Using a Kindle

Finally I went and got myself (photographs – here and here) a Kindle. For me it wasn’t about the choice between whether to get an iPad or, a Kindle. They are remarkably different devices and I did not want to go for a reasonably powerful tablet that could also handle book reading via applications. There was also the notion that I would like to move away from back-lit displays. So off I went and got a Kindle. And, I’ve been using it for a while now.

The first time I held and saw one was with Aanjhan. And, it was precisely then that I realized that I’d have to take a look at my reading habits to see if the Kindle is an expensive toy or, it does really fit into my way of things. On a complete tangent this is similar to the discussion we had when we were planning to get a microwave – does it add value by way of function. Anyways, once it arrived I decided to test it out with a couple of books from The Pragmatic Bookshelf (kudos to them for providing Kindle copies of their books if one has already purchased a PDF), a few other PDFs and, a couple of books from Project Gutenberg.

Or, let’s back track a bit. All these books were being selected as the device was charging and was setup and registered. Once done and the books transferred over I started by creating Collections for the books and off we went. Reading the books was a charm. And, the one single question I had as to whether I would end up reading slower than I do with actual paper books was unfounded. Handling of both PDFs and standard formats was excellent. However what just keeps me fascinated is the E Ink Electronic Paper display. Having spent a large part of my time reading content off back-lit LCD/CRT screens, this way of reading does make for a tremendous difference. I’ve had tests for reading ability done in shade and sunlight and no real difficulty came up. The Text-to-Speech bits do stutter a bit when handling large files (1000+ pages) but other than that there isn’t much I can really complain about. Well actually there is – the power slider switch looks tremendously fragile to me 🙂

The Kindle of course doesn’t render Indic. Which is a bit of a shame. The range of books on Amazon that have a Kindle version aren’t really as wide as the non-Kindle ones. However, for a considerable period of time I think that this would end up being the device I use to read and re-read the classics – most of them freely available from various sources including Project Gutenberg and of course making better use of my Safari bookshelf content. So, we should be well set. Meanwhile the one drawback that I’ve noticed is that not all books that I want to read right now (for example, The Silent Don) have Kindle versions available via Amazon. Guess that is something I would have to figure out as I go.

Update: The Kindle does seem to handle Indic. If you check the comment I tried out a PDF from here and it did work out well.

Where is our “maker” attitude ?

For me the Wikireader is a fun device. Since it is a single function gadget I can do the required reading on it without getting distracted (unless the distraction is the cellphone or, the landline). I have two ways of using the Wikireader – either I have a specific term in mind and build up the crawl thereafter or, I just use the Random button to look up a topic (and, sometimes keep hitting it to get a topic that looks nice) and keep going back and forth between the links. Since I had the device for a while and the Wikireader folks had released an update, I decided to update it.

Curiously enough I managed to brick it during the update. The usual “no wiki found” screen came up. Before I thought of ordering an update SD card I figured why not poke around what is and try to see what I am doing wrong with the copying of the files . The software source and hardware bits are anyway available and thus a fairly productive 180 minutes were spent reading up on the internals (I can actually probably take a 15 minute session on it :)). In the middle of it all I also did a Lazyweb version of a microblog which was answered by the @wikireader handle and off we were with a new update.

To cut to the chase, what I see is that there is a serious lack of the ‘maker’ attitude in the young generation. I know it does sound like a lament and that too one of those ‘old men’s gripe’ kind of thing – but think over it. We do not teach our kids to break-apart and reassemble stuff. We do not get them to go to fairs or events where their implementation of reasonably practical solutions to everyday problems might help them curious to learn more of theory. I recall learning more about optics and associated topics once I encountered a friend not too elder to me (I was in school) who had his own telescope and used a journal regularly to note down observations. Grandly for him his parents actually went out of their way to encourage what was a ‘hobby’. I am fairly sure that the work ethics of being diligent, being disciplined, being observant and most importantly the scientific temper were being taught without being hammered into his head.

