Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Reforms" in Bihar

Is there something about the air in Bihar? Is it forever doomed to be ignored by its rulers? Rediff writes about Nitish Kumar:
Vowing to change "the worst ever work culture due to Rashtriya Janata Dal's misgovernance for past 15 years", he told reporters that he would have a one-to-one meeting with senior bureaucrats, including secretaries of all departments and officers of the rank of inspector general and above to improve the situation.
The Indian Express writes about the professional efforts of his cabinet to establish a good work culture:
Cabinet minister Baidyanath Mahto’s men went and ‘‘booked’’ a sprawling bungalow on Bailey Road, occupied for 15 years by RJD’s former minister Iliyaas Hussain. Using a red chalk, they wrote ‘‘Baidyanath Mahto, Cabinet minister’’ alongside Hussain’s nameplate. It was to pre-empt other leaders from taking the house. But later, another Cabinet minister Monazir Hassan, who has been given charge of the building construction department, was allotted the same bungalow. Mahto had no option but to withdraw his claim.
I remember being as childish - booking the school bus window seat just behind the driver in Std I. Good luck, Bihar.

Monday, November 28, 2005

FBPN Network: Spammers may be helping humanity

Blogsville, The Internet - New scientific evidence shows how spammers may have helped a large number of patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Active brain function, scientists say, greatly help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and may even help reverse it.

However, societal efforts to stop us from using our brains have greatly increased in the last few decades. The invention of the television pioneered this movement and soon after, people stopped using their brains at home. The Internet age followed and people stopped using their brains at work as well.

The Bureau Of Largely Lame Ostriches Creating Kaleidoscopic Statistics (BOLLOCKS) estimates that people who have Internet access at work use their brains about 1% of the time. The people who do not have Internet access at work use their brains at work about 60% of the time, but 90% of that usage is geared toward figuring out a way to access the Internet through the corporate firewall.

Recent emergent studies have concluded that spammers actually started out as a movement to fight sinister efforts to get humans to stop using their neurons (why our governments would want to do such a thing is another story). Spamming was initially directed towards diluting Internet content to move users away from the brain-numbing expanses of the Internet. Originally, it was targeted toward services like e-mail - which was a concept doomed from the start. Our heroes of humanity had never thought that people would actually be dumb enough to believe spam-content for reality.

Spamming blogs, on the other hand, has proved much more effective in achieving the true objective of the spammers. BOLLOCKS estimates between 40 and 70 percent of office time is spent reading and commenting on blogs. To help "fight" spam, blogging sites and software frequently generate fudged-up images of random sequences of letters (much like the one reproduced to the right). An experiment conducted by doctors at the Barvard School of Medicine shows that although it stays minimal while reading a blog or leaving comments, neural activity spikes up greatly while trying to read the anti-spam verification images. This is probably due to the pattern-recognition nature of the task as well as the fact that the images get tougher with time as the spammers make better and better programs to automatically read the images. For the first time in history, masses of humans are being forced to use their brains more efficiently than central processing units.

Scientists estimate that reading and commenting on twenty-six point two blogs with the image verification feature generates brain activity equivalent to doing a crossword, which in turn is the prescribed activity for patients considered to be at risk for Alzheimer's. The next time you see spam, you may want to see it in a slightly kinder light.

P.S. FBPN stands for "Fake but Possible News". I would have called it Fake News, but I wouldn't want to be sued by these guys.

P.P.S. This FBPN Network story is its first output. Depending on the laziness of its employees (which number in the low ones), it may or may not be the last.

Friday, November 25, 2005

God's Debris by Scott Adams

Scott Adams recently released a free PDF of his book, God's debris. Its a wonderful book with a number of new ideas. Just one read won't quite be enough for me, though. There are a lot of new ideas in the book - new ways to think about life. It kind makes you think the universe has turned upside down. Some of the ideas are present in other philosophies, but the idea that really makes me think is his concept that God is basically probability.

Einstein once said, "God does not play the dice". I wonder how he would have reacted to the statement that "God is the dice."

