Monday, December 13, 2010

I'm open-minded...

The joke on CouchSurfing (yep, I'm still pimping the site) is that every person describes himself/herself as "open-minded". In fact, you see it described so often and for so many people, that it ends up losing meaning.

I used to believe that I am open-minded and pretty liberal about other people. But I have come to realise that being truly open-minded is one of the hardest things to do. In fact, I think it might be almost impossible to be so (for me).

The whole idea behind this business is that you accept the choices that others make, the customs they follow and so on, irrespective of what you think about the matter. The actions that do not affect you are none of your business. That's how it should ideally be.

But judging someone is so easy. And so tempting. The reason you make a certain choice is because you gave it some thought and decided that you do not agree with what the other options entail. Following a religion that makes you do strange stuff, walking 3 km to save money, preferring pizza to lasagna, cheating on your girlfriend (or not) - all these choices that you made are something that you can justify to yourself. No one else can understand the reasons behind a certain decision. They can agree or disagree, but I believe it is difficult to understand.

But when I see someone doing that I may not agree with, my mind kicks into overdrive listing all the reasons that it is wrong (reasons that apply to me), and I end up deciding that the person made a bad decision. For example, I have decided for myself to never smoke (limitation not confined to just tobacco, but to other stuff too). This, however, should have no bearing on whether my friends or others should or not do that. And yet, every time I see someone I know do it, I veer towards judging them to be a lost cause.

One of the results of hanging out with non-Indians is that I can easily end up outside my comfort-zone. Unless you really face a situation that tests you, you don't know how you will react to it. So this has been a great learning experience - where I am in the process of figuring out what is (and isn't) kosher for me. And that isn't the difficult step.
Learning to not hold your standards as a measure for someone else is difficult.

Self Awareness

Blogger started a new feature not too long ago. It permits you to see the "Stats" for your blog. You get to see how many pageviews you have got, which posts are popular, what browsers were used to land on this page, which links directed them here, and what country were the pages viewed in.

As far as I know, in the 70 blog posts published here, there are only 2 comments whose authors are people I have never met/known. Until recently, I believed that my "audience" consisted of the handful of friends (and a few relatives). So I have been pretty nonchalant about discussing stuff, allowing for typos and keeping the navel-gazing narcissism alive in posts.

Now I see that some people actually read some stuff I write. (I hope it's not the same 10 people contributing to ~200 pageviews in the last month. I mean, for their sake...) Also, stuff leaves me baffled. Why is that post where I link to an article about Feynman so popular (the smiley heading, maybe?). It's normal to see visits from US, India and France - that's where my friends and relatives are. But pageviews from Vietnam, Netherlands and Latvia? Does my blog seem music to Vietnamese ears (or eyes)? Maybe I'm a local hero over there, just like Simple Jack.

And why are so many of my readers using Internet Explorer?!!! That's the real tragedy in all this.

What this all has done though, is that now I'm always curious about who reads this crap I write. My ego is inflating - I've been led to believe that is not a good thing. But mostly, I spend a little time wondering about how what I write makes me look like. (I'm narcissist and self-centered, get over it.) (Yep, pointing that out totally makes it okay. Just like saying "I don't mean to offend you" before offending someone.)

The overall point is, that I hope I manage to write the way I do, at the frequency I do and not get swayed away by fame and fortune. I will remember my minions early readers when I go to collect my Oscar.. err Nobel Peace Prize... whatever it is I am supposed to win.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

High on math

Not too long ago (about a year or so) I had a highly random conversation. You know you are reading too much math when the following conversation occurs: (Translations in English provided when the dialogue switches to Hindi)

me: tu sadme se bahar nahi aa raha kya?
(me: You can't get yourself out of your depression?)

p: (Laughs) mere dil ke itne tukde ho gaye hai ki mein gin bhi nahi sakta  
(My heart has broken into so many pieces that I gave up counting)

You cannot even imagine. ek to counting mein problem hai.
(As it is I have a problem in counting things)

me: tujhe ginna waise bhi nahi ata. (As it is you can't count)

p: upar se itna zyada count (And to top it, it's such a high number to count to) 

me: uncountable. abhi koi real number system se pehchan kar le and har ek number ko apne dil ka tukda de   
(Now introduce yourself to some real number system and give each number a piece of your heart)
p: whats the zoke?

me: it will be a one-one and onto relation

p: whats the zoke bhai
whats the zoke?
(zoke = joke. See this)

me: tu nahi samjhega.. aajkal mujhe math seekhna pad raha hai
(You won't get it. Recently I have been forced to learn math)

p: hahahaha

me: ur dil (Your heart) has uncountable parts.. real numbers are uncountable
p: i know
me: so dono ko bijection kar de
(So perform a bijection on the two)

p: but real number ek seedhi line par hai
(But real numbers are on a straight line)

me: tere dil ko line mein arrange kar sakte hai.. thats my point
(You can arrange the pieces of your heart in a line, thats my point)

p: mere dil ke tukde scattered over real word ka 3d axes
(But the pieces are scattered over 3 dimensional space)

me: waise bhi a line and 3d space are isomorphic
(Well a line and 3d space are isomorphic) 

p: real axis aur real axes ke beech mein bijection nahi hai
(there isn't a bijection between the real axis and 3d space)

me: hota hai bhai
(There is one, trust me)

p: isomorphism hai pakka?
(There is isomorphism for sure?)

me: haan (Yes)
p: ruk sochne de (Wait lemme think)
me: [0,1] and [0,1]x[0,1] are of same uncountable type
p: okay
me: and so on
p: hmm
me: hence.. ur dil ko line mein arrange kar sakte hai --(Hence your heart can be arranged in a line)
toh wo heart ka arrow bana.. (So make an arrow out of that line)

aur kisi dil pe attack kar (And use that arrow to attack someone)

p: waah waah  (Sarcastic applause)
me: cupid
p: kya baat hai
samne hota to chappal se marta tujhe aaj
(If you were somewhere near me right now, I'd have shot you.)

