Two Indias

I was in Delhi all of Monday and Tuesday, but I learned about the massive grid failure from the New York Times. The hotel I am staying in, the restaurants I eat in and the building I go to work at all have their diesel generators.  When the power grid went down, lights flickered, went out and then came on again in a few seconds as these generators kicked in. This is a common enough occurrence that I never gave it another thought.

It turns out that half the country has been without power for 2 days, the Metro is shut down, etc. I wouldn't know it, because everyone I work with comes in to work in a car. Driven by a driver paid for by their work place -- no company would dare rely on Indian public transit, it seems. So, some folks came in late, but that was also because the monsoon started this morning, overcoming the city's storm drains.  Traffic was snarled for hours, but I assumed that it was because of the rains. The city's traffic signals no longer worked, but traffic signals do not play that big a role in Indian driving.

Consequently, the impact on high-tech India of the massive grid failure is probably zilch.  Okay not zilch. Their monthly diesel budget is probably busted.  But, meanwhile, low-tech India is in the dark. Literally.

The quality of life shows its head in other ways as well. A restaurant bill for one in the posh areas of Delhi will run you about Rs. 1200 ($24).  A restaurant bill for one in middle-class Delhi (in a clean, well-run restaurant) might run you Rs. 200 ($4).  For the same food -- I am not comparing filet-mignon vs. taco-salad here. Meanwhile, in my parents' village, that meal would cost you about Rs. 50 ($1).

As you can imagine, then, the way people think about money in the two Indias is different. At my parents' village, I went to get my glasses repaired. The nose piece had broken off and was replaced, inclusive of labor, for Rs. 20 (40 cents).  The optometrist said that he recognized me.  "You are S2's dad, aren't you?," he asked.  I said I was surprised that he knew my daughter.  "Yes, yes," he said, "I know. Last year, you paid Rs. 350 ($7) to enroll her in that dance class even though you were going to be here for only a month." Normally, that tuition was for six months and my throwing away $7 on the dance class made me so notorious that all the other parents of little girls in that town probably remember me a year later. Meanwhile, high-tech Indians routinely drop Rs. 350 for a coffee and a snack.

When Americans bitch about the 1% and all that, we don't know what we are talking about. To see real inequality, come to India.

The mechanics of speaking: Shashi Tharoor edition

It's always impressive to see a master at his craft.  Shashi Tharoor is an excellent speaker and I was fortunate to be able to observe him in action in Delhi today.

I hadn't actually planned on it, but my meeting at the India Meteorological Department finished early and so I looked at the usual suspects in that area of Delhi for something to do.  The film festival at the Habitat Center was running a Hindi movie without subtitles; the art gallery was full of paintings of dark and forbidding gargoyles and the Islamic center had nothing going on because it's the month of Ramadan. The final choice of the quartet in that neighborhood is the IIC.  And I struck gold there! Sashi Tharoor was going to speak and in fact, he arrived just as I was walking in.

I wish I'd had the courage to go up to him and say that I'm a big of his writing. But I'm no good around celebrities, so I satisfied myself that merely taking this photograph would drive J. jealous (did I succeed?)

He had his whole speech written out and was reading his speech. However, he managed to keep eye contact with his audience throughout.  That itself is quite a feat -- most American politicians need a teleprompter to manage this. While giving his speech, I noticed him taking out his pen and marking corrections and elisions.  If I had not been watching his hands, I would have never known this -- he did his editing with nary a pause.  So, not only was he reading his speech while looking at the audience throughout, he was managing to note his edits to the speech as he gave it!

Of course, his delivery style was impeccable -- he had a clear voice without any slurring or filler sounds.  When I grow up, I want to be able to speak like Shashi Tharoor.

What about the content of his talk, you ask ... well, the speech was on "Freedom of Expression in the Age of the Internet".  Shashi Tharoor is a diplomat-turned-writer-turned-politician who was among the first politicians to embrace Twitter.  As one would expect from that biography, the speech was mostly anodyne -- he praised free speech, rolled out Oliver Holmes' quote about fire in a crowded theater and moved quite naturally on to justifying the Indian government's request that Facebook, Google, etc. avoid inflaming the masses with anything that any body might consider blasphemous.

He never quite addressed why religious belief is uniquely deserving of special protection from the marketplace of ideas. But for one whole hour, Shashi Tharoor's mastery made me forget that I was not on his side at all.   He truly is a wonderful speaker.


The best thing about Delhi before the monsoon:

In South India, mango season is over and so what mangoes we got were about on par with the Mexican mangoes one gets in the United States. Nothing to write home about.

But in Delhi, the mangoes are delicious. I don't know what variety they are (Langra maybe?) -- the outside is all green even when the inside is perfectly ripe. Anyway, I'm pigging out on at least two mangoes a day. Hope the doctor doesn't have to come calling.

