals in IC design software and fabrication. And while I’m sure there’s something learn from every internship industrial placement / internship – this is one of the reasons why I opted for a ‘sandwich year’ in the first place – I’m so happy to find a company that offers me a blend of electronics and software work to sink my teeth into. I still need to find accommodation and that’s probably going to eat up my time in the first few weeks back in the UK. Fareham is kinda located midway between the cities of Southampton and Portsmouth, and I for one wouldn’t mind living in the lovely coastal city of Portsmouth. Speaking of Taiwan, I’m currently in Taipei City and will be here about six days. I have friends studying / working here whom I met on my summer internship as well as friends from Surrey University. And the nice-ass (literally, for...

reCAPTCHA, spam, and (Vanilla) Forums

By on Apr 25, 2011 in Tech Takes | 6 comments

I discovered what I consider to be fairly serious issue with the reCAPTCHA authentication system today, and wanted to share this. I’m fairly sure not many know these facts, which can affect a lot of forum owners / administrators. I run a forum using Vanilla Forum at gyaan.in – regular readers of this blog would know about it. A couple of months ago, I upgraded the forum to the new, redesigned Vanilla Forum 2.x version that comes with built-in support for registration verification using reCAPTCHA. Until the 1.x branch, out-of-the-box there was no way to pre-approve registrations; a moderator had to approve each account manually. (This is what gyaan.in used too.) With a function as crucial as user registration I didn’t want to make modifications only to have to re-modify and test it every time I had to apply an upgrade patch. So when version 2.x came along with baked support for reCAPTCHA, I was happy to jump on-board and remove the approval process. (A move that I must admit was controversial within the gyaan.in community and the moderators.) Over the past few weeks, I noticed that gyaan.in’s email inbox was filling up with a considerable number of mail delivery failure notifications for the initial email sent right after successful registration. I didn’t give much thought to it as I (incorrectly) believed the first step in the new Vanilla Forum sign up process was a verification email. It turns out that it is not – the system sends an email only once the user has been authenticated. Had I known this, the number of mailer daemon messages should have set alarm bells off already. Today, one of the members (Shreyans) casually mentioned in a private message to me (in which he was discussing other technical issues that he was facing with the forum) that there seemed to be a lot of users on the board with the board with ‘nude’ or ‘naked’ in the username. To my surprise, I discovered that was indeed the case – and in many instances these user accounts had the same email address too. These were obviously spammer accounts, so I deleted them immediately. But that got me thinking how they could have gotten through. reCAPTCHA (now owned by Google) throws CAPTCHA challenges from a corpus of OCR-recognised words from Google’s text digitisation efforts. You might have seen this verification challenge on Facebook too some time. Two words are shown and you are told to enter both correctly to pass. Behind the scenes, reCAPTCHA doesn’t know what both the words are. One of the words has been positively identified by OCR and is kept as a ‘control’ word. The second word is not recognised by OCR; user input for that word is taken and stored into a database. Once enough users identify an ‘unknown’ word as the same word, the reCAPTCHA system uses that result for sending back the corrected word to text digitisation programmes and adds it to the corpus of control words used in the system. A well-known loophole is that it is possible to enter one word incorrectly and have reCAPTCHA consider the answer valid. What I couldn’t understand is how spambots could get past the control word. So I started playing around with the text I entered as reCAPTCHA response in Vanilla Forum’s registration page. I found that… if the number of characters entered for each word is correct; and, the words are entered as correctly as possible, except for one character (i.e., one character out of an entered word was deliberately incorrect) …then reCAPTCHA would authenticate the entry as correct! This issue is not isolated to the Vanilla Forum implementation of reCAPTCHA either, as you can achieve similar results using the demo form on the official reCAPTCHA website. I searched around for possible reasons for this and found this entry in the reCAPTCHA wiki: On the verification word, reCAPTCHA intentionally allows an “off by one” error depending on how much we trust the user giving the solution. This increases the user experience without impacting security. reCAPTCHA engineers monitor this functionality for abuse. It seems this is a problem-by-design. What seems to be crucial in equation seems to be the implication that this off-by-one error is allowed “depending on how much we trust the user giving the solution”. How exactly is this trust defined? I don’t think IP address blocking can be used (can it?), because the request for verifying inputs is sent by the server using reCAPTCHA tied to the specific public-private key pair of the site. Which means ‘block IP addresses that send large volumes of incorrect inputs’ cannot be used to define this ‘trust’, as the IP address would be of server rather than the spambot / client. Another possible yardstick for measuring ‘trust’ would be allowing one-off errors for typographically similar characters: ‘i’ / ‘l’, ‘a’ / ‘d’, ‘r’ / ‘n’, etc. However, I don’t think their system uses this either as in all my attempts, it accepted one-off errors for entirely different-looking characters, such as ‘s’ / ‘w’, ‘q’ / ‘f’, etc. reCAPTCHA is undoubtedly the most popular CAPTCHA implementation used on the Web these days, which makes this such a serious issue. A lot of forums and sites now use this de-facto because it’s a small way to pitch into the noble ideal of text digitisation, and also because presenting ‘real’ words appears to...