24 October

Today it’s 24th October and it’s still deepavali. An earlier occasion when the festival fell on this date was in 1995, which I rank among my best deepavalis ever

24th October 1995 saw a total solar eclipse in India. In Bangalore it was only partial but clearly visible. We had procured special goggles (made of aluminium foil or something) to view the eclipse. I don’t remember any other solar eclipse during my lifetime of close to 32 years getting that much footage.

I don’t have too many cousins (total of 5 both sides put together) but a couple of them were home that deepavali. So after the eclipse we went off to see The Mask in galaxy. One cousin who was 18 them just couldn’t get enough of Cameron Diaz’s cleavage and legs, I remember.

We came back and burst crackers. The previous day too we had burst – deepavali is a three day festival in Bangalore and usually we burst lots of crackers on days 1 and 3. Back then I remember going to relatives’ houses and relatives coming to my house to burst crackers together.

On day three (25 October 1995) we went to see Rangeela in urvashi. I was quite enamoured by Urmila Matondkar’s assets but couldn’t do or say a thing since my dad was sitting next to me! Just quietly watched. And back in those days there was no YouTube or Internet to make amends later!

I remember ruling thulping food at MTR after the movie. Don’t remember what I ate though.

And again we burst crackers that evening – in a cousins house if I remember right (or it might have been the other way round – cousins house oh day 2 and my house on day 3. I don’t remember now). 

This was only the latter half of the five day deepavali weekend that year. On the first two days 21st and 22nd I’d gone for a chess tournament somewhere in Rajajinagar (one of my last tournaments before I retired from competitive chess). I remember starting the tournament nondescriptly but having a spectacular second day of the tournament to finish with 4 out of 6 points, losing out on a podium finish on progressive score.

It was a spectacular five day weekend overall. The variety in fun was significant, and the quantity too!

Of late though I’ve stopped celebrating deepavali – crackers don’t excite me any more and there is nothing else to the festival as far as I’m concerned!

As I’d remarked on this blog a year or so back – festivals are like memes. In the original sense of the word, as Richard Dawkins intended it when he invented the word!

Time Zones

So I’m in Barcelona. Got here late last night, and it’s too early to judge the city – the back of a taxi in the middle of the night speeding through empty streets isn’t the best way to judge a city. Will go out later today and possibly check for myself.

But one thing I know for sure is that Barcelona is in the wrong time zone. I woke up at 7:30  this morning and it was dark. Like Bangalore is dark at 6 in the morning! And though I’m yet to see an evening here myself, I’ve been told that nowadays it gets dark here only at 7:30 pm or something.

The problem here is that most of Europe wants to be on the same time zone – this map explains the whole issue.

Notice the green region here, in which I’ve been for this week so far. Macedonia on the East and Galicia (that portion of Spain just to the north of Portugal) on the west are on the same time zone! And as you can see from the longitudinal lines on this map, that is like a difference of thirty degrees! Or two hours in terms of the earth’s rotation!

While having the same time zone might make sense in terms of coordinating work timings across places in the same economic zone and could thus lead to better trade and commerce and coordination (see this post on Samoa’s move across the International Date Line for the politics of time zone), having a wide degrees of longitudes share the same time is plain absurd, in terms of the usage of “daylight” in these places!

Thus, it will get dark absurdly really in the day in Macedonia, while the sun just doesn’t seem to rise in Galicia! I’m thinking I should go out for a run tomorrow morning, but what time do I go? By the time the sun is up the traffic will be in full swing!

This whole concept of a common European time is no less absurd than the much-maligned concept of Beijing and Xinjiang (at the western edge of China) being on the same time zone! Yet we don’t hear much criticism of Europe’s time zones. Wonder why!

And on top of having such a wide time zones these guys want to impose daylight savings! This is firmly in the “measure with a micrometer, mark with a chalk and cut with an axe” territory!

Raised seats for people on wheelchairs

image

I’m writing this from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris as I wait for my connection to Amsterdam. Just happened to notice this seat on front of me which is reserved for people in wheelchairs, motor disabilities, etc.

It’s extremely thoughtful that they’ve recognised that people with motor disabilities have trouble sitting on low seats and thus raised the seats reserved for such people.

