World Heritage Inflation

Thursday, we hired a car and guide to get us out of Kathmandu and into the hills. We drove up to Changu Narayan, a dilapitated Hindu temple from the 1600s and then started to walk towards Nagarkot, a hill station from where (on a clear day), you can see Mt. Everest (it was not a clear day).

Changu Narayan, like seemingly every 15th century temple in Nepal, was a UNESCO world heritage site. In India, the World Heritage sites are few and far between -- the Taj Mahal is one, so is the Agra fort and Fatehpur Sikri. But the Lodhi tombs in Delhi, one of my favorite Moghul garden/structure, are not. So, having all these not-really impressive places in Nepal on the list makes me think there is some country-specific inflation going on.

Walking in the countryside finally made me appreciate Nepal. Get out of the polluted city of Kathmandu, and the country is okay.

On the way back, we stopped in Bhaktapur. I should saved my praise for Paton Durbar square, because Bhaktapur is even more impressive. It doesn't have a museum, though, so Paton is probably still better overall.

Needless to say, Bhaktapur's Durbar square is also on the Unesco World Heritage list.

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The sights of Kathmandu

It didn't take long to see all the World Heritage sights in Kathmandu. We went to the Bodhinath stupa, then to the Pashupathi (Shiva) temple, to Paton durbar square and to the Monkey temple. The Monkey temple was a let down -- nobody was worshipping any monkeys. It was just that the temple was in a wooded area and there were lots monkeys there.

Bodhinath stupa was impressive, and our first sight of the eyes that make Nepal's Buddhist shrines unique. We happened to arrive early in the morning, when all the local Buddhists were going around the shrine. We too circumbulated the stupa, and it was a nice experience.

We already knew that the Pashupati temple was going to be a pagoda, so the element of surprise that hits most Indian visitors was gone. And then, it was just as noisy and as full of hawkers as any North Indian Shiva temple. If you've been to Benares (Varanasi), you can imagine Pashupati. The river that runs behind the temple is the Bhagwati, but otherwise, it's much the same.

But Paton Durbar Square was what finally convinced me that Nepal had been worth the visit. It is beautiful, with a ensemble of buildings that somehow fits together in a small, cramped space. The erstwhile palace has been converted into a museum, and that museum was full of treasures too.

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Kathmandu: polluted and bizarro

Flying into Kathmandu, we got a glimpse of green hills dotted with houses. But Nepal is not a bucolic, South Asian Switzerland. Kathmandu is more polluted than even Delhi -- a local resident explained why. Apparently, in an attempt to make Nepal more environmentally friendly, the government had increased excise taxes to stiff amounts. A Maruti van which sells for 3 lakh rupees in India sells for 13 lakhs in Nepal! Naturally, the people adjusted by simply running their old, inefficient cars for longer. The upshot is that five minutes in Kathmandu, we were all coughing. And things only got worse. By the end of our four days in Kathmandu, we all had got serious colds.

Something that always strikes me whenever I go to Canada is how derivative Canada is, of the USA. Nepal strikes me as the same. Even the ice-cream brand sold by the pushcarts is Indian.

But some things were bizarro. The pagodas that I initially took to be Buddhist temples turned out to be Hindu temples. In fact, all the Hindu temples in Nepal were pagodas. The Buddhist shrines were more like stupas. It was always unsettling to enter a pagoda and see that the roof supports were Hindu images; and equally unsettling to peer closely at the stone statuettes in Buddhist shrines and realize that they were Boddhisatvas who happened to look remarkably like Hindu engravings.

Unfamiliar views

The iconic view of the Taj Mahal -- you've probably seen it on the billboard of numerous Indian restaurants -- is the view as you enter from the east gate. It's the one with the reflecting pool, a perfectly square pod and a gaggle of people. This one:

Maybe because the iconic view is so ubiquitous, I wanted to capture a different viewpoint. And the setting of the Taj -- did you know that it is on the Yamuna river -- provides it. Here is the view of the minaret of one of the two red sandstone mosques that flanks the Taj, with birds roosting on the white marble:

While the view below might look familiar, look closer. It is of the back of the Taj, taken from across the Yamuna river:

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Severe weather and buddhist chants

Leh, in the northmost state of India, is one of the highest airports (3500m; 11,000 ft) in the world. The only reason that a place this high up has an airport at all is beacause it is close enough to the Chinese border that the Indian military deems it necessary. You are not allowed to take pictures of the airport, but the military does let commercial airliners use the air field. And that is where I went last weekend.

You are warned that the approach to the airfield is purely visual, so imagine my apprehension as I saw these storm clouds over the Himalayas as we were nearing Leh. Luckily, it was clear in Leh, and we did land.