Anyone with an open mind will love the book. To a pragmatic, rigidly scientific person however, this book might seem just a combination of mysticism and cult. Here's a snippet from the book, which should help you figure out whether you'll like it or not:
"There is no logical limit to how
much our collective power will grow. A billion years from
now, if a visitor from another dimension observed human-
ity, he might perceive it to be one large entity with a con-
sciousness and purpose, and not a collection of relatively
uninteresting individuals.”

“Are you saying we’re evolving into God?”

“I’m saying we’re the building blocks of God, in the
early stages of reassembling.”

“I think I’d know it if we were part of an omnipotent

“Would you? Your skin cells are not aware that they are
part of a human being. Skin cells are not equipped for that
knowledge. They are equipped to do what they do and
nothing more. Likewise, if we humans—and all the plants
and animals and dirt and rocks—were components of God,
would we have the capacity to know it?”

“So, you’re saying God blew himself to bits—I guess
that was the Big Bang—and now he’s piecing himself back

“He is discovering the answer to his only question.”

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Gladiator

Enjoying a movie to me is all about two things... the dialogue and the pauses between the dialogue. Maybe thats why I really appreciate so few movies.

I watched Gladiator after a long time today, and its still as wonderful a movie as I remember it - every slightest touch in the movie speaks of brilliance. It counts among the three movies I'd ever rate as 10/10; the other two being "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Matrix".

Some of the most memorable moments in the Gladiator... not just for the words, but the silences between them:
Maximus: What we do in life echoes in eternity.

Marcus Aurelius: Tell me again, Maximus, why are we here?
Maximus: For the glory of the Empire, sire.

Marcus Aurelius: There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.

Marcus Aurelius: How can I reward Rome's greatest general?
Maximus: Let me go home.
Marcus Aurelius: Ah, home.

Marcus Aurelius: Won't you accept this great honor that I have offered you?
Maximus: With all my heart, no.
Marcus Aurelius: Maximus, that is why it must be you.

Gracchus: The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it's the sand of the Colosseum. He'll bring them death and they will love him for it.

Gracchus: I don't pretend to be a man of the people. But I do try to be a man for the people.

Maximus: My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

Maximus: There was a dream that was Rome. It shall be realized. These are the wishes of Marcus Aurelius.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Collected Short Stories - Jeffrey Archer

This was an Archer that I had missed. One of his best, which makes me unhappy that I've only just read it; but happy that I left it for this time, when I really have little else this good to serve for entertainment. This book easily becomes my favourite Jeffery Archer.

I'd rate almost every short story in the book as 4/5 or better. My favourites were "Broken Routine", "Old Love", "Just good friends", "Christina Rosenthal" and "One man's meat...". The beauty of a well-written short story is not just that it drives home a point in just a few pages; but that its message is usually something very simple yet impactful - whether its about friendship, laughter, achievement or ego. In books like "First Among Equals" or "Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less" I was awed by the intricacies and magnitude of the plot - but in this book, what delighted me that even the simple plots were equally powerful and immersive - thirty-six times over.

I guess almost everyone must have read this by now, but if you haven't do read it!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Grandfather browser

I'm almost embarassed to admit it, but I've taken to using Lynx very often. For those who don't know, Lynx is a text browser. All you get is pure ASCII. No images, single font, single size. I use it mostly for reading research related stuff. I've found (empirically) that it offers quite a few advantages.

Mostly, it helps me focus. Of course, I access Blogger in Firefox, where right now I have about eight tabs open, with at least half being completely work-unrelated (cricket scores, PhD comics, Indian Express and so forth). Where there is a tab, there is a switch to it once in a while, which can be hugely distracting.

At a deeper level, though, in a text browser its really difficult to go to any external links - even those that are there in a particular page. There's no easy way of opening them while keeping your current page (no new tab/new window... and if you know of one, don't tell me!) so you really tend to (a) open pages that you will read and (b) stay focused on reading them. Moreover, links don't stand out as much as they do in a graphical browser, they're just blue in colour as opposed to black. I even read a few blogs on it these days - I've been noticing that in a tabbed or graphical interface I sometimes tend to just gloss over the information rather than really reading it.