Kinsella's got my number

Ugh. I just finished reading a chick-lit book ... and ... I actually enjoyed it. This is not the kind of thing I would normally admit in public, but I do also like to post about books I enjoyed reading. So, here goes.

A few months ago, I was browsing my public library's e-book site.  In a physical library, a book can be placed in only one section and so, Sophie Kinsella's "I've got your number" would have been safely esconsed in "Romance", far from any shelf I would be browsing. Online, though, it was cross-listed in "literature" (what snarky soul would do such a thing?) and I misclicked, mistakenly putting her book on hold.

And so, last week, when the library informed me that I could download the book now, I did.  I'd completely forgotten that this was a chick-lit book.  By the time I got to the third chapter, I was hooked, though, and so I ended up reading the whole thing.

Of course, you can see the romantic angle coming about 30 pages in, so the book is not thrilling or anything. There is nothing I know now that I didn't know when I started the book. There was no uplift of any other kind either. There is precious little social commentary. Still, it is a fun, happy book and I strongly recommend it if you want a light, breezy book that you can read with only a tenth of your brain active. You deserve the break.

Kindle DX: poor software on great hardware

I own a couple of Nooks but the Kindle DX is my first Kindle. Based on about a month of use, this is what I like and don't like about the Kindle:

Where Kindle DX is better than the Nook:
(1) The screen size rules: I can now read research papers (PDF) quite clearly.
(2) The user interface hardware buttons are very nice. I thought I'd prefer the Nook's swipe screen, but I was wrong. The Kindle's buttons & keypad are very convenient.
(3) The blackness of the device means that it pretty much disappears. I've found that I get immersed in a book quite quickly.
(4) The larger page size means that there are fewer page turns.

Where the Kindle DX could be better:
(1) I have never encountered corrupt epub books on the Nook in 3 years of reading (over 200 books). However, 3 of the 8 books I have read so far on the Kindle DX were corrupted. I had to delete them on the device and re-download them from Amazon. One of the books had the last three pages in a crossed out font because of some software glitch.
(2) Need way to annotate PDFs. I bought the Kindle DX so that I could read research papers. Not being able to add notes to these is silly.
(3) It would be nice to have page turn buttons on both sides of the Kindle. Having them on the right-hand side means that I can not read books holding the Kindle with my left hand (unless I were to turn the device upside down and learn to ignore the arrows on the buttons).
(4) The software user-interface is terrible. You need several clicks to just open up a browser. The browser is quite bad, so this does not matter much. But then, the Nook's browser is also quite bad; I can count on my fingers the number of times (in 3 years) that I have used the Nook's browser.
(5) Need way to see what music is loaded on the Kindle, to move to a specific song, to randomize the playlist, etc. Having only the option to play music in order is very limiting.
(6) Need way to set time interval before Kindle goes to sleep. I was trying to look at a paper and graph a formula (using my computer). The lKindle frustratingly kept going to sleep.

Ultimately, the corrupt books and the inability to annotate PDFs are huge problems. I hope Amazon plans to address these two issues in a software update soon ... the hardware is great, but the software for the Kindle DX is still quite raw and unfinished.

Bringing the mountain

The central figure in Murugan temples honor Shiva's second son and the general of his armies. Hills being good locations for fortified temples, Murugan temples are normally built on hills. The most famous Murugan temple, for example, is in a town called Palani which is located in the Western Ghats; the name of that temple translates to "six battle-camps". 

This, of course, poses a problem for people who'd dearly love to build a Murugan temple but have the unfortunate problem of living in a flat town. In the course of the last year, someone in my parents' village came up with an innovative solution:
Yes, he built the temple on stilts!  You climb the stairs and presto, you are in the "hill temple" (its actual name). What else could a Murugan devotee ask for? My dad tells me that on festival days, the space on top is not enough and the crowds stretch down one flight of stairs.

Having always seen my parents' village from street level, it was quite cool to get a panaromic view. Forget what I said about "the standard panaroma" -- an unfamiliar view of a familiar landscape is something else altogether.

This, for example, is the view looking to the North-East.  The gopurams (temple spires) are those of the town's Shiva temple (I've blogged about this temple before):

Taken for granted

It's amazing the things one takes for granted.

Take something as simple as showing numerals using your fingers ... If you wanted to say that you have 3 thingamagies, which fingers do you hold up? In North America, one shows the three middle fingers of one's hand, with the thumb and little finger forming an "o".  In France, they show the thumb and two fingers. If you're not prepared for this, you immediately discount the left-most finger and think that you're being shown just two fingers. Our first hotel in France, therefore, I thought we were on the third floor (I'd turned away and only heard the clerk say "trois") but my wife who'd been facing the clerk and had seen him sign thought we were on the second floor of the hotel.

