The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

Bird watchers and purple prose

2009-10-25

Speaking of bird-watching and poetry, I've noticed that bird-watchers, at least on the few Indian bird-watching lists I subscribe to, adore purple prose. They applaud it when they see it in other people's trip reports, and do their best to put it in their own.

It is always entertaining to see things like this written with no apparent sense of irony (in this case, about a photograph of a pair of Himalayan Bulbuls):

Reminded me, in fact, of a pair of elegant aristocrats, somewhat puffy-chested with ‘stale airs’, a touch stern in demeanour, necks and crests craning back with a stiff pride.......

As if, As if.... somehow the couple is steeling to bear the gathering autumn of an erstwhile many-splendoured life, now stripped of privy privileges, purses and titles!

Very picturesque, but when I think of an aristocrat stripped of privy privileges, I can't help but imagine an old butler, neck stiff with spondylosis, saying I'm sorry, Sir Neville, but they took away the outhouse.

But any literary allusion, no matter how trite or overused, is cause for celebration. Comparisons to poetry are frequent followups; and sometimes a phrase catches someone else's imagination, and reappears in their own reports. Someone once responded to a post, which was relatively subdued in comparison to the above, with a comment that Ruskin Bond was quaking in his boots, presumably from fear of competition (though the post didn't rule out, say, uncontrollable laughter).

It's not surprising that the responses are all positive, of course. These lists are meant for discussions about birds, after all, and not literary criticism; and a bit of overeager prose never killed anyone. I imagine anyone who cares enough to distinguish between good writing and a string of adjectives would be best served by silence. Besides, as I've learned from bitter experience, a few authors have pretensions to great writing, and react to anything other than fawning praise with suspicion and—more likely than not—another pompous screed.

It's a pity, though, that people read such reports and see that they are well-received, and are made to feel that their own reports should aspire to the same outmoded standard. Victorian England, with all its class distinctions, lives on in the kind of English taught to the Indian upper crust. (An aside: Wikipedia says that the phrase "purple prose" comes from the Ars poetica by the Roman poet Horace, who used it to caution against literary excess more than two thousand years ago.)

Although examples of flowery prose are legion, one mailing list post in particular stands out as an indelible indigo scab on my consciousness, cratered with swooping metaphors and pock-marked with… ahem. Here are a few passages, excerpted with some difficulty from the dense surrounding context. The account begins thus:

Eastern UP is Old India. The towns spill onto the roads or what is left of them after the tractors and other mechanized farming vehicles have ploughed their way through, deepening the already deepened furrows. The roads appear hand-crafted. Over-laden lorries of village wealth packed sky-high with hay or sugar cane traverse these hand-made roads. Level crossings criss-cross them. On the rail tracks of the smaller crossings, red cotton sheets are stretched across two bamboo poles that seem to arrogantly shout at the train to halt. In between the passage of trains chugging past, cycles, rickshaws and bullock carts put their lives on the line and make a dash for the other side.

We drove from Shahjehanpur to Dudhwa National Park for nearly 4 hours, over a grey-brown road against a grey, smog-darkened sky. The smog tried in vain to push back the dawn of the lightening sky. Several smoke stacks came and went leaving their dirty trail of soot robbing the morning of its innocence. Smelting factories, brick kilns and soot-blackened fields inevitably contributed to the sluggish miasma of fog. Little did we know that this landscape would characterize much of the once-rich Terai and its adjoining Bhabbar fields whose gravelly alluvial detritus supported a decent dry deciduous forest.

A decent dry deciduous forest? Is that all? After that setup, I expected no less than a magnificent dry deciduous forest spread across a great swath of the ancient alluvial detritus! But the body of the report lives up to its early promise—at great length—and features a number of adjectival masterpieces of which, for want of space, I shall reproduce only the following one.

