The Advisory Boar (page 5)
A few people have asked me about Nehru Place, which always features
prominently in my adventures with hardware. There's a
but—although it makes a feeble effort—it's much too dry to communicate
the flavour of a place where you can find, next to an "authorised HP
distributor", a chap with syringes full of coloured ink who will refill
your printer cartridges for a small fee.
Nehru Place is a large commercial area in South Delhi. The core of the
marketplace is spread across a number of four-storeyed buildings about
thirty years old, but businesses have expanded outwards into newer and
taller buildings. A number of companies have offices here, but the area
is best known for being India's largest (or so I hear) marketplace for
There is a tremendous variety of shops. Swanky laptop showrooms with
mood lighting rub shoulders with stores selling second-hand hardware,
stationery shops, food stalls, people selling cheap T-shirts off the
pavement, high-quality printing shops, and shops of varying size that
sell all kinds of components, optionally assembling them into computers
on the spot. Space is at a premium, so hardware is stacked ceiling-high
everywhere. The larger stores usually keep the bulk of their inventory
in some basement or somewhere on the seventh floor of a building you
didn't know existed, and will order it for you on demand.
If they don't have something you want, they'll find someone who does,
because everyone is connected through an internal telephone network, and
shops have gophers who are regularly dispatched to pick up or deliver
some item to each other. Everyone has a pocket calculator to quickly add
their cut to the price they get on the phone without your seeing the
numbers… and the prices for a component can vary widely, depending on
where you ask, and how much effort you're willing to put into surveying
the options. Visiting the market without a clear idea of what you want
(and a checklist to keep track of all the prices) is just asking for
Nehru Place has also changed a lot in the past ten years. I remember a
time when there was someone offering to sell me porn at every corner,
but these days it's only pirated CDs ("software! games! movies!"). There
are many more women buying hardware than there used to be even a few
years ago, and more foreign tourists looking for cheap hardware. The
older buildings are still fire-safety nightmares with exposed cabling
and dilapidated elevators, but the newer ones are all shiny glass and
steel with central airconditioning and CCTV surveillance.
There was once even a token effort towards access for disabled people,
but it was restricted to building ramps beside the stairs in the central
courtyard. (While this was happening, Rai and I almost stumbled into the
first attempt: a sixty-degree slope with a deep open pit at its foot; we
can't find the photographs we took, but that pit just about sums up the
Nehru Place also features an Udipi restaurant (among many other shops
that sell a variety of fast foods) that serves the most excellent
kachoris I have ever eaten.
I'm tired of hearing people getting worked up about the "demeaning and
humiliating" treatment that some celebrity or the other occasionally
suffers at the hands of airport (or other) security personnel, because
they usually demand more respect for important people, or fewer
complaints from them.
Two recent examples: former Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam being
frisked before boarding a Continental Airlines flight bound for Newark
despite his VVIP status exempting him from security checks, which
provoked outrage and demands to ban the airlines in Parliament; and
actor Shah Rukh Khan being detained for a couple of hours on arrival at
Newark airport, which at first made him not want to "set foot on US soil
again", but which he later said was "nothing" compared to what Kalam had
Some people have written in to newspapers saying that celebrities should
be treated like everyone else and that they shouldn't object to security
procedures. I agree with the first part, but I vehemently disagree that
security procedures should be accepted by all as a fait accompli.
Nobody should be subjected to the humiliating and farcical
that international travel has devolved into these days.
Until then, however, perhaps it would be best if celebrities were
treated especially poorly at airports, considering how much more media
attention their complaints attract.
As an aside, I liked this letter to the Editor of
from J. Victor Rajasekaran of Chennai.
The Newark incident was undoubtedly a matter of humiliation for SRK and
a rude shock for lakhs of Indians. The Americans and other westerners
are clearly racial [sic].
How prejudiced the westerners are! They should learn a lesson or two
from us. Look at the way we treat our fellow citizens. Look, for
instance, at the case of the Dalit youth who was beaten up on Thursday
in Tamil Nadu by caste Hindus for riding a bicycle. Let us feel proud to
While cleaning accumulated dust out of Hassath's Athlon64 heatsink the
other day (to silence an overheating alarm), I accidentally lifted the
heatsink off the CPU and broke the layer of thermal paste. After that,
of course, the machine refused to boot at all, emitting a loud
siren-like wail at startup.
I didn't have any thermal paste handy, so it was off to Nehru Place yet
again. I decided to look for someone who would remove the heatsink and
apply the paste for me, because I'd never worked with a spring-clipped
heatsink before (I thought it was just a matter of applying more force
to remove it than I had, but I wasn't sure).
The "customer-facing" parts of Nehru Place are often quite clueless. The
people who know how to fix things live in cramped little cubicles inside
the seediest buildings and basements. The showrooms send computers (not
customers!) down to them, and they fix them and send them back upstairs
to feel the sunlight once again. I could probably have left the computer
with any shop, told them it
doesn't work, and asked them
to get it fixed. But I was in a hurry and I knew exactly what I wanted,
which always makes things more difficult.