Contrast this with the current situation – with the mass popularity of Free and Open Source Software and Hardware there is an immense playground that can lead to way cool hacks and tools, tricks and wonderful creations. Do you really get to see them ? I doubt that. The cool kids in the various engineering and non-engineering colleges don’t take readily to an Arduino board or, something similar and get going with possible ideas. To one of my eternal regrets I recall pleading with two bright young men about using their interest in OpenStreetMap and GPS to come up with usable hacks. Sadly they nodded their heads with vigorous interest and most likely forgot all about it in the next 10 seconds. A couple of folks I know went ahead and purchased the OpenMoko phones. It is a rare event that I come across anyone who actually has used the platform and hardware to become more interested in the GSM and telephony stack and reached the stage of doing something.

The lack of this ‘maker’ attitude is also reflected in the technology programs that are telecast on various television channels. The team that works on them end up re-phrasing or, sometimes just putting across verbatim the easy jargon filled text of PR material. In recent times I’ve sat through them and watched them raah-raah the iPad, the iPhone, the 35 USD tablet from India or, the plethora of Android phones. In every single case there was no attempt to even talk about the technology or, provide an insight into the technological underbelly of things. Technology is built via research and the output of multiple research streams coalesce into the glitzy products that the vendors retail. As much as it is the beauty of the vendor to select the appropriate components, it is also a need to explain the concept to a larger base of the audience. Why choose A over B, why did feature X get included, how does this relate to the current state of the technology ? Do we get to see the answers ? Possibly not.

This is also primarily a factor of the way we teach/educate our kids. We don’t really help them get educate – we enable them to recite facts. How often have you heard that ? Too often. What is the alternative ? Changing the education system is a big task. How about changing the way that the fundamentals can be taught ? And such a change need not limit itself to just teaching basic science, mathematics. The maker attitude doesn’t limit itself to these subjects. All subjects have it – perhaps it is a responsibility of the parents and the teachers to impart that consciousness without attempting to be too formal about it.

Municipal markets, fish purchases and the characters

We went to Shivaji Market on a Saturday. And the obvious thing that was missing was the chatter of Bengali that is so normal on Sundays. In fact, the market was practically bereft of folks buying fish. Which was both a good and a bad thing. Anyways, this plainly obvious fact reminded me about the markets which I’ve been to as a child. Initially as a tag-along who could be trusted upon to hold on to the bag of fish (err … imagine how far back in the past that must have been) and thereafter as a someone who could go out and buy a couple of varieties of fish.

The first fish market that I remember is the municipal market at Jadavpur. And, the stall that was on the ‘approved’ list of the family was run by  (actually it should be lorded over but you get the picture) a gentleman called Suren Das. On Sundays he could be seen occupying center stage in a sparkling white dhoti-kurta ensemble, freshly showered and, totally in command of the situation. While dealing with the general buyers, he would keep a sharp eye out on his crew cleaning and slicing the fish meant for his “faithful flock”. For them he would offer select cuts, point out a better option or even go to the extent of selecting the varieties of the fish to ensure a properly planned meal for the week. Much sought after by both the ladies and the hapless gentlemen his stall was the place to be on Sundays.

In between we moved to GolfGreen and the nearest market was at Bejoygarh. And no, it wasn’t so large during those days. So, a couple of fish vendors and, much more jostling than I had seen at Jadavpur. However, the crowd at Bejoygarh was different from that at Jadavpur. During those early days Jadavpur and the associated areas still hadn’t quite shaken off the refugee -> middle-class mentality and this could be seen in both the variety of the fish and the prices. Bejoygarh on the other hand was somehow different because of a small but significant expatriate population around the place who had finally become brave enough to buy fish straight from the stalls. So, amidst a profusion of exercise shorts, sports shoes and general chatter in broken English, even worse Hindi and Bengali, fish sales did rise and there was a much greater variety in the supply and consumption. Co-incidentally, it was at Bejoygarh that I encountered what I later termed as “Cookbook shoppers”. These are ladies and gentlemen who take their cookbooks extremely seriously – they want exactly 325 grams of a cut – nothing more and nothing less. Needless to say, this small group was the source of much mirth and jolly ribbing.

