Thursday, March 30, 2006

Young faces - unscarred by that rampaging beast called time. The young lean bodies sustained on bad mess food, unfattened yet by junk food and too much coffee.
Importantly, the easy smiles. Enthusiasm all over - the comfort of being with friends you can let your hair down with. Where mundane considerations like life, jobs and a career still seemed far away. Where a tough life meant things that were laughably smaller in comparison. Where fights were over things so ridiculously petty that they seemed like life-and-death back then.

Yes, an accidental viewing of old college photos brings back a flood of memories. The word, I believe, is "evocative". It's amazing how much can change in 6-7 years.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Doing nothing...

never felt so good.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Hold that place

I'm sure I'm not the only person reading more than one book at a time. This kind of attention division to females would cause me being labelled a casanova. If I were a kid, I'd more likely than not be put on Ritalin.

All this book-philia leads to problems. I found this really nice used-book place while driving through Redmond. On a lazy saturday afternoon, I decided to check it out. The next thing I know, I am walking out with three books, $15 lighter in my wallet(you should buy used books - great for your pocketbook) . I found a few more books there, but common sense prevailed, and I decided that scaling my ambitions wouldn't be such a bad thing.

The books were:

1. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
2. October Sky - based on Saket's glowing review and a movie viewing three years back.
3. Effective C++ by Scott Myers

The challenge here is keeping track of page numbers. If it's a book or two, remembering page numbers is easy. But when you get to a level of insanity like mine (sometimes I read four books at a time), you tend to use bookmarks.

I started out with random pieces of paper - library checkout slips, receipts, but now I have a full-fledged new interest - bookmarks. Not of the variety but the colored, laminated paper variety.

I have an interesting collection now:

1. A purchased one from the Museum of Flight called "Celestial Fireworks". This is the only one I've actually purchased.
2. A CRY brochure that came in the mail.
3. A promotion for a Shakespeare production in Pittsburgh. (Picked up at the Craig Street Coffee House over two years back)
4. A thick card with the year's top books (picked up at the local library).
5. An advertisement for a new production of The Little Prince. (Picked up at the local Starbucks)
6. A promotion for the Princeton Review. Better SAT/GRE/GMAT scores guaranteed!

It's becoming a bit of a hobby now. Except for the first one, which I actually bought, the others are all picked up for free. The most hilarious one I remember seeing was by the HCI (Human-Computer Interaction Institute) in CMU. They had one which said something to the effect - "User Studies show that using this bookmarks helps improve memory of current page numbers among subjects." I'd love to get my hands on that now.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Questions. Answers. Life.

Self-belief, like self-doubt feeds on itself. When everything's going well, the small things you do wrong are glossed over and looked at as aberrations. When things are not going well, every small move you make is analyzed with excruciating detail.

What if I hadn't done this in that particular way? What if that had fallen in place the way I'd expected it to? What if...(No. Not the Coldplay song.)

Maybe it wouldn't have been such a waste of effort. (It never is a waste, incidentally. You always learn). Life would have been different today, wouldn't it?.

Especially when you get this feeling of déjà vu, you can't just say "Ah, there's a glitch in the Matrix" and move on.

If you are scared of making the same mistakes again and doing something completely stupid, you will. You never learnt your lessons, did you? (When they were handing out sanity, you were sleeping at the back of the class).

Maybe you won't, but you will never know unless you take that giant leap of faith. Maybe things will go the way you would like them to. Maybe they won't. Maybe you don't even know how you'd like things to go.

Maybe I worry too much.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Landmarks et al

"The ability to be patient is rare and praiseworthy for it means a player is willing to let a moment pass aware that he can own the next."

My favorite cricket journalist - Harsha Bhogle on my favorite cricketer, Rahul Dravid on my favorite (and IMO under-rated) virtue here.

India's main man hits a landmark 100 tests. Cricinfo has a good section on him.

On a personal note:

The 17th of March is a defining day in yours truly's life. It redefined the way people look at me, and this embarrasses, infuriates and pleases me in equal measures. The 'pleases' part has gone down in recent years as this mortal tries to find something that he really wants to go on his epitaph.