Leh is pretty much what you are led to expect -- a narrow valley of green that is watered by the Indus river amidst barren hills. It is gorgeous beyond belief, though. You have to see the area to understand how a place that is so dry and desolate can be so incredible.

Another thing about the altitude: you are advised to take a whole day of rest to get acclimatized to the very thin air. And I was light-headed soon after I landed.

However, I got talking to the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I stayed in Leh (no, there is no Hilton there). He said that it was the one-year anniversary of the cloudburst and that there was going to be a big prayer in town. Buddhist chants associated with an extreme severe weather event ... how could I miss it? Altitude sickness or no, I went.

Seemingly, the entire local population had turned out for the prayer. It was at a school field and the entire field was filled with people. Volunteers went around pouring out tea for the attendees. Here is one of them:

I asked her permission before taking the picture above. She told me to wait and straightened out her beads, hat and cloak. And then she carefully looked away. Must me something about souls and pictures.

Even in my host's living room, all the pictures of the family featured the hostess looking away from the camera. Maybe it's just women who have souls.

All over Ladakh, Buddhism is strong. My host, for example, worshipped twice a day. And there were new prayer wheels being built all the time. Yet, the ancient religion was never too far below the surface. Even in the Buddhist gompas (monasteries), prominent place was given to Thanka paintings of the devils that Padmasambhava was supposed to have fought and won against.

I noticed that it was the devils who received much of the prayers at those monasteries.

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Vodafone's circles of hell

Like the many circles of hell, that's Vodafone's customer service.

First, the problem.  I used a vending machine to add minutes to my Vodafone prepaid phone. Put in Rs. 300, got a text message confirming the purchase and ... nothing. The remaining balance did not go up by Rs. 300.  Meanwhile, my minutes are fast dwindling.

What to do? Contact Vodafone to ask them.  Except ...

  1. The website has a link to "email" customer service. I type in the email.
  2. I get back an email telling me that I should fill out a form. Why isn't the form on the website? Oh, well. I fill out the form and email it back as per instructions.
  3. I get back another email telling me to fill out the form. The first circle of hell.
  4. I go back to the website to find a phone number to call. Their website tells you to call "178" to register a complaint. Except that the number doesn't work when you are roaming.
  5. The website lists an actual telephone number. I call it. There are multiple prompts about "information". Nothing about feedback.
  6. Try the number several times, trying to punch in zero, or to hang on to the line hoping to get to an agent. No go. Vodafone India has no problem about hanging up on its customers.
  7. I find someone else with a local Vodafone mobile and call 178. I get to a real person this time. get told that my telephone number is from Chennai and that I need to call a different telephone number.
  8. It turns to be an unlisted complaints line. I call them and get told that they can not find my telephone number. "So very sorry sir. We are here 24 hours a day. Please call us if you have any problems."
  9. I get online and find a "nodal officer" for Chennai. The number is busy. There is no wait queue. Vodafone India simply hangs up. Not very glad to help, are they?
  10. I keep dialing the nodal officer and get to him on the fifth attempt. Explain the problem. Turns out the Rs. 300 was a "world calling card".
Say what? Why is the Rs. 300 a world calling card?

India is largely an illiterate country and the way the telephone company handles it is by having special prices for different things. If you pay Rs. 365, you get a re-charge. If you pay Rs. 300, you get a world calling card. What in a sane world would have been handled by prompting the customer is handled by magic numbers. 

Because I inserted Rs. 300 into the vending machine, my account got credited with a calling card!

Could he please convert it to a simple top-up?

He said that I should have called 178. I did, I said, but it didn't work because I am roaming.  He then stated the complaints number in Chennai. (the unlisted number for those following along at home). I did that too, I said, and talked to person named Latha who claimed my number was not a Vodafone number.

"For this time, I will forward the case to the complaints department," he finally harrumphed, "and I will call you back on this number."

Thank you, I told him.  I actually thanked him for wasting an hour of my time over Rs. 300 (6 USD approximately). But I do need a phone with minutes left on it, because I leave for Ladakh in a couple of days. So, I'm hoping this gets resolved.

But all the good feeling I had towards Indian mobile operators -- the good prices and the great coverage -- has evaporated.

How to be found by Google

If someone asks for my email address or for the text of a paper, I often ask them to Google me. Provided they know the spelling of my full name (not always easy!) or can add in a common-sense search term like "nssl" or "oklahoma", my name pops up first in The Google. This is not that unique. Put in the name of any of my colleagues and they can be found just as easily on Google (provided they have an unusual name or you put in a common-sense search term).

