Not that kind of virus!

The 9-year-old and I got into a conversation about microscopes.

Me: "You can use a microscope to see really small things like bacteria and viruses.  Do you know what bacteria and viruses are?"

S1: "Yes, bacteria and viruses are why food gets rotten and computers go bad"

The has-been magazine selects a moldy phenomenon

I hadn't seen or read Time magazine in a long time when I went to the dentist's office yesterday.  

With everyone trying to use up their healthcare flex account (some thing you can thank healthcare lobbying for), the only appointment I got was the last one of the day.   The hygenist was running late (why do dental hygienists have to work in dentists' offices? This one is because of dentists lobbying state legislators).  So, I had to wait.

Anyway, Time magazine.  My choices at the dentist's were:
  1. People magazine
  2. Walking back into the cold, to the car to get my Nook or 
  3. Time magazine
I choice Time.

The first four pages were pharmaceutical advertisements. As were the last four.  What gives? And the articles -- on Sarah Palin, on Palestinian youth growing up behind the wall -- were all very anodyne.  The whole magazine had a musty air about it. Is this because only old people read the dead tree version anymore?

I bring up Time magazine because Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook, apparently got selected "Time Man of the Year 2010".  By  now, of course, Facebook has ceased to be the new thing on the block.  All the hype that used to be associated with web software is now associated with cool hardware (capacitive touch, anyone?).  

Time, the has-been, selects a phenomenon slightly past its sell-by date.  Typical.

An ode to confiscatory taxes and people who make the best of their capabilities

Reading, "Jet Age", there were a couple of really surprising things that I hadn't heard before:

Boeing started developing the 707 because of confiscatory tax rates.  During WW-II, FDR set taxes at 90% for any profits above what a company was earning prewar (to prevent military contractors from profiteering). This was okay for companies like Douglas which had a civilian business before the war that they converted to military use.  But Boeing had no civilian business, and all of its military profits were therefore "excess profit".  What this meant was the Boeing took its profits and plowed it into R&D because for every $10 it spent on R&D, $9 would have gone to Uncle Sam anyway.  Confiscatory tax rates are responsible for the space age.

Britain's Comet predated the 707.  However, the Comet had a fatal flaw that caused several early Comets to crash.  One of these crashes was after takeoff from Calcutta's Dum Dum airport in the 1950s. The crash was investigated by British and Indian aviation agencies. I read that, and thought: what capability would the Indian aviation agency have had in 1950 and automatically discounted it as mere political correctness on the part of the author. Surely, it's the Brits who would have found any reasons for the crash. As it turned out, the Brits concluded that there was nothing wrong with the plane, but the Indian investigator, a "Shri" Srinivasan (the author mistaking the South Indian version of "Mr." for a first name), insisted on adding in the appendix that the 7th rib of the wing was probably at fault. He came to conclusion by running a simple load test on the wing and noting the stress tolerance happened to be poor at the exact place where the damage had happened. One more illustration of how a good scientist can thrive even in a poor environment.

The elite in America

This morning, NPR ran an interview with an Alabama fisherman who was talking about how the BP oil spill continues to wreak havoc on her livelihood.  Her accent was so thick that I had to focus really carefully  to understand what she was saying.  What's ironic is that I'm now in Alabama.  And no one around me speaks that way.  Accent is simply not a problem amongst the Alabamans I interact with.

What gives? I'm sure NPR didn't cast the fisherman for her impenetrable accent. Instead, this is just one more illustration of the two Americas.  Republican populists rail against the educated, cultured elite; Democratic populists rail against the connected, wealthy elite.  But who are these elite?

I can propose two simple tests: if your accent is bland enough that an Indian immigrant can understand you, you are the liberal elite.  And if you've never decided to forego dental work because you can't afford it, you belong to the conservative elite.  Most of the people I know and interact with on a daily basis fall in the lucky sliver of having both thin accents and good teeth.
How narrow is this sliver? Take the statistic that for the average American, none of his closest four friends finished college.  How many of your friends have never been to college?  Almost all my friends have graduate degrees.  On the other side of the ledger, how many of your friends make less than $20,000 a year? (Students don't count). Half of American families do.  I sure don't know any of them.

Filter out transit directions in the red states

I  like the fact that Google Maps gives me transit directions, but that's when I'm in New York.  In Norman, it is just ridiculous:

I searched for a glass shop in Norman, and Google helpfully pointed out that it was only 0.3 miles from the Amtrak station.  As if  any one could use the once-a-day tourist train to Fort Worth for transit.

