Friday, February 02, 2007

It sounds so much better...

when it's in Urdu.

'faiz' thii raah sar basar ma.nzil
ham jahaa.N pahu.Nche kaamayaab aaye

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Starbucks over-roasts its coffee so bad...

that Consumer Reports found the coffee served at McDonald's (!) to be significantly better. Though it sounds unlikely, McD coffee is actually pretty good and their breakfast menu isn't too bad. Better than Fivebucks' burnt black water.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Give war a chance

" The President's actual words to Congress and the nation Tuesday evening were, "Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work." But I kept thinking back to the chorus of the 1969 John Lennon song, "Give Peace A Chance." It became an anthem at peace protests".. says Bob Park in his 'What's New' column this week. The new strategy, he said in an earlier column, is strikingly similar to the gambler's last resort: double your bet and hope for the best.

I wasn't around in 1969, but I remember seeing a famous episode of 'The Wonder Years' in which Kevin Arnold accidentally leads a protest march against the Vietnam war and, thereby, has greatness thrust upon him while in the school restroom. The episode fades to black with a chorus of school-children singing the refrain from Lennon's song.. 'All we are saying is give peace a chance'.

Sounds foolish today, doesn't it? It's interesting to note that the peacenik protests to Bush's Iraq war don't seem to be as vociferous or persistent as the Vietnam ones are reputed to have been. I don't know if people are less convinced of the existence of peaceful solutions to the world's problems today (the terrorists don't think so, so should we?) or just more cynical about their protests and demonstrations making any difference at all.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Blinking photos

Here's a common problem: whenever you take a group photograph, someone always blinks. By the time you review the picture on your tiny digicam LCD and find that out, your group has dispersed and no one wants to get back and pose again for a second shot. How nice it would be if you knew ahead of time how many pictures you needed to take to be sure you'd get at least one where no one is blinking.

Well, if you do some simple probability analysis, you can. But now someone's done it for you and he got an Ignobel prize for it. Here's a simple description of the method, but if you don't want to read all that, just look at the graph on the left. Bottom line: if you have a group of 5 people, click every picture thrice. Oh, and remember to buy a large memory card.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

iftaar parties

I now have a Persian room-mate. He is an interesting guy, a graduate student in History: another one of the few souls who open windows for me to peek into the humanities. Though by no means a devout Muslim, he is now fasting for Ramadan. My other room-mate Irfan has also recently got religion. So every morning Irfan and Sohrab are up by 6 am to eat their little sehri, carefully prepared the previous night: nuts, cheese, cucumbers, some basil leaves and maybe fruit. I am not sure that it resembles the traditional meal, but it sure looks good. The evening's iftaar has more fruits and nuts, and occasionally a spicy Indian upma-like thing that Irfan makes (I have no idea what it's called). Once we had some other Muslim grad students over at our place for the iftaar ritual: they were all Islamic intellectuals discussing the history of the Golden Age and contrasting it (perhaps) with the modern-day politics of the US vis-a-vis Eye-ran and Eye-rack.

When I first heard the word 'iftaar', it was already combined with the word 'party'. In India it is customary during Ramadan for all the Muslim celebrities and politicians to have their little iftaar soirees that are faithfully covered by the Bombay Times (India's # 1 tabloid). In his heyday Mohd. Azharuddin was known to host well-attended iftaar parties. I have never been to one, nor have I ever tasted the special foods of the season that are so talked about in the media in Bombay come Ramadan: malpuas, firni, and other such things.

And I have never shared a house with people fasting for Ramadan before. I am always happy to have the company of religious people, as long as they leave me to my unspiritual ways (unless they are also unscientific, which bugs me). But being in a Muslim house during Ramadan is strangely fun. I am hardly contributing to their ritual, yet merely being around them makes me feel like a part of their noble endeavor, like I am enriched by association. And I don't have to fast for it. In that sense it is similar to other vicariously experienced religious tradition. Tambrams will recognize the feeling: it is like waking up at 6 am to Venkatesha Suprabhaatam (sung by MS, no other version will do) every morning and cribbing about lost sleep, only to realize later that when there's no Suprabhaatam in the mornings something feels oddly lacking: a palpable ambience, a resonance, of religious fervour that I grew up with and associate fondly with childhood. I never wanted any part of it then and I'm not sure I do now. But waking up to an alarm clock is stupid.

