The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Sify nullband service

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.

Film and the Historical Imagination

The James Beveridge Media Research Centre at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi offered a summer course on "Film and the Historical Imagination", conducted by Ranjani Mazumdar (an Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at JNU). The course ran on alternate working days for the two weeks between July 27–August 7, and comprised five illustrated lectures followed by film screenings, with the sixth morning reserved for a round-table discussion. Participants were charged INR650 for admission.

Quoting from the invitation for applications:

Film is an archive of sensations, of emotions, of images and of sounds. As a powerful recorder of life and its events, Film lends itself to organizing not just historical knowledge but also commenting on the nature of historical narration. This two week introductory course on Film and the Historical Imagination will map the specific ways in which history and ideas about the past get constructed through the medium of cinema. Issues related to questions of evidence, memory, historical catastrophe, nostalgia, myth and heritage will be discussed and analyzed in relation to world cinema.

Hassath remembered attending and liking Ms. Mazumdar's lectures during a film appreciation course at FTII some years ago; this course sounded interesting too, and the schedule and charges suited us perfectly (we would not have been able to attend if either had been notably different). We applied for admission, and were both accepted (to my considerable surprise, since the course was advertised as being for "graduate students and media researchers").

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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.

Introducing Loathsxome: minimalist weblog software

I started using Blosxom a few weeks ago. I liked the basic idea (that each post is one file) very much, but I found the code hard to read and poorly documented. Plugins varied widely in quality, and I had to jump through hoops to implement some of the things I wanted. By the time I got everything working the way I liked it, I ended up with a complete rewrite.

The code is well-documented, supports tagging and pagination, generates an RSS feed, works nicely with Git, and lets me publish URLs like and /etc/birds+language. (Disadvantages: it isn't quite plugin-compatible with Blosxom, and it doesn't support static generation.)

I'm sure I could have used a more modern, featureful program to achieve the same effect, but I'm glad I didn't have to. I was happier to spend a couple of hours writing something worse than a few days trying to fit something better, like Wordpress, into my head.

I wrote this code for my own use with no intention of releasing it, but a few people have expressed an interest in using it, so here it is.

No longer maintained

Update (November 2013): Loathsxome never had more than a handful of users, and only two who regularly contributed code (Arnt Gulbrandsen and myself). Arnt wrote plusxome, and I wrote something else using Mojolicious without even pretending to maintain backwards compatibility.

Loathsxome is still here. It works as well as it ever did, and none of what's written below is untrue, but nobody uses it any more.

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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.

My beloved Chenbro PC-611 cabinet

The heat and dust in Delhi are extremely unkind to computer hardware, and the fifteen years that I've spent here have been punctuated by the failure of many generations of components. My current computer has been in operation for five years, thanks to a double-converting UPS that protects it from flaky mains power, but each passing summer exacts its toll in random breakage and frayed nerves.

But I realised the other day, while removing dust-balls that had choked up my CPU fan, that one component in particular deserves my gratitude for never once having gotten on my nerves since I bought it five years ago: my Chenbro PC-611 tower cabinet.

I had forgotten the model number, and had to look through ancient email to find it, but I remember that it was recommended by a friend, and that I had trouble finding one in Nehru Place. With its power supply, it cost me more than five times as much as the generic cabinet I had been about to buy, but I have never once regretted the decision.

My exposure to high-end cabinets has been limited to this one, so I have no real basis for an evaluation, but it is so much better than any other cabinet I've seen that the comparison seems unfair. Every single time I have had to open up another computer in the last five years, I've missed mine. I like the way drives get mounted on rails, the precise and solid construction without rattling, the rounded metal edges, spacious layout, "tool-free" disassembly—and it's not even hideously ugly, as are most of the cabinets I see these days!

Best of all, other than the dust, it shows no signs of age. I expect it will outlive every other component in my computer.

Update: In fairness, I should mention that one of the two chassis fans began to stutter a few years in, and the power switch has become a little unresponsive because of accumulated dust… but there's no getting away from dust in the end.

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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