Great example of truly inclusive design

Looking for a voicemail product

I’ll be traveling abroad for 2-3 weeks next month, during which I will not have access to my phone (don’t plan to take international roaming). In this context, what I need is some kind of a voicemail product – where any call made to my airtel number (which will be “switched off”) will get redirected to voicemail, which informs the caller that I’m traveling and they should leave a message. And I should be able to log on periodically to some website where I can listen to my collected voicemail, and possibly call back some of them.

Does such a product exist? If not, does there exist a market for this, or does everyone who wants to use a product like this can afford international roaming?

And while we are at it, are there any good voicemail apps that I can use on my Android phone (when my phone is in the sim and connected to the network)?

Thanks much!

Leaving twitter

It has been over three weeks since I signed off twitter. On January 1st, I had left this message on the social network:

 

After that I logged off twitter on all my computers, deleted tweetdeck from chrome and deleted the twitter app from my phone and iPad. I haven’t changed my twitter password, though, so every time I write a blog post wordpress will send an automatic notification tweet (it is likely that some of you are reading this via the automatic wordpress twitter notification).

The reason I logged off twitter was that I was getting addicted. Every time I had a minute or two of free time I would go check tweets. I was constantly on twitter all my waking hours. I would wake up in the morning to the alarm on my phone, and the first thing I would do was to check twitter. It is not unfair to say that twitter had consumed me.

Hence the effort to log off and delete the apps. So far I haven’t faced any withdrawal symptoms. There are times when I pull out my phone and instinctively go for the twitter app. And then I realize it’s not there, and curb my instincts. While working if I need a break I look for tweetdeck in my Chrome, but then realize it is not there.

So far, Facebook has been a good substitute. The advantage of facebook over twitter is that the former has a much more slow-moving news feed. If you check facebook after an hour or two, there will be two or three status updates on your timeline. Essentially when you instinctively click on facebook, it doesn’t become as much of a time sink as twitter used to.

One of  the reasons I would check twitter was for interesting links and articles. In the last 2-3 years some of the best stuff I’ve read online has been recommended to me by people on twitter. However, I have a way of accessing that without accessing twitter itself – I use this app called Flipboard (on both Android and iPad) and that curates articles that have been recommended by several of my followees and shows them to me. I check Flipboard approximately once a day, read some articles and bookmark some others. Thanks to that, I only get the article content on twitter without all the inane commentary and the PJs.

In my last month on twitter, I had logged off for a day on two-three separate occasions. The problem with twitter of late is that it is turning into yet another TV news channel. When there is an event of some interest, all the diversity on your timeline disappears, and everyone starts talking about the same thing. For a while it is good, for you get different perspectives. And then there is more and more of the sameness and can absolutely drive you nuts.

There is one reason I miss twitter though – for sharing articles. For a long time now I’ve liked to share interesting pieces that I’ve read. Back when Google Reader existed and had the “shared items” feature enabled, a number of people requested to be my GTalk friends just so that they could look at my curated “Google Reader Shared Items” content. Since that feature was taken off, though, I’ve resorted to twitter for sharing interesting articles. Now that I’m off twitter (technically Flipboard and Feedly (my RSS feed reader) allow me to share things on Twitter without logging on, but I don’t want to do that) I need another way.

Facebook doesn’t work, since most facebook friends are of a personal kind and won’t particularly be interested in articles on financial hedging (for example) or football formations. I’m not on any of these link sharing systems such as digg or delicious (assuming I’ve understood correctly how those two work), and I dn’t want to add another social network which can be yet another source of distraction. Hence, I’ve come up with an ingenious solution.

Back when Google took off the sharing feature from Reader, their recommendation was that we use Google Plus instead for sharing links. And that is exactly what I use that social network for. I never log on to that, but every time I read something interesting, it goes there. People say Google Plus is like shouting into an empty room. I don’t know (and don’t care) who reads the links I put there. I don’t share links for popularity. I share it because I think someone might find them interesting.