Unfortunately, I don't know any competent fixers; but I do know someone
who's good at finding hardware, and I know his shop (also in a basement)
does assemble and fix machines. I started there, but my clueful friend
wasn't around. I introduced myself to his minions (there were two of
them, let's call them Sixteen and Twenty-five) and explained that my
CPU was overheating, and needed some thermal paste reapplied.
Speaking of broken hardware, I
tracked down the source of my most recent random lockups to a flaky old
The card in question is an ATI Radeon 9200 (RV280) card that I bought,
based on a friend's recommendation, when I built the system I'm using.
It worked well enough—that is, I didn't have to think about it—until a
couple of weeks ago, when playing video for any length of time began to
freeze the system. Hassath's computer is having motherboard trouble, so
she let me borrow her nVidia GeForce FX 5200 card to check if that made
the lockups go away.
I swapped in the nVidia card and braced for a fight with Xorg, but to my
surprise, all I needed to do was to install the "xserver-xorg-video-nv"
package. X started up with no complaints whatsoever, and the system has
been stable ever since. That's definitely not how my average adventure
with hardware goes.
I remember having to hunt a long time in the Nehru Place market to find
the Radeon card (the 9200 chipset was already quite old then). Replacing
Hassath's nVidia card today was a similar adventure. Every video card in
common use these days has a fan, and we had to look very hard to find a
plain old AGP card with a heatsink instead.
But we found a suitable replacement in the end; and now our only
remaining source of entertainment is the motherboard problem.
Update: Things have been stable since I started using the nVidia
card, but it came with a curious side-effect. My system will no longer
reboot cleanly. It pauses right before I would expect it to restart. I
have to shut it down and restart it every time. I know it's the card's
fault because Hassath's machine did (or rather, didn't do) the same
thing, but works fine now with the new card. And she won't let me switch
the cards around again.
Many years ago, someone sent me the URL to a short opinion piece
The Telegraph, by the
sociologist André Béteille, about how religion and society
cannot be studied independently. I liked it very much, and forwarded it
to many people, but at some point the URL stopped working, and I had to
dig up the text from my archives each time I wanted someone to read it.
Today, I noticed—while preparing to forward the article—that the URL
works once again. Kudos to The Telegraph for bringing it back to life.
Here's an excerpt.
Just over 50 years ago, M.N. Srinivas, who was to emerge as India's
leading sociologist, published his book Religion and Society among
the Coorgs of South India. The book introduced a new approach to the
understanding of Hinduism, and it established its author's reputation as
a sociologist of the first rank. In it he used the distinction between
the book-view and the field-view of society and the contrast between the
Indological and the sociological approaches to religion. It may appear
in retrospect that the contrast was overdrawn; but it expressed an
insight of great significance.
Srinivas became the leading advocate of the field-view and the
sociological approach, by which he meant an approach based on a careful
and methodical examination of observed or observable facts. It does not
treat religion as being either completely autonomous or as invariant,
eternal and unchanging. Religious beliefs and practices vary and change,
and this has to be examined in relation to variation and change in the
structure of society. No religion operates independently of specific
social arrangements, and Srinivas set out to show the two-way
relationship between religion and social structure. This approach does
not always find favour with religious believers who are inclined to
regard religion as pure and society as corrupt.
The believer seeks out what he sees as the invariant and unchanging core
of religion, and when he does not find it, he tends to put the blame on
external material and historical forces for it. The Hindus in particular
have lived with the idea of Kaliyuga since time immemorial, and that has
helped them to explain many things away. The sociologist, on the other
hand, recognizes that religious beliefs and practices are embedded in
the social order, and tries to see how they are refracted by it. For
him, Hinduism is not single and indivisible. Thus, Srinivas spoke of
local Hinduism, regional Hinduism, peninsular Hinduism and all-India
Hinduism. He also showed how religious beliefs and practices were
refracted by the structures of joint family, caste and village.
M.N. Srinivas's book
sounds pretty interesting
We cook on a stove that burns
stored in a 30Kg metal cylinder under the kitchen counter. Yesterday,
the cylinder ran out of gas while we were cooking pasta, with guests
expected to arrive in a few minutes.
Whenever that happens—which is every couple of months or so—we rotate a
second cylinder into use, call up the distributor to place an order, and
wait, often for several days, until a new cylinder is delivered and the
empty one taken away. To our horror, we discovered last night that both
our cylinders were empty (no doubt because I had swapped one out some
months ago and forgotten to order a replacement). Waiting without gas
was not an option.
We happen to live across the road from the depot at which all three LPG
distributors in the area store cylinders. They are delivered to nearby
houses by people on bicycles, or further away in little three-wheeled
carriers (like auto-rickshaws, but with a container for cargo). There
are always some delivery people hanging around on the road outside the
depot, and fortunately for us, that stretch of the road is the centre of
a thriving black-market trade in LPG cylinders.
Cucumbers contain a variable amount of a substance called cucurbitacin,
which gives them the bitter taste. Legend has it that one can "take the
bitterness out" of a cucumber by cutting off both its ends (or just one,
depending on whom you ask), rubbing the cut surfaces together for a
while, and washing away the thick white foam that is produced.