I cannot emphasize how nice it can be to have just one font. One gets tired of big, small, italicized, colored, imaged and generally distorted text at times. Console font can be a blessing.

Lastly, it really is the best solution for ad-blocking - of course!

Of course, Lynx never will replace a graphical browsing interface - but I find myself pretty happily spending an hour or so on it continuously at times. Trust me, if you intend to get through the GNU Make Manual in two or three (or even one!) sitting straight, Firefox is probably not your best choice.

Think I might have finally crossed the line into insanity? I can't blame you :)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Jedi Kids

The Boston Museum of Science is running a Star Wars exhibit until April next year. I stopped outside the museum to watch some Padawans exercising with their lightsabers.

You refer to the prophecy of the One who would bring balance to the Force. You believe its this... boy?

Padawans 1
You have learned much, young one

Anakin Jr
Kill him, Anakin! Do it now!

If you're not with me...

Sith Lords are my speciality...


Aah.. to be a kid again. In any case, I'm definitely getting one of 'em lightsabers for myself!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Mac OS X vs. Linux

A friend of mine, whom I convinced to switch to a Mac is now switching back to Linux on an Intel-based laptop.

Although it took me a long time to come to this conclusion, but I find myself agreeing that with his requirements, Linux wins hands down in favour of OS X. Since I've pretty much recommended the Macintosh to anyone and everyone who's ever bothered to listen, I thought I should post this legitimate argument about the other side.

He works extensively with terminals and likes to live completely in the UNIX suburbs of OS X, and that is what kind of bit him quite badly in sensitive spots.

First issue - he keeps his home directory on a different partition. This is possible in OS X, but only with a hack, and updating to 10.4.3 broke the hack. Suddenly, his home folder permissions were screwed up, and he couldn't write to half his files, including things like his iTunes library. Half the icons on his dock were replaced with ugly-looking question marks. Reinstalling and remounting the home partition did not solve the problem - the only way that we could fix it was to move the home folder back into the System partition. Important fact to remember about Apple - their system is UNIX-based, but its not exactly UNIX. More importantly, they modify critical functionality with each update with impunity - after all - most Macintosh users don't even dream of hacking around with UNIX-level files and directories. A prime example is that with Tiger, Apple has deprecated crontab in favour of launchd. Putting jobs in crontab will still work (for now) but there's no guarantee that it will continue to do so in future versions. If you like playing around with the system structure to suit your needs - be wary of moving to OS X. I personally use a lot of the *nix in Apple but I don't play around with the system structure, so I'm OK for now.

Second issue - Applications. This is actually the reason a lot of Linux users switch to OS X. Some very popular applications for Linux though, are either not available for OS X or are available as hacks which aren't very reliable. I will say that I definitely miss the Linux Konsole application. OS X Terminal.app, iTerm, AquaTerm are all usable, but at best can be called second-class imitations of Konsole. Plenty of Linux hackers work exclusively out of the terminal (even starting GUI applications from the terminal), but Apple has never been used to this idea. If they're serious about luring away the *nix crowd, they better start thinking about it. Another thing that comes out just as a temporary hack is gVim. gVim exists as a port on OS X, but updates keep breaking it.

Lastly - Linux on a Powerbook sucks. We installed Kubuntu 5.10 on the Powerbook 15" and it was slow, clearly revealing the limitations of the PPC G4 CPU. I guess OS X has been so heavily optimized to work well with G4 that it is actually possible to forget that you're working on what is a four year old architecture - unless you also work with OS X on a G5. And PPC Linux I guess is still a babe when it comes to G4 optimized builds. Bootup, program loading, mouse trails - you name it - every action on Linux installed on the G4 was horribly slow. Worse, Apple offers almost no support for Linux and you can't have utilities like wifi support, 3-D acceleration for ATI cards etc.

So at that point, my friend had to take the decision, and he did - sold off his 15" Powerbook and is awaiting a Intel centrino-based notebook.

Friday, November 18, 2005

My, my, you've grown!