Monday, March 13, 2006

On Strings' Dhaani

One quality that I admire in music is integrity. There are times when the music may only be average, the lyrics though not pedestrian may only be above average, but what lifts an album is the honesty that shines through. An artist trying really hard to make something worthwhile very rarely bombs completely, and it is tough not to appreciate that effort. In an era where pocketbooks and not talent determines what albums are made and who gets the big contracts, being true to your craft is increasingly an anachronism in mainstream music - be it rock, pop, Bollywood or the genre derisively called Indi-pop.

Notable exceptions abound, and one of my favorites in the past season has to be Strings. Strings will be remembered fondly by early MTV veterans as the young Pakistani band who crooned Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar on some scraggly mountain-top outside Lahore or Karachi. The silken-voiced Bilal and the clowning guitarist Faisal re-grouped many years later to give us the U2-esque Duur - one of the best pop/rock singles to come out of the pop-rock firmament in the sub-continent.

I haven't heard the album Duur in a while, but a chance listening to Dhaani left me wanting more. The CD was duly purchased.

As I said earlier, a certain lack of guile permeating through the album makes it very attractive for me. The duo don't seem out to try any manipulation. None of the songs except Hai Koi.. have any kind of annoying DJ rapping nonsense or arbitrary English choruses having no relation to any of the lyrics. This is an album by a duo intent on doing their own thing and they pull it off very well.

The more serious songs have Faisal's heaver, classical-style voice adding a touch of gravitas to the proceedings. Dhaani, Najaane Kyun, and Kahani Mohabbat Ki fit well in this mould. The other songs in the album including the playful Sohniyae and the pensive Mera Bichhra Yaar benefit from Bilal's lighter touch, and Chhaye Chhaye is a lovely combination of their singing styles, playing off their distinctively different voices.

There are two notable collaborations on the album - Bolo bolo with Hariharan which left me cold for some reason, while Pal with Sagarika, which was part of the Channel V Jammin' series suffers from a "Duur" hangover - though the violin and Sagarika's dreamy vocals still make it eminently listenable.

The album ends on a bit of a limp note with both Jadoo and Hai Koi Hum Jaisa (apparently the Pakistan World Cup theme song) failing to impress.

The songwriting doesn't quite take off, but except for the last song, it's never abysmally bad. The Urdu makes it arguably sound better than it deserves to, but some of the songs - notably Kahani Mohabbat Ki and Najaane Kyon do stand by themselves as reasonably good pieces of song-writing.

All in all, it is a good advertisement for non-Bollywood Hindi music. It's Indi-pop (or rather Pak-pop, if there's such a term) as it should be. As I understand it, Strings have enjoyed success either side of the border, and deservedly so.

Update: At the Indian store here yesterday, I saw Najaane Kyon interspersed with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst mooning over each other. Turns out the track was on the Spiderman 2 soundtrack when the movie was dubbed in Hindi. The visuals and the song were so jarringly incongruous that it threw me off for a while.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Biding his time

There's only so much head-shaking you can do in sympathy for Kimi Raikkonen. The man seems to have the most rotten luck ever in Formula1 racing. What still impresses me about him is how much he accomplishes in spite of that. Unlike Juan Pablo Montoya (I am a big fan, BTW) who has this habit of messing up and wasting that incredible talent, Raikkonen almost always suffers because of mechanical failures through no fault of his own.

So, let me go out on a limb and make a prediction. In some time (not so soon, maybe a year or two), his luck will turn around. His car will be reliable and then there'll be no looking back. When he finally hangs up his helmet, he'll have beaten most or all of Schumacher's racing records. He does have age on his side.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Warning: Nerdy post on programming. If you're not into it, avoid please.

Refactoring means re-writing code keeping the external interfaces intact. There are many reasons to do this. You may be adding new features to your product/module, and the existing architecture may not allow these. So re-architecting the innards of the code, keeping your external APIs identical may be a good way to go about this.

