Wednesday, July 27, 2005

My ascent into “e-literacy”

One fine day, when I was in first grade (I guess I was 6-7 yrs old at the time), I told my dad I wanted to be an engineer like him. He then told me about this thing called a “computer”, that he said would change the world. I mulled over this for a moment and asked him if being a “computer engineer” would fetch me Rs 10000 a month (My dad actually earned less than that at that time). When he assured me that it would, I instantly made up my mind that I would be a computer engineer without ever having seen a computer. (sigh.. if only decision making were so simple now)

It was to be several years before I would actually see a computer. Sometime during middle school in fact. My first encounter with a computer is worth mentioning. I remember looking at it with awe and wonder as if it were GOD. I remember touching the keyboard as if one press of the wrong key would obliterate the entire world. I remember sitting very erect and still, as if the slightest vibration would cause the computer to eat me alive. I remember scraping the CPU with my nail and then waiting with my heart in my mouth for my teacher to send me out of the class for defacing that GREAT and POWERFUL machine. (It was a black/white 200 Mhz DOS machine btw.. with no mouse). I remember carefully entering a LOGO program to draw a circle (A one line program) and then chuckling with delight as the cursor moved on the screen feeling as if I had just made a scientific breakthrough of gigantic proportions. I remember my teacher repeating the expansion of BASIC- “Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code” over and over again until he had made sure we would remember it long after we were dead. My first encounter was fun no doubt, but more memorable events were to follow.

In my seventh grade, the managing director of my dad’s company invited us for dinner. When we got there, he led me and my sis to his computer. It looked much better than the ones I had seen at school, but more importantly his computer had a mouse and WINDOWS (Windows 95 to be precise) installed. After explaining how to use the mouse, he opened up an encyclopedia and left to entertain my parents. Over the next three hours me and my sister opened, minimized and closed windows on the screen not caring much to read any of the stuff within the windows. (Of course one hour was lost in fighting for our turn for the mouse). It took a hell of a lot of time to close a single window. The “arrow” would head towards the ‘x’ button and then suddenly miss the target. When I missed my sis would let out her most sarcastic laugh and of course I retaliated when it was her turn. Clicking was much worse. We never really mastered the concept of “left clicking” and “right clicking” and were very puzzled when menus popped up. After expounding many theories (each more illogical than the next) to explain the popping up of menus we gave up.

The highlight of the evening was when I heard my Dad yelling for my sis and me when it was time to go home. I was feeling very indebted to our host for letting me use his “personal computer” as he had called it. I very badly wanted to do something to return the favor and decided to save him some power. I looked around carefully and finding the point the computer was connected to, promptly switched it off in spite of my sis telling me to “leave things alone”. Feeling very pleased with myself, I walked into the living room and proudly announced what I had done expecting a pat on the back. What I got instead was a lecture on “shutting down” a system and how a computer was different from a television. Wishing the ground would open up and swallow me, I mumbled my apologies and ran to our car.

Sometime in tenth grade, I came across several articles in the newspapers and magazines about this thing called the “Internet” that was revolutionizing the world. I was highly cynical and found it hard to believe in the concept of accessing information remotely. But very soon a friend took me to a net centre and helped me open my first email account. Seeing is believing and when I started receiving replies to my mails I went gaga over the Internet. From that moment on 75 % of my pocket money was spent on browsing. I went on an email account creating spree and created around a hundred email addresses for myself. Wonder how many of them exist today…. The other side of the Internet was brought to my attention when I was in 11th grade. I was playing pool with a few friends when one of them said he had something to show us on the Internet. So six of us crowd into a cubicle for one and then I get a shock. My first glance at porn on the Internet. The pictures were more explicit than any I had seen previously in TV/movies. Now, I’m not a prude but I was shivering with fright. I was certain we were all going to go to jail… lol..