Well, the translations aren't word for word, but I guess they capture the feel of it. Especially in the last sentence, where the literal translation is "I'd have hit you with my shoes/flip-flops" but given an opportunity to use a gun, P would have gladly shot me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

French Strikes made easy

Stranger to France? Let me explain the madness (that's what I believe it is) going on here right now.

Government wants to introduce Retirement/Pension Reform, where retirement age will be pushed from 60 to 62 and the pension benefits will kick in from age 67 instead of 65. This is for people who work in the Private Sector in France.

Employees in the private sector cannot go on strike without much repercussions. Or so I have been told. And so, the French have this "system" in place, that allows citizens to protest without anyone losing their jobs. The employees in the public sector go on strike instead.

So the buses, trains, garbage disposal system etc, which have strong unions, go on strike to express the anger and frustration of the people working in the private sector. Though this time, some of the private sector employees have also joined in. Like those who work at the refineries & fuel companies.

BBC gives more updates about the matter...

So while you are stuck at the station, waiting for your train, go ahead buy some wine, cheese and baguette and enjoy relaxed life in France.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Let's Stereotype

When people find out I'm from India, one of the topics of conversation is about how different the place is from Europe/US or South America. Most people I have met have been very open-minded and ready to accept that their notion of India is probably very wrong. Generally, it is... and they have been great enough to hear me ranting about my own little version of how or what I think India is like. (Staying outside & meeting other Indians has made me realise that my knowledge and experiences in & about India are quite limited).

The thing that has begun bothering me is how this image of India (or any place) has propagated. See the photo albums of any person (read as non-Indian) who has visited India. There will be very few pictures of any monuments or historic/heritage sites. A lot of pictures of people in colorful clothing, pictures of busy markets and such. And then, pictures of "cute kids", mostly from the slums, or pictures of cows or animals on the road, or trash littered around.

Are we (= people of India) a museum? OK, I get it that you have never seen half the stuff happening here. But then if I come to the US and take a picture of a Steak n' Shake because there are none in India, why would I be looked at as an idiot? Why do so many people who visit India never find out about historical structures or the nature spots we have. Since I'm from Maharashtra, my examples are going to be - the forts built by Shivaji and the Marathas; the Ajanta - Ellora caves; the hikes in the Sahyadri mountains; the national forests/parks; the palaces built by different Mughal emperors and so on.

How many people who visit Mumbai take pictures of the CST train station? Or go to Elephanta caves and the Sanjay Gandhi National park? The Marine Drive is not as long or clean as the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, but trust me, it is a view you shouldn't miss.

Maybe when we visit some "western" country, we should try to capture the negative stereotypes. Like highlight how firefighters let a house burn in Tennessee, US. Or take pictures of dog shit over the streets in France. Or talk about how dirty the metro in Paris can be at some places. Or take pictures of the dirty subway in Rome. And talk about you can smell urine when you go down the stairs to the subway. Let us take pictures of the dirty, oily canals in Venice. When you go to Miami, ignore the great city-scape and focus on how easy it is to get drugs and talk about the crime.

I've heard that places in New York are dirty and littered too. Mention always how marriages don't last in the US even if it may not be true. Take pictures of drunken college parties and how you see people puking on the streets. Or marvel at how widespread smoking (tobacco and weed) is in France and how easy it is to get it. Marvel at how in a "modern" country like France, you will routinely see men peeing on the streets. Let's mock them because you cannot get anything on a Sunday and you are basically crippled. 

Just a bit of advice before you actually go do these things. I wouldn't recommend taking pictures of kids on streets because you might just be labeled a pedophile. And stay away from the homeless people you see in the US, and don't try to take their pictures, because they might knife or shoot you. It is better to try to approach the homeless and street kids in India.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What do you exactly do?

I've had to explain this too many times to too many people. And the answer is not a simple "Robotics" anymore. So I decided to write a blog post about it. Next time someone asks me this question, they get the link. :-) (Phd & scientists are all about being lazy.) Except since I like to blabber, this explanation is gonna be long winded and mostly non-scientific.

Imagine a machine which you can accurately control. It has been shaped like a human arm and has a pointy tip at the end. You can control exactly where that tip reaches, right down to under a millimeter. Since the machine tip can be accurately placed, it means that you can figure out when it is placed incorrectly. Or is placed a little off. So you can use this machine not just to place something accurately, but also to check if what has been placed is in the right spot or not. This is how measuring machines work.

Next, observe when you have to pick up a heavy container filled with water. Using just one hand, you can lift it up. But it is probably too much strain and a little hard to balance. Rather than a container, think of it as lifting a chair. Now instead, if you use both hands, not only can you lift the chair (or container), you are also guaranteed that chair is held correctly (in case of the container, the water will not spill). If two people are lifting the chair, controlling the angle of the chair is even easier. And you don't need heavy muscles for that.

A suspension bridge is similar in concept (at a very basic level).

What I just described is analogous to something called as a "parallel mechanism". I won't go into more details.

Now recall a string puppeteer. He controls his puppets with a string, and can give an amazing range of motions to the puppet. What he does is move the strings - only up and down - to give motion to the puppet. The length of the string determines how the puppets' limbs move. This is also a parallel mechanism, except here the strings are doing the work of the arms in doing the "lifting".

Now, instead of the puppet, some strings were attached to your hands. A string or two above your elbow and another string or two on your forearms. If someone pulled the strings to your forearms, and kept those to your elbow taut, only your elbow joint would move. On the other hand, if you moved your elbow joint, I could just measure the length of the string (how much it is getting pulled). Since I know that string length change corresponds to hand movement, I could just keep track of the string lengths and figure out what kinds of motions are those that can be observed in healthy persons.
Essentially, this above paragraph describes what we want to do. But just to be sure, we want to add accelerometers, force sensors, IR camera based motion capture systems and other possible stuff to verify and improve on the estimates obtained by measuring those "strings" or wires.