Then there is performance. There may be parts of your code that may be tweaked to run quicker or more efficiently, and you may want to take advantage of that. Circumstances change and you may realize that the complicated bit of code you wrote as a one-off thing needs its own function call, since there may be other callers for that function and re-using the code is now important.

There is of course the possibility that what you wrote say a year back may simply not have been the best way to write that code then. You are a better programmer now, understand some of the trade-offs better and can write better code now.

Refctoring is something that one learns to look at while examining old code. Most programmers in this industry don't get the luxury of starting from a fresh code base. All of us work with existing code, and seeing things that may need refactoring is now de rigeur for me. Not necessarily because it needs to be, but as I said, new requirements and scenarios mean that there is potential for writing commonly used tasks as new functions, etc. What I write is mostly for internal consumption which makes things like application compatibility (app-compat in internal lingo) less of a challenge.

But it's difficult. One of the biggest challenges that I always have is figuring out a better way to do things. There are modules I've seen which beg for refactoring. There's something inelegant about them, something hack-ey. The key to great design (software or otherwise) is simplicity. And elegance. The solution has to look simple. And it has to look good. If it doesn't, that means you are (or the person before you has been) doing something wrong.

So, you know it's wrong, but since you've seen it being done that way, you get used to it. The classic problem I face is "That looks horribly complicated. I'm sure there's a simpler way of doing it." and I get around to figuring out a way to do it. I even take out pencil and paper (if I take out pencil and paper to work out things, that generally means it has to be pretty complicated. I generally work out many tasks in my head - more than is arguably good for me).

The most important thing is to be able to get your head out of the rut it's in because of seeing the existing solution. If you are able to throw away existing assumptions when you try to re-factor, and start from scratch to work out something better than what has gone before, that is an achievement by itself.


Bon Jovi rocked Key Arena on the 6th. Old favorites coupled with some surprisingly thoughtful songwriting on the new album made for a fun show. Then of course, there were the screaming women. I had ringing ears long after I came out, and the number of people singing along to "I'll be there for you" was enough to make you cringe.

I realized that the songs of Bon Jovi I like are different from the ones that are the most popular. The most loved ones are the "power ballads" - what I'd call the sappy love songs - "Always", "Bed of Roses" and "I'll be there for you". I prefer their "young rebel" ones ("Blaze of Glory", "Dead or Alive", "Keep the Faith") - keeping with the age I started listening to them.

I'm not complaining since they did sing the songs I wanted to listen to.

So, here goes the list of big acts I've seen live so far:

Mark Knopfler
Bryan Adams
Def Leppard
Bon Jovi

If I see U2, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd (fat chance eh?) perform live, I can die satisfied.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Sci-Fi scare

A question to Sci-Fi a post-apocalyptic scenario a necessity for every major sci-fi book that is written? Why does there have to be a world war, or a war of the worlds for life to change so drastically that things get scarily out of our control and in the hands of the Thought Police or the robots?

This fact was driven home when I was reading Philip K Dick's The Minority Report and Other Stories a few months back. Dick is one of the most well-known and respected authors in this genre, and I have been fairly impressed with what I've read so far. However, in many of his stories (The Minority Report being a notable exception) , it is inevitably some apocalyptic incident, a world war of sorts which brings things to a head, causing major issues with authority over-reaching itself, and some sort of sinister, all-pervasive government/corporate body taking over. Mercifully, Mr. Dick uses this premise sparingly.

But he is influential. Influential enough to have a major science fiction writing prize named after him. Which doesn't help aspiring wannabes any. All of whom seem to looove the idea of a apocalyptic war ending Life As We Know It.

An interesting thought I read somewhere was that Japanese culture (especially anime) is obsessed with this, because it is the only true post-apocalyptic society in the world today. Interesting thought to chew on, but it doesn't explain the rest of the world being obsessed with this.

IM(Very H)O, nuclear weaponry has made it difficult for countried to go to war easily. The détente produced between countries possessing nuclear weapons makes it impossible for them to go head-to-head. The real danger is going to come from the so-called Clashes of Civilization. This rise of terrorism has been unexpected (at least to the general junta), and it is something that may affect how we see life over the next 50 years unless something drastic happens (unlikely).