It was only in my first year of engineering that I got a PC at home. Then began a period of several crazes. First it was the music downloading craze. I remember spending a month of study holidays most usefully; downloading 227 songs, spending over a 150 hours online to do so. (Today I could have downloaded as much in less than half an hour.) This was followed by the music organizing craze. I created an imposing nested directory structure with more levels than the LIC building in Chennai. I spent hours naming songs, entering track and album information and typing out lyrics. The irony of it all is that I haven’t found time till date to listen to any of the songs. But the worst craze was yet to come. For one semester I ate, slept and played Age of Empires. And did NOTHING else.

In spite of all these crazes I somehow managed to graduate from college finally fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a “computer engineer”. My entry into America further broadened my horizons what with high speed T1 lines and powerful laptops. Every single day I find something new that I can do with a computer. When I watch DVD quality streaming video or when I talk to my mom and dad on skype, I still feel the same awe that I felt so many years ago when I first set sight on this most remarkable machine called the computer.

Computers of the world… I salute you! :-)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Something 'profound'

A few of days ago an old school friend of mine calls up and says.. "I read your 'Diwali' post. I'm disappointed. I expected you to write something 'profound'." ('Profound' is in quotes because it was the exact word he used). That upset me a bit because I had thought that post was well written. I told him my intention had been purely to entertain and not to make a point. But his words stuck in my head. So last Saturday I sat thinking of something profound to write. Agonizingly nothing appropriate came to my mind.

It struck me that 'life after death' would be really 'profound', given the fact that no one knows anything at all about the subject. But then I didn't either and having posted only twice until then I most certainly did NOT want to scare people off by talking about bizarre stuff like death. After breaking my head some more, I came to the conclusion that "profound" things were beyond me at that moment and so I went ahead and wrote about my weekend.

A couple of days back however, I had an opportunity to read "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" by Robert T. Kiyosaki. That really started me thinking. Basically what the book says is this: 'EDUCATION IS NOT GOING TO MAKE YOU RICH'. (.. (sob).. My dreams have just been shattered). But the book is right. For those of you, who are thinking you will attain financial freedom through MBAs and Phds, think again. You will not. At the most, education can ensure financial security but not financial freedom. What financial security translates to is- you get all you need but not all you want. Even this is at a cost. Chances are you will end up slogging day in and day out, doing something you don't like (even if you do tell everyone you like it). Financial freedom on the other hand means you get to do what you want and still have the money to spend as you see fit.

Many people are under the impression that an American education/job will ensure financial freedom. I was too. Until I spent some time here that is. Then reality hit me. Let me illustrate by guiding you through the typical lifecycle of a hypothetical Indian landing in the United States. Let's call this Indian, Raj. (Mind you, I have no particular fondness for the name. I picked it for 2 reasons.. 1) It's SRK's name in the much acclaimed DDLJ. I'm just hoping this might generate some interest in my audience and prompt them to read the boring story that follows and 2) It has just 3 letters and is just one syllable)

'Raj' comes to America to do his MS on a full assistantship. Living normally (neither extravagantly nor miserly) he breaks even upon graduation. Soon after, Raj gets a job and starts living it up a bit. He buys a car he fancies and travels around America. Something he was never able to do as a student. Still manages to save around 20000$ each year. After a couple of years he gets bored of being single and decides to get married. Let us assume he marries someone who earns around the same amount as he does. (And no, I'm not going to call her Simren. Lets just call her Ria (I couldn't think of a girl's name with a single syllable)). Expenses should double obviously but in reality they triple. So R&R manage to save 30000$ a year. Together they plan to buy a house. Now a good house in a good location would be anywhere between 300000$ and 500000$. Let's suppose they buy a house for 400000$. Of course this is on a loan at say a phenomenally low interest rate of 5 %. Once they move in they would obviously save all that they were spending on renting a house. They save 60000$ a year now. With that kind of savings it would take them approximately 10 years to pay off that loan (including interest).

In the meantime of course R&R are not idle. They have a couple of kids. Expenses go up like hell. (Parents here have the habit of literally filling their kids' rooms with expensive toys and the increased family count means India trips get more expensive). But both parents are working hard and obviously get pay rises every year. So I'm going to let that rest. By the time the loan on the house is paid off, the children are in the middle of school. It's time R&R started saving for their college education. Now trust me, good undergrad education can be a very costly affair in the United States. And just like Indian parents want their kids to study in the IITs, R&R want their kids to study at Stanford even if it costs an arm and a leg! In numerical terms a four year education at Stanford for two kids would mean R&R would have to save around 400000$ (Assuming 50000 a year per kid). Also, keep in mind that expenses would skyrocket once their children reach adolescence. Boys would require money to take out girls. Girls would require money for perms, facials, manicures etc... Also the legal driving age of 16 in the United States means cars have to be bought and this in turn means doling out for gas. In any case R&R being the typical steadfast and caring Indian parents, manage to save what is necessary when it is time for their children to enter college.

After the kids graduate, R&R are finally able to save a substantial amount. But by this time of course Raj and Ria are 50. They work hard for the next 5-10 years and then retire to spend the rest of their life with whatever they have saved. THE END.

I wonder if I'm going to be like Raj... :-(.. I just hope not..

PS: I just reviewed what I have written and realize that this is a feeble attempt at being ‘profound’ (inspite of all the numbers… lol). I can’t for the life of me imagine why I couldn’t have left out the cracks and stuck to serious sentences. Perhaps it’s because I think life itself is a joke. I really need to grow up…(sigh)

Saturday, July 16, 2005

A Happening Saturday..

Last weekend I was at the International Gem Show in Marlboro, which happens to be around 90 miles(140 kms) from where I live. In case you are wondering what I was doing at a jewel show let me tell you that I was playing driver to a couple of friends(of the opposite sex no doubt) who put their foot down and insisted I take them there. One other guy was also forced (by marital ties) to tag along. I was told to be ready by 9 AM. I blanched. 9 AM on Saturday morning!! Crazy. However, the two prospective jewellery buyers argued that it would get too crowded later in the day and that the best deals and discounts would be in the morning. I was highly cynical (esp about the crowds), but resigned myself to my fate.

So we set off around 9 AM (Indian Standard Time of course) and got there in an hour and a half. There was a 7$ entrance fee and after finding out that we DID NOT get any gemstones free with the entrance ticket my friend and I contemplated catching a movie, leaving the girls to go in and make their own purchases. Almost instantly we decided against it for different reasons. My friend was obviously concerned about the money his wife might splurge. I was however more worried about the time the girls would spend in there. Now don’t mistake me. In my experience girls need someone to tell them.. "oh.. that's awesome".. “it suits you perfectly”.. "wow.. amazing" and stuff like that without which they would go insane with the mammoth decisions that would have to be made. And of course insane people wouldn’t be able to find their way out of a large hall. So it was out of concern for their well being that I shelled out 7 dollars and walked inside.

Almost immediately my jaw dropped open in surprise. There were more jewels in that hall than ALL the jewels given in dowry at ALL the marriages in India. And more importantly there were more people in there than there were during the fourth of July celebrations. In fact I guess it was the largest crowd I had ever seen since I entered the United States. Large crowds always make me feel good because there are hardly any people on the roads here. The crowd was basically full of older people. American teenagers clearly preferred iron, steel and rock to gemstones. In any case if I had wanted to ogle at girls I should’ve gone to the beach. So I moved around observing the vast multitude of people from almost every country in the world occasionally pausing to reassure my female companions that their selections were indeed worthy ones. Only once did the thought of buying something for my sister (yes you suspicious jerks, I said ‘sister’) come into my head and I turned over an especially attractive set of emerald earrings to look at the price tag. Only 506$ after discount. My sister would have to wait! Even bootlicking credit card companies couldn’t make me spend that kind of money on jewels right now.

In the midst of all this I had an urge to use the lone vending machine in the huge hall to buy a can of coke and then proceeded to spill the same all over the floor. I looked around carefully to see if anyone had noticed and then performed a disappearing act. You would be surprised to see how fast I can move sometimes.