Having spent two days at the hutments at Dudhwa, we visited Sathiana one morning and were charmed with what we saw. Its sights and sounds and scents and flavour intoxicated us with a healthy intoxication. So we succumbed to Sathiana's beauty and drove in the darkening night for a change of address. On a dusty track crimson-pink bulbs rose up and danced. Some, but not all nocturnal birds, have a tapetum lucidum — a reflecting layer behind the retina, which turns photons back in their tracks to give the retinal pigments a second chance to intercept them, which, lucky for us, makes for easy spotting.

If some sick fascination holds you to this unrestrained outpouring of literary yearning for another two hundred and fifty odd lines, you are rewarded with the climactic and spiritual ending.

Now we walked into the fire of sunrise, exploiting our senses, forcing ourselves to consider relationships, to embrace the pattern that connects. Walks do this. When we merge our soul with Nature, it makes the intellect fruitful and that gives birth to imagination. We hope to return to explore other areas of this National Park - perhaps in the winter months. The sun was already beating down on us, using us as its own private anvil. In the months to follow the sky would assume a most ruthless blue without compassion of even a cloud; and then the deluge would begin.

Walks do this, do they? I'd better make note of that.

I've always had a sneaking suspicion that the author of this report was just trolling to see how much abuse the audience could possibly take. But if that wasn't really the case, I wanted to do it. So I began to pre-compose my next trip report (this was more than two years ago).

It was dark when we set out, but the brief summer night was little comfort to a planetary crust forever tormented by the liquid fire within, and with scant protection from the relentless onslaught of the fiery celestial orb. Even enclosed, as we were, within a sleek bubble of modern automotive technology, we could not help but be keenly aware of the sullen warmth beneath our wheels as the first luminous rays of dawn roused the parched soil from its restless slumber.

The journey seems but a blur now, a discordant cacophony of wheels and air horns. We could imagine, but dared not lower our windows to listen for, the mellow strains that must attend suburban Gurgaon's awakening, and its increasing enthusiasm to sieze a day which, by now, had gained a firm purchase on our consciousness. I have but fleeting impressions, of swerving to overtake carts pulled by surly oxen, of slowing down to negotiate welts and blisters on the dusty grey road that unwound in front of us, our only tangible physical connection to what seemed an alien planet (but which was, we struggled to remember, only Haryana).

Our destination: Sultanpur lake (or jheel, in the harshly aspirated but essentially good-natured vernacular), an artificially managed wetland in the midst of a dust bowl with its scattered fields, where stunted crops maintain a tenuous grasp on an existence based on nutrients leached at great cost from the uncooperative earth.

At that point, however, I made the mistake of stopping to review what I had written; and I was overcome by a wave of nausea so intense that I was unable to continue. Even the thought of the universal acclaim that would surely attend its unveiling was not enough to renew my flagging spirits, and my magnum opus remains sadly incomplete.

Something to look forward to, perhaps.

ezmlm-landmine

2009-10-07

A couple of days ago, I was investigating an obscure permissions problem on a client's production server (having tried and failed to reproduce it on the staging server). The problem was related to the creation of Ezmlm mailing lists through a web interface (the details aren't relevant here, nor especially interesting).

I tracked down and eventually fixed the problem by manually creating a test list using ezmlm-make(1). Afterwards, I wanted to get rid of the junk list, so I looked in the ezmlm command directory for the opposite of ezmlm-make.

$ ls /usr/local/bin/ezmlm
ezmlm-accept   ezmlmglrc     ezmlm-moderate  ezmlm-store
ezmlm-archive  ezmlm-idx     ezmlmrc         ezmlm-sub
ezmlm-check    ezmlm-issubn  ezmlm-reject    ezmlmsubrc
ezmlm-clean    ezmlm-limit   ezmlm-request   ezmlm-tstdig
ezmlm-cron     ezmlm-list    ezmlm-return    ezmlm-unsub
ezmlm-gate     ezmlm-make    ezmlm-rm        ezmlm-warn
ezmlm-get      ezmlm-manage  ezmlm-send      ezmlm-weed
ezmlm-glconf   ezmlm-mktab   ezmlm-split

ezmlm-rm looked promising, so I ran it without arguments to get a usage message (which is how all the other ezmlm commands behave).