Machine intelligence is all well and good, but Google needs a red state filter.

The morning's the hard part

The wife had to go out of town on business and so I am a single dad this week.  The kids' school bus comes at 7.20am but I'm simply not a morning person. Consequently, the first question the wife has every day is about how the morning went.  Meaning, did the three of us manage to wake up on time?

Even the kids must have had their doubts. Monday, I got up at 6am and started to pack their lunches and make breakfast when the 6-year old came to the kitchen.  Apparently she'd been sleeping very lightly, waking up every hour or so to check the time.  Consequently, the kids were both ready to go at 7am. As the week's gone though, the kids are getting harder and harder to roust. Their trust is returning, and with that their usual morning lethargy. I can't blame them; I'm looking forward to next week when I can go back to sleeping in every morning!

p.s. I haven't seen the movie in the poster, but a friend mentioned the movie when I mentioned that I was solo parenting this week.  What's with the misanthropy underlying any movie about dads and kids?

Comic timing now belongs to the right-wing

Some of the facts are wrong (prices have barely budged; taxes have gone down), but this video explanation of quantitative easing is hilarious.   For a while now, all the energy has been on the right-wing; now the comic timing is also coming from the tea-partiers ...

Seeds? What seeds?

The nine-year old is learning about cross-section diagrams in school.  One of the examples in his book was the cross-section of a grape.  He was running through the diagram -- skin here, stalk here, seeds here -- when the six-year chanced in on us.

"Grapes don't have seeds," she corrected him.

I had intervene and cut off the impending argument.

"All fruits have seeds," I told them, "It's just that the grapes we buy have tiny, tiny seeds so you guys don't have to spit them out when you eat them.  Just like all watermelons have seeds, but we buy the ones with small seeds."

In case you thought those stories of children thinking milk came in cans was apocryphal, there is at least one smart six year old who thinks "seedless" grapes are the norm.

p.s. I looked this up later -- "seedless" varieties vary in how small the vestigial seed traces are and in how hard the outer covering of these traces is.  Apparently, even the same variety can have different sized seeds in different years.

My voter guide (Oklahoma)

First of all, if you don't know which precinct you are in, check Google -- the service gives you your polling location and driving/walking/transit directions to your voting place from your home.  Vote tomorrow (Tues).

There are 10 state questions on the ballot this year. I wish there were none -- the whole point about a representative democracy is that we elect representatives who can then research the issues and make decisions. Because of this, my default position (unless I feel strongly otherwise) is to vote against anything that hampers the legislature.  This is even though Oklahoma's legislature is hide-bound, arch-conservative and retrograde.

These are my thoughts on the state questions. If I'm missing something about these measures, let me know in the comments.

SQ744:  This would force the state to spend at least the average of the surrounding states on K-12 education. It is prompted by the fact that Oklahoma is 49th in the nation on school spending, spending less even than Arkansas and New Mexico (which are poorer).  I'm sympathetic to the argument, because the OK legislature would rather spend time trying to allow teachers to lead prayers than to pay them properly. However, the measure is flawed -- every state trying to spend at least the average will only mean that the average keeps going up. And the clincher is that SQ744 will never allow spending to go down: "When the average amount spent by surrounding states declines, Oklahoma must spend the amount it spent the year before".  We need to elect better legislators who will fund K-12 education as a priority, but not preemptively tie their hands. So, I suggest a vote of NO.

SQ746:  Requires proof of identity in order to vote.  This is trying to fix something that's not broke. Vote NO.

SQ747:  Imposes term limits. This is a way of ensuring that there are only amateurs in government. Vote NO.

SQ748: Changes the composition of the state commission that will do redestricting if the state legislature can not agree. It's a backup that's never been necessary, but that doesn't mean it won't come in handy some day. The composition is bipartisan and seems reasonable.  Vote YES.

SQ750: Makes it easier to do state initiatives. More refererundums I don't need.  Vote NO.

SQ751: Makes English the only language the state can do business in.  Pointless and xenophobic. Vote NO.

SQ752: Makes the nomination of judges more political. Vote NO.

SQ754: Ties the hand of future legislatures with regard to funding of state functions. Vote NO.  Ensures that questions like SQ744 do not crop up again. Ensures that spending decisions are left to a budget appropriations process and not to state referendums. Vote YES.