Fast forward to Sakherbazar. When we moved to Barisha we had a choice in the markets – the one at Bakultala and, the other, somewhat larger one at Sakherbazar. I don’t recall going many times to the former. The latter was a different experience though. People talk about changing schools, making friends and learning the social norms. I guess when you start going to new markets it is the same thing – the relationship between your fish seller and you builds up through numerous visits, variety and of course the amount of trust you place in the man to ensure that you don’t choose a cut or a piece that wouldn’t make the Sunday lunch good. Sakherbazar was unique in that aspect – every Sunday it would be swarmed with males from the various RoyChowdhury houses (the “Forgotten Lords”) , some of whom probably still thought that the sign-off for Gobindapur, Sutanuti and Barisha was a bit into the future 😉 These were the ones who’d swagger around in strange T-shirts or, the garment which is called the fotuaa (the soft ‘t’ and not the hard ‘t’), cigarette dangling from the fingers or, exhaling smoke, a gold wristwatch (mostly gold actually). Flitting from stall to stall they would shout out their purchases with the common addenda – “I’ll be back in half an hour”. Of course, that half-hour was to be spent at Bhattacharjee Sweets speculating over petty politics, haggling over contracts or, just being generally lazy. The other group of folks were those who had started to join the services giants opening up shops at Kolkata. So you could see the somewhat out of place Nike/Reebok gear in the slippery and muddy fish stalls mingling with the masses while trying to see if their budgets allowed them to purchase the entire fish rather than share it with someone. This gave rise to the other group – the “Distant Shoppers”. Characterized by their ability and need to stand around 5 feet away from the actual stall, sometimes in between two stalls and thereafter pantomime their chosen fish/cuts all the while urging the fish seller to ignore the smaller weights and round it off.

Shivaji Market has a much more eclectic crowd because nearly all the types mentioned above have their sub-groups present. That makes it all the more funny. At 0830, the chatter of Bengali that floats out makes it difficult to distinguish as to whether I’m back at Kolkata buying fish or, am at Pune. The other thing of course is that the number of Bengali ladies buying fish is much higher than what I have observed at Kolkata. Admittedly, I’ve observed a small set and more importantly I’ve left out Lake Market/Rashbehari Market and Gariahat Market. I’ve also left out the biggie – Hogg Market/New Market. Primarily because I need to stockpile material for another blogpost and secondarily because this is becoming too long 🙂

Have you visited a museum recently ?

Do parents and kids visit museums these days ? I haven’t really heard from the parents I know doing that.

Museums were a big thing for me. Growing up at Kolkata we had the three biggies – Indian Museum, Birla Industrial and Technology Museum and Nehru Children’s Museum. There’s another one inside of Victoria Memorial, another at the GPO and, a reasonably new kid on the block in terms of the museum at Science City. I did tours of the BITM on a consistent basis – that made more easy because there would be various kinds of fairs and shows there which made it easy for me to sneak in and take a stroll. It was a joyous experience and I remember that I would come away from it impressed and starry-eyed. Of course that “coal mine” trip at BITM was eagerly awaited. Nehru Children’s Museum was good but not well maintained and in recent times is more shabbily maintained than ever. I’ve probably visited it half a dozen times and I do have good memories of them.

The Indian Museum though is in a class of its own. Imposing and resplendent, it was/is nearly always full of the Art college folks sketching. And of course, the innumerable bus fulls of tourists from neighboring areas who thronged the museum during their “Kolkattah tour” especially on days the nearby Brigade Parade Ground had a political rally. The great charm of the Indian Museum of course was that in spite of the crowds, the scorching heat or, the pouring rain outside, the inside would be a serene atmosphere that could lull the inattentive to sleep. And, given that it is nearly impossible to take it in during a single visit, it demanded obedience and strict attention to details. In a city that doesn’t provide enough private places it also provided the usual niche and corners and some undisturbed solitude and “us time” to those who desired for it.