I've always been suspicious of this claim.
For one thing, if the bitter substance is evenly distributed throughout
the cucumber, how could rubbing the cut ends remove it? (The suggestion
that it "creates suction" seems patently absurd.) Or if the substance is
concentrated at the ends, why is it not sufficient to just discard them?
On the other hand, what is the white foam, which does sometimes (but not
always) taste bitter? And why does everyone seem to believe in the
efficacy of this method?
Speculation aside, I see no sensible way to test the proposition.
If you take a bite out of the middle of the cucumber and it turns out to
be bitter, it's because you "didn't rub the ends"; but if you do rub the
ends and it's still bitter, you "didn't rub the ends enough". If, on the
other hand, it doesn't taste bitter, how can you tell whether
it was sweet to begin with, or if the rubbing cured it? I can think of
many strange kitchen rituals, but none with the strangely ambiguous,
undecidable nature of the cucumber ritual.
The question remains unresolved, but until I learn the truth either way,
I will continue to eat my cucumbers without any voodoo preparation.
There's a file named 2006.pdf that has been in my
~/TODO directory for so long that I've forgotten where I found
it. It's a very nice calendar: one line per month, with the (dates
shifted left or right so as to have the) weekends vertically aligned,
and coloured red. I thought it was useful, clever, and attractive.
The PDF meta-data says it was created by "Brad", and a faint memory
tells me that his site had many other interesting examples of design,
both visual and electronic, but I have not been able to find it again.
Here's a copy of the file.
The file was in my TODO directory because I wanted to write a program to
print a similar calendar for a given year; and this I have now done.
produces cal(1)-style output on the console, using
ANSI escape sequences
to colour the weekends red (and the current date green).
One problem with this calendar is that it breaks up weekends that span
month boundaries. If January 31 is a Saturday, both it and the first of
February become red stragglers at the edge of the calendar, even though
they constitute a perfectly ordinary weekend in practice.
I wrote wcal-compact to address this.
Instead of giving each month its own line of dates, this program takes
all 365 days of the year, colours the weekends red, and splits them up
into lines such that all full weekends are vertically aligned.
That left one special case I could do nothing about: if the first of
January is a Sunday (as it was in 2006), it becomes a straggler.
Since the compact output makes the months run together, I changed the
background colour of every alternate month to white (and most of the
added complexity in the new program deals with the proper resetting
of the background colour on continued lines), but I'm not especially
fond of this hack.
I haven't been able to make up my mind about which form of
weekend-aligned calendar is more useful.
I never drink alcohol if I expect to be driving within the next
This is a rule that I have observed strictly ever since I started
driving. The closest I've come to breaking it is driving some two
hours after drinking less than half a glass of red wine with my
dinner, and I've only ever done that once.
In countries where DUI offenses are strictly prosecuted, this would be
entirely normal. Not so in Delhi where, for example, the police's idea
of a "crackdown" on drunken driving involved not letting drivers
go after they had been fined. Of course, hardly anyone is ever
It's not that I'm afraid of being caught. Nor is it the case that I
can't "hold my alcohol"; quite the contrary. My body mass is high enough
that, with the small quantities I typically drink, I've never come close
to being intoxicated. It's just a matter of principle.
People seem to consider it a joke when I explain that I will not drink
because I have to drive home, as if it's just a matter of overcoming a
little resistance I'm putting up for the sake of form, and that I'll
join them in drinking heavily afterwards. "Do you think we'll be walking
home?", I've been asked. It's very tiring to explain, round after round,
that no, I really will not drink this time either.
The consequences of doing otherwise were brought home to me in a
terrifying manner not too long ago. After an evening with some friends
who were drinking, and who did their best to get me to join them, one
of them had some car trouble when we were about to leave. He popped the
hood to have a look, and tried to prop it up (by placing the tip of this
metal rod into a keyhole-shaped indent in the hood). He tried thrice,
but he couldn't get the alignment right. Someone else leaned over and
had a go—he couldn't do it either. I tried, and managed it the
Until then, I hadn't realised quite so vividly just how impaired the
reflexes of my friends really were, even when they seemed reasonably
sober, and were completely convinced of their ability to drive home
safely. (A minor incident, isn't it? As terrifying alcohol-related
experiences go, however, I prefer mine in no stronger doses.)
Delhi is full of people who are too drunk to be driving. And I realise
all of a sudden that I know some of these people; even genuinely like
and admire (other things about) many of them. They're just intoxicated
enough to pose some elevated risk to themselves and other without
realising it, which seems to me the most insidious danger.
I could pretend to not drink alcohol at all. In India, that's something
that seems to be accepted without too much fuss, and it would certainly
be very convenient to not have to constantly defend or explain myself.
But that would make it easier for people around me to ignore the fact
that their own behaviour is (criminally) irresponsible. So I'm prepared
to forego that convenience.
I certainly don't expect to instantly convert people to being more
responsible about their alcohol consumption. I sometimes feel that
even wanting to make people think harder about what they are doing
is too much to hope for.
But I will not drink when I have to drive, and I will not lie about why