$ /usr/local/bin/ezmlm/ezmlm-list
ezmlm-list: usage: ezmlm-list [-mMnNvV] dir
$ /usr/local/bin/ezmlm/ezmlm-rm
$

Silence? That's not what I expected at all. What was it doing? I looked a little closer.

$ man ezmlm-rm
No manual entry for ezmlm-rm
$ file /usr/local/bin/ezmlm/ezmlm-rm
/usr/local/bin/ezmlm/ezmlm-rm: Bourne shell script text executable
$ cat /usr/local/bin/ezmlm/ezmlm-rm
#!/bin/sh

rm -rf /home/vpopmail/domains/client.example.org/$1
rm -rf /home/vpopmail/domains/client.example.org/.qmail-$1*

A moment later, the sinking feeling set in when I realised that my argument-less invocation had given the script an empty $1, and what that actually meant for the dozens of lists that were stored under vpopmail:

$ ls /home/vpopmail/domains
$

It turns out that the previous maintainer of the system—who disappeared some time ago—saw nothing wrong with unchecked rm -rfs in a script disguised as an ezmlm command.

Sigh.

The domestic violence problem

2009-10-06

The October 4 issue of The Hindu Sunday Magazine features a Talking Point column by Vijay Nagaswami about domestic violence, entitled Even once is too much.

The article gets off to a promising start:

Domestic violence, as it is officially called, has been happening for centuries in our country and is very much part of ‘Indian culture’.

The author goes on to explain that he is referring only to spousal abuse (and not other forms of domestic violence, such as child abuse); and that such violence may be physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional (…wherein one partner subjugates the other through persistent demeaning, insults, threats, and intellectual battering). He also makes no bones about the fact that domestic violence is by no means confined to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Then he gets right down to the problem:

Since we live in a patriarchal society, most spouse abusers are men. Since men have been taught ever since they were boys that they should ‘control’ their wives and since, more often than not, they are physically bigger and stronger, they tend to resort more easily to using violent means to take charge of their marriages, if they find their wives challenging their authority.

But wait, that's not all there is to it.

Having said that, it is no longer uncommon to see men, particularly in urban areas, being victims of spousal abuse from their wives. Typically verbal and emotional abuse are more common, but physical abuse also does take place. Women who feel the need to dominate their spouses may tend to, particularly if the man is generally soft natured and easy to push around, intimidate their husbands by constantly belittling them in private and public, thereby establishing dominance in the marriage. Also, some of them, if they are physically strong, may lash out physically at their husbands by slapping, scratching, kicking and throwing things at them. Since very few men want to acknowledge publicly that they are being abused by their wives, cases of spousal abuse of males are largely under-reported, although in recent times, abused men have been coming together in support groups and have formed associations to help each other deal with the situation.

I had no idea that the nature of domestic violence had changed so much in recent times that two sentences suffice to describe violence by men (who are just doing what they've been taught), but five sentences and many, many commas are needed to describe the reverse. But when I think about it that way, all sorts of things begin to make more sense.

For example, a contributing factor that the author does not mention is that women who are successful in dominating their husbands produce sons that are more soft natured and easy to push around—and thus vulnerable to another generation of slapping, scratching, kicking (and biting!) women. An ever-increasing number of men must suffer in silence, while women try to publicise their tales of woe at every opportunity. I begin to feel sorry for the poor man who is forced to beat his wife a little to reassert his fading authority.

But alas, lawmakers still have the problem backwards:

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act has provided succour to many women who have been victimised by their spouses. It is a well-intended and welcome piece of legislation, but, unfortunately, doesn't provide men who are victims of domestic violence any space for redressal of their grievances. Another important legislation that needs to be touched upon here is Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code which covers any act of cruelty committed upon a woman by her husband or his relatives. Sadly, one of the more distressing by-products of both these laws is that they are abused. Unscrupulous legal professionals as well as acrimonious wives and their relatives try and either intimidate the husband or extract their pound of flesh by filing cases under these laws. I do know of men who have been threatened under Sec 498A of the IPC, merely because the wife and her family want a better divorce settlement than he originally offered. Sometimes where the wife wants a divorce and the husband is unwilling to grant her one, Sec 498A is used as a sword of Damocles over the latter, and it is not unusual to see petitions filed under these laws on falsified charges. More often than not, a messy legal battle ensues that, from what I have seen, no one wins.

What a depressing picture, when all the law does is to abet unscrupulous lawyers and acrimonious wives in wielding the Sword of Damocles to cut a pound of flesh from distressed and intimidated husbands (and this, when it is no longer uncommon to find men being victims of domestic violence in the first place). It's a good thing that there are support groups to help husbands deal with the situation. Sticks and stones may break her bones, but being shafted by the law is what really hurts:

The whole process leaves everyone scarred, angry and frustrated with wounds that take ages to heal.

The author, having turned my entire view of domestic violence on its head, concludes with some advice on dealing with abuse:

But, per contra, if there is violence or cruelty, don’t hesitate to take recourse to the law, for, that is the best protection available to you. However, do so only after the matter has been escalated to other members in the family and assistance from mental health professionals has been sought.

Er… wait. Is he seriously suggesting that The Family is the best place to look for help? And why on earth should a woman have to seek assistance from mental health professionals if she's a victim of domestic violence?

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist […]

Ah, right. I get it now.

On applying for a US visa from Delhi

2009-08-22

Speaking of renewing passports and the horrors of international travel, 1999 was also the last time I applied for a US visa (and, I hope, the last time I'll ever need to).

On that occasion, I queued up at dawn (behind a hundred-odd people!) and was denied a visa many hours later because I didn't have "strong enough ties" to my country. When I needed to travel to Europe some years later, most embassies took one look at the US "application received" stamp in my passport and matched it with one of their own ("application received" sounds innocuous, but it might as well say "VISA FAIL"). It took a long time to get that sorted out.

Things have changed a lot since then. Hassath, who wanted to attend the Grace Hopper Conference this year, investigated the process. A few years ago, the embassy outsourced the initial paperwork, which is now done online. The dawn queue is also gone: the web site displays an appointment schedule, and you can book a convenient free slot and turn up at the embassy at that time. But one of the biggest changes is in the handling of the application fee.

When I applied, the non-refundable visa application fee was some INR1200 (about USD25). Now the fee is USD131 at the "consular exchange rate" of INR50/USD (which conveniently favours the USD by about INR3/USD), which makes it INR6550. That is a substantial portion (>70%) of a month's rent for us. If money is important to you, as travel.state.gov casually puts it, you will be happy to learn that

Nonimmigrant visa fees are based on "reciprocity," (what another country charges a United States citizen for a similar-type of visa). The United States strives to eliminate visa issuance fees whenever possible; […but…] you need to understand the distinction between a visa "issuance" fee and a visa "application" fee. Most non-diplomatic and non-official visas issued by United States consular officers abroad require a visa "application" (machine-readable visa - MRV) fee that recovers for the United States the costs associated with manufacturing, processing, and printing the visa. The current visa "application" fee is $131.00.

I had to pay the fee by demand draft at the embassy, but now one has to pay it (plus the INR374 service charge for VFS, the company that handles the online application process) at any of about a dozen select branches of the HDFC bank and obtain a receipt before you can book an appointment online. If you find that no appointments are available before you travel, you lose the money. If you misplace the receipt, you lose the money. If you manage to apply and are denied a visa, you lose the money (but perhaps the distinction between "issuance" and "application" fees will be a source of comfort, if money is important to you).

You still need to produce scads of personal and financial information (for example, tax returns and bank statements for the past few years), of course, but much more thought has been put into the rules for the visa photo. "Passport-sized" used to be a sufficient description, but now there is a special size (larger than anyone else asks for), and a number of rules to spell out what is expected of the background, foreground, clothing, and direction of the applicant's gaze. Everyone is fingerprinted these days, so you are also instructed to arrive for your appointment with clean hands.