When I first got off twitter, people told me my resolution won’t last. It’s been three weeks already and i’m happy the way things are. I’m much less distracted, and can work better. I have a lot more time to myself. Time that would earlier be spent saying inane things on twitter is now spent in deep thought – and that is a good thing. I used to be a big fan of long lonely walks. Constant interaction on twitter means I don’t do those any more. But now I get more time for myself. On an auto rickshaw ride to meet some friends last evening for example, I just looked around and thought. It was wonderful!

I don’t rule out ever getting  back to twitter but  I don’t see myself doing so in the near future unless there is a very strong reason, and unless I know I won’t get addicted again. Till both these events happen, I remain away from that social network.

Protein in South Indian food

So a number of people have recommended that I switch to a low carb high protein diet. The primary impediment to implementing this is the fact that most high protein foods are meat based and we don’t cook meat at home. However, of late I’ve started noting down the various vegetarian sources of protein and I think I should give this high protein diet a go.

Having decided I’ll embark on this high protein vegetarian diet from tomorrow morning I decided to have a traditional simple to make dinner tonight. I ate some poori-palya which was left over from breakfast and then followed it up with curd rice. And the. I started thinking about protein content in traditional South Indian food.

The traditional meal I’m used to is rice with sambar followed by rice with curd. Rice of course is carbohydrate only but the sambar is ideally made thick, with lots of dal and curd is also quite high in protein. So from that perspective the traditional meal I grew up with is not that low in protein – despite what a lot of people like to say. And contrary to what I’d said in a post in December there is plenty of vegetables also in home cooked food. So why is the traditional South Indian diet considered unhealthy?

I think it primarily has to do with bad implementation – usually a consequence of attempted cost saving. If you can’t afford thick curd you eat buttermilk instead – which is quite a dilution. And then lentils are expensive so you end up diluting the sambar too. And then you skimp on vegetables and you get a carb heavy thing!

Then why did I bitch about the Andhra meals the other day? Why is it that Andhra meals is not as nutritious? The answer is that if you eat only the vegetarian component of what is essentially a meal that includes meat you end up missing out on the nutrition. What we get as meals in most Andhra restaurants is food that people who eat meat eat. So that food relies on the meat to provide the protein and so the rice accompaniments like the powders and chutneys need not have much protein in them. So when you leave out the meat and eat the rest you naturally get an unbalanced diet!

Anyway starting tomorrow I’m cutting down on rice, sugars and other carbs. I plan to be eating loads of eggs, cheese,tofu, mushroom and the like. Let’s see how far I go with this!

Push and Pull Teaching

I’m writing this in the context of the Right to Education Act coming into force this year. The reason I use a musical example upfront is that music is the only thing I’ve tried to learn formally in recent times. While I use the example to illustrate the problem with the traditional Indian learning system, I refer to more basic and general education in this post. 

So about a month back I decided I need to add to my education in Carnatic and Western Classical Music and decided to learn Hindustani Classical. I decided it was time to learn a new instrument (so far I’d been trained only in playing the violin) and after some facebook queries, found a teacher who lived close by. After a lecture in how he teaches to take forward a “parampara” and not for money, and that he expects extreme devotion from students, and that he likes to begin classes for a new student only on a Monday, classes began in right earnest.

Classes soon hit a roadblock, though. As the more perceptive of you here might be aware, I have (I don’t want to use the word “suffer”) ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder), thanks to which my attention span is grossly lower than that of the normal human being. Weeks together of simply going up and down the (Bilawal) scale soon got to me and I lost interest in practicing. Soon I realized I had started to look for excuses to bunk classes. I decided to cut my losses and decided to discontinue class.

Before I discontinued class, however, I  thought long and hard about telling my teacher about my ADHD, and that his methods of teaching weren’t working out for me. I wanted to tell him about the Suzuki method which my Western Classical teacher had adopted a year ago, which kept me interested in the music without relaxation of rigour. The Suzuki Method had worked fantastically well for me. Each class I would learn a new (simple) song – for example, I started my Western Classical learning by learning to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

There are times when I think that I should have given my sitar teacher a fairer chance and explained to him about the Suzuki method and adopt something like it for the Sitar. However, from my knowledge of him based on my intereaction with him for a month or so, it didn’t seem like it would work, and I ended up (regretfully) quitting without giving him a chance to push the education on me.

