Abdul Kalam

Snark is easy.


Among the most visited posts on the blog is a flippant piece on a speech our late President APJ Abdul Kalam made. In the post, I make fun of Kalam’s flubbing some grammar; I make fun of the circular nature of his prescription for world peace. I make fun of his earnestness.

I made fun; it’s easy to make fun.

Most of the pushback has been equally childish. “Go kill yourself” is not an argument, to say nothing of being ironic coming right after ‘how could you say such mean things’?

The true test of a man is in how he treats those he has power over, goes the saying. I work for somebody who saw first-hand how Kalam treated subordinates. Kalam saw right through people, RN says. He saw who could or couldn’t do what, and didn’t put hierarchy before knowledge. He made you feel special for being part of his team. RN’s words, as best I can remember them, were “if you could do what was necessary to get the project to work, he’d treat you like the most important person”. As a recruit into DRDO and then ISRO without a PhD, it took other great men–Satish Dhawan and Vikram Sarabhai (and Raja Ramanna, I think)–to see Kalam’s potential. Kalam’s contributions to the Indian missile defence programme dwarf those of anybody else any of us can name, PhD or not.

All of which is to say I’m thinking of writing again. The first post on my return has gone well. But one does not simply walk into mordor pick up where one left off with no indication of having introspected, of having seen time pass by.

I’ve made apologies for doing dumb things before. I daresay I’ll make them again. Let’s not call this an apology; perhaps that’s too strong a word. Let me say only that the point some commenters made on the original Abdul Kalam post that snark doesn’t always show wit or cleverness is well taken, and will be remembered as I try and get better at whatever it is I’m doing here.

Bