Saturday, 31 July 2010

Facebook Suggestion

Well, I should think so.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Condescending Software

FileZilla, the FTP client which I use, is configured to close the connection if no data is sent or received for more than 20 seconds. After two retries at 5-second intervals, it gives up.

I was uploading some files today and then I got distracted by something else on the internet. In the meantime, FileZilla timed out and gave me a rather cool message.

For the record, I type at 82 wpm.

Edit: Tommy has informed me that the message is in fact generated by the FTP server (i.e. only passed on by FileZilla).

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Weighing Machines

Aravind Adiga, in The White Tiger, describes the weighing machines that are a common sight on Indian railway platforms – the ones where you insert a coin and lights flash and wheels whir and there is an almighty clanking and then, in something of an anti-climax, the six-foot tall machine spews out a little cardboard chit with a picture of an actress and your weight in kilograms. Adiga claims:
Two kinds of people use these machines: the children of the rich, or the fully grown adults of the poorer class, who remain all their lives children.
The generalization is more catchy than accurate. These machines are used by many, many people outside of Adiga’s two categories. And sometimes, they are even used for purposes other than weighing oneself.

When we were interning in Bombay in the summer of 2008, Lahiri returned to our hostel one afternoon with a thick bunch of cardboard chits in his hands and a manic glint in his eyes. I pressed him for the story, for I knew there had to be one (there always is when Lahiri is involved).

With many an expletive and animated gesture, Lahiri told his tale. It turned out that he had wanted to weigh a suitcase. The weighing machine at Grant Road station struck him as ideal for the purpose, and he accordingly directed his footsteps thither. It was but the work of a moment to hoist the suitcase onto the platform and insert a one-rupee coin into the slot. After the usual spectacle of flashing lights and whirring wheels, it spat out the ticket: 16 kg.

It was then that Lahiri made his big mistake. Wanting to be sure, he inserted another coin. Lights, wheels, ticket: 3 kg.

In a deranged frenzy, he fed in coin after coin into the machine, and each time he got a different figure. When he finally ran out of one-rupee coins, he had accumulated at least twenty tickets ranging from 2.5 to 17 kg.

Lahiri wanted to use the arithmetic mean to estimate the suitcase’s real weight, but there were a couple of outliers at the lower end of the range, so I suggested that we eliminate them using Chauvenet’s criterion before computing the mean.

So, to Adiga’s two categories, we may add a third: Obsessive-compulsive interns who want to weigh a suitcase, and have way too much small change.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Future Historians

From The Fall (1956) by Albert Camus:
I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.
I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. For us too, perhaps, a single sentence will suffice. They stayed online late into the night, doing nothingmuch.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Hemis National Park

The most spectacular thing I saw on our trip to the Bethuadahari forest last April – indeed, one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen – was a mammoth Couroupita guianensis in full bloom.

The tree is commonly called the Cannonball Tree, but its Tamil name suits it much better: Nagalingam. The flower’s reproductive organs – the reduced style and stigma, and the hood (a prolongation from one side of the staminal ring that arches over the ovary) – give the combined effect of a Shivalingam with a snake’s hood poised over it. (You can see this clearly in this photo by Emblatame.)

The flowers have large, fleshy petals and sprout directly from the trunk. The trunk of the tree we saw was thickly clustered with flowers, and the ground was carpeted with fallen petals, and the air was heady with their perfume. Mrunmayee said it looked like something out of Avatar.

Back home, my animated description of the tree left my mother unimpressed. If I didn’t walk around with my eyes closed, I could have seen the same tree in Calcutta, she said. I was skeptical: surely, I could not have overlooked such a striking tree in my own city. “There is one in the south-east corner of the Governor’s House compound,” she said. “Go and check.”

Being reluctant to admit defeat (not to mention jobless), I actually went to check, and there it was. Before the week was out, my mother had espied three more Nagalingam trees at various places in the city.

I like trees in the abstract, but regrettably, I know little about them. Which is to say, when I see a tree, I appreciatively say to myself, “Ah, a tree,” and I leave it at that. But I can’t help feeling a twinge of envy for people who can spot and identify trees, and who, even while strolling through a city street, sometimes remark upon an unusual tree, or point out a commonplace one and mention some interesting attribute.

But on the Ladakh trip, I discovered that I am not bad at spotting animals. Our trek took us through the Hemis National Park. It doesn’t exactly teem with wildlife; at an elevation of 3,000–6,000 m in a rocky landscape devoid of greenery, that is too much to expect. Unfortunately, we could not spot the famously elusive Snow Leopard, but we did see some other animals, and I was rather kicked that I managed to spot many of them before anyone else in our group did.

1. Lizard (of some sort), the very first animal I spotted on the trek. It was basking on a rock, absolutely motionless, and I was able to get shots from several angles.
2. White-Capped Water-Redstart (I think). We saw lots of sparrow-sized birds, and this was one of the most colourful.
3. Unidentified bird.
4. Red-billed Chough. In the lower legs of the trek, crows and ravens were the most common scavenger birds. Then shortly before Tachungtse, we crossed some invisible line and above it, Red-billed Choughs and their yellow-billed cousins held sway. They were completely fearless, flying all around the campsite and coming right up to us at dinnertime for scraps.
5. The Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture. Even when we were at 17,000 ft, the Lammergeiers were high above us, circling, always circling. Fortunately, no tortoises fell out of the sky.
6. Robin Accentor. If you look carefully at the photo, you can see the falling snow.
7. Bobak Marmot. They gamboled all over the mountainsides that ringed our campsite at Tachungtse, and boxed with each other in comical fashion. They seemed to have little fear of humans, and would let us get surprisingly close to them.
8. Mountain Vole: It scampered across our path and retired under a boulder whence, with beady eyes, it watched us click photos and tramp past.
9. Oriental Turtle Dove.
10. European Magpie. A striking and beautiful bird, and of course, the real villain of The Castafiore Emerald.
11. Blue Sheep, which is neither blue, nor a sheep.
12. Common Redstart. It sat on a steeple at the Hemis monastery while I tried to focus on it at the extreme telephoto end of my zoom lens. Then, just before I clicked, it took off, and presented me with a rather dramatic photo.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Pushing the Limits

Kaushik’s says in his last blog post that “Sroyon has an interesting history of pushing the limits of the Buddhist faith, but it’s best if you ask him about that.” Since no one has asked me yet, and since it is an amusing and instructive story, I will answer that myself. It’s an old story, and it involves the Buddhist temple whose picture you see below.
When I was three, we lived not far from this temple. Every afternoon, the maid would take me there for a walk, and we would always reach just before the service started. The service consisted of people chanting mantras. In time with the chanting, the head monk would bang a huge drum. Everyone in the congregation was given a little drum, which was played with a drumstick and which made a loud clattering sound; and with this little instrument they would all keep the beat. But not me.

I found the stately pace of the head monk’s drumming too boring, and considered it my duty to liven up the proceedings. So, instead of playing it in time with the head monk, I would fill the intervals between beats with loud and rapid clattering. But – and this is the remarkable thing – they would still hand me a drum every day, and no one would snatch it away or conk me on the head.

I do not think there is any other religion in the world that would have tolerated this.