SQ755: Forbids the state from considering international "or sharia" law. Pointless and xenophobic. Vote NO.

SQ756: Forbids mandatory health care participation. Without this, you can not have universal health insurance and since hospitals have to treat anyone who comes in for emergency care, removing the mandate will just increase the taxes of anyone who has health insurance and provide incentive to free riders.  Vote NO.

SQ757: Will increase the rainy day fund from 10% to 15% of revenue in boom years. Since the state can not run deficits, rainy day funds are a good thing and with oil prices predicted to get more volatile as it gets scarcer, this is a good idea.  Vote YES.

As for candidates, I've never voted straight party line, but the republicans are starting to scare me.  So, I'm voting for the Democrats down the line.  I don't know anything about any of the judges (why do we vote for judges anyway?), but one of my friends recommended Tracy Schumacher.  I'll probably leave the rest of the judges blank.

The color Nook: interesting tablet, bad reader

Barnes and Noble announced a LCD tablet-reader today.  It has a 7-inch color touchscreen, WiFi, a web browser, and runs Android applications.

I own an e-ink Nook and love it, but I'm not that excited by the LCD Nook. Why?

  1.  The best thing about the Nook is that it supports e-pub, a format that my public library also supports.  So, I can "borrow" e-books from my library, read them and return them (or they expire in 3 weeks).  Pretty nice.  The LCD Nook will also do this.
  2. e-ink is very easy on the eyes. I have read for 12 hours straight (on long airline flights) and not had any problems.  LCD screens are not as pleasant to read.  Besides, the battery life is only about 8 hours.
  3. Even though the e-ink Nook has WiFi and a web browser, the touchscreen is so clunky that I've used it only a couple of times.  With a LCD reader, the web is only a touch away.  I doubt that I'd be able to read for long on a LCD Nook without being tempted to check my email, or check Facebook.
As an e-reader, the LCD Nook is lousy -- it preserves only one of the three key advantages of the e-ink version.  The one huge improvement it brings is color.  Maps, illustrations and kids' books are unworkable on e-ink. 

On the other hand, a 7" tablet for $250 is a nice proposition.  This could be an iPad replacement.  Half-the-screen-size for half-the-price.  Android vs. iOS.  As a tablet, this is interesting.

Why the US will never get serious about climate change

This map sort-of explains why a majority of the US senate is opposed to climate legislation:
California, Florida and a narrow sliver of the East coast  will be adversely affected by climate change.  The rest of the country will be just fine. Because the senate is divided according to states and not population, the adversely affected states will always be a small minority -- regardless of which party is in power.

In the world too, there is a similar disparity of impact. Most climate change impacts will be on the highly populated parts of Asian and subsaharan Africa.  Matt Yglesias sees this disparity of impacts -- where the rich countries reap the benefits and the poor countries deal with the impacts -- as a morality play:
Presumably “I should be allowed to steal this Bangladeshi man’s land and sell it for profit” is not a free market position. Nor is “I should be allowed to have my cattle eat this Bangladeshi man’s grass and then sell it for profit” a free market position. I don’t think “I should be allowed to cut costs by dumping the toxic waste byproducts from my family on this Bangladeshi man’s agricultural land” makes a ton of sense as a free market position.
But I see this as just so much real-politick.

The biggest and the worstest

According to the USGS, the epicentre of yesterday's earthquake was about 10 miles east of the weather center, in the middle of Lake Thunderbird.  At a "moderate" magnitude of 4.3 (5.1 according the Oklahoma Geological Survey), it's not in the category of the monster earthquakes they get in Alaska or California.  Still, it felt like you were standing in an underground station while an express train rumbled through.

The kids were excited (the earthquake was around 9am local time) and in the evening, they were talking about everything they'd learned about earthquakes, faults, depth, population impacts, etc. It was heartening to see that both their teachers had discarded regular activity and converted the entire morning into a research session on earthquakes. Kudos to Norman public schools and to the American education system --  this sort of flexibility would not have even occurred to the teachers in the African and Indian schools that I attended.

It was also interesting that the kids had each picked up on a different aspect of "biggest".  S1, our 9-year-old boy, reported that Alaska had had the biggest earthquake because it had a magnitude of 9.2.  He was aware that this was only the biggest in the United States, but didn't know that the largest earthquake in the world was in Chile. Did you say "typically American?".  Well, I suppose. He's less interested in the world than I am, that's for sure.