Meeting an older couple in Chennai (India), the other day, we were regaled to the best new thing that had happened in the city. It was a new library that had been built by the state government.  It was very clean. There were security people everywhere enforcing silence and no food. There were books from all over the world, even expensive foreign books. They had a computerized catalog, so you didn't have to actually search the shelves. The building was all air-conditioned and had nice, large glass windows that looked out onto the street.  No, you couldn't borrow books, but the selection was awesome. I totally had to take the kids to go see it. They didn't realize it of course, but they could have been talking about a public library anywhere in the USA ... except that you would get to borrow books, have community meetings, get children's programs and author talks and even have a pretty good e-book selection to boot.  The next time I go to our public library, I will try to look at it through the eyes of that couple.

We were in an autorickshaw (tuk-tuk) when the driver realized that his route had been blocked by construction. As in completely blocked. "These corporation guys should put up a sign or something," he groused, "before they start to scratch the roads."  The word that I loosely translated as scratch (நோண்டு) is a word more commonly used to refer to pulling boogers out of noses, so his grouch was pretty funny. I tittered, and he thought I was laughing at the very idea. "They could, you know," he suggested tentatively, "they could put up a sign at the corner just before the street saying that you shouldn't go on, that the street is blocked. They could. It would be a lot of signs, but they are spending a lot of money to dig up that street, and one small sign won't cost much and it would save people like me a lot of petrol."  I didn't have the heart to tell him that his idea was not far-fetched at all.

Funky France

France has never been high on my list of places to go simply because I think of it as a destination for the snooty and the senile. My choices veer towards Peru or Ladakh ... France could wait until we turn senile.

Still, circumstances turned out such that a family vacation in France was the most convenient thing we could do this year, so it was to France that we went. Can a visit to France be funky, when one doesn't care too much for people-watching in Parisian cafes or go weak-kneed at the thought of 200 varieties of cheese?

Our favorite part of the trip to France was the day we rented a car and drove out into the country side, specifically a visit to Cordes sur Ciel, a medieval village built on a hill. The setting was beautiful, the drive was nice and the hike up the hill through the village was charming. Too bad no one lives in the place but people who ply the tourist trade.
 The ride back, through the vineyards of Galliac was also quite nice. We didn't stop though, because we were traveling with kids ...

In the Versailles palace, our attentions were drawn to the playful over the regal.  Thus, I loved the lion in lace:
while the wife & daughter were drawn to the shoes in a hall full of chandeliers:
The shoes, in case the picture isn't clear, were made of pots, pans and lids.  I'm sure there's some feminist message in this choice and its placement in the fanciest hall in the palace, but that message escaped most visitors to the palace.

We gave the kids the choice of one place to go to.  The 7-year old wanted Disneyworld (of course), but I vetoed that, so she used her choice to decide that we'd climb the Eiffel tower. The views as one climbs the tower were wonderful -- the hard steel against the shimmering water of the Seine provided some breathtaking views:
From the top of the Eiffel, though, it was just a standard panaroma.  Even the Arc De Triomphe has been copied so much (there's one in Pyongyang of all places) that this panorama could very well be any city in the world:

For his choice, the ten-year old chose the sewers of Paris.  The city-beneath-the-city, the location of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables ... this was a choice I wasn't going to veto, even if the son's only reason for choosing the sewers was to gross out his sister.  So, off we went.  This was a bit of a let down since the tour through the sewers seemed a little haphazard, but it was still quite fun:

One more off the bucket list

I think I know why Disney chose Paris when they were looking for a place in Europe to put their new theme park -- Paris makes tourists get used to standing in long lines.

We waited 2.5 hours in line to enter the chateau at Versailles and ended up having no time to go around the gardens. Having learned our lesson, we got to the Louvre earlier. The line to enter it, which stretched over 1 kilometer, took "only" 1.5 hours.
Line to enter the Louvre was 1 km long
The palace at Versailles was rich and fascinating. I have seen palaces elsewhere, but nothing really compares to this one.  It's one thing to have a fancy chandelier
but a hall full of them?  No wonder royal heads rolled in the French revolution.

At the Louvre, we saw the "highlights" first.  The kids remained in the game through the Winged Victory, Wedding Feast at Cana, Mona Lisa to the Venus de Milo. And then their interest flagged. We never managed to interest them in seeing the Dutch paintings or the Egyptian wing ... oh, well!

Once we were in the palace and in the museum, the crowds ceased to be much of a problem -- you could always catch a moment at every spot, but it was rare that you would find the opportunity to take a photograph without a few strange faces in it.  And so, I got this one knocked off my bucket list: