Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Price of Entertainment

The price of entertainment and information

So here am, back again on my soap box. Why haven’t I been around earlier? Well, for one, no really cares about this blog or even the miniscule corner which it occupies on the Web. This benign apathy is much like the rest of the Universe’s disposition towards a blue-green cloud-covered rock orbiting an equally pedestrian yellow-star in the eastern arm of a correspondingly inconsequential spiral-galaxy. Secondly, it is only now that a bunch of holidays are stringed together, giving me enough of a breather to pen my observations.

It’s not that I have been running short of observations, or of things I should observe. Au contraire, I just have been really keeping myself busy with tons of reading, some physical activity and some actual work thrown in. But for a while, I had some forced downtime, when all I could do after coming back from work was to pig out in front of the TV. Was this what I wanted to? Hell, no. If I could’ve helped it, I would’ve been whacking a racquetball for all the pain I was under. But the diet of pain-killers and soup left me with precious little energy and far lesser motivation to go out and exert myself. It left me with even less comprehension to stare at another computer and write about my little world.

Why the pain-killers? Well, because I was getting wise, or at least I was sprouting wisdom teeth. So seeing a win-win situation, my dentist advised that the insurance company and I shell out moolah so he could pay his bills and I could short-change long-term agony for some short-term NSAID (non-steroidal-anti-inflammatory drug) control misery. That’s a whole different story about COX inhibiters and “you could probably die, but we prescribe these anyway” medicines. I assure you there will be a blog on this later, which too will be ignored just like this one (and the aforementioned blue-green cloud-covered rock).

So where am I going with this? Well, I’ve been in the states for 6 long years. And in all that time, I have done some traveling; not a whole lot, but enough. But in all that time, I was NEVER at home at 6 pm or earlier and had NEVER watched TV for that time. Call it incredible coincidence or whatever, but I usually never got home before 8 pm. Even when I was in grad-school (actually in grad-school I had really crazy hours). Now that I work, I typically hit the racquetball courts or the treadmill before getting back home (what, you think looking like Daniel Craig comes easy? To all those who believe this parenthetical comment, I would also like to add that Santa and the Spaghetti Monster are both real). But I had never caught the 6-8pm shows or even the 7 pm news. Heck, I don’t remember watching much of the 10 pm news (probably because I was watching the DVDs from Netflix).

Being forced to come home and do nothing, I had no choice but to experience first-hand the mind numbing “prime-time” programming. I swear, I now know why people want to home-school their kids. For the first two days after the teeth extraction, I actually watched the horror that is day-time TV. God only knows what gave me the courage to survive the torture. If there is no God, I wish there were one, for I know of no other entity that could have helped. On the flip side, perhaps it was the pain-killers, in which case, I would like it prescribed in copious quantities to the entire population of the US with no alternatives other than the “non-cable” US broadcast stations.

As a matter of principle I have never subscribed to regular or digital cable TV. Not that I can’t afford it, just that as a matter of principle I refuse to pay $100+ for channels that I will never watch, ever. Who wants to pay to watch the home shopping network? People actually pay to spend money? WOW! Even if I get 300 channels for that price, I’d only end up watching at most a few hours before I go to bed each day, say 4 tops. I will probably watch a lot of Comedy Central because I totally respect and admire stand-up comics: they make me laugh, are very observant and at times philosophical and informative. Sometimes they give more news than the local news (Daily Show, Colbert Report, Mind of Mencia). I will probably still catch Jay Leno on NBC and Craig Ferguson on CBS (no Letterman though). I will watch CNBC because it *is* news and is very informative about the stock market. I will probably watch Battle-Star Galactica and Heroes on SciFi; Star-Trek and UFC on Spike TV; perhaps re-runs of Scrubs, That 70s Show and 24 on Fox; Lost, Brothers and Sisters, Boston Legal on ABC. And since they don’t all play at the same time or during the 2-4 hours that I actually care to watch, I would have to Tivo them. Notice CNN and local news don’t figure in news. For the real news, I will watch the one hour of BBC on *public television* thank you. If I had on-demand, I might request the occasional movie I didn’t see in the theaters as well.

Does that sound like a lot of channels to you? Does that sound like 300 channels to you? 100? 50? So why should I pay upwards of $75.95 + tax per month to get the channels I don’t want? And why should I fork out another $5 + tax for HD when most of the shows on the big networks (ABC, CBS, MyNetwork30 where I live) I mentioned are already available in HD off-air for free? At $80 per month, that amounts to roughly $1 per hour of viewing ($80 + tax for 3 hours * 7 days/week * 4 weeks/ month)! Put another way, that’s $960 for a total watching time of less than 2 months over the course of year!

Another pet peeve is the local news. Have you seen it lately? Most of the times it is about pets! Forget the ever-present strife in the middle-east, the politics in Europe, the upheavals in Africa, the innovations in Asia or the tidings in Australia (well then again, nothing happens in Australia). Nashville local news (and elsewhere in the country) would rather concentrate on the health of 23 dogs that have been caged by a 53 year old single woman. Read that story here . Instead one could pay $79 and subscribe to the Wall Street Journal bringing in really informative news papers for 6 days a week for a year! One could even add $20/month for Netflix and still come out on the happier side of the cable bill (and if you own Netflix stock, you can support your company and read about it in the Journal!).