I just got a window on my screen saying, "Firefox has downloaded an important update and must restart". I clicked on OK, and FF happily shuts down, starts up and says, "Firefox is installing updates and will start up in a few moments." And it did.

I was running Firefox 1.5 RC2 and the update, I suppose, was the release version of Firefox 1.5. After a hell of a long time and a ton of complaints, Mozilla have finally implemented the patch mechanism.

Looks like they got it right!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Once upon a time...

...there was LOGO. Anyone remember this drawing software that was the first software schools used to teach all those long years ago? The one that actually fit into a 360KB 5.25-inch floppy disk?

Turns out it's been reincarnated as a Java program. I used to think of the drawing process as Yogi Bear making marks in the snow as he moved along. Those were the days.

Of course, the programmer says "the features are more from this millenium than from the last one". Man, I'm OLD!

My bread and butter

"Problem Y is really a form of problem X, and there are many known implementations of problem X."

Every research paper you've read says it. The book you're referring to says it. Yet you can't imagine how you can get Problem Y (which you have to implement) to look like Problem X. You struggle with the problem all day and can't solve it. You search the library and figure out three books (which happen to be across three different libraries on campus for some reason) that might help you solve the problem and you promise yourself to go look those up tomorrow.

Convinced that you're right and all the papers and books you're reading are wrong (and encouraged that almighty Google doesn't show up a solution to this problem) - you start writing an e-mail to your advisor to ask for help. This of course, is the first time you're writing a description of the problem that could be remotely described as coherent. Hlafway through the e-mail your brain goes, "wwwwwait a minuttttte!" A few hasty calculations later and you've solved your problem, which was really so simple a smart first year undergraduate would surely have seen it.

You feel grateful to all deities you believe in (and to some you don't) that you didn't send that mail to your advisor which would probably have resulted in your ranking moving from almost negative infinity to negative infinity. You also end up feeling, as on most other work days, like a complete idiot.

Welcome to the world of research.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Open-source on the Mac

Came across this page that lists the best open-source software for the Mac. I tried out some of them. Yes, I had something better to do, but I didn't feel like doing it right then.

Camino (web browser)

This thing is supposedly based on Firefox but customized for Mac performance. Noticed that it loaded up lightning fast (I think even faster than Safari) which was good. Also noticed that it looked very much like an Apple application (Mail 2.0) - which was also good. Then I opened up Slashdot and saw that something was missing. No orange icon anywhere. This thing doesn't support RSS feeds; even though its supposedly based on Firefox 1.5. Good bye, Camino. Back to Firefox.

Vienna (RSS Reader)

I was amazed at this piece of software. Replaces NetNewsWire for me instantly. It has all the standard features you'd look for (3-pane window, internal tabbed browsing options, spotlight-enabled search) but it has a few extras too. The one I liked most was that it has "Smart folders" - you can aggregate collections based on a variety of options. So if I'm a die-hard iPod fan, for instance, I can make a Smart folder that aggregates all of today's stories with the subject "iPod" in them. Or if I like to mark articles to read later, I can have a smart folder that contains articles about "intel virtualization" from the past week that I've flagged. Awesome stuff. All free and open-source. Good-bye, NetNewsWire.

Freemind (Mind-mapping tool)

I really liked this tool to organize hierarchical information. Its based on Java, so runs on any platform (a big plus). Unlike most other Java apps I've seen on the Mac, this one is very responsive - probably because they've made the GUI in AWT rather than Swing. Nothing says it like a screenshot, I created this map of a course project I'm doing:

It could probably be made to look far better and the interface leaves much to be desired, but I think I can put this piece of software to good use. You can even export this to HTML with folding/unfolding options in a list interface, see this example.

Monday, November 14, 2005

New kind of music

I was listening to an album by Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia today called "A beginning without an end".

Its categorized as "Hindustani" but seemed to me more like "fusion" - mixing elements of western and indian classical music. You hear the Ragas in both traditional Indian classical form - the flue and the tabla - as well as orchestra-like music from the piano, trumpets and the like.