Does that make sense?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Yes, and...

One of the most basic rules of improv comedy is the principle of "Yes, and". What it means is that in any improv game/ performance, if some actor says some line, the others have to support him. But supporting doesn't just mean saying "Yes" to what he said. You also have to add information to the fact, and make it a full-fledged idea.

If you see the show "Whose Line is it Anyway?", the 4 actors never say no. If one of the actors calls the other male actor "mom", the other one doesn't just call him "son" back, but also establishes some other fact of their mother-son relationship. The little time I spent trying to learn improv, I was forced to sing on stage, attempt to mimic a "spanish love songs" themed radio station, try to sing rap (thank god there is no evidence to support this happened), and acted in college made TV show. But the thing is, I had damn good fun. 

Around that time, quite a few people had told me how I had successfully managed to deflate their enthusiasm, and probably made them want to avoid me. I thought I had talked to them rationally, and had given them practical and reasonable answers to questions they asked, and plans they had proposed. For some things, there is no right answer, and in such cases, it's so much better to go with the flow. 

There are moments when I've decided to say "Yes" to stuff. Of course, it was sane, legal and did not involve any dangerous situations. But in the last three weeks, I went hiking, roller-bladed in Paris, saw great movies with new friends, picnic-ed & drank wine 5 days in a row on the beach. In spring, I learnt how to sail a catamaran, a course I will re-enroll for in September. And then next week, I'm going canoing in Hungary.

After one party, some people who had missed the bus needed a place to stay. They got it. :-). And then we met some nice couch-surfers on the beach in Cannes. They had come with a tent to stay on the beach, which is somewhat illegal here. My friend asked me if I could host these guys. Yes! It turned out that these two were friends of the CSer I stayed with in Paris, and were at one of the events I had been to there. I looked at the pictures I had taken there, and I found them in the crowd of people in the pictures I have clicked. Small world.
A few months ago I would not have imagined letting two people I had just met on the beach to sleep on the couch. It's really hard to let go and say yes. Knowing me, I'll soon probably go back into my shell and attempt to be my boring self. A PhD in robotics sometimes seems pretty easy compared to learning to say yes. But I guess I should keep trying...

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Wave and iPad

To both, Google Wave and iPad, I've heard people asking the same question - What do I use it for? 

Both are really revolutionary and change the way you approach the normal. The difference, is that active development on Wave is going to stop soon, due to lack of sufficient demand, while iPad is selling millions.

What does Steve Jobs know/do that makes the difference?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Notes: Paris

1: Too many people hyped it up for. Sigh.... I wonder why Rome doesn't inspire the same thoughts in people.

2: Holy SHIT the metro is everywhere. It's like big brother. And there is barely any region in the metro where you cannot get a GPRS signal, let alone normal cell phone coverage.

3: Can someone tell me a time of the year when Eiffel Tower or Louvre is little less crowded? Also, can someone gift me a wide angle lens before I go see these places again?

4: The river. It adds something to a city. The sight of a full, serene river is magnificent. It helps that there are 400+ years old buildings on either side of the river.

5: Roller blading / Inline skating in Paris is fun. And painful. My feet hurt for 2 days. Try it people. A map and skates and off you go.

The past few days, I have been wondering why I wasn't floored by Paris. It's lively, yes; and it's busy. It's got old, giant buildings with loads of history that made me think two things: "Whoa" like Keanu Reeves, and "umm, whats wrong with us Indians? What do we not want to protect our own structures and locations?" But is it a city to visit alone? I don't know.

I wasn't alone, in the strictest sense of the word. I met loads of new people. Partied, picnic-ed, sight-saw did some sight-seeing, lunched, roller-bladed, took-pictures, got lost, cooked, with these people. I think I made some fun friends, who I hope to catch up with soon. But there was this one moment where I wished that a bunch of people I knew, from India and US, should have been on the trip with me. A phone with internet gives you all info about a place you are visiting, but wouldn't you rather eat up half-truths told confidently?

A place where I was at bliss being alone is the Musée des Arts et Metiers. There is a link to the official website (which is mostly in French) on the wiki page. This museum holds the original Foucault's pendulum, and loads of other stuff. The best part - it's almost empty, because it's got science exhibits. The place is where the climax of the book Foucault's Pendulum is set; a book which I enjoyed a lot, even though I found it very difficult to keep up with.

Fun Fact got from the museum: To calibrate the measure of 1 meter, the distance between Barcelona and Dunkirk was measured, over a period of 7 years. They got it right to a few millimeters (2 or something). This was in 1792-9. Yea. Deep breath. Soak up that. Try measuring the length of your room correct up to 2 mm.

I spent over 2 hours on one floor of the museum, the one that housed all these stories. I rushed through the other parts, the comparatively recent exhibits (just 100 years old or so on).

Do I want to go back to Paris? Yea. I feel I have missed something. Not just the fact that I didn't go inside Louvre. Or Notre Dame. I can't pin point it, but I want to go back and stay a few more days.

Does that mean that I actually like the city after all?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Read. Write. Watch

I got a sense that Salman Rushdie has a rollicking time writing his novels. While reading 'Shalimar the Clown' and 'Midnight's Children', I could feel him having a sly grin on his face, as he makes the stories jump through various hoops. One review blurb for "Shalimar.." says that it is Tarantino-esque ... and I guess I completely agree with that.