Now I can understand a certain parochial focus in every locality and even expect a certain local flavor of the news because where we live generally tends to affect us a little more than what happens a little further. However, finding absolutely no news of even national matters just bothers me. No news of the public outcry against credit-card companies for increasing interest rates while pushing the required monthly payments so low that people can almost never work off the interest let alone the principal that story here . Or how about news discussing the “donut” in the federal health insurance programs more on that here ?

It just seems that out here, we need to spend money to learn about the things that are important to all of us. Almost to the extent that we are being held hostage to what someone else wants us to see or not. I mean where is the guarantee that even after paying the high amount we will get to hear about the things that are really and truly important? Is CNN news real news? Does entertainment really come at $80+tax / month?

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Unwritten, Unspoken Covenant of Men

Men are competitive. It is in our nature. Millions of years of evolution and blatantly subtle choices of women have forged our innate behaviors. Though we don’t normally wield axes and shields, or bash up our adversaries in a “fight to the finish”, we do naturally desire to triumph. It is in our nature to be assertive and at times actively aggressive. We inherently despise backstabbing, shun “hits below the belt” and detest personal obloquies that spill over to un-involved near and dear ones.

“Passive aggressive” seems to not be our mantra. We tend to associate that with the “gentler” sex and pusillanimous members of our gender. We’d rather “duke it out” than carry on giving cold shoulders; none of the not-talking or gratuitous innuendoes or just making things blatantly difficult (e.g. obstructing the TV while we’re trying to watch the all important game or maybe that episode of fear factor when the people have to gorge on the hideous African hissing cockroaches).

Great men and women across the ages have tried to harness this basic drive. Kautilya, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli went to great lengths to extol the virtues of patient, meditated, undetectable and swift use of this innate impulse. Modern men understand these principles and appreciate the rule of law. We also understand that we aren’t competing all the time and with everyone. We’ve decided to replace axes and swords with racquets, cleats, cars, yachts, horses and fiscal success. Oh and sometimes women as well (femi-Nazists here’s your cue: flame on).

Through our trials and battles in the game of life, we’ve come to appreciate and acknowledge a fellow male’s efforts and achievements. The novices idolize the experienced and established for guidance and inspiration. The accomplished cherish the energy and drive of the fledglings and often take fatherly pride in coaching their protégés. Compatriots derive inspiration and motivation from each other and respect their adversary’s achievements.

Approbation and respect come sometimes as blatant imitation (the best form of flattery) and sometimes as a curt “well done”. Often, it is a silent nod, a smile or a gesture in passing. While the gentler sex sometimes tends to mistake this behavior as withdrawn and uncommunicative, to us, it speaks tomes and, sometimes, means the world.

The other day, as I was driving home from work on one of the last sunny and gentle days of the waning summer, I noticed in my rear view mirror a striking mass of gray metal. The fact that got my attention was not that the gray was very nearly the color of my vehicle; nor was it the similar low profile of the car, nor the congruent open top; it was the new Saturn Sky and it was shaped much better than I had imagined. I had seen pictures of it and read comparisons with the Miata and the Solstice. But seeing it bring up the rear at upwards of 80 mph was a very different experience.

Naturally, I slowed a shade to have it be parallel to me. I “opened hailing frequencies” (Star Trek: Next Gen reference, for the uninitiated) by flashing my hazard lights once and the Sky acknowledged by promptly shifting to the left lane. The driver probably saw me looking at the mirror and almost expected such a reaction. As the Sky pulled up, I saw at the helm a slim, distinguished-looking spectacled gentleman. His whitening hair belied his middle-age and added character to his successful appearance.

As we drove parallel and scoped the other’s car, I smiled and signaled a salute. Coming from an “ethnic” person about half his age, it probably surprised him. Nevertheless, the response was a smile, an appreciative nod and a thumbs-up. The next second, I veered right to take the by-pass as he veered left to take the fork. Not a word said, yet a world communicated. No identities exchanged, yet personalities established. The unspoken, unwritten covenant of Men.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Best Flirt in Bollywood History

Bollywood (Bombay + Hollywood = Indian Hindi Film Industry) films have the notoriety of abrupt segues to senseless songs, gossamer thin story lines, hideous couture, suggestive lyrics, tawdry rain-dances, cheap physics-defying stunts, daft dialogs, perverted puns and gratuitous melodrama.

It got to the point where I swore myself off Hindi movies. This started, in India, around the third year of my undergrad studies and lasted roughly 6 years. Ironically, Music City USA, a.k.a. Nashville, changed things for me.

I was forced to watch a couple of Tollywood (Tamil version of Bollywood) movies where Rajnikant surpassed all known laws of physics to execute stunts with panache and audacity hitherto reserved for the Gods. After watching these movies (and thankfully not understanding any of the dialog), my mind felt like goo: with a level of intelligence not very dis-similar from a pound of rotten gelatin curdling in the hot Tennessee summer Sun.

I gained new tolerance and respect for Bollywood movies: better production values, better segues to songs, better story lines, better clothes, less suggestive lyrics (from what my friends tell me), more dignified rain-dances, (sigh) better stunts, understandable dialog, tolerable puns and (sigh) reconcilable melodrama.

I even felt encouraged to watch a few desi films again. I watched "Swades". I had never been a Shah-rukh Khan (SRK) fan. Let me rephrase that. I abhorred SRK. Hold on, that still sounds too harsh, let me tone that down a bit. I detested, loathed, abhorred, abominated, despised and hated SRK's melodramatic on-screen persona. I cringed at his fake laugh and reviled at his overly hammed st-st-stutter. "Swades" changed that a little bit for me. His ham improved to mildly irritating, akin to Ford's stock coming up from junk-bond status to "what the hell are you doing still holding on to this" or a "severely-strong-sell" recommendation.