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Technology as a disruptor

Disclosure: I hold no shares or interest in any of the companies I talk about here. This is an amateur's opinion. Hang yourself on it - I am not responsible.

In the past few years, the commercialization and corporatization of all entertainment forms has led to a drastic reduction in standards of mass entertainment all around. After the Telecommunications Act of 1996 , many radio stations in the US are controlled by one of two big conglomerates - ClearChannel or Infinity. (There are places where they own all the FM stations in the market between them).

This means that music heard from coast to coast is identical with no variations. Playlists change very infrequently. In fact, if you are in an interior small town, there is a good likelihood that the local DJ who you think lives up on Walnut Street may be living in the Upper East Side in Manhattan. They have taken you for a ride, localizing the DJ without hiring a local DJ. In addition, they have been found guilty of accepting money and other considerations for playing music. Tie it in with venues owned by sister companies, ticketing by another group company, and we have the dreaded 'c' word - cartel.

The music companies themselves have merged and married among themselves, and there are only four major record labels left. They control the majority of what goes on in the mainstream industry. MTV and VH1 are no better (Viacom owns Infinity, MTV and VH1), turning into celebrity reality channels with gems like "Laguna Beach" and "Celebreality", losing the reason they became such phenomena in the first place. It isn't about the music anymore, is it? Do you remember the time when MTV was cool because of its music? Heck, I cut my teeth on MTV India in the early 90s.

As always, in a free market, the solution should present itself, right? The problem is, when there is an oligopoly of this kind, with no real enforcement of laws and wink-wink,nudge-nudge considerations, there is nothing of that sort. These people have a stranglehold on the airwaves.

Technology and free markets however make for a formidable combination. Enter satellite radio. Satellite radio has over 10 million subscribers in the US. We know this number because these people pay around $10 a month to either one of the two major providers, Sirus or XM. At an average of 2.5 people per family, it means satellite radio reaches 8% of the US population. Not a bad number, come to think of it.

I personally feel that technology at times may provide a left-field facilitator for opening up markets in such situations. Maybe satellite radio is not significant enough. However if the affluent demographic shifts to satellite radio, they will take advertisers with them, forcing terrestrial radio to get better at their programming. With digital radio having the potential of doubling the number of local stations, there may still be hope.

Another classic case where technology and old-fashioned infrastructure (the kind we sorely need in India) has brought about a real revolution is movie rentals. Netflix presents an all-you-can-rent option for DVDs ranging from $10 a month (1 DVD out at a time) to $17 a month (3 DVDs out a time). DVDs are delivered to your home, and you choose movies and put them on your queue online. The great thing about this is, Netflix is likely to carry that obscure movie you desperately wanted to watch, while your local Blockbuster will not. In fact, Netflix made its cachet off stocking Spanish and Hindi movies for immigrants who did not have easy local access to these movies. It gives you a chance to pick up a rare movie that may not be in circulation. Of course, Netflix has taken this a step further with its ratings and recommendations system. There's a whole community it has generated - people who keep getting great movies in the mail simply because they were recommended by people with similar tastes. The Long Tail is put to work really well here.

This has forced Blockbuster to drop late fees, at one time a big revenue-earner for the company. They've started their own all-you-can-rent service, both in-store and mail-order. With the kind of DVDs available increasing, there is now a much better market for documentaries or off-beat TV shows.

IMO, in the popular arena, things are going to go downhill or remain stagnant in terms of quality. No business is going to spend $150 million on an experimental movie idea unless it had some hope that it could recover its money. Which explains the antiseptic cookie-cutter summer blockbuster. LoTR or some exceptional superhero capers notwithstanding, most films fall in this category.

The challenge for governments and lawmakers as always is to do the right things (get a great postal, road and connectivity system in place, for instance, or facilitate the happening of that). Remove obstacles. Watch the entrepreneurial spirit take over. For excitement, add a dash of tech bravado. For sizzle, add an IPO. Serve with a side of media hoopla, and soak in the praise. (Egads. Mixed metaphors going overboard here.)