Also, I read news (rumours?) that 'Midnight's Children' is being adapted into a movie. Awesome! A much better movie to look out for than a potential Shantaram adaptation. I guess I'm "getting the hots" for books based on "magical realism". I just finished Yann Martel's "Life of Pi" a few minutes ago (literally, not more than 20 mins) and I am still stunned... in a good way. (I guess I should re-read these books and improve my vocabulary.) You know how there are movies where one scene, or a couple of lines just change the way you see the whole thing (Bruce Willis checking out that stain on his shirt in Sixth Sense)? Or which drive home the point of the movie (Camera panning to the corridor while De Niro talks on the phone in Taxi Driver).

"Life of Pi" has two such sentences. I didn't notice the first... or rather, didn't think too much about it. The second one (which occurs almost at the end) bothered me. And it was one of the reasons I looked to Wikipedia, and then when it hit me, it hit me hard (and now I'm writing this).

Moral of the above 3 paragraphs - read all the three books mentioned. Right now. (Though, you could go after you finish reading up my post. Thanks.)

Pradeep has commented quite a few times about my writing having changed. I felt I knew what he meant, but couldn't pinpoint it. But one of things I did notice was that my posts have become exclusively about me. (Narcissist alert!) Everything I have written about here recently is solely about what I saw, what I thought and so on. I guess I would explain that by saying that I don't feel "right" in saying how things should be, and how people should behave. I only want to lay out my experiences and thought processes.
On the other hand, when I try to write the funnies, I go for the hyperbole. I've realised that sarcasm doesn't work on the internet. Not for me.  (Thank you TSF for teaching me that.) It's seems a smart-assed, I'm-too-good-for-you attitude when read and is quite off-putting. And then the commenters promptly descend into name-calling and fighting with the post author and each other. (Goodwin's law!)

How come no one has realised yet that Indian movies are overly long and that the editors and script writers are highly unused? I get the TV channel "Zing" here, which goes extreme lengths to show only the bad-ness of 80's and 90's cinema. Every movie then was a series of sketches. The details varied. A set of sketches was separated from the others by a song. For example:

Bad guys are introduced doing something bad, abrupt cut, hero / heroine is introduced. Each separately. One gets a song. Sometimes the hero gets fight sequence to show his bad-assness. . Random beats in this segment are punctuated by bad guy doing more bad-assery. Finally, once the girl has finally fallen in love with guy, the bad guy does something to directly affect good guy. Good guy pissed. Revenge time. Big fight sequence. Good guy wins.

Even the new Hindi films, although closer to the 2 hour mark, are filled with such sketches and still feel overly long. Sigh.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Aluminium reflects light. Especially when it is IR.

IR cameras go crazy. They detect markers everywhere. "I don't know what all to track!", they seem to scream. A4 sheets of white paper help somewhat. Not much though. A piece of paper, torn from your notebook, stuck on the offending portion of aluminium does marginally better. It works not because it doesn't reflect, but because it "reflects" it in some other direction. Thank those imperfect sticky tapes and bad planning that prevent the paper from forming a flat surface.

"Aha!", you say. "Black is black because it doesn't reflect. Hence! Therefore! Cover with black." Sadly, a robotics lab is not the art department. Paper, is white, and meant to be stuff on which research descriptions and equations ought to be printed. The spare black trash bag is used to test the hypothesis. It's glossy. It reflects. Less. But not zero reflection.

Next brain wave - "glossy" was the problem. See discarded packaging boxes lying around. Pick up one box, go ninja on them. (Ninjas are Japanese. Do they practice origami when dealing with paper? If so, they are in trouble. Origami involves only folding paper, no tearing. Hence, to be safe --->) Go Samurai on them. (Shit! They are Japanese too. But at least we know they carry swords. OK, back to science.) Cover reflecty surfaces with 'packaging boxes paper'. Success!

Moral learnt: Visible color black means visible light is not reflected. Also, since it is infrared light, you must revise your entire notion of reflection of light. Remember the goddamn physics you learnt, fool.

Many days later, figuring out what to replace your crude packaging paper with, to make it more professional and tidy, gives you headaches. Black cloth seems to be a good bet. Dommage! C'est marche pas.  :(
If cloth won't work, what will? In the back of the mind, here is what goes on: The paper was sorta rough and thick. The cloth was sorta silky smooth and thin. Hmm, a pattern, Watson! Probably thick/ big sheet of chart paper will work.

Notice a shadow on the screen as seen in one of the cameras. A piece of foam is causing it. Aha! Is it causing a shadow (i.e blocking something), or is it genuinely absorbing the IR light? Move it over to cover that aluminium portion right next to IR emittors, and see how it performs when it receives a full blast of infrared love. It's. Still. Black! ZING! A clothed version of Eureka Eureka!

Research. It's not always about math equations and cool code.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


If you haven't signed up on CouchSurfing, go do it. I started being involved in it a few months back so that I could meet some English speaking people close to where I live. I haven't hung out much with locals on CS, but it looks like a good place that attracts interesting people. Or maybe everyone is equally interesting.

The most rewarding thing is the experiences with the travellers you meet. The idea behind CS is that you host some traveller and let him/her "surf your couch". Free. And when you travel to another place, someone else "repays" you with their hospitality. Meeting these travellers is an eye-opener. You realise you barely know the world. 

I met a guy from Estonia, who has been hitchhiking all across Europe for the last 8-9 months, living with CSers. He plans to return home for a "recharge" and then head to countries he hasn't seen yet. Another guy I met has lived in 6 countries in the last 6 years. He has travelled to more than 30 or 40. He lost count. This, of course, not on business. A girl who has lived in Turkey, Australia and does not remember her first couchsurfing experience, because it was so long ago. She is as old as me. A guy, still in his teens, who knows boats inside out, has sailed to more countries than I have been to, and is living encyclopedia of music. A girl, who doesn't want money but probably "lives" more than I do. A retired American soldier who now works as an analyst.

You meet these people and realise this is nothing you imagined possible. Things they have done would be impossible to do back home, or would be considered foolish. People routinely take a year off. What's the hurry? Back in India, everyone would be horrified. 