For people who are refused a visa, the embassy now has this helpful page that begins with the heart-wrenching tale of Sanjay and Anil—friends who will not see each other because one could not obtain a visa to visit the US. It has soothing answers to a number of questions the distressed applicant may have.

Q. Why is there a visa requirement?
A. The U.S. is an open society. […]
Our immigration law requires consular officers to view every visa applicant as an intending immigrant until the applicant proves otherwise.

Ten years ago, the Consular Officer helpfully told me at the end of my visa interview that I would have to wait three days before I could apply again, but I have somehow contained my enthusiasm to reapply ever since. Based on the current application process, I think I can hold out a while longer.

Sify nullband service

2009-08-17

Last year, during a particularly frustrating period where our MTNL DSL kept getting disconnected every few minutes, we subscribed to the Sify Broadband service (the only other ISP in the area at the time; this was a few months before Airtel DSL became available).

Sify claims to provide "wireless" broadband, but that's a bit of a misnomer. I gather there's a wireless router of some sort on the roof of the neighbouring apartment block, and they string Ethernet cables from it to people's desks. The people (from the local Sify franchisee) who came to install this giant lightning conductor through our study window cut the cable too short, and spliced(!) on another length to reach our computers.

Sify requires you to run an "authentication client" that talks to their web server before you get IP connectivity to the outside world. They do provide a Linux client, but it took some hackery to make it run on our machines; and the web site it sent us to ("new user registration") did not like Firefox at all. So the cable-splicers went back to their office and registered the account for us using their Windows machine, and we got it all working eventually.

We meant to use the Sify connection only as a backup, and our MTNL line started working again, so it was a while before we noticed that we had massive packet loss to the gateway (i.e., the thing on the roof). The authentication client couldn't talk to its server, so we couldn't talk to anyone. The cause was obvious to us: the spliced cable. But the cable-splicers blamed the fact that we used Linux, and said they would have to call in a Linux expert from Sify central to "check" the problem.

The expert never arrived. I tried to follow up a few times, but I ran out of time and energy eventually (and unfortunately, we pre-paid for the entire year). The upshot is that the service has never worked for us after the first day.

So I was rather amused to receive this SMS the other day:

Dear Sify Customer, due to heavy rain you may face disruption in service. Regret for inconvenience.

Regret for inconvenience, indeed.

Domain registration with Net4India

2009-04-05

In February 2005, the "IN" TLD was opened to registrations. In the weeks preceding the opening, a number of registrars were accepting pre-orders for .IN domains, the idea being that they would submit the requests once the registry was opened. I wanted to register oryx.in, and I chose to use Net4India as registrar.

I submitted the pre-order and tried to pay the required INR4500 (500 for processing fees and 4000 for two years' registration charges) by credit card, but the transaction failed; and instead, I paid in person at their office by cash. I got a receipt, and was told that my registration would be processed.

A few days after the opening, I noticed that the domain had not yet been registered. I received no response to my mail asking why not. I tried to register the domain using another registrar (Key Systems), and was able to do so, thus proving that my registration had not even been processed. I received no response to followup inquiries either. An ex-employee of Net4India gave me the email address of a director, to whom I addressed a complaint. He forwarded it to someone in the customer support department who asked me for the details of the case, but did not get in touch with me again, or respond to my mail over the next few months.

I sought legal advice, but lacked the time, money, and energy to follow the suggested course of serving notice and attending the consumer court. By early 2006, I had given up hope of ever recovering my money, and was reminded of the incident only by the occasional spam that was sent to the throwaway address that I'd used to communicate with the company.

In early 2009, by some monumental coincidence, someone from the company posted to a mailing list I'm on, asking for some help. I replied to the effect that I'd be happy to help if he could help me get a refund, and to my amazement, he did so within a week. (I got only INR4000, because the processing fee was non-refundable. Given that they hadn't actually done any processing… but after three years, I didn't want to quibble.) I am extremely grateful for the prompt and courteous assistance I received.

But I'm afraid I cannot recommend Net4India as a domain registrar.