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.