And in spite of all the differences, you get along perfectly with the people you meet. You spend a few days and share unforgettable experiences. And then, you leave (or they leave), with almost no idea of whether (and not just when) you might meet them again. It probably works the same with everyone you meet.  Most of the people I met in school, or college will never bump into me again. Even if we do, we will barely have much to talk. Even close friends have grown apart, and some of us great buddies can barely meet more than once a year.

I'm fine with that. I had time with these people and got to know them. Spend time with them. Moving away from friends was always tough, but you have enough time to deal with it. With good friends, you probably spend weeks having parties and meet-ups just to say bye. What is weird for me is that you get only a few days with interesting people, and then you probably never see them again. So the days are packed with discussions and opinion sharing. A few days of connecting and getting to know people, and then it is back to square one. Repeat with different set of people.

It is fleeting, but I'm happy it's happening to me.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I can fly!

This post has been dredged out from the archives. I never completed it then, out of laziness, forgetfullness and some other ness monster. This is an ancient story that I would like to tell, and it has a moral too! The incident I describe occured in the middle of August 2007. It made so famous, that even 5 months after it happened, people who had never met me before would recognize that I was "that guy" on just hearing my name.

Laziness makes you notice every bike shop around you and the deal they offer. Gator cycle advertised "cheap bikes" for college students. Walmart has these nice sections where you have bikes on shelves (actually on shelves). Travelling to a new country makes you really great at multiplication. Especially by 40, since at that time $1 = Rs.40. So "cheap bikes" at Gator Cycles, with the cheapest at $200, were quickly scratched off the list and Walmart became the shopper's paradise. To think of it, everything that I had in the house then was bought in Walmart or in India. So, I bought this bicycle from Walmart for a measely $60-ish.

Compared to the bikes you get in India for similar prices, the bikes in US look pretty damn cool (notice how I mention that they only look cool). They have 18 or 24 speed transmission (yes, I used the word transmission for a bicycle because I like to glorify it) and a suspension system (cough.. cough). Long story short, I clicked pictures of the bike and my friends drooled and then envied me. Over the next week, I realised why the bikes were so cheap. Well, I guess I must point out that "cheap" and "expensive" are in the American context. For Indian prices, the bike was already expensive... and an outright rip-off.

The brake pads wore out within the week, and stuff was already rickety. Soon I had developed a masterful technique of stopping by bike - squeeze both brake levers hard, and if the speed is still not suffiently low, press the rubber coating on the bottom part of your shoes against the ground. I must point out that I never had the problem of not being able to stop in time.

So this one day, I heard the news that I would be getting a Teaching Assitantship at UF, which would cover my tuition costs and also give me a healthy paycheck. To say I was happy would be understating it. Suddenly there was this economic freedom and I immediatly agreed to go to Tampa with my friend - Nikhil. There was just a small hitch - he had left some documents (or keys or something) at another place and it was essential he have it before he left. I offered to go and pick it up for him so that he could finish his lunch. Since I had already left my bike at home, I picked up his bike.

So happy me decides to race the bike up to the place. A short check shows that the brakes are good. A short check also misses out the fact that the brakes are quite good and that since I am used to my super braking technique, I should take it easy. The short check also misses out reminding me that in US, the brakes are opposite - unlike those in India, the left lever is for the front wheel and the right is for the back.

As I zoom down the slope at a high speed, I think about how I will not be in debt anymore. I will be able to actually enjoy US without worrying about that multiplying factor. I also think that the SUV pulling out of the drive-way in front should not come so fast.

You know how in movies the action slows down at critical moments. Well, in actual life it doesn't. Here is what I remember: Oh car, I must slow down. Jam the brakes (damn you, short check). Where did the handle-bars go? Face palm upwards to see that the handlebars are gone. Umm, I'm not sitting on anything anymore. Land face first flat on the ground. Realize that the bike also hit you after you landed on the ground.

Get up dazed. The glasses are skewed. Take them off so you can check if they were damaged. See they are covered in blood and panic. Take out handkerchief so that I can stop the blood flow. Realize that I don't know where is the blood pouring out from. See left hand bleeding and use to handkerchief to clamp it down... and so on.

Here's what I guess happened. I jammed the both the brakes, but probably jammed the left one first causing the bike to flip. Since I was pretty fast, I got thrown off the bike. I think I flew 6-7 feet in the air. I did not realize that I was flying and turned up my palms to check where the handlebars had gone. No bones were broken and I did not hurt my head (as I first thought).

The kicker is, the car pulling out of the driveway wasn't at fault. He wasn't even in my way and I did not hit him either. I was trying to just slow down and he would have probably given me way if I hadn't flipped. My left hand was pretty damaged and the blood from it scared me and him. I refused his offer to call for an ambulance or 911. I hobbled a bit to the house I had to get to. Some Indian guy with a car saw me as I was walking and took me to the univ clinic where I got stitches.

Over the next 3 months I learnt everything about health insurance.

Everyone heard about the guy who didn't know how to ride a bicycle. They also heard how nobody hit me. I just fell off. Funny thing is, whenever I asked the Indian guys laughing at me which side the back brake is, they told me the Indian convention - left lever for back brake. So, considering that so many Indian students buy cheap bikes, it is a miracle there haven't been many accidents.

Moral of the story: If your life depends on it, spend more money on getting a better quality product. Also, don't be an idiot and do not race down a slope with bike unless you have atleast a helmet. Or really kick-ass insurance.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Everyone has done this at least a couple of times - type your name into Google and see what turns up. And hope that the results are about you. A couple of years back I was eager to have the "right me" show up. I'd built a small website on a free hosting service. I'd started using it as a blog too (the first post ever on this one refers to that) and I wanted this correct site to show if ever someone searched for details about me.