Meanwhile, S2, our 6-year old girl, was more globally aware.  The "worstest" earthquake, she insisted, was in China.  It was in the 1500s and killed 800,000 people, so it was by far the deadliest (for comparison: the one in Haiti last year led to 200,000 deaths).  And of course, that was when the world had far fewer people than now.

I found it interesting that S1 focused on magnitude while S2 focused on population impact. This is something that we constantly talk about with respect to weather forecasting.  Meteorologists and engineers focus on getting forecasts more timely and more accurate while social scientists we talk to tell us that the real problem is one of getting the general public to understand and mitigate weather impacts.

A day in the grasslands

Saturday, we went hiking in Northwest Oklahoma. It's a rugged, beautiful terrain out there. The reason that it is so austere is because the preserve manager did a controlled burn a couple of months ago, to clear the red cedar off the highlands. The lazily bending river in the photograph is the Canadian.
Rugged landscape (Northwest Oklahoma)
Red cedar after a controlled burn
A lazy bend of the Canadian river

Crazy candidate

How sick and crazy is the Republican candidate for Joe Biden's Senate seat? I'm not worried that Christine O'Donnell claimed to have dabbled in witchcraft.  Hillary Clinton consulted astrologers and  that didn't stop her from being an effective Senator.

What has me concerned is that O'Donnell claimed, in a 2006 primary debate with a Chinese-American, she had seen classified documents about the Chinese plan to take over America.  The family of the Chinese-American in question, Jan Ting, immigrated to the USA in the 1930s, and he is a staunch conservative (as you would expect of someone running in a Republican primary).  This is conspiracy-mongering of the highest order.

The last election (2008 -- the year of Obama), I voted for more Republicans than Democrats. Considering how unhinged the Republicans have become, though, I'm going to vote straight party-line Democrat this time.

TV 22

The lack of internet at my hotel(*) means that I can neither play bridge nor work.  The book currently on my Nook is  a downbeat memoir by a name-dropping journalist ("Hitch 22").  The book is bad enough that I have been watching TV at night.  Some observations about the Tee Vee from one who rarely watches:

  1. When did so many desis start landing bit parts on TV shows?  And they are not all just doctors or computer nerds either.  One of them was an office drone and the other an administrative assistant with a British (!) accent.  Asif Manvi, of the Daily Show, I already knew about, of course. Jon Stewart, last night: "We're holding the rally 206 miles from Ground Zero so Asif Manvi can attend".
  2. When did all the women starting looking so ... engineered? All the actresses on all the sitcoms seem have injected their lips with collagen and Botoxed their faces ...
  3. Have commercials always been this long? I would start reading Hitch-22 when a commercial came on, and go back to watch the show when the commercials stopped.  The commercials were so long (and the shows themselves so sparse) that I finished reading Hitchens' book in three evenings of TV watching even without meaning to.

Next book on my reading list is "Curious Incident of the Dog in the night time".  Here's hoping the book is interesting enough that I won't have to watch TV tonight.

(*) Naturally, the only hotel in the financial district of Manhattan that I can afford to stay in is a bit of a dump.  Now, my tastes are quite spartan -- all I want in a hotel are: a clean bed, free internet and free breakfast.  The Best Western near the South Seaport promised the trifecta, but it turns out that the internet isn't working.  The hotel claims the internet (and half the elevators) is down because of a storm last week. 10 days to fix this? Oh, whatever.

New York without the verve

The "slip" streets in the financial district of New York used to be water channels where boats would moor so that they could be unloaded. This was back in the days when New York was the Dutch trading port of New Amsterdam.

The hotel I'm staying at (left) is on Peck Slip and maybe it's the thought of sleeping on land-fill that has me feeling a bit morose. Or perhaps it's the city itself -- New York city seems to have lost its verve. The finance-types are making money again, as much money as they did before the crisis. But they no longer seem to be enjoying it. Where the young kids used to talk about their ambitions and conquests, they now describe their work as pointless and worry that they are actively harming society.

Not worrying enough to quit their jobs and do something more "productive" (their words), but wringing their hands nevertheless.

It's not just the financial people who seem beaten down.

A retail store advertised that it was looking for sales people and this was the line that formed outside its doors. The line snaked around the city block, with anxious looking people clutching pads with their applications filled out.

Incidentally, this is near Ground Zero, closer to the World Trade Center building site than the Park 51 Muslim community center would be. I've never New York like this.

Chinatown, though, remains what it was. The streets were crowded as were the restaurants.

A friend and I were looking for a hole-in-the-wall that'd gotten good reviews but we missed it and entered the adjacent restaurant instead. It turned out to be a happy mistake -- the watercress-and-pork dumplings were heavenly. We ordered two entrees and they tasted different; just imagine: a Chinese restaurant that uses different sauces for different dishes!

So, the simple pleasures of New York remain.
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The Nobel and the Ignobel

Russian-born Andre Geim, now of the University of Manchester, has won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for extracting graphene from a piece of graphite (using very sophisticated lab equipment: a piece of adhesive tape).

He was last seen in 2000 winning the Ignobel for his work levitating frogs using a magnet.

p.s. How does it feel to be Michael Berry, his collaborator on the frog-experiment vs. Konstantin Novoselov, his collaborator on the graphite tape-ripping one?

What was so funny?

The heart-breaking story of the day is that of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student (left) who committed suicide after his roommate, Dharun Ravi (middle) used a webcam to stream his sexual encounter live on the internet.

Some hypothetical questions:
  1. Would the roommate have walked with a hand-held video camera and photographed Mr. Clementi having sex?
  2. If Mr. Clementi had been having sex with a woman, would it have seemed funny enough to stream over the internet?
What kind of a kid would do this? How about a kid who grows up
  • not realizing the difference between private and public?
  • believing that only physical presence leads to agency i.e. that if you were not physically present, then you have no responsibility
  • believing that technical wizardy is praiseworthy regardless of consequences?
  • thinking that homosexuals are the "other" i.e. not quite people and fit to be made fun of?
How much of this mindset is intrinsic to being 18-years old and immature? How much to being of his generation, a generation that grew up with social media? How much to being Indian American, one of the most homophobic groups in America?

Butterflies having a ball

Spring is in the air and the butterflies are ... oh, wait. It's fall.

Anyway, the butterflies were doing it last weekend when we were out hiking in S.E. Oklahoma.
Here's another cool butterfly picture, of two buddies having a drink together:
There was a group of people tagging monarch butterflies, and they let the kids wave butterfly nets around. The kids captured a couple of little yellows, but this monarch was one of the experts' catches.
Also, I'm pretty proud of this photo of a spider web since this is the first time I've needed to shoot in manual focus mode.
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Google going all Facebook

I've expected Facebook to continually violate people's privacy expectations, to the point that the only private things I post on Facebook anymore are the kids' names and photos from when I'm traveling.  Nothing more private than that.

Google, I trusted a little more. But I'm coming to the realization that it's the Stockholm syndrome. After all, Google has my email (gmail), my photos (Picasa), blog (Blogger), calendar (Calendar) and even searches for directions (Google Maps).  I just have to hope they won't be evil.

I realized that there was something awry when I received an email from a professional contact (someone I meet maybe once a year at conferences).  "Thanks for sending your photos," he emailed, going on to talk about something else.  Photos? I didn't recall sending him any photos.

Example of the email that you would get from Picasa
if anyone in your Gmail contacts list
updates their unlisted Picasa album.  Infuriatingly, the publisher
of the photos can not tell
Picasa to not spam their entire Gmail contact list.
The receivers have to go into their Picasa albums account and tell
Google not to send them these spam emails.
Then a couple of days ago, my email box got flooded with emails about the updates that an ex-colleague had made to her photo album.  This was strange, but I put it down to her mailbox or photo account getting hacked.

Then, today, one of my friends asked when I'd gone to Texas. Turned out that Picasa had sent him a link to my entire album (including photos from a Texas camping trip a couple of years ago) because I happened to upload some recent photos to it.

This is Google trying to be more social and tarnishing their reputation in the process.  The problem is that Google sends you an email about X's new photos if you've ever emailed X from your Gmail account -- and this tends to include casual contacts.  To make matters worse, there is no way to tell Picasa to not send such emails whenever you upload changes (you can only block individuals from "following" you entirely, but that's not the same thing).  Even if the album is unlisted, anybody following you is going to be notified. And, of course, Google subscribes you to such email digests by default. You can, however, turn off receiving such emails.  Go to Picasa's settings and to email notifications and click the box that tells Picasa to not send you email digests of recent Picasa activity by people in your contact list.

A dark look at marriage

Normally, when I recommend a book, I do so wholeheartedly.  No point telling you about a book that I read that I didn't quite like.  What's the point?  But I'm going to make an exception.

Adam Ross' Mr. Peanut takes a very dark look at marriage.  It's about a computer games developer who's suspected of having somehow murdered his depressive, maniacal wife.  His wife, though, was discovered dead of anaphylactic shock, having eaten peanuts to which she is allergic.  The two detectives on the case also have wildly careening relationships with their rather moody wives.  Stephen King calls this the best look at the dark side of marriage since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I would agree.  If you are married, have been married, or plan to be married, you should read this book. There's a generous dose of David Pippen in all of us husbands, and quite a bit of Alice Pippen in all the wives out there.

At another level, though, the book is a poorly wrought and badly edited potboiler. Did David Pippen kill his wife or not? If so, how did he manage to make it look like an accident and why does it seem as if he tried to save her? How do the marriage problems of the detectives affect their investigation? If the book had just kept to those questions, this would be a wonderful book.  Instead, the author is wildly discursive, and it was all I could do at one point to not just move on to the next book in my Nook.  It almost appears as if Adam Ross was afraid that his central story was not good enough, and decided to pad the fine story and chilling depiction of a marriage with digressions out the wazoo.

If you're not easily frustrated by poor plots, therefore, read this book.

Somebody's using our stuff!

Nowcasts (short-term weather support) at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi are being done using WDSS-II.

Basic arithmetic fail

An article (in Slate by Shankar Vedantam) on why propaganda is still effective begins:
Barack Hussein Obama has 18 letters in his name. That's 6+6+6, or 666. Get it?
Except that "Hussein" is 7 letters, not 6.  Surely, that was intentional and the author would get to it?  Nope.

Neither the author nor any fact-checker at Slate bothered to check this basic piece of arithmetic!
Which dovetails neatly into my theory of why propaganda persists:  innumerate media people.

My imaginiation much better than real castle

Bran Castle is the castle of Vlad the impaler, the Turk-fighting count on whom Bram Stoker based his Dracula character. The castle itself is rather pretty, but as the home of Dracula, it was quite a let-down.

First of all, it's not really a castle but a border fortress. So, it's a lot less fanciful than I'd expected. Second, having just re-read Bram Stoker's novel, I was able to quickly spot all the inconsistencies. Far from not having crosses anywhere, the entrance to the castle itself is marked by a huge cross. Bram Stoker makes a point of mentioning how Dracula had no servants and the castle was totally isolated. Yet, it is quite close to the village itself, and right at the bottom of the castle are a bunch of customs houses and servant quarters. The sheer face of the castle is not thousands of feet tall, merely a couple dozen. And besides, escaping the castle would be quite easy because of its courtyard. There would be no need to crawl away along the sidewall of the castle.

In short, then, Dracula's castle is totally the product of Bram Stoker's pen, and the reader's imagination. In many ways, it's like seeing the movie of a book -- the director's recreation can never quite match up with the more personalized world that you built up as you read the book.

So if you go to Bran Castle (as I did) expecting to see something similar to a castle-prison with a crypt in its basement, you will be thoroughly disappointed.

It's a good conference when ...

A radar that we saw when driving between Lenut and Medias in Romania. 
It's likely a Chinese-made weather radar "WSR-98D"
It's a good conference when you end up with 12 ideas for things to do.  Just sayin'

Global designs on cobblestones

Travel, the saying goes, broadens the mind. Maybe it did a couple of centuries ago. Now, not so much.

For one thing, the things you go to see tend to depend on the kinds of things that you are interested in. Because she'd read (on the internets) that there is a pottery festival going on there, the central square in Sibiu, Transylvania, it was stop no. 1 on the wife's list of things to do in Romania. Unfortunately, just as the wife could go on the internet to find out about the pottery festival, the local potters could go online and look at designs from around the world. The pots tended to be not much different from the things you'd see at the May Fair in Norman. A lot more hand-work for a lot less money than you'd pay in the USA, but the designs and materials were not that different. The uniquely Romanian pots the wife had in mind didn't exist. Everybody does modern stuff and modern stuff all looks the same from Sapulpa to Sibiu.

If the pots were nothing to write home about (although I suppose I'm doing so right now), the photo opportunities were very good. The setting really helped. It was not just the old medieval buildings that formed the backdrop to the crowds. It was that colorful vases arranged hapzardly on cobblestone squares form interesting tableaus.

The people watching was also great although they tended to watch us much more than we watched them. They must not see too many Indians in the heart of Romania and the cultural norms probably have nothing against staring because lots of people stopped in the street to stare at us and give us the once over. Nothing too uncomfortable, and besides I can't complain -- I was surreptiously shooting people on the streets. Here's a stealthily shot photo from the pottery show:
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Progress in both Indias

"So," asked one of my friends, "what's changed in India since your last visit." The answer is a bit complicated. It depends on which India you are talking about.

This is a village I tend to visit every time I go back to India (it's near where my parents live). What's new in that village in the past two years? A water tank and a children's park (the splash of blue in the photo), both abutting the village's fresh water pond.
The pond remains the source of drinking water for the village, and the rules about what people can do in that pond (no swimming or washing, for example) are still in place. The water remains untreated -- hence the rules of conduct -- and water comes out the pipe for only a quarter hour or so. However, it is progress. The women of the village no longer trek to the pond to collect fresh water. Instead, they wait by their taps early in the morning. The childrens' park is the first park in the village. That splash of blue is the first slide these kids have encountered. That too is progress, but it is bittersweet. Traditional games, the games you can play with nothing but stones and sticks, are the casualty here.

I encounted the other India in Delhi, the national capital. Since the last time I was there (two years ago), Delhi now has a new international airport, a bunch of limited access highways and a greatly expanded metro system. This is the southmost leg of the metro, in Gurgaon, Haryana. The station's still under construction, but the trains are running.
I'm sure Delhi has a few new water tanks and childrens' parks too.
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The eight-year-old takes control

On Saturday evening, I was in New York, visiting a cousin who'd recently had a baby.  The wife was in Norman, but was at a wedding (we got the wedding invite after I made my Northeast trip plans).  The kids were at home with the grandparents who are visiting.  With both parents out, S1 had gotten into his head that he needed to take care of his non-English-speaking grandparents and little sister.  He was the man-of-the-house, though where he got this idea, I don't know.  We certainly have never even used that phrase in front of him.

It all started when he called me for help with a computer.  "The laptop that grandpa uses to watch his TV does not start up," he informed me, "it says something about no boot image on the partition. I tried shutting down and restarting it and that didn't help."  I had him look for any storage devices connected to the computer.  There was no DVD in the computer, but he did find a USB drive, so he removed it and reported that the computer was starting up now, but that the resulting desktop looked weird.  "It has a different picture in the background," he commented thoughtfully.

The grandparents watch Tamil TV channels on the internet, and because many India-based websites are virus laden (even the ones that you pay $20/month for), I'd connected a dedicated laptop to the TV and asked them to use that for reading Indian newspapers and watching Indian TV channels.  And to avoid having to reinstall all the software on it every time the machine gets hosed, I'd installed everything on a virtual machine.  That way, every couple of weeks, I'd wipe out the current VM (which by now would have all kinds of viruses and tracking software), copy over a pristine VM and let the whole process go again.

Obviously, the host OS had started up, but the VM hadn't.  So, I had him find the VM manually and start it. He did so, and was very proud to go tell grandpa that he'd fixed the computer (with some assistance from New York-based tech support, of course).

An hour or so later, he called again.  He'd been playing outside when he noticed a funnel-like thing with clouds moving very fast.  "Is a tornado coming to our house?," he asked me, "should we go hide?"   See this picture of the storm by a friend taken at about the time of S1's phone call -- it's a rainfoot/microburst, not a tornado -- but S1 couldn't know that, of course.
Photo (c) James G. Ladue

I had him switch on a local TV station and look at the warning.  "It says thunderstorm warning," he said.  "If it doesn't say tornado watch or warning, you guys can relax," I told him.   By this time, this alert was sitting in my email box, but it was a better learning experience for S1 to have him look at the TV than for me to tell him the answer.  (The blue is my personal alert area; the black the NWS warning area; as you can see we were on the edge of it. ).  It turned to be a heavy rainfall and heavy damage event, concentrated to our east.

At one level, it's funny and rather cute that he would decide that he was man-of-the-house. But another part of me is rather proud -- when I was eight years old, there is no way that I could taken charge of things like that.

The Zen of rain gauges

If rain gauges don't capture rainfall, did it really rain?

Leh, in northern India, lies within a rain shadow region of the Himalayas.  There was a freak cloudburst (rainfall on the order of 100mm/hr) there earlier this month that caused mudslides and hundreds of fatalities, but it was so localized that the weather station in Leh recorded just 13 mm of rainfall!  As far as the records are concerned, there was no cloudburst, just normal rainfall (monthly rainfall in August averages 15 mm).

Gandhi spinning in his grave

August 15 in India is Independence Day. The malls in Delhi, full of Western goods, are now decked out in the colors of the Indian flag. Somewhere, Gandhi and Nehru are spinning in their graves.
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Geological time scales

It's easy to forget how old even some of the more recent buildings in India are. The Red Fort in Delhi, for example, was built by one of the last Moghul kings (before they lost their empire to the British). When it was built, water was pumped up from the Yamuna river and used to keep the palaces cool.
Now, though, the Yamua river is more than a mile away. The river has moved that much since the time that the fort was built.
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Being pound foolish

Everything I'm seeing in India tells me that Krugman is right when he says:
Everything we know about economic growth says that a well-educated population and high-quality infrastructure are crucial. Emerging nations are making huge efforts to upgrade their roads, their ports and their schools. Yet in America we’re going backward ... the end result of the long campaign against government is that we’ve taken a disastrously wrong turn.

Don't eat alone in Indian restaurants

What happens when you walk into a slightly upscale Indian restaurant by yourself?

"You are here aah-looone?", asks the waiter, extending the word "alone" for a full five seconds and saying it loud enough for half the restaurant to turn around and look at you. He then seats you in the middle of the restaurant at a table meant for six. Determined not to be embarrassed, you pull out your e-book reader and start to read. At which point, the old lady at the table over leans over and asks if you are praying.

And that's when you decide you'll never go to an upscale Indian restaurant by yourself.

Inadequate profit

The kids sold lemonade and snacks at an Oklahoma City metro-area gathering on Saturday and cleared $10 each.  S2 fell asleep on the way back but S1 was full of excitement when he got back home at 11pm (at which time I talked to him over Skype).

He had ideas for how to make more money next year: (1) better stall location ("our tent was right at a turn and people couldn't see us"), (2) different products ("the tent that had plates and real food sold 300 dollars and some people went and bought from them a second time") and (3) a more enthusiastic sales force ("S2 would not ask people if they wanted to buy a bag of snacks").   The only thing that was missing was a PowerPoint slide with future expected revenues if these changes were made.

Unfortunately, the excitement turned to disappointment when he started leafing through a toy catalog to see what he could buy for $10.  It doesn't go that far, he quickly realized. I am afraid that he's going to shoot for that $300 product-line next time and that we will get stuck having to make it in our kitchen.

Pizza for Indians

The last time the kids came back from India, they came back hankering for "real pizza". The wife said that they'd had Domino's pizza in Chennai, so I wasn't sure what they were talking about. It's not as if the kids are gourmet pizza fiends or anything. They even eat the pizza I make.

When I saw a Pizza Hut in Delhi, therefore, I decided to go in. The pizza tasted just like Nan (the North Indian flat bread)! Nan with curry on top.

Ruins before they are sanitised

I was walking from Qutub Minar to the metro station (Delhi's metro system is being dramatically expanded and it's a very nice way to get around) and for a long stretch, the road goes past a walled garden. A really long stretch. At one point, the wall had broken down. To go in or not? Would I be trespassing? But all the greenery was tempting, so I went in.

Turns out that I was not trespassing. There were signs inside that said that it was "Mehrauli Architectural Park".
But the monuments themselves were completely overgrown. Know those pictures every historical site has about how the place looked when the first archaelogist/explorer was led there by a local shepherd? That's how the architectural park looked. Ruins everywhere, overgrown with greenery. It was very pretty -- and after the crowds at Qutub Minar ("more visitors than the Taj Mahal"), the lack of another soul in this archaelogical park was blissful.
It was when I saw the plaques that I realized what was happening. The plaques all talked about conservation efforts that had started in the late 90s. The conservation work had been started recently, and it being Sunday, there were no workers around. They mustn't even have gotten around to building a gate -- I'd come in through a construction entrance. Hmm ... may be I was not supposed to be here.
Was the park open to visitors or was it an archaelogical site in progress? I don't know, but I did have a nice look around. It's so rare that you get to see actual ruins, in a state of being ruined, that I was enthralled.

And just as I was about to leave, I saw a couple of teenagers. They were scrambling up on to one of the mosques. Maybe the place needs a gate after all.
P.S. turns out that there is a gate; the break in the wall that I (and the teenagers?) came in through was not supposed to be there. Here's a nice article on Mehrauli Architectural Park -- it's worth a visit before it gets all cleaned up and sanitised.
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