The Science City had great aims but I am in doubt as to whether it did achieve any objectives in generating a spirit of scientific inquiry. Therein lies the problem perhaps. Most museums are not curated well and, this reflects in the lack of cohesion of the exhibits. Besides this obvious fact, coupled with the lack of maintenance, the ever looming shadow of government involvement and, the lack of patrons that can help the operating expenses mean that most museums across India aren’t really doing their job. In my childhood museums came closest to interactive learning methods that are so talked about these days when talking about software and stuff. Which is why I am surprised as to why local businesses don’t take it upon themselves to think over this issue in the form of a government-citizen partnership. Raising of funds, helping in curating or even, organizing visits to the museums to ensure that it becomes an enjoyable exercise is well within the scope of such patrons. There are plenty of successful models to investigate, adapt and adopt. And, there is nothing wrong in looking at a museum as a business opportunity and doing good for the society. It is a pity that it doesn’t often as much as it should.

Cities that don’t maintain their museums tend to encourage a mono-culture. Look around and you’ll see what I mean.

Wall Street : Money Never Sleeps

Just returned from watching the movie. If there is one thing that upsets me more than bad audience it would be insensitive editing/chopping. I am fairly sure that the actual movie has scenes or sequences that were deleted in the print I saw – there was far too much incoherent rambling in the story than I’d expect from a Oliver Stone film.

The movie ticket should have had two things – a pre-requisite watching of the earlier Wall Street and, a list of citations. It is a bad sequel that has few moments of good acting. As expected, Gordon Gekko gets all the meaty dialogues and provides the pithy insights (some of which we know but are loathe to say in public). The others just talk in cryptic half said statements which allude to events in the past that would make the movie a not so good experience for those who haven’t watched the first installment. Oliver Stone sure butchers the movie with a story that tries to be a lot of things at the same time – revenge drama, the building and healing of relationships, a very noire and rushed insight into the “great meltdown“. Shia LeBeouf does a competent job playing Jacob although he doesn’t seem to have the same sort of paradoxes as Bud Fox. Carey Mulligan doesn’t get enough time to let the motivations of her character come forth so we see her throughout the movie demonstrating angst with respect to Gordon and having moist eyes. Josh Brolin plays a character Bretton James that isn’t really the Gekko from the first movie.

In short, an average film based on the print I saw. The caveat is because I feel that the DVD would have more scenes. It isn’t a good sequel which constantly harps back to the first movie to set the tone or, the reasons for the characters to behave as they do. The first one was too good. This one just barely makes the cut. There are obligatory cameo(s) (was there really a need for Charlie Sheen’s ?) and, Stone appears in a few scenes himself.

CWG and what remains thereafter

After the dust settles down, the roar of outrage (this blog has a couple of links which can form a good navigational journey along with this post) over the CWG would also come to a grinding halt. There is a new session of Parliament coming up and there are enough issues that are being stoked that would push the high/low lights of the games out to a dark corner. However, instead of showing up the resilience of the largest democracy on the planet the games might just end up being a test of our national character – one of tolerating shoddiness, of encouraging false promises, of de-facto and de-jure political authority, of financial wrangling of large order and of course, a media that is perpetually lusting after the latest breaking news to do any serious deep research on issues that matter.

Let’s admit it, we had close to 6 years before we got where we are today. In between we had the utter fiasco called the Commonwealth Youth Games. And nary a negative word about the decimation it left behind. The hosting of the Commonwealth Games requires infrastructure to be built – roads, bus stops, stadiums, housing complexes. You cannot really have Potemkin Villages unless there is a convergence of interests at the highest levels. And yet, amazingly enough that is precisely what has happened. Non existent facilities, infrastructure-on-paper has been signed off as of high quality. And, all the while politicians, both practising and pretending, keep on bringing the old bogey out – national pride. If it were actually national pride at stake and, the ones at the helm comprehended the meaning of it, there would be a drastically different set of CWG news items. But as is the state of affairs it will not be long before verbal crescendos rock the houses of the Parliament with farcial walk-outs and what not being staged. And, we will calmly accept that and move along. Move along till the time of the next elections when we’ll try to select between lesser evils or, lesser corrupts and cross our fingers hoping that something positive would come out of this.