I tried to go all out... well sorta. I had the site url as my email signature, had it on Orkut (I wasn't using Facebook then), and I guess I tried putting it on a couple of places to attract the attention of search engines. My name is thankfully not too common. A search will give pretty much a lot of info about me. And most of it is correct. I guess I must thank Chaitali for making me aware of how search could be used for uncovering disturbing amounts of stuff. She took up a challenge from me and found some interesting obscure details about my flat-mates just using Google search. I had those details verified.... and flat-mates did creep out a bit.

Over time, I clamped down on the privacy settings on Facebook and Orkut. Orkut was pretty easy to deal with since I never used it for much. I barely uploaded enough details. But Facebook is turning into this giant mass of personal data. It's addictive and fun and that's what makes it so tempting to sorta divulge info onto it. Thank god someone out there started screaming about privacy issues and caught my attention.

The blog "Blown to Bits" carries a lot of posts and links about privacy issues. Facebook has always seemed to be a dicey deal when it comes to privacy. (Unfortunately, I can't find or add links here to make it easier to read, but the BTB blog is a good start to read up stuff related to this.) Using social apps on Facebook seemed okay in the beginning, but I realised that most of these apps get to access your personal info. Letting random people know your complete birthdate, place of birth, phone number, address are not the best ideas in the world. It's such an easy way of letting people steal your identity, especially since so many tech support services ask these questions over the phone or internet when you want to "change options", "get additional features", "report forgotten password" and so on.

Google has always seemed much better on this front, only because they make their privacy policy easily accessible and options easy to change. Facebook keeps changing it's policy and there is a small blurb informing people about it. It has been getting better lately but the first impressions have stuck around and I'm keeping my profile all locked up except to certain friends.

What prompted this post? A new option on FB that allows you to "like" any site and share that story on FB with your friends. The small print below says that your public profile info might be available to the sites. FB has also tied up with Microsoft Docs, Pandora and Yelp and so I'm guessing that if you log on to both using the same browser your online accounts might get linked. I don't have accounts on those and I'm not going to test this. 

I'm just gonna re-check & confirm if my public profile is pretty closed to strangers.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hebbun and the curse of the light pole

No, we were not drunk. Nor were we high on anything. Moments of inspired randomness in good old Gainesville gave us these gems.

When something was truly awesome, it signified something more than heavenly. It was ... wait for it... hebbun. Or Hay-1. Or Hay-bun. For maximum effect, you pause a bit, Barney-style, after the "Hay" and then say the "bun" or "one" slowly.

Or there was this discussion about Noah and his ark. Being an engineer makes you think that you obviously know better than others. So, your meagre knowledge of probability makes you wonder about the odds of finding land when wandering around aimlessly. However, bouts of speech impediments prompt you wonder about the merits of "wanderously aimering". Your flatmate corrects you that they were actually "aimeresly wandering". You proclaim the 49,983th time that you "have not lost it", because you "never had it to begin with".

An old story about a professor who taught me in my undergrad in his heavily Marathi-accented English created a new form greeting. The same word is a semi-official nickname - "Shay".

Playing cards gets a new meaning. You actually play catch with credit cards.

You invent a new game with bottles of water, a foam ball, a rack of shoes, a bicycle. It's competitive too.

And then those night-time walks between the two desi "adda"s - Park 16 and Arbor Park give you newfound understanding about the mysteries of nature: the electric light pole near the Sun-bay bus stop is cursed. Whenever any of us walked under it, it toggled - it switched off it was on, or switched on if it was off. Sometimes, it toggled back after we had gone away from it's influence zone. There were non-believers, but Abhishek and I had empirical proof. The curse was known to follow us sometimes. It appeared when we were in the Florida Keys. Sometimes it followed us separately, Abhishek sighted it when he was with his friends. Recently, I had a sighting in France. Trust me guys, the electric light poles are cursed. Or maybe they are sending us a message.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Travel Blog

I wanted to write about my trips. Sometimes, only photos do not convey the experience. Most of my previous attempts to write about a trip sucked. Too long, too boring and no pictures. I wanted to keep this blog separate, focus on thoughts, non-travel experiences and such.

So, I started a new blog. Hopefully I'll write there often enough. I'll pepper it with pictures too. Somehow, I want to describe the photos taken in the blog posts without making it boring or obscure. Thanks to overabundance of technology, I can now actually geo-tag photos I take. And map walking routes. Let's see how it works out.

Oh, the link: Read, comment, share.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The odd man out AKA how to make life in France difficult

1: Refuse to learn French before coming to France. Insist on "winging it".

2: Change address multiple times. Not receive the social security documents at new place. 

3: Be clueless about stuff. Turn up for sailing lessons without gear.

4: Be the only guy while hiking or sailing who doesn't understand French.

5: Allow your US driving license to lapse. You reason that it was valid only for 1 year any way.

6: France allows foreign driving licenses for the first year. For students, the native license is valid without time limit. Use this reason to not get an International Driving Permit while in India.

7: 125cc and below motorbikes have a little more leeway. Insist on buying and wanting a bigger motorbike. Stare in disbelief at high insurance rates.

8: Indian driving license, no IDP, a 500 cc motorbike. Get refused by multiple insurance companies.

9: Not learn Linux earlier. Install it on laptop anyway. Stare at prospects of learning Linux for work, & for laptop. Sometimes, help files for linux at work are in French.

10: Be picky about meat. Avoid fish and beef. Beef strictly. Be unpredictable about when you want to eat fish. This makes every trip to the cafeteria or restaurant a "fun" quiz for others. "What meat does this contain?", "Can I get something vegetarian?"

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What's up?

I realise that I have subscribed to 32 feeds in my Google Reader. I'm also following 44 people. I have an active Facebook account, I've not switched off Buzz. And I frequent Cnn, Times of India (bad choice, I know), Cricinfo, Engadget, Cnet.