I do not wish to take credit away from Ashutosh Gowarikar or the talented cast and crew. In fact it is probably his direction, the sign-of-the-times story (inspired from "Bapu Kuti", a book that describes the lives and decisions of people who shunned lucrative careers for economically feasible means of political and social reform) and the talented supporting cast that assimilates SRK's melodrama, accommodates it, supports it and makes it tolerable, palatable even. The result, I felt, was a movie that touched the heart and made a very strong emotional (not always logical) case for the Indian diaspora to head back home.

The movie flirts very passive-aggressively with romantic notions about returning back and making a difference. It panders a bohemian infatuation with notions of a sense-of-purpose and meaning-of-life garnished with a surreal mix of destiny and patriotism. It builds up "brand India" and builds it well. It wishes to sell a dream, nay a religion, called India and I stand before you, a firm believer. Pass the hat this way please.

Oscar Wilde is credited with saying "If you want to tell people the truth make them laugh. Otherwise, they will kill you." Gowarikar and gang, go a step further. They sell an idea, a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a mélange of truth, emotion, hope, jingoism and beauty. Did I forget dignified sexual tension, romance and comedy? That's where the demure and coquettish Gayatri Joshi’s character, "Gitlee", comes in.

Image from

Given my abhorrence for Hindi movies, I had never witnessed much of Gayatri’s acting prowess, and was pleasantly surprised by her skill. She comes across as not a ditzy bimbo but instead as intelligent, composed, purposeful and mostly down-to-earth with the agonizingly lovable slightest hint of I-know-I’m-eye-candy. That’s the recipe for “too good to not hit on”.

What sold me despite her limited role and dialogue was the scene in SRK’s RV (called “caravan” in the movie) where Gitli must do Mohan (SRK’s character) a favor by deftly moving a box of Marlboros away from the view of Mohan’s erstwhile nanny (who raised him as her own son since his parents died).

This is a very Indian situation, perhaps with no analog in other cultures. As a sign of respect, smokes have always been considered something of a taboo in front of elders. In genteel house-holds, boys (girls smoking is cause for the Third World War at the genteel home) go to extreme lengths to keep the fact that they smoke hidden from the eyes of their well meaning parents. Even when they approach 30 (don’t question, just bear with me).

The situation calls for non-verbal communication (lest they draw nanny’s attention to the very object they are trying to conceal). This gives SRK’s stuttering mouth a much needed rest and his body-language skills the equally needed exercise. It gives Gayatri Joshi the opportunity to shine and she embraces it with aplomb.

In 5 seconds or less, she displays a range of emotion that very vividly transforms from quizzical to perplexed, to sagacious, to nonchalant, to defiant, to reluctant, to admonishing, to condescending and, finally, to accommodating. Her eyes do the talking and her demeanor echoes her intention. She finishes off the sequence by rebuffing Mohan’s mixture of “I-owe-you-one” gratitude and “you-so-are-hot-for-me” bravado with an artful, elegant flick of her long hair which is the innate hallmark of exquisitely beautiful, yet not-interested women the world over. Her acting in those few seconds is such that the blind can see and the deaf can hear.

There is also a scene where SRK’s physical comedy gets a brief moment of exposure and impresses with substance; when Mohan witnesses Gitli run off a potential suitor he displays a visage that is ostensibly empathic and apologetic but visibly amused and elated. After Gitli and his nanny return to their respective rooms, he rejoices by pumping the air unconsciously and then checks himself lest he be caught celebrating. Assured that he isn’t being watched, he cheers surreptitiously and walks off with a spring in his step.

I have very few Hindi movies in my DVD collection and “Swades” is one of them. Move over Sharapova, Elizabeth Hurley, my desktop is reserved for Gayatri Joshi (at least for the next couple of weeks).

Every now and then, I have a sleep deprived night, when I don’t feel like reading or chatting. I don’t feel like painting or doing anything useful. So I watch DVDs. This blog is inspired by watching a Swades on DVD for the nth time.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Tonight, after my usual game of racquetball I headed to Lovekesh and Aditya's place (Ashish is currently not around, so is discounted for the moment ;)). Apart from the usual catching up, the conversation veered to politics.

Currently, India is in the throes of civil agitation and political turmoil over the proposed "affirmative action" legislation. And as in India, the issue has divided Indians in the US as well. It has struck a chord and a nerve in equal measure. Sure enough Lovekesh had something to say. Not just to me, or to his room-mates, but to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself.

I'm including his poignant letter below. The ideas and language are solely his and are reproduced below with his permission.

--------------- begin letter ----------
Letter to the Prime Minister, from Indian students abroad

I write this letter on behalf of my fellow students, scientists and research scholars who are currently studying/conducting research abroad.

Sir, having studied abroad yourself you would be very aware of the difficult choices Indian students are faced with towards the end of their studies, often they are torn between whether to spend their working years serving a foreign country which in most cases would afford them a brighter career, a higher standard of living and a more conducive work environment, or to serve India, the country we call home.

When someone with your esteemed qualifications and track record took over the office of Prime Minister, our hearts were filled with hope for our nation. Fingers crossed, we were hopeful your government would be the guiding force that would usher
India into the 21st century. Some of us even dared to dream of a developed India. Alas, as has been the norm with promising Indian policiticians, you have flattered to decieve. Your administrations pro-quota decisions are such a huge regressive step that nothing else your administration does will be able to make up for it. Initially, the rumours about you being a puppet in the Sonia regime were dismissed as baseless attempts at defamation, however your reluctance to stand up to men like Arjun Singh speaks volumes for your spineless leadership, and has served to reinforce those rumours.

Having spent the majority of your career as an academician, we naturally assumed that the standard of education nationwide would be one area that would be enhanced under your leadership. We were not naive, we knew that once in public office, you were more politician than academic, but not even the most ardent pessimist anticipated that you would value the collection of votes over the dessimation of knowledge.

Some of us still believe that you are personally not in favor of reservations. However, your personal convictions are irrelevant if you dont have the courage to stand up for them. Very rarely do honest academicians get a chance to influence national policy, to use their intellect to lead and serve their country. Sir, by allowing populist quota policies to prevail in your administration, by not standing up and taking a stand on the issue, by not even expressing your own views on the matter, and by diluting educational standards everywhere, you have disgraced the office of the Prime Minister, you have disgraced yourself as an academic and have betrayed the lot of deserving students nationwide.

I dont expect you will react to this letter, or even read it, it would be too much of a political inconvenience. But writing this was the least I could do in support of the poor students who have to go on strikes to catch the governments attention.

I leave you with one final thought: Universities in developed countries offer many things that India for the most part cannot, a brilliant intellectual atmosphere, laboratory facilities, work environment, infrastructure to name a few. However, one hoped that the very least one could expect from one's own country is not to be treated like a second rate citizen, not to be discriminated against on the basis of caste and most importantly, respect for merit and academic achievement. It seems that was asking for too much.

As I mentioned earlier, Indian researchers abroad have always had a tough choice to make when it comes to deciding which country to pursue their career paths in. Thank you Honorable Prime Minister for making that choice a lot easier.

An Indian Scientist

Lovekesh Vig

--------------- end letter ------------

Monday, May 22, 2006

Life in the fast lane

Life is about making memories. I logged some memorable moments last weekend when I took my car to an auto-cross. I had never done this before and so was a little apprehensive about it: since i don't own another car, if i screwed up my car, i was, well, screwed. Also, I had no idea who I was running against. Being competitive by nature (and having read "The Art of War") I didn't want to get into a competition without any hopes of doing well (let alone winning).

But I let Steve and Kurt talk me into driving my car up there (a part of me wanted to anyways). So once I was at the track and smelt the rubber and the excitement in the air, I knew I was going to sign on the dotted line.

So before you could say "2002 Special Edition Stock Mazda Miata with street tires" I was lined up with the novices and ready to go. And since this was my first time, I requested that an experienced driver (put his life and well-being in the hands of a complete stranger) ride with me. Sure enough, Brandon Vincent (who drives a hot Corvette) volunteered.

In the next few seconds, a few things became apparent:
1. the car is usually in two modes: "full throttle" and "standing on the brakes"
2. my car has way too much horse-power for its weight
3. making the car drift and correcting it, seems to come naturally to me
4. where lesser cars would slide and lose control, the Miata shines effortlessly
5. "them dang cones are doggone difficult to spot"
6. experience alone doesn't trump talent
7. talent alone doesn't trump experience
8. you compete not against others, but against time, physics and yourself
9. Sun Tzu said a whole bunch of things which have nothing to do with auto-cross

So in all, I had about 8 runs. I DNFed (did not finish) my very first run because I completely missed a "gate", but subsequently, with Brandon's help, improved considerably. Of course the fact that the rain stopped and the course began to dry out also helped.

So how did I do overall? Out of 14 novice drivers (some with more experience than I) I finished 12th!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Life @ speed of thought... WHIRRRR.... CRASH!

Tools and Technology are what separates us humans from the "lower" animals. I'm not entirely discarding the opposable thumb and language but even some greater apes and chimps have that. As do some humans who fall a shade shy of the intelligence of these anthropods, but that's a separate story.

It is our inventions (be it oral or written language, guns, pacemakers, mechanical ploughs, electricity, ipods or cars to name just a few) that enable us to enjoy the pleasures of a relatively secure modern life. Want to open a can, there's a can opener for that. If you're really rich or lazy or both, Walmart will even sell you an electric variant so that all you have to do is eat and become lazier. Or, if you do feel guilty and want to beef up or slim down, hit the machines in the gym.

But the biggest, brightest advancement of all is definitely the computer. It is now easier than ever to communicate with friends and family across the globe. Distance has virtually no impact; photos, videos and emotions flow freely, building bridges and connecting people; documents, information, finances are a breeze: a click here, a type there and viola the microseconds of modern magic, enough to marvel millions from a more mundane time for millenia, accomplish our tasks miraculously.

That is, untill your PC's hard-disk crashes.

Einstein once said, "Technological progress is like an ax in the hands of a pathological criminal."

[Image obtained from]

It is mind-boggling how dependent we have become on technology. It took a laptop crash to really bring it in to perspective. I lost all my cherished mp3s and pictures and tons of data. My addressbook was wiped out. I had some backups, but not all. It's taken me a good week to get back up and running at 90% of what I was earlier.

But let's look at the bigger picture for a moment. Most if not all critical systems today are computer controlled these days: power supply networks, air-craft landing and guidance systems, industry / corporate financial data, terrestrial traffic lights, phone switching networks, the markets, the Internet, communication / positioning satellites. All technologically advanced than just a generation ago and all intimately dependent on a critical, susceptible technology. SHUDDER.

And it isn't just the developed nations that are susceptible to this. No, not any more. The developed world might still have the most lose (can't imagine famine ravaged African countries to suffer an immediate loss just because one GPS satellite can't talk to a base station), but sooner or later everyone will be affected. And not likely in a good way.

I'm not hinting at an insane individual or a group intent on causing havoc. No, i don't think they are the biggest threat because ironically, they too need all this to function and survive now. And they possibly can't get totally around the distributed safe-guards and back-ups already in place. I'm thinking more of indiscriminate, potent natural events which probably offer no warning and no discrimination: e.g. solar flares and magnetic storms. Only nature can produce grand catastrophes of gargantuan scale. And despite our amazing advancements, I fear we are no where close to being ready for an eventuality like that.

Oh well, I'm just going to back up my data and hope for the best. CTRL + S.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Weekend Movie

Lets see if you can figure this one out!


RING <"Fur Elise", actually>

"Hey! sup?"

"Nothin much. Getting my car serviced and then cleaning and waxing it a little. What's going on with you."
"Nothing much, just the usual weekend. Needed to ask you a few questions regarding my homework. You free in the evening?"

"Ya pretty much. Just call and come over."
"okay. cool. shaam ko aane se pehle will give you a call"

"sounds good! chalo then bye"



RING <"fur elise" again>

"hey, sup?"
"you at home?"

"cool.. i'll just come over. By the way, dinner ka kya plan hai?"

"kuch socha nahin. don't feel like going out though. have enough stuff at home. kuch kar lenge. just aa jao."
"cool. theek hai. i'll be there thodi der main."



"why don't you call your roomie as well..."
"sounds good"


"hey! wats up? long time... kaise ho?"
"kewl man... bus vohi. same old same old"

"same shit different day?"
"ha ha... aisa hi kuch. how's the job going?"

"same shit different day."
"ha ha.."
"hah haha"

"nah, actually i'm enjoying this... it's getting a little busy, but i kinda like it like that. sorta get bored agar karne ko kuch nahin ho to."
"haan.. yeh baat to hai..."

"accha suno, khana to ban gaya... kuch movie dekhne ka plan hai kya?"

"i have this from netflix... have you all seen it?"
"ya, it's a good one."

"oh you've seen it. what about you?"
"yep... maine bhi dekhi hai... good movie. dekh sakte hain."

"nah... agar tum dono ne dekhi hai to kya point hai?"
"chalo theek hai. kuch le aate hain."

"sounds good!"

later at the video store...


"Hi there! How're y'all doin' tonight?"
"Doing great thanks! trying to keep outta the rain"

"I hear ya. I hear ya. It's stopped now isn't it. been at it all day"
"yep. you bet. it's actually pretty nice out there now."

"Ya, can't wait for it to get warm."
"A couple weeks more!"

"Good night for a movie though."
"That's why we're here! ha ha"


"Alright... so what do we want to watch..."
"I don't know. What do you want to watch?"

"I don't know. Whenever I'm at work or at home, I keep thinking 'want to see this, want to see that'. Yahan aakar mind ek dum blank ho jata hai"
"ha ha.. me too."

"anyways, new releases"
"okay... i don't think anything good's come out in a while"

"ya i know. hmmn... hey that's a good movie. saw that in the theater. Did you see that one?"
"Yep. cool hai. Saw this one?"

"ya. so and so actor, such and such director. didn't like it all that much. medium"

"hey how about this one? heard about it at work. you've seen it?"
"no i haven't. what's it about.... hmmn sounds good. i don't know if he's seen it though."

"okay i'll call and ask... hey you've seen this one? oh you have? oh oh... ya we'll try and get another one then. any you want to watch? ok cool... we'll keep looking."
"so he's seen it, huh?"

"yep. said he saw it last weekend..."
"hey what about this one? i've been wanting to see it for a while.."


"ya i've seen it... "
"okay... how about this one then?"

"i don't think i've seen that one..."
"it's got such and such and the story's such and such. heard about it from so and so. what do you think?"

"lagti to theek hai... call kar lete hain phir bhi. i think he might've seen it. Hey, you've this one? It's got such and such and the story's such and such. Oh you haven't? I thought you were telling me about it the other day? Oh you wanted to see it? okay cool then we'll get this"



"God, that was a stupid movie. did any of that make sense?"
"kuch bhi nahin... total bakwaas."

"man... it's late. have to get to work tomorrow... "
"chalo then, thanks a lot"

"no problem... chalo good night"
"haan yaar, good night"
"good night"

"theek hai phir milte hain... see you at the rec"

"yep. break's over so gym's going to be open. so finally can play again"
"cool.. chalo phir milte hain"

"good night"

Saturday, February 18, 2006

"America is addicted to Oil"

Every now and then, I fee like debating political issues; issues that affect our current and future lives. We all know these debates are based on personal beliefs and interpretations of current news and often degenerate into ideological babble (a la religious fanaticism) where people want to hear themselves more than others. And we all know that the expense of energy, squandering of tempers, raising of voices, challenging the "adversary's" cognitive faculties and citations of highly questionable results and personal opinions as sound evidence is all for naught. The sun will still rise the next morning and the politicians will do as they please, completely oblivious to the tensions thousands of miles away in a 600 sq. ft. apartment. But, it is fun. Or as Aditya once referred to it: "mental masturbation".

I just read Aditya's current post about
India's reliance on foreign oil imports and how nuclear energy might offer an alternative. I posted a reply but thought I should post it here as well.

-------Begin post

As always, a well researched post... but here's my take on it: yes, we need alternate sources of energy, but the nuclear option is not it.

By making nuclear option civilian and disabling our nuclear research apparatus, we will ensure that we become completely dependent on countries that currently possess the know-how to build and run these. Not a politically strong position. (We’ll need to throw tenders, they'll give the best deals/ bribes and they'll win)

Also, nuclear-power leads to a very profound by product: nuclear waste. Unlike C02, methane and other "organic" by-products of burning fossil fuels, the disposal of nuclear waste is a very very big problem. it has a half-life of a few billion years and is an assured way of causing cancer if ingested (alpha emitters).

The state-of-the-art disposal technique vitrification and burial is clearly an invitation to accidents and hence a persistent threat to present and future generations.

Even if we do inhumanly decide to go this route, we (India and the rest of the world) will need land fills that are isolated from human population; not just by distance, but including any and every environmental conduit such as jet streams, underwater flows, tectonic shifts and the like. With these many constraints, any piece of land seems to be a prized property (the moon and the sun now actually sound reasonable). And by the laws of supply and demand then, the cost of access to this property (since all nations will want to go there to be guilt/ litigation free) will be fairly high.

What then is the alternative then? An energy solution that is cheap and effective in its entirety: acquisition, transportation, storage, access, consumption and disposal. And we don't have anything competitive to fossil fuels. Not yet.

The one true driver for the entire energy cycle of our planet is the Sun. It has been around for at least 4 billions years (the earth's age) and is expected to remain around for at least as much. We all know that the earth receives enough absolute energy each day to solve all our problems.

However (and this is a huge "however"), the current state-of-art in solar cells is in the teens in terms of efficiency (acquisition problems).

The Sun shines the brightest in the deserts (once a day) and in space (365/24/7) which are not usually where people consume energy (transportation problems).

Related to this is the issue of energy density. To be useful in vehicles such as an 18 wheeler or a commercial airline, batteries are a bad idea. We need something with better or comparable energy density than fossil fuels (storage and access problems).

Disposal is almost completely undefined for this situation as it depends immensely on the techniques used to address the challenges in the prior categories.

Hence, for long term self-reliance, our focus should be on the Sun (tackling individual problem areas above). Invest in solar research and stocks.

bottom-line: "nucular" helps a handful of companies/ people, and may potentially harm us more

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Want your voice heard? Pay up!

here's giving freedom of speech a whole new twist: if you want your voice heard, you should be able to pay for it.

came across this article: "Postage is due for Companies sending email"

now the naive thinking is "So what? I don't have to pay, it's the companies." Please think again: who does business with the companies: we, the consumers. Each company exists for a sole purpose: to provide some service to some consumer. And in this day and age of the Internet, email notifications, confirmations and transactions are more mainstream than ever before. So like the sales taxes, if a company has to pay some extra fees to deliver the information we need to us, guess who's going to pay for it finally.

And this has serious complications as well. Like entropy, the monies collected by the companies will never reduce, making them richer and more powerful on the Net. If they are able to exercise a level of control this strong already, imagine what they'll be when they are orders of magnitude richer.

The analogy given by Yahoo and AOL is that we already pay for posting stuff through snail mail, so why not this? But before we go into that, lets read between the lines. Why do AOL and Yahoo now want to charge the companies for this?

Answer: they maintain mailboxes, mail-servers, mail-applications and the like for millions of accounts for free. Free for the user, that is. Someone obviously pays for it. Right now, its either the company itself or advertisers who foot the bill (a la GMail) or other paying users. Users paying a yearly / monthly fee (Comcast, Yahoo, AOL, MSN etc.) for connectivity get free email accounts from that company, and some of that fees can pay for the other "free" users.

They are concerned that they aren't getting enough benefit from the free accounts: the users aren't clicking on the ads enough or simply aren't paying enough. But they don't want to look as the bad guys forcing users to pay because that's simply going to cause millions of users to not have accounts with them and move to some that still have free accounts, or worse, retreat from the Net altogether. Each scenario leads to shunning of the Net and bad bad news for all these Net companies.

So what's the option? Like sales taxes, charge the service providers/ businesses. They will pay and then charge their clients for it! Brilliant!

To support their argument, they also claim that this will help curb spam as spammers will have to pay for everything they send out. Well, the people who stuff your snail-mail-boxes with junk mail sure pay the post-office, but does that stop us from getting junk mail? Truth be told, junk mail figures out you've moved faster than legit mail. I believe this argument is simply to get users on board.

So coming back to the original question: why not pay for this the same way we pay for snail-mail? Because it hampers business. Though it seems that for the short term the companies involved will make a whole lot of money, prices on the net will generally increase, leading to lower number of transactions. In short, the same detrimental effect of a monopoly (or oligopoly, cartel if you will).

Plus, we as consumers already pay for connecting to the Net. So why should it matter if we connect to one server versus another when it is already paid for? I certainly am not in favor of paying more.

So if I have to bet money on the future of this debate, where would I put it? Well, honestly with Yahoo and AOL having their way and charging, of course. We, the consumers are free to dissent. As long as we pay for it.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Antidote to a relaxed Saturday: your cell-phone company

Monday to Friday is déjà vu all over again. The alarm goes off as does your temper. In a swift, yet sleepy reflex action, the hand reaches for the snooze button. After the second alarm, the hand actually moves the alarm button to the off position. You debate getting up. Dazzling images of warm sunny beaches with excitingly clothed gals, fun times with old friends and smiles all around flash before you and entice you to give your job the "bird" and chase your dream. 5 minutes later the practicality of ordinary life, the bills, the food, the deliverables, the occasional first date in the evening make an overwhelming case in favor of getting to work. You look at the clock, rub your eyes and look again. Curse the alarm for shutting up each time you put it off, and frantically work towards getting civilized. The same shower, the same tooth-brush and paste, the same razor and cologne, the same closet and clothes you swear you've seen in a life before.

The same drive to work. For me, occasionally (once every six months), I attract unwanted/ unsolicited attention from the law. Shouldn't there be a law against handing out tickets willy-nilly? (hey Pat Robertson: It ain't my fault, God wanted me to have a lead foot.). The same faces at work, similar deliverables, the same drive back or to a "safe" / common-ground restaurant for the date, the same TV shows / phone conversations / chat sessions / friends in the evening, similar dinner and the same bed (Wow... i make it sound tons more awful than it actually is. Maybe I do possess the gift of description... hmm... watch out Leo Tolstoy, here comes another Leo) (Note to self: this self examination during a monologue sounds a lot like Conan O' Brian. Yikes! Note to self: must put an end to this “Note to self” business)

So what's special about the weekend? Everything! The name itself: Weekend. The deja-vu ends. Maybe someone should've named it "Life resumes days". Anyways, I digress. Saturdays are the days you recover from the week's drudgery, or Friday night's binging. So maybe you prepare, if need be, for that first-weekend date in the evening, but you get up really late on a Saturday. It is supposed to be your day. No, not Sunday. Sunday is the day you get things in order for the déjà vu that’s coming for the next 5 days. On Sundays you ensure that you are doing things that were on your “things I’ll do over the weekend list” (which depending on what kind of person you are, is probably just simply adding to the list. But again, I digress).

The time-table for Saturday is simple. Wake up, if you feel like it. Once up, figure out what to do about lunch. Pancake Pantry, IHOPS, Sitar, Cuisine of India, or left over pizza. Lunch with friends or go it alone for a private lunch where you may muse and cogitate about Life, The Universe and Everything or about absolutely nothing at all. Maybe that phone-call you’ve been meaning to make for a while. Feet up on the table (depending on what the “house rules” are), juice by your side, sports on the screen, smile on your face. Or maybe, start on that home project you’ve been meaning to do all along: saw pieces of wood, clean the car, mend the stereo, and solder something new (hey, I’m still the protagonist here). Maybe go buy something you’ve wanted / needed / coveted for a while.

All that bliss, unless you have a cell-phone.

Well, at least till you happen to look at the bill. In my case, every-so-often, Sprint will decide that it needs to talk to me. So like that very insecure friend (we all know at least one), it creates a mini-crisis and must have me on the phone. Only perhaps I have to do most of the talking in this case, and it is my interests at stake.

In an ironic turn of events, “How can I help you today?” I’m asked. “Well, I have 3 issues that I need to talk about. Lets start with the $186 bill”, I say calmly while chanting “Measured intolerance, assertive tolerance” over and over in my head. After the common pleasantries of social security numbers, account passwords and difficult to pronounce names have been exchanged, I'm given the reason “sir that’s because you initiated this and this action on such and such date.”

Alright, so we are going to play the “but I was only doing what you said” routine. “Well, sure, but then I also called back and wanted the said change removed. And I was assured things are going to go back to the way they were.”

“When was that?” I’m asked politely. “On such and such date. And such and such store,” I respond. “Oh, that’s correct, Sir. Let me go ahead and make sure your account reflects this.”

Makes me feel special. Just hearing my voice sets things right over there. Wow! God must’ve spent time perfecting me, right? EEERRRRRNNN… WRONG.

I’m sure some bean counting bureaucrat figured out that if they screwed over a select bunch of people every so often, a certain percentage of people probably would be just too lazy to call back. Now if this cost percentage is simply greater than the amount required to handle the customer service call and set things right, they’ve earned themselves some moolah (or at least for a per month basis).

Net result: a rude shock once every month that sends your best Saturday down the drain by setting you in a combative, bellicose mind-frame. They do this over and over again, till they grow on you, and you look forward to speaking to “Holly from Houston” or “Dana from Detroit”, or “Shaniqua from Smithsville”, or “Palkha from Noida”.

And then one day, just like that, they get things right. And so now you are really screwed over. A perfect Saturday, heaven help! What am I going to do with this? You probably end up praying that they screw things over so you won’t be left with this problem. Your problem doesn’t last long. You just need to look at your cable bill. And then your prayers get answered as well. In a different month, of course. Déjà vu.

Friday, January 13, 2006

No good deed goes unpunished

If you know me, then you know that every so often, I get inspired to write to a few of my acquaintances (if you don’t, then humor me). And no, I’m not talking about firing off an email but actually putting pen on paper and expressing my thoughts in ink. Every time I do this, I marvel at how detached and unfamiliar my body seems to find this action. But I always enjoy it (and from what I gather, the recipients do too).

A few days ago, I was surprised to find amongst the plethora of junk mail, a solitary letter, with hand-printed words, addressed to yours truly. I instantly recognized the sender’s name, but couldn’t fathom the purpose. I opened the letter and was rudely challenged with writing that possessed the calligraphic qualities of impressionist art, chicken-scrawl and a top-secret cryptographic hieroglyph.

As I deciphered the message and cogitated on the intent I couldn’t help but smile. I was being subject to the same “shock and awe” I’ve been imposing on people for a while.

A few days later, I got the following email. The following thoughts, ideas, words and malapropisms (if any), henceforth referred to as “the Email”, are (to the best of my knowledge) the creation and property of Rahul M. Rao, (born Bombay, India) and henceforth referred to as “Author”. The Email may not be copied, reprinted, transmitted, quoted or reproduced, in any way, shape or form without the Author’s prior consent and express permission. The Email’s appearance here does not constitute a waiver of any rights on the Author’s behalf. These are presented below for educational purposes.

---Begin Email---
Technologically Endangered Art

Just another mundane day. The clock sauntered away accompanied by the pitter-patter of ever gentle rain rattling onto the meandering yet stagnant streets. The occasional car zoomed by, screeching loudly at the turn to disturb my focused silence, and accelerating away into wilderness. The snow from yesterday adorned the naked tree-tops. The stillness of the moment added triteness to the otherwise empty view. With nothing but my faithful window for company, I blankly stared at the world outside. Was there anything that could add fervour to the proceedings? Or would time slip up by into the unknown, burying with it yet another anonymous day?

An ordinary idle mind may be a devil's workshop; my boisterous mind is probably closer to a devil's playground. For the lack of anything better or worse to do, I decided to do undertake something almost unthinkable in this digital age of ones and zeroes. Armed with a sleek looking pen and a neatly ruled blank paper, I set out to revive the technologically endangered species, the art of letter writing and demonstrate that a stylus is indeed more potent than the qwerty.

To be honest, this courageous endevaor of mine was more out of gratitude, than out of solitude. A Good Samaritan geek friend of mine had walked on this less trodden path nearly 30 months ago. Way back in the good old days of 2003, he had written me an innocently casual letter. It took me nearly one year to recover from the shock of him having written me note. Having overcome that jolt, it took me nearly six grueling months to comprehend his hand-writing. And being completely overwhelmed and indebted by his magnanimous act, I had been toying with the idea of penning a reply to him. But my insatiable thirst for cyber-space junk had kept me occupied and incredibly busy ever since. Till today that is. After all, I could not return to my laptop and let another 'begging-to-be-written' letter be butchered by the hands of science.

"Dear kay-gee" I wrote. And paused. What next? How in the world does one start one of these? Does one inquire about the recipient's good health? Was it 'being in the best of spirits'? Or 'being in spiritual well-being'? Damn, it had been ages since I had written a letter. Why in the heavens was I putting myself through this? Wouldn't it be so much easier to fire him an email? Will I even be able to write him one page? 'Oh Satan, why are you doing this to me?' I howled.

Two hundred and sixty-seven seconds later, I continued. "Hope this letter of mine finds you in the pink of your health". With his best interests in mind, I thought it was imperative that I mention the root cause behind this struggle of mine. And I duly pointed out to him that he is to blame for this act of mine. He is the whole and sole reason for him having to decipher through the geometric non-conformism of my alphabets. If he couldnt help his handwriting, I couldnt help, but be hundred times worse. "As you sow, so you reap" I contemplated writing. To avoid any doubt, "No good deed goes unpunished" I wrote.

So far, so good. With considerable effort, I had managed to maintain my scribblings above the horizontal lines on the sheet. I shuddered at the hypothetical scenario of having to write on a completely blank paper with no guiding lines. Whoever thought of this brilliant line concept was a genius! Else writers like me could easily violate all laws of geometry and make two supposedly parallel sentences intersect. However, the disciplined control of pen was starting to have a profoundly painful ramification on the nerves in my hand that had begun to wail with pain. The hitherto unused muscles had started to complain of over-work. The knuckle on the thumb and the right index finger were whining about their forced restraint. The proximity to the pen and the absence of 'j' and 'space-bar' was suffocating them. Their peers from the left hand were disgusted at being reduced to holding a useless piece of scrap and growled about their apparent neglect and unfair discrimination towards the rightists. There was indeed no party at peace.

Turning a Nelson's eye towards these bemoaning, I stubbornly continued. The pen picked up pace, the words began to run, and lines started being swallowed. My thoughts extensively outraced the limited abilities of my hand, and reigning them in was an arduous task. And admittedly, the sentences were getting crooked, with the crests and troughs evident. Page 2 flowed. I rambled on about me, myself and rahul. Yes, I was getting my touch back. And that obdurate creature, inertia, was making it difficult for me to stop. The mind had taken complete control over the hand and body. Like a possessed soul inside a fanatic rampant bull that had been reunited with a red rag, I raged on. Page 3 and I was proud that yet another bastion had fallen to my valiant attempt. I was no longer at the mercy of inane and obtuse email or cell phones. There was an ecstatic feeling of being a master in the land of the pen and paper. Page 4, and having contemplated, attempted and succeeded in letter writing, I stopped.

That night as I tucked myself in, I felt incredibly potent and euphoric. I re-cherished those umpteen moments, when as a kid, I had written or received those pale blue letters or those creamy postcards. I relived the elation in receiving a note from my cousins, the thrill of finding a letter with rakhee from my sister, the exuberance of scribbling anything to my aunt. Incredibly simple pleasure lost in the technological voodoo of the digital age. The world had grown closer, but we had distanced ourselves from the joys of letter writing. And I mumbled the eleventh commandment, "Thou shall write at least one letter a year"!
--- End Email --