I have other fond memories associated with iftaar dinners. I took no part in them except as a spectator, and that too, from a distance. In my college days I often took the bus home from Bandra. It was route 310 to Kurla station via the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Bombay's newest and most high-tech office district (there are direct buses to Chembur, where I live, from Bandra but it's faster via Kurla). Most of the BKC office buildings are built in the modern style, steel superstructures with a facade of highly reflective glass. Old-fashioned BEST double-deckers still ply on route no. 310. I would sit on the upper deck by the window, the evening breeze flapping away at my face, and watch the blazing reflection of the setting sun on the glass windows. As the bus rounded the curve into BKC, the sun's reflection would jump from one gleaming window-pane onto another, taking on deeper and deeper crimson hues until, at last, the skyline behind me obstructed the dying rays and the windows would go dark.

Between the BKC and Kurla station lies a fairly large industrial complex of small lumber yards and iron/steel fence-and-grill workshops, mostly owned and operated by Muslims. Each shop had a long wooden table set outside, and as the bus passed by this busy lane of workshops, I could see small parties of workers at each table, breaking their fast together. The food looked like fruit (mostly melons, I don't know why) and water. There were several food-carts on the street serving some deep-fried delicacy, aromas of which wafted up and made my stomach growl with appreciation. From my semi-distant vantage point this succession of little iftaar dinners appeared to blend together into a large scale communal dinner, so it looked like the entire neighborhood was sitting together at a big banquet to mark the end of another Ramadan day. I have no proof of it but I do believe that the owners of the shops ate with the workers, the rich with the poor. There was a wonderful feeling of community and togetherness about those iftaar dinners.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Today this blog is going to be a truly random blog, that is to say, it is a stream of thoughts randomly strung together to make a post, as opposed to a theme-based article-like exposition (the kind I usually want to write).

Apple just came out with the New Ipod nano. I don't know what's different about it though. The new Ipod shuffle is pretty neat too, about as big as a Hershey's mini. I wonder how far Apple will go with the 'make it disappear' design ideology. Even smaller than Apple's products are the 'microSD' cards that, in the dimensions of a thumbnail, can store gigabytes of music (minus the player). I find it freakish that a vanishingly small piece of sophisticated electronic wizardry that can play on for 12 hours, or whatever.

But these ultra-small players still have a problem: the headphones. They're big. They're clunky. I hate those wires (calling them 'lanyards' doesn't help) hanging around my neck. I feel strangulated. I think the headphones are now probably bigger than the players. Maybe next year onwards they will focus on building smaller phones too. The most attractive headphone, for me, would be a tiny in-ear bud that wirelessly receives music and produces good sound. This should be accessible considering how far advanced modern wireless technology is.

However, I'm still a bit disappointed that all this technology has not fundamentally changed the essential experience of listening to music in the (early) 21st century. Music is still essentially an aural signal that needs brain processing to translate into an emotional response. It is a wonderful thing, and it can now be taken along and played on geek toys. But I was hoping for some radically different, truly sci-fi, not-necessary-sensory neural experience. Something that'd really let us 'feel' our music. A music player that produces some weird wave that connects more directly with our neural processes than the auditory canal. It is impossible for me to suggest what this might feel like (for we simply don't know yet!). I imagine that it'd be like 'hearing' a really low-pitched bass line (really low frequencies are as much 'felt' as 'heard') where it feels like your whole body is vibrating along. Except that it'd span the whole frequency spectrum and feel really, really cool.

On a different tack, I was thinking about why art is important. Or why things like music, sculpture, painting, literature, etc. must exist, must be promoted, or - in the case of art that already exists - must be preserved. Or, indeed, why one must endeavor to appreciate art. As an essentially materialistic person who, perhaps, lacks an inherently artistic vein, this is something I need to rationalize.

One answer is that true art contains unbounded and unfettered human expression that, by definition, must defy explanation or categorization. To me this is important. Too often it seems like all the things I see, read or hear follow a pattern, stick to rules or laws, and are almost laid out with ID tags to enable pigeonholing. We react to most of the mass-media we encounter by associating it with a certain category or style, using previously instilled beliefs or prejudices, to come up with a judgment - either emotional or rational - of its quality or utility, and then we move on. Few pieces inspire us to think about the subject matter ab initio, to come up with an entirely new assessment of the human values in question. That is art's place. Most often art accomplishes this objective by a blatant and obvious disregard for norm, disagrees for the sake of disagreement (it would appear), or 'rebels without a cause'. In fact, there is a cause: it is to prompt a rethink in a world dominated by cliche. In the case of art that is politically motivated this can be achieved by irreverence, especially in humor - that makes satire. The classic example from recent times would be the Mohammad cartoons.