Oh, and I'm also supposed to be doing a PhD. I've re-discovered my addiction to reading. Though, along with books it includes all those above things. Which means that reading papers and work stuff is lagging behind. Shit! Hence, a recent curfew was put into place. Most forms of chat were switched off. I didn't go as ninja as this one suggests. But I have contemplated it.

So what has happenned in recent times? Trip to Venice. It's a great city. VISIT it. I would definitely want to go there again. I caught up on Tv Shows  - How I Met Your Mother and Californication. HIMYM is the simple-minded addicted sitcom thingy. Once you start a season, lack of anything better to do makes you want to finish it. I finished it. Californication is good. Though I would have been happy if they had stopped at Season 1. Now that Season 2 has ended in a way to set up Season 3, I will have to watch it.

As a way to be less online and more in the "real" world, I picked up sailing lessons. Catamarans! It's fun. Especially when 6 minutes into the sea, a gust of wind and inexperience causes the boat to flip. Not entirely, but you get thrown into icy cold water. But sailing requires you to be able to swim 50 metres unaided. I can swim, but not too far. So I need to go the pool and do them some laps. And doing them laps I am.

Went skiing the other day. I was told that since I can roller-blade and since I have tried ice-skating, skiing wouldn't be a problem. Big old overconfident me had a fun time trying to figure out how to stay standing on those skis. The repeated taste of snow+ice is not all that fun. But eventually I managed to move and stop when I wanted (almost). Success!

And finally, have been looking for motorcycles. And will be buying one in a week. In the process of doing the paperwork and insurance and stuff. So, next week a 500cc baby monster will roll in.

Monday, January 25, 2010

More theories, it all HAS to add up

A myth tells of how Pelops overcame the king and won the hand of his daughter Hippodamia so that he could become king, with the help of Poseidon, his old lover. Another myth tells of the hero Hercules, or Herakles, who won a race at Olympia and then decreed that the race should be re-enacted every four years. Some people state that the Greeks believed that the gods enjoyed watching sporting events. These games also served as a way to ready men for battle with skills like running, wrestling, throwing the javelin for accuracy, and throwing the discus for distance.

The idea to revive the Olympic Games as an international competition came to Pierre de Coubertin, a French pedagogue and historian, in 1889 and he spent the following five years organizing an international meeting of athletes and sports enthusiasts that might make it happen. His reasons for this are not entirely clear (well, they are. But just like Dan Brown fudges facts, I want to too. So, play along). What's notable is that the first modern Olympic Games were held only 2 years after the proposals for them were approved in 1894.

Speaking of the French, the Algiers' crises of 1958 brought about the collapse of the Fourth Republic. The new Fifth Republic gave a 7 year term to the President until, in 2000, a referendum reduced it to 5 years. Whether it was coincidence or fate, or clever plotting, the course had been set.

The French revolution has been said to inspire the have been inspired by the American revolution. George Washington took office as the first President of the US in 1889, and the country has had elections at 4 year intervals since then. In keeping with the pattern, the latest President took office in 2009. The elections for this were held in 2008.

(I admit, this one is really wild) 
The number 116 is a noncototient. While the number 116! + 1 is prime. A significance, not to be forgotten (since we talked about the French), is that the Hundred Years War between France and England lasted 116 years. 116 is also the fire emergency number in Peru.
How is all this related you ask. Let me explain. 116 years after the first Modern Olympic games (whose original intention was to help atheletes prepare for battle) proposed by a Frenchman, the French and the American democracies (probably the oldest modern democracies) will go into elections to elect a new head of state. In 2012. 116, a number who the South American people of Peru associate with emergency, links these events.

(And like Dan Brown and other conspiracy theorists, crazy madcap idea comes right here ---->) I have lived in France and America for education. More proof of why I MUST (LOL) have something to do with this, can be found right in this post.

Sigh, I'm so full of myself. I love it. :P I guess I should think more about work now. Till later!

PS: Many sentences lifted as-is straight from Wikipedia. And I have used "artistic freedom" to freely (and wrongly) interpret stuff I want to, so that it fits my "theory". :D

Thursday, January 21, 2010

French Buses...

.. are not unlike those in Gainesville.

The one you should have caught is always on time (or even before time) while the one you ending travelling in is always 5 to 10 minutes late. Add the fact that the bus is every 20 or 40 minutes only, and you have a pretty sorry picture about your punctuality.

Which gets me to think about buses in India (since you always MUST compare it with stuff in India. It's a rule. Somewhere it has surely been written down). Pune has a bad bus system. I stopped using buses the minute I got my driver's license. And when I couldn't use the car/bike I use the rickshaws. The rickshaws aren't cheap (any more). And compared to the buses, absolutely not.

If I really think back hard and try to remember waiting for the bus, heck, I did actually spend 10-15 minutes at the bus stop every time. I used to have a class at 5 (p.m... I was/am sane) and I always left at around 4-ish. Distance to travel = 10 km. Actual time taken on bicycle = 40 minutes, car = 25 minutes (traffic, you see). So, there you go. It was as bad there as it is here.

But, I still crib about the buses here. Mumbai is another matter. It is so huge, that you must compare only cities like San Francisco, New York, Paris, London etc and their transport systems. So, I must basically learn to cut this place some slack. Or, buy a motorcycle and/or a car.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


"... winning gold medals at the math olympiad was just a dangling carrot to get you all motivated. Winning medals there is not a true measure of success of this program. We will know whether our experiment was truly successful after, say, 10 years. Let us meet in 2012. I predict that each of you will have done something truly great. That will be the true measure of success for this program." -- Prof. P.
Well, it's not an exact quote, but it sums up what P meant in 2002. So, the date 1st June 2012 draws closer, just 29 months and few days away. At 6 pm, we are scheduled to meet in Pune. The golden medal guy has promised that, as always, he will be 5 minutes late. Among things changed, some are on their way to getting married already. Some have shifted fields. Mathematics no longer takes up a chunk of our lives. Some don't need it altogether. But the prediction says that we will still have benefited from the program, and I generally agree with it.

I am scheduled to graduate with a PhD in August 2012. A couple of others might graduate in 2012 too.

Sometime around 3000 BC (well, historians aren't quite sure about the exact date), the Mayans invented a calendar, that had a last date. Theories suggest that this corresponds to 21 December, 2012. For proof, refer to the movie that goes by the same title.

The book "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco writes about a fictitious conspiracy theory that 3 editors are working on that intends to be "the mother of all theories" and that ties in all myths and legends and reveals a greater Plan. In it, a "normal" character chides one of the leads about such theories saying, that you can choose any number, and any fact, and assign it a greater meaning. Making a conspiracy theory is quite easy and you can make it personal by (forcibly) relating it to events in your life. Maybe I should make a movie based on the above lines, make myself the lead character, and show how I was destined to be the saviour.... or the first one to go in the apocalypse.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Year End Wrap up

As is the tradition everywhere online, the end of the year and the beginning of a new one prompts everyone to re-evaluate their life, the year and comment on how good/bad it was and how it ended. And now, me too.

2009 was a year where things I never imagined happened. I performed on stage as a part of UF's best and most well-known improvisation troupe. I acted... and played a role in a tv show! Of course, I finished up my thesis in UF and got my MS in Mech. Engineering. I knew I would go for a PhD, but I mostly aimed at doing it in the US. UFL was the back-up option.

Spring semester got me my first legit paper publication (ASME!!). I finally decided to break out of my safety net and plunged into improv comedy, something I had been fascinated about but never believed I could do. (I sang Soulja Boy and cracked a Pirate Ship joke, made up on the spot, in my first show!) I camped at and hiked the Smoky Mountains, something that I had promised myself more than a year and half ago. I did at 9 mile run at a pace of 10 minutes per mile and raised a little more than $350 for a charity organisation, Gators for ASHA.

Sometime in February, I decided to finally apply to "that dream research institute", somewhere in France, called INRIA Sophia Antipolis. I'd sent a few emails to the professor there and it seemed to be going on the right track. But mentally, I don't think I was prepared to make the big leap to France. Spring semester chugged along. I had long chats with many people. Sorted out some issues. By the end of it, I knew that the choices for my future plans lay in Stonybrook (New York), UFL or to wait for the decision from INRIA.

At the end of my Bachelors degree, I was eager to get out of Pune. No jobs seemed interesting enough and promise of "good" research while doing my master's felt quite attractive. And so I was glad to go to UF. Just the same way, right around my thesis defense, I started feeling the same feeling. To get out of Gainesville. Most friends were graduating and moving out too and the monotony of research (or rather, the lack of my interest in research) was getting me. I was tired about worrying about funding and doing jobs in restaurants and just wanted to focus on research work and fun. But I did not want to leave Gainesville for Stonybrook. And so I rejected the Stonybrook offer and decided that INRIA was the best option and if not that, then I would continue in Gainesville.

I had also figured out that INRIA is in the French Riviera... there were no further convincing arguments needed :P. I was sold. The 2 months after graduation, in Gainesville, were some of the most amazing. I acted in and assisted for a TV show called Oppie's Friend Gene. I've always wanted to see how movies and TV shows get made. The TSF guys never seemed unprofessional to me. I had great movie and fun sessions at home and at friends' places. I bonded with people and made new friends in the last 30 days in Gainesville. Who would have thought that would happen! The Smoky Mountain trip happened. I finally saw the Newnan's lake! 
(Whats at Newnan's lake? -- Nothing. We were told that it is a sorta Gainesville, tradition to take your boat there in summer and fish. We didn't have a boat, but I wanted to see this lake. Its a hell lot bigger than Wauberg and there are bigger gators -- we saw a couple of them.)

I came back to India. Leaving Gainesville was difficult. Especially since I don't know when and if I will return to the US. Thats a lot of friends and memories to leave behind. I wonder how people can move so easily between places. I spent the two months in India doing nothing. I got back to being the guy I was before - lazy, not doing anything and complaining (a bit) about stuff. Was this is reverse-home-sickness / reverse-culture-shock that everyone warns you about?... I don't know.

From September, I have been in France. It is nothing like I expected. It's been really difficult moving around and getting stuff done since I don't know the language. I could probably write posts about how to get things done, and what goes wrong when you try to do something. Maybe sometime later. I have met so many people from so many countries. I was once at this party where 10 of us at the table were from 10 different countries. Until now, among all continents, only Australia has not been represented at the parties I have been to.

Living in France, I have become even more used to being silent, and to listen more. I generally am surrounded by French speakers and most of the time I'm silent, trying to decipher their sentences. I've become even more dependent on the internet. At the end of this year, I was forced (by chance, bureaucracy and miscommunication) to end up with no cell phone or no internet for almost 15 days. It was tough, but refreshing.
I used couchsurfing to meet up with some people in Rome for Christmas, and had an amazing trip in Rome. Imagine spending 5 days with people you have never met, have no idea how they look and some of whom you have communicated only by email a few times. I'm definitely couchsurfing soon. And, oh yes... definitely visit Rome. It is a city one must see.

For New Years' Eve, I was contacted by an Italian couple (through couchsurfing again!) who were visiting the area. My flat-mate and some friends were debating about having a party at our place, and we decided to invite the Italians over. At midnight all of us walked over by the beach, to the city centre. We saw some fireworks, had champagne and chatted in a bar.

2010 already feels like future. It doesn't seem like now. It feels like time is zooming by. It should slow down.. I want to use my student discounts for longer. :)
To more blogs, more adventures and great research work... cheers!