But in India, this seems to provoke astonishment. "Google can find you?," I get asked, as if that makes me a celebrity. Curious, I got into incognito mode on Google Chrome and put in my name to see what comes up and why.

Here is a cheat-sheet on how to be found by Google:

  1. Work for a university or the US government. Sites that are university or government-hosted rank highly on trust, so my homepage comes up at the top.
  2. Have an account on linkedin. I never use linkedin, but do log in once in about 3 months to approve all connections. I suppose Facebook would work similarly, but I am off Facebook now.
  3. Publish a paper in a data mining engineering conference. I published one (just one) paper in a data mining conference and was promptly entered into the database of every AI researcher out there who builds data mining algorithms based on links between papers.  That one paper is the cause of more entries in my Google results than any other one.
  4. Review articles for NewsTrust.  It's been 2 years since I last reviewed an article for them, but those reviews are prominently featured.
  5. Get linked to by a government website. In my case, this is a NASA (I assume) website about GOES. They cached a poster I gave at a conference long ago.
  6. Have a blog. Not surprisingly, this blog itself doesn't come up. However, this blog at some point got indexed by Technorati, and that rating page comes up. The 37000th ranked blog in some category, in case you are curious.
  7. Get picked up by Bing Academic Search. Surprisingly, the Google Scholar page is listed far below the Bing one. Apparently, my H-index is 5. 
  8. Publish a couple of papers in one of the journals published by Scorpus. These tend to be engineering journals where I usually don't publish. However, a EE student whose committee I was part of published a paper in IEEE Transactions (I was 5th author or something!) and that was enough to get Scorpus to start a page on me. According to Scorpus, my H-index is 7.
  9. Post a question on a high-traffic newsgroup. I posted a question/bug report on netcdf and that post is heavily visible because a bunch of other sites mirror the netcdf forum.
  10. Post answers on a forum. I answer a bunch of questions on the WDSS-II forum, naturally, but it is not as heavily linked to as the netcdf forum. Hence, my 300 answers on WDSS-II get ranked lower than the one question on netcdf.
  11. Publish a highly cited paper. In this case, it's a paper on WDSS-II that has been cited 71 times. But notice how far down the list an actually-read paper is. Well below the data mining paper and the GOES poster ... The next real paper to be linked is on page 4 of my Google results.
  12. Teach a course at an university. I taught one measly course in Geoinformatics, and none of the graduate students who took the course actually rated me. Yet, the fact that I taught the course meant that some rate-my-professor site started a page on me and one on my courses (plural!).
  13. Put your papers on the web. At some point, Google Scholar starts to index them. Even if no one ever reads any paper you ever wrote.
  14. Get linked to from an article on Wikipedia.
So, looking back at the list above, one thing strikes me.  The way to be found easily on Google is to publish research papers. I now understand why people are astonished that my name gets 11 pages of results in Google. They don't realize that scientific researchers thrive on self-referential links!

Fishy business

The whole concept of jewelry has always struck me as kind of fishy. I can understand paying lots of money for a fast car or for a vacation to Tahiti, but I have never been able to wrap my head around why any one would want to pay lots of money for pieces of metal.

Art, I can understand, but most jewelry is not being prized as art. Instead, it is the material that is being prized, not the craftsmanship. After all, what craftsmanship is involved in stringing pearls together? So, it was with a chuckle that I read in the New York Times that:
A Chinese half-inch pearl now sells for $4 to $8 at wholesale, which is typically less than half of the retail price. A Tahitian pearl of similar size sells at wholesale for $25 to $35.
The reason for falling prices is not just China's low-cost workforce, but technical innovation. Pearl prices are falling as the technology to cultivate larger and more lustrous pearls improves.

Depravity on all sides

Ugh. The country's debt ceiling something that (in the words of the 14th Amendment) should not have been questioned at all. Yet, it has. And this is due to the depravity of both Congress and the President.

When Congress votes a budget, it implicitly approves the spending and revenues. It's ridiculous that there is a separate vote on the bottom line that is divorced from any hard decisions about what spending to cut.  Just to protect themselves from the electoral consequences of making such hard decisions, Congress was willing to jeopardize our economy.

Meanwhile, Obama should have refused to negotiate all at on this topic. He has had several outs proposed to him, any of which would have worked. Instead, he chose the worst of all possible deals, mainly so that in 2012 he can claim to have negotiated a "bipartisan" deal.  But bipartisan does not mean "right".

This focus by Congress and President Obama on elect-ability is depraved and shows a total lack of character.  Forget about "country first".  It seems that "country" was never considered by any of the parties in this charade.