Another reason why art is important is that it is one of the most significant and lasting products of civilization. Almost everything we know about the life and times of previous peoples and civilizations is from their art. There are recorded histories, but they may not convey the essence of the era in the way that art does. Indeed, it is this feature of art, the fact that it holds a mirror to history, that makes the art of previous eras meaningful. It is an exercise in futility to try to appreciate art without an understanding of the socio-political conditions of the time. In some cases, one may even need to know the history of art itself. For instance, it is impossible to fathom the accomplishment of Beethoven's Ninth or the Beatles's Sgt. Pepper or Picasso's Cubism without knowing what came before it.

I don't know which aspect of our art truly reflects our culture now, or how history will remember it. But I do know that if all our civilization's output - all art, all literature, all music - is converted to digital form and stored wantonly on this hard disk or that DVD, there will be no trace of it in a hundred years. We are on the threshold of punching out holes in the fabric of history. Electronically.

I say bring on the 80 terabyte clip-on music player. It might play for days but it won't last very long.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Gas gouging

The American people hate a lot of things, but if there's one thing the people hate unequivocally and across all dividing lines, it's higher gas prices. Except, of course, the refiners, who love it. After all, they're the ones who pushed the price up.

Sounds like another anti-corporate conspiracy theory? Well maybe it is, but the signs are unmistakable - just drive over to your nearest gas station - and there doesn't seem to be any other explanation.

It's that time of year again. Gas prices are going up due to a dramatic weather phenomenon. No, it's not hurricane season yet: I am talking about the Summer. The time when people get out of their houses and drive all over this beautiful land. And, as always, gas prices are steadily rising. The CA average price has hit $3.00 already! And it looks set to go up, higher even than last year's peak at the time of Hurricane Katrina.

So why are they going up? Well, of course, oil prices are rising too. But the price of oil is only half the price of a gallon of gas. The rest is made up of taxes and refining costs. And, of course, we all know that Big Oil reported phenomenal profits in 2005, despite all the 'problems' it faced due to Katrina hitting its refineries on the Gulf Coast, and that ExxonMobil has now reclaimed its spot at the top of the Fortune 500 from Walmart.

A look at the linked graphic reveals that the contribution of refining costs to the total price of a gallon of gas is clearly higher now than it was earlier this year, or in previous summers (barring 2005). The oil companies claim this is because they are forced to produce lots of gas to meet the demand, despite the fact that some of their capacity is still offline after Katrina. The real question, then, is why do the refineries not have enough spare capacity to make up for losses due to natural calamities or other unforeseen events? Here's a fact: no new refineries have been built in the USA in the last 25 years. It's obvious that the oil companies have invested very little or no money in expanding capacity or building new refineries in the face of rising demand. Their strategy has, instead, been to raise gas prices to recover their operating costs and more - which explains the soaring profits. Why must the people pay for the lack of foresight or sound business planning on the part of Big Oil?

Some of the other reasons for high prices being proferred by Big Oil border on the absurd: one, that there is 'instability' in the Middle East (like there isn't always) and two, that there are additional costs due to supply and storage problems associated with ethanol additives.

Big Oil is not solely responsible for the gas prices we are seeing today. The US Government has been very reluctant about enforcing effective measures to decrease gas consumption, and despite the wave of hybrids and high-mileage cars hitting the market, gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks are still very popular. Old habits die hard.

Condemnation of Big Oil and its greedy profit-first policies are, however, coming from all quarters. Members of Congress, including Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a member of both the Senate Commerce and Energy committees, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are pointing fingers at the oil companies for gas price gouging. Further, Jason Vines, vice president of communications at DaimlerChrysler, has expressed his indignation at Big Auto still taking the flak for driving America (literally) to oil dependency while Big Oil rakes in the moolah. This inspite of the auto majors having revamped their lineup, now offering many higher-mileage cars equipped with new fuel-saving technologies. I have to agree with him - it does seem like the auto majors are trying hard to produce and sell frugal cars.

But at $3 a gallon (or more), can any car be frugal enough?

Thursday, April 20, 2006


A conversation over breakfast between two international researchers at a recent Biophysical Society meeting:

Biophysicist 1: I don't like these eggs. They are too (fumbling for words).. they have too many lipids.
Biophysicist 2: Yes, yes.. there are many lipids. These lipids are.. having high chain melting temperatures too.