The thing with traditional Indian learning is that it is fundamentally “pull”. The onus is on the student to convince the teacher to take him on as a student, and then to extract knowledge and wisdom from the teacher. In the traditional Indian context, it is absolutely okay for the guru to be aloof and disinterested, for it is not his duty to teach – it is the student’s duty to extract knowledge from the teacher. In fact my friend and colleague Nitin Pai informs me that according to the Upanishads, it is the duty of the teacher to reject a student the first three times he “applies”, and accept a student only after he has sucked up considerably.

While there might have been good reasons for such teaching practices back in the Vedic and Puranic ages (for example, the caste system forbid considerable sections of the population from learning the scriptures), these practices are wholly unsuited for the modern age where the focus is on increasing the reach of education and and ensuring that more people have access to education.

With the onus being on universal education and on getting every child to learn, we need to get rid of the “Acharya Devo Bhava” (teacher is god) paradigm and instead shift to a framework  of professional teachers where it is the teacher’s duty to reach out to the student. We need to get to a paradigm where the students can demand that the teacher reach out to them and teach them, and where students don’t need to suck up to the teacher.

The “acharya devo bhava” concept might have served us well in the pre-writing age and ensured that our most important scriptures were transmitted down to an era where they could be written down. This paradigm, however, is not scalable, and definitely not suited to a situation where the objective is to provide education to everybody.

Flawed though it may be, the Right to Education Act is a good step by the Union Government to ensure greater learning among kids and to maximize our chances of making good of the demographic dividend. The measure, however, will be dead on arrival unless the mindset of teaching and learning is changed.

Banking

Surprisingly for a Saturday morning the state bank of India branch where i have my account was rather empty. No sooner had I got a ticket to get at the back of the virtual queue I found my ticket number being called. This being March when one expects economic activity to be high I wonder if this is an indicator of a showdown.

As soon as I reached the counter the first thing the clerk asked me was if i had complied with the know your customer norms. I guess this must be a fallout of the recent sting operation against some banks with respect to money laundering. As it happened the account to which I was transferring money was not compliant. It didn’t even have my address or date of birth. I was summarily told I wouldn’t be able to operate it unless I provide the necessary operations.

I classify banks as human and computer. Private and foreign banks are what I call computer banks. They have excellent online banking, phone banking  and are great at executing routine tasks. However ask them to do something non standard or something that required human intelligence and they falter badly. The processes are so strict the front line staff are not empowered at all.

PSU banks on the other hand are human banks. Online banking sucks as does phone banking. You don’t get door delivery of demand drafts. However these banks are great at empowering their front line staff thanks to which you can expect to get superior service.

A minute after the clerk told me that I wouldn’t be able to operate my public provident fund account because it didn’t comply with the norms she noticed that the cheque I’d written out was from the same bank. Let me see if this account is compliant, she said.  It turned out that my savings account was fully compliant.
It was only a matter of minutes after that. She quickly copied out the necessary information from my savings account to my provident fund account and then called the bank manager to immediately approve the compliance. In another five minutes the money had been duly transferred and my work was done.

Recognition

I just bumped into this guy at the Mumbai airport and the conversation went like this:
Me: hey I’ve seen you somewhere
He: ugh?
Me: you’re from Chennai?
He: yes
Me: svce?
He: yes..
Me: 2001-2005?
He (looking confused) : yes
Me: you represented your college at university challenge in 2003
He: yeah..
Me: you were goach’s teammate. I’m sorry I don’t remember your name… (two seconds later)… arvind chandrasekhar?

He had the look on his face that suggested he almost gave up in life. I decided to put him out of his misery. ‘Back in Madras I used to be known as wimpy’ I said. I’m not sure if he actually remembered me but he mumbled a ‘I thought so but wasn’t sure’ and we parted.

Before you find this way too unusual let
me tell you that he wasn’t some random guy in the airport I accosted. I was catching up with this long lost friend who I’d bumped into at the airport and he happened to be traveling with her..

Nevertheless I’m proud of my long-term memory. And I’m proud to be married to someone who has an equally good, if not better, long term memory. In fact both of us find ourselves on socially awkward situations frequently when we meet someone we recognize but they don’t recognize us back.

Oh and two minutes before I bumped into arvind I was talking to someone about twenty questions and tintoretto!