The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

What is Nehru Place?


A few people have asked me about Nehru Place, which always features prominently in my adventures with hardware. There's a Wikipedia entry, 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 computer hardware.

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 trouble.

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 whole effort.)

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.

Celebrity security ordeals


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 faced.

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 "security theater" 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 The Hindu 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 be Indians.

Fighting the fixers: thermal paste edition


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.

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Switching video cards with Ubuntu/Xorg


Speaking of broken hardware, I tracked down the source of my most recent random lockups to a flaky old video card.

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.

André Béteille: Religion and Society


Many years ago, someone sent me the URL to a short opinion piece published in 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 too.

Buying LPG on the black market


We cook on a stove that burns LPG 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.

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Cucumber preparation voodoo


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.

A weekend calendar


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. wcal 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.

Thoughts on drinking and driving


I never drink alcohol if I expect to be driving within the next several hours.

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 caught.

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 first time.

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 not.