That short description about exhausts the miniscule knowledge I have about the workings of music - but I really enjoyed listening to the album. I enjoy classical Indian music a lot and the addition of the Western element was refreshing.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Poem of the day

For the encouragement we all need at one time or another.
God has not promised skies always blue,
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through.
God has not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.

But God has promised strength for the day,
Rest for the laborer, light for the way,
Grace for the trials, help from above,
Unfailing sympathy, undying love.
- By Annie Johnson Flint

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Wish list for Intel-based Mac laptops

AppleMatters ran an article asking what we want in the upcoming Intel-based laptops. Here's my list. Thoughts, any other Mac users?

Firstly, I'd hate to have the 12" PB discontinued without an equivalent offering (a 13" WS would be nice). There are certain features on the PB models that I like (DVI, better graphics, faster drives, the general look) - but I do like to have a true portable which I can plug into an external monitor at home or in the lab.

I have a 1.5 GHz 12" PB that I bought in February and some things that I'd really like to have in later releases:

1. Two buttons for the mouse. Its about time, guys - the mighty mouse is now standard on iMs and PMs, its only fair that the books get two clicks too.

2. Much better performance. It pains me that this 12" is still the fastest Apple model I can buy today and it gets its ass kicked in numerical computation by a Dell centrino (on Linux). Hopefully a switch to a newer CPU architecture will fix that. Can't believe that G4 1 GHz came out nearly five years ago with the TiBook.

3. Better graphics, even for the 12" - as good or nearly as good as the bigger models. A GF 5200 is trash especially compared to the 9700. After switching to the Mac I found to my pleasant surprise that there's a fairly decent complement of games for the Mac - a lot of which are unfortunately useless with a GF 5200.

4. Better-powered USB ports. The 15" PB can't connect by default to an external USB powered drive. My 12" thankfully can (I live on that drive) but the moment I plug in a hub - and with just 2 USB ports, you almost have to - I can't connect multiple powered devices to it - like my iPod Shuffle. A real annoyance in a world where you have USB powered drives, speakers and device chargers. And while I'm on the subject, could we have more than 2 USB ports please?

5. Region-free DVD drives! Please!

6. An SD-card slot for us photographers.

7. A decent dock connector will be extremely helpful. I use my Powerbook as my exclusive system, and I'm sure a lot of others do as well.

I'm pretty sure this is not too much to ask. All of these features can be had in a Wintel notebook today and its about time Apple caught up.

For the SRK fans...

He talks about his approach to filmmaking and his recent film Paheli on Intentblog.

Sunday, November 06, 2005



It seems strange to write a post about Fall right after posting a picture of snow. But that snow was a freak incident, and yesterday I hopped onto a bus for a weekend trip to Long Island. And boy, there was never a better explanation of the "journey being as pleasurable as the destination"!!! The Fall is in its full glory in New England, and even though these pictures are taken from behind a bus window moving at 60 mph, I doubt anyone will fail to recognize Nature's awesome majesty in this season.

Here's the entire photoset.

Thursday, November 03, 2005



I saw snow for the first time in my life last Saturday, when it snowed in Boston. It was simply beautiful.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Happy Diwali!

Wishing all of you a very happy Deepavali and a prosperous New Year!

For the first time in my life, I am completely blank about what to do on Diwali. At a time like this does one realize what really makes a festival - it is the festive spirit. People I know like Diwali for different reasons - some people like the aarti and pujas, the kids love the fireworks, some people the sweets, others the socializing and yet others just the idea of having a holiday.

At the heart of it all lies a powerful festive spirit. Diwali time is like a license to be happy - no matter what else is happening in your life. And for most of us, it works like a charm. And the spirit is infectious - the more people around you that celebrate, the more you're caught up in it.

It feels kind of odd to be in a place where Diwali is hardly celebrated - leaves you with an empty feeling, like, there was supposed to be more joy in the world right about now - but its just not there. Thank God for memories and photographs :) last year we celebrated Diwali with a bang in SMA getting everybody we could into the act. Click the picture to view the other photographs.