There are a lot of voices clamoring for Suresh Kalmadi’s scalp. There were a similar, if not equally strong number asking for that after the CYG. And, each time there is a fiasco in the numerous sporting bodies that he operates in, people call for his head. Very Alice in Wonderland. But he survives. Standard business sense – the chap who brings in the numbers doesn’t get fired. In a business, if the numbers accrue via not-so-ethical means, the neck gets the chop. In politics, who cares ? As long as the proper coffers are lined up, and a small scapegoat is sacrificed, why should you care about your shelf-life ? To paraphrase the car tag line – one life, why so moral ?

A couple of questions though:

  • Once the games are over, what would the media do ? Would they, like the ToI, still demonstrate the spurned lover approach and keep hollering grapes are sour ? Or, would they go to town about how massively economically successful the games have been ?
  • What kept them from not investigating the games build up for 5 or even 6 years ?
  • Now that a significant part of the Indian contingent seems to have come under the scanner of taking banned substances, what would be done to ensure that our coaching and training practices are cleaner ?
  • When will we learn to respect our athletes and provide them facilities where they would be proud to train at and feel comfortable staying in ?
  • Would the CWG episode allow us to prune the deadwood that are holding on to the top posts in various sporting federations and ensuring that their lackeys can rig every election ?
  • What happens with the folks who ended up blowing a large hole in the exchequer because the budget resembled a giant blimp from the project balloon at its earliest incarnation ?
  • Given that the CWG never had a single point of authority and decision (think RACI), who gets to stand up and say “we did goof up, let’s figure out how to get things straight” ?
  • What happens with the infrastructure ?
  • The parts of NCR that are still unfinished because they were dug-up, cut-out,plundered for the CWG dressing up, will they be put back into shape ?
  • How would the government handle the deficit ?
  • Do we seriously intend to ever make a bid for the Olympics ?

National pride doesn’t mean a compromise and accepting shady, shoddy and shameful acts. Let us not allow our politicians to define national pride for us. We know what it is. And, we know when we are being fooled – let’s call it out.

Brands from my childhood

During our weekend drive to Mahabaleshwar we had stopped a bit at the Mapro Garden. And we snagged a crush that had Citrus and something else. Runa has been asking me to have a taste of it while I have been way too busy to tear myself away from the Kiwi crush. This morning I decided to fortify myself and give that crush a swirl. With that aim I filled up a cup with water, dropped in a bit of it and stirred it up with a spoon – the water turned a wonderful shade of rich blue. The kind which only used to happen when you dipped your fountain pens in a bowl of water after you’ve been filling and re-filling them with Chelpark blue ink. Anyway, the first sip was awesome and the after-kick reminded me of something from my childhood – Dippy’s Lime Cordial.

Now, if you are as old as I am you’d never forget a couple of brands – GoldSpot, DoubleDecker Chocolate, Dippy’s Squashes and Lime Cordial, Kissan Jam, Morton’s Chocolates and, Naughty Boy shoes. Unsurprisingly enough, I don’t think any of these products are available any longer. Dippy’s has long since merged or, perhaps has been acquired by a company I don’t know. Cadbury’s has decided that DoubleDecker isn’t worth making and retailing. GoldSpot – well it doesn’t exist. Kissan is still around I guess but the last time I did taste the mixed fruit jam it had this synthetic after-taste that was gross. Perhaps I remember tastes from childhood much too fondly but since I practically grew up munching jam-n-bread I don’t think I forget the taste. That brings us to Morton’s Chocolates – those which came in the tin containers with quaint drawings on them. Illustrations that we could not even relate to. However, the toffees were way too nice. My teeth are a testament to that 🙂 There’s nothing much to say about Naughty Boy shoes except repeating what a school going pal had observed – they were manufactured with self-healing capabilities. Nothing, and I really mean nothing could destruct them enough to get one a new pair each year unless one outgrew the size. I am yet to see such indestructible shoes for elders 🙂

There were other stuff as well. Things like Anandamela (the children’s magazine), Amar Chitra Katha, Indrajaal Comics, Rol-a-Cola and what not. But more on that later. Amazing that a taste of a crush would take me back by more than 20 years !