Around 12:30 pm, we guys decided that it was time to begin pestering the girls to leave if were to have lunch at atleast 2 pm. Have you ever wondered how girls can get tired and hungry after a short trip from the living room to the bedroom but still walk for miles in malls without thinking of food and rest? Well I have and I’m still wondering. Anyways, after an hour of pitifully moaning about our extreme hunger the girls relented. I must concede though that the morning was not wholly unentertaining.

Lunch was at an Udupi restaurant and among other things, I had “Aloo bonda”. Now this may not be worth mentioning but please note that this was the first time I had ever partaken of the above said dish. Man, was it good. I’ve clearly missed out on some of the better aspects of life in India.

The final stop for the day was at a temple in Framingham. I planned to stay outside but after discovering that I was allowed to keep my socks on (footwear rules are clearly more flexible in the United States), I went in and took a look around. This temple was different from the ones I had seen previously. It wasn’t dedicated to a single God but housed the shrines of several of the most popular Hindu Gods- Shiva, Vishnu, Karthikeya, Lakshmi and Ganesha. There were a couple more but I do not recollect their names. I looked around curiously at the worship going on around me while my friends prayed. Once they were finished we headed home. Our trip back was uneventful barring one particular incident where I very enthusiastically missed the exit we were supposed to take. Not a big deal… just an extra 20 miles before the next one.. lol..

All in all a fun Saturday!

PS: Most of my pals here left for Niagara this weekend. Yours truly did not go. Yours truly is stuck with work...(sigh)..

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Out of thin "Smoke"

I did hint that my next posting would talk about the fireworks display on the fourth of July. The display was magnificent no doubt, but unfortunately green, blue, yellow, pink, purple and all the flashy colors I witnessed three nights ago will still be 'black' words on a 'white' background in my blog. As the visual spectacle reached a climax, the smell of the smoke wafting in reminded me of something else. Strangely enough, smoke smells the same in India and America and my thoughts drifted half the world away to Diwali. In case you are wondering why the display itself didn't bring thoughts of Diwali, let me tell you that I am wondering about that myself. Nevertheless it didn't. Perhaps because it was so different from what I was used to seeing.

Almost invariably Diwali begins the same way for me every year. Around five in the morning I hit the ceiling, bounce a couple of times between the ceiling and my bed and then come to rest on the bed(sometimes on the floor) with a look of shocked bewilderment on my face, not knowing what hit me. Until the next thunderous explosion shakes the very foundations of our house that is. Then realisation sinks in. I curse my neighbors' children who just HAVE to burst "hydrogen", "atom" and the more popular "lakshmi" bombs at such an ungodly hour, curse my neighbors for having such children, curse the world in general and then plug my ears and get back to sleep.

Try to get back to sleep I mean. Let me state here that it is very difficult to sleep while holding your hands to your ears. If you don't believe me, try it sometime. Sleeping on your side would mean sleeping on your elbow (ouch), sleeping on your back would mean either of two things.. 1) Your arms are unsupported. 2) Your arms are stretched out at an unnatural angle of 180 degrees from each other(gymnasts please excuse). And if you don't think that 1) is too big a deal let me remind you about that "raise your hands" punishment everyone of you must have gone through in school. Good, now you get the idea. And of course, sleeping on your stomach would mean immense pressure on your forearms.

After logically considering all three alternatives, I decide to go with the "sleeping on the stomach" option. Soon the ache in my arms becomes unbearable. I sit up deciding to put to good use the brain God has been kind enough to implant in me and give some serious thought to the problem. A pillow catches my eye. Gleefully, I sandwich my head between my two pillows. A wasted effort. It takes less than 2 minutes of continuously modifying the position of my head in between the pillows for me to realise that a hundred pillows would be necessary to effectively muffle out the sound. I considered collecting pillows from all the rooms and the sofas but it took less than 10 seconds for even my "tubelightish" brain to conclude that we DID NOT have a hundred pillows even if I counted the dusty ones lying on the top shelves of our wardrobes.

Totally frustrated, I begin to pace the floor in my room while the nerves in my brain worked overtime to solve what appeared to be an NP hard problem(unsolvable ie). By this time it was 6:30 am and the explosions had reached a crescendo. The early risers had woken up the entire neigborhood which wasn't surprising. What was surprising was that the later risers seemed to think that the best way to punish the early birds for their transgression, was to drown out their noise with more bombs. What foolishness!!! Of course, the incessant noise meant continuous lapses in concentration, ruining any chances of brainstorms. Giving up, I resolve to catch up on my sleep the next day and head out to brush... which is a mistake.

My mom catches me in the hallway. "Nirmal, I'm glad you got up so early.. you need to go to the shop". While I stare at her wondering if I really heard those words.. she goes on.. "There is no milk in the house and I need to make coffee." Fear crept into my eyes. She couldn't possibly be serious could she? I ask her if she knew it was Diwali today. She did of course.. the neighbors had made certain of that. I plead with her but to no avail. I remind her that I'm her only son but she still does not relent. Instead she says "Be a man". That did it. I turn purple with rage. "I'll show her", I think. Another mistake. I shouldn't have fallen for that cheap trick.

Ten minutes later I am at the gate feeling not unlike a soldier about to set foot onto a minefield. I look down the road carefully, trying to chart out a safe route to my destination which was 300 metres away. Being used to running long distances during my school days I would have scoffed at 300 metres on any other day. That day, however the distance seems to be of a much larger magnitude than the distance from Boston to Chennai. I hesitate. The sight of my mom on the balcony propels me. The time had come. I muster all my courage and hurtle down the road. Think of how a dog would run with a triggered string of a 1000 "bijlis"(I forget what they are called) tied to it's tail and you have the exact picture of me hurtling down the road. I zig and zag avoiding both real and imaginary bombs. With my hands over my ears of course. Again, it is not easy to run with your hands on your ears.. especially if there is a shopping bag in one of those hands.. sort of upsets your balance. On top of all that I find that everyone in sight is looking at me as if I were a prize goof. Downright degrading. At long last I reach the store. On my way back I foolishly assume that having reached my destination unscathed it would be safest to take the same route back home. It turns out I was wrong. The net result: I come within 5 feet of an exploding "hydrogen" bomb. I get home in a state of shock, my ears ringing and my eyes staring blankly into space. I look sorrowfully at my Mom and hand her the bag with the milk, expecting a few words of sympathy but I get none. She grabs the bag and walks into the kitchen leaving me gaping after her.

The afternoon is relatively quieter and I am more than content to lie in bed, with a book and some sweets(a more pleasant aspect of Diwali), which some of our neighbors' kids(those over enthusiastic early birds) brought across. (Thank god I was out on my perilous journey to the store when they came over, else I might be languishing in a jail in India for murder right now.) No disturbances at all except for a call from my friend in the evening asking me if I wanted to play cricket. I laugh at him and tell him to go jump in a lake. Inwardly I sighed. It isn't very often that I get a chance to play cricket.

Is this all worth it? Indeed it is. For the sun is about to set.

With sunset comes the best part of Diwali.. the LIGHTS.. The lights may not be as fancy as the display the other night but the sheer numbers more than make up for it. The entire city seems lit up. From my third floor balcony, I see large masses of people on the road and in front of houses lighting up a a variety of firecrackers. Children laugh happily while clutching sparklers or lighting flowerpots(I just love flowerpots). Come to think of it, I'd rather light a small flower pot or a plain rocket myself than just watch a professional set up a massive array of fireworks. While admiring the amazing spectacle before me I realise that I'm still holding my ears to block out the intermittent ruckus. I begin to wonder "If Diwali is the festival of lights, where does the sound fit in?" Of course EVEN I'm not ignorant enough to want soundless firecrackers. I only have a problem with fireworks that produce sound exclusively. Even that would be alright, if the sound were rythmic/melodious/musical. I just do not see the point of lighting up something, then running helter-skelter and waiting fearfully for it to go just... "BAAAMMMM"; which is what I see most people do. Anyway I guess it's a matter of taste. I enjoy the sight for a little bit and make my way inside.

Reflection on the day's happenings: I put up with some noise and get to eat a whole variety of sweets and view a large scale firework display without
1)having to do any "Pooja".
2)having to get up early and bathe.
3)having to go about knocking on doors and distributing sweets.

Not a bad deal at all.

And let me share a secret. I actually missed not being blasted out of bed last year. lol...

One last thing.. Happy Birthday Mom.. I love you.. :-)

Monday, July 04, 2005

On your mark... get stead.. GO.. GO.. GO..

Thoughts of hitting the blogging scene have been preying on my mind for quite some time now. Every few weeks I would drive the thoughts out of my head telling myself I was too busy to be able to maintain a good blog. (I was not.. Just this feeling of self-importance that invades my being every now and then). In fact I should say my mind was split into two on the issue of blogging. For convenience let's say that the left part of my brain was all for blogging while the right wasn't. (biologists, forgive this trivialization). Since last year my left mind(LM) has been playing various tricks on my right mind(RM)(assuming again that RM had the final say in the matter) to get me started with blogging but RM was STRONG. RM resisted with all his might each of the arguments put forward by LM. A most persuasive train of thought that LM tried follows..

LM: isn't that blog good? I could do much better..
RM: Oh really? I don't think so.
LM: Umm.. I could atleast do as well
RM: do you really think so?
LM: Actually "NO"
RM: I knew it..
LM(consolingly): But I could come close
RM: seriously?
LM(sheepishly): again No.
RM: sigh
LM: But atleast a blog would be a more productive way of wasting time than hanging out with girls.
RM: Hah! Are you trying to put one over me? I know my priorities in life.
LM: Oops.. my mistake..

and so it went.

Until today, that is. I got back from India last week. And LM has been acting up since I got here. Anyways I figure 15 months of procrastination has beaten all my previous records and so am on the verge of taking the plunge. In fact since I've already typed out 250 words(don't count, it was just an estimate) I guess I should say "I've taken the plunge". :-)

Why today the fourth of july 2005? Today is not my girlfriend's birthday (but then again it might be.. Sadly I won't know for sure until I meet her). However today just happens to be the "FOURTH OF JULY" which is why I must explicitly state before I am branded a traitor, deserter and the like that the American Independence day is NOT the inspiration for beginning my blog. It just happens to be a long weekend during which I took the time to get started. In fact if at all something(or rather someone) has inspired me it would be Vinod(my junior in college) for he maintains one of the classiest blogs I have come across.

I would like a theme to my blog. Having lived in the United states for about a year now and having been born and brought up in India, a comparison of the two cultures seems to be the most obvious theme. I would like to state here that my opinions/postings may be controversial. However, the intention is not to ridicule either of the cultures but to share my thoughts and have a little fun at the same time. That being said, I reserve the right to digress and talk about myself at anytime.. ;-).

A little something about me..
I am pursuing graduate study in Computer Science at the University of New Hampshire which happens to be a quiet and picturesque school about an hour from Boston. I studied Information Technology at Sai Ram Engg College and was lucky enough to fall under the scope of Madras university since that meant I didn't have to study for four years.. Don't be envious.. I've had to slog my heart out during the last one year making up for my lack of "knowledge", and I've still got a long way to go.

Reading is a passion of mine.. and I will very definitely explore the subject further in my future postings. I love satirical humor and my favorite books in that category are "Yes Minister" and "Yes Prime Minister". I would certainly recommend that everyone read the book (note that I said 'read' not 'watch'). More specifically I would recommend it to the fans of "The Hitchiker's guide to the galaxy". Having read both books I'm confident they will appreciate it.. for the nonsensical humor if nothing else..

I ought to get going now and watch the wonderful fireworks display that my friends are raving about. If it lives up to expectations it might even make an ideal next posting.

God Bless America.. and India.. and every other country in the world.. :-)