Chennai from the air

Most international flights from Chennai (Madras) leave after midnight so this trip (with all the within-India hopping that I'm doing) was the first time that I got to see the city from the air.
Marina beach looks clean, wide and gorgeous. That blue-striped building in the foreground is a metro station. There must be a new metro line that runs alongside the beach (the metro line didn't serve the beach when I was in college). The cluster of dots near the ocean are fishermens' boats -- the boats provide one of the few places to snatch a bit of privacy in a crowded city and were (still are?) a primary hangout place for young couples with no money.
The IIT Madras campus is still an oasis of green in the middle of city, although it seems more built-up than what I remember:
The bridge over the Adyar (river) is picturesque with lots of greenery still preserved -- that must be an awful lot of real estate bribes that some unheralded bureaucrat turned down:

Madras is so pretty that I might want to live here!
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A tale of three generations

Two generations of farmers sit waiting for a plane. The father is wearing a traditional, shockingly pink turban while the son sports a "safari" suit of the sort favored by upwardly mobile rural Indians.
Meanwhile, just a couple of feet away, the granddaughter was experimenting with an interactive billboard. Advertisements were projected onto the floor from the ceiling and if the light-beam got intercepted, the image on the floor would show a reaction. For example, one ad about conserving water would show ripples around the place where the girl was standing and the ripples would follow her as she twirled on the floor. Another ad, for checking accounts, had coins that magically rearranged themselves as she walked around. She was curious about how it worked and was trying out different positions so as to understand the pattern.
The story of India in microcosm.
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Don't they have weather radars at Heathrow?

8 hops to go from Norman to my parents': Home - OKC - DFW - BOS - LHR - BOM - MAA - IXM - Home.  It could be worse of course.   I remember talking to an Indian American when I was in graduate school; he'd never been to India and when I asked him why, he got really miffed and proceeded to fill me in on the economics of running a gas station.  His parents simply could not afford it.  Besides two of those stops were not strictly necessary.

But all those stops got me to experience air traffic control in England and in India.  London and Bombay both had rains and in both places, there was a general halt to takeoffs and landings. Here's the thing though: looking for storms out the window of my stranded airplane, I could see none.  Just general rain; the kind of rain that no self-respecting US airport would be closed over.  Sure enough, when we finally did take off, there was not even minor turbulence.

The thresholds to close down an airport for weather-related reasons must be much lower in London and in Bombay.  Either that, or they don't have terminal weather radar.

Boston's 7th most secret place

The Boston Globe named this place that I'm climbing into the seventh secret place in Boston. Where is it?

Hint: It is in this museum on the Charles River:

The place features indoor lightning (yes, that's me in the cage)

And, most impressive, a solid state "singing" sparkplug:

So, where is this secret place?

Give up? This is the seventh secret place in Boston -- it's the interior of the terminal dome of the Van de Graaf generator. How did I get to go in? Because I knew the right people.

All caught up

I'll take my feeling of accomplishment where I can ... my empty email inbox:

This state is about as rare as a solar eclipse, but not as predictable.

Thin skinned outrage

I haven't read Time in ages, so I completely missed Joel Stein's humorous essay on growing up in Edison, NJ, a town that has transformed into Little India. As he points out, surface impressions to the contrary, kids in Edison assimilate into America, oil-slicked hair and all.

The essay seems to have provoked indignation (for example: see here). For what it's worth, I found the essay funny and poignant. We all have romantic views about where we grow up, and when we go back as adults, we find it all changed and quite a bit more coarse. In poor Stein's case, the change was in the place's racial makeup. Pointing this out in a wistful way doesn't make him racist.

Three more years for a sense of humor

The kids were in California at their aunt's for a few weeks and got back yesterday. With the kids gone, all the shopping that the wife didn't have time to do suddenly got done.

The five-year old came back and started going through the house cataloging all the things Amma had changed.

"Did you see the two new kids?," I asked her, "Amma said she got tired of looking at you two and got two new kids." Her face fell so quickly and so hard that I quickly reassured her that I was just kidding.

There are some things you don't joke about to a five-year old, I suppose ... The eight-year old, on the other hand, was not fazed, at all. "A. and A. [their cousins] are the two new kids," he elaborated.

Gaining full ownership by voiding the warranty

I successfully soft-rooted the Nook (why soft-root the Nook?) on Saturday and changed the key mappings to be more ergonomic.  Also, changed the library application to one that lists free, bought and borrowed e-books all in one place.  An Android application that lets me directly download ebooks off the WiFi is also on the device now. 

With these changes, the device behaves as it should. 

My feelings about doing this are a bit ambiguous.  On the one hand, I'm a bit miffed. There's no real reason why the Nook couldn't come with these features built-in -- none of my requirements were all that esoteric.  I daresay that most Nook users would want these capabilities.  On the other hand, having now soft-rooted the Nook, I understand how the device is laid out.  Android's just Linux, and the software applications plain Java developed using the Android SDK on Eclipse. If I do come up with an esoteric requirement, I can program it in.

Ironically, it's only when I've voided the warranty that I feel full ownership!

An excise tax on foreign labor

Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel, says that offshoring of manufacturing jobs has gone too far. When every company is trying to maximize its profit margins, the end result is an economy where new insights are not possible -- because it's in the process of manufacturing old technologies that new innovations happen.

He suggests an offshoring excise tax:
The first task is to rebuild our industrial commons. We should develop a system of financial incentives: Levy an extra tax on the product of offshored labor. (If the result is a trade war, treat it like other wars -- fight to win.) Keep that money separate. Deposit it in the coffers of what we might call the Scaling Bank of the U.S. and make these sums available to companies that will scale their American operations. Such a system would be a daily reminder that while pursuing our company goals, all of us in business have a responsibility to maintain the industrial base on which we depend and the society whose adaptability -- and stability -- we may have taken for granted.

Nook WiFi: one device to read 'em all

Now that the Nook WiFi has fallen below $150, I went out and bought my first e-reader. $150 is my psychological price point for new gadgets -- I waited until prices fell to nearly that to buy an iPod Touch too. It also helps that I'll be going to India later this summer and and not having to lug around a dozen books, or to buy them, is a big plus. Having used the Nook for a few days now, this is what I think: (1) e-readers are very useful, especially if you read a lot (2) The Nook's user interface must have been designed by engineers who don't actually use the Nook in their day-to-day life: the user interface really sucks.

The poor quality of the Nook's user interface really shows up in contrast to the iPod -- there is not a single operation that I would change on the iPod. Everything is so intuitively correct. So, given my appreciation for the iPod, why did I go for a Nook and not the iPad? Three reasons: (1) The iPad is $350 above my price point, and at that price, I want a device that'll almost replace my laptop. It won't because I can not tunnel back to my work computer. (2) Also, the iPad doesn't do Flash, and I need Flash to play on Bridge Base Online. (3) A backlit LCD screen gets very tiring to read. E-Ink is really good for reading for long periods.

Before using the Nook, I downloaded three software programs: Adobe Digital Editions (ADE), Calibre and iTunes Export.

Why ADE? You need ADE in order to read digitally signed content (such as in-copyright books borrowed from the public library) and to read badly formatted PDF files. ADE is what lets you "side-load" these onto the Nook. I borrowed Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, Peter Carey's "Parrot and Olivier" and a programming book on Ajax. Another thing I side-loaded was a AMS journal paper (in PDF) that I had to review. Although the Nook can supposedly read PDF documents, it doesn't quite format them page-by-page. ADE being an Adobe tool knows how to deal with PDF properly -- it "reflows" the PDF, replacing the fonts used so it's better to get PDF files onto the Nook via ADE.

Why Calibre? Calibre converts public domain books in pretty much any format into ePub. This would be useful for classics, although I don't read those much. It also has a news-downloader with "recipes" for a variety of websites and this is a killer app. I scheduled downloads of the New York Times and of Scientific American. Calibre follows links from the public website and creates a "book".

Why iTunes Export? Apple doesn't provide a convenient way to copy iTunes playlists and the associated mp3 files to a player other than iPod. iTunes Export is an open source Java application that does. I used it to copy a segment of my music library on to a microSD card and put the microSD card onto the Nook.

So, at this point, I had one non-fiction book, one fiction book, one technical book and one PDF document with a bunch of equations. I also had a magazine and a daily paper. And a music library. Note that none of this involved going to Barnes and Noble and actually paying for a book ... this open nature of the Nook is why I went with it rather than with Amazon's Kindle. One device to read 'em all. And to listen to music while doing so.

So, what do I think?

Reading books, magazines and newspapers is very, very nice. Black ink on a non-reflective, unlighted white screen is very, very comforting. You will not want to read a newspaper website on the web again. I would gladly pay for a newspaper delivered automatically to my e-reader (we pay $95/yr for the Norman Transcript that I hardly ever read anymore; I would gladly pay that for the New York Times on the Nook if they'd make some arrangement with local papers to supply a "Local News" section that is tailored to where the reader lives).

Reading blogs and websites sucks, simply because the eInk display flashes too much and navigation (following links, hitting the back button, etc.) all suck. Even though the Nook has WiFi, don't imagine that you're going to be browsing the web on this thing. Browsing on the Nook sucks.

Reading technical documents (I was trying to review a journal paper originally in PDF) does not work. The screen is too small, and the letters are too faint to read. Changing the font makes the document unreadable because the old document's line breaks are still honored. So, forget about reading PDF documents on the Nook.

The music player is adequate, but it displays all the songs in a flat structure, so you can't really select a single playlist. You get a jumbled mixture. Before you go on a trip, decide what kind of songs you want to listen to, and export just that one playlist. Not very nice, and an illustration of what I meant when I said the engineers who built this device don't actually use it.

The only way to get content onto the Nook (other than paying for it at Barnes and Noble) is to side-load it with a wire. This means, that for reading newspapers, you need to connect the Nook to the computer running Calibre every morning. Calibre actually functions as a server and can ship the document to you over the web, but the Nook WiFi can not be used to load e-books that way. So, even though you paid $150 for this device, it's crippled.

The user interface design sucks. What's the most common action you need to do when reading a book? That's right, go to the next page. The way to go to the next page on the nook is to either (a) click a button on the side of the Nook or (b) flick the LCD screen or the bar above the LCD screen. The button is too hard to press (especially considering that you're going to have to press it 20-30 times a minute) and is placed at the wrong spot (in the lower-third of the device: the button at the side-center takes you back one page). Flicking the LCD screen is very iffy. You have to do it very lightly -- a hard touch brings up the navigation panel. I'm now to the point where I get it 4 times out of 5. But this is so wrong -- the simplest gesture, which would be a single tap -- is what ought to have been used to move to the next page.

I wonder if soft-rooting the Nook will let me use the WiFi to download books and to remap buttons ... something to explore ... But meanwhile, it's a great way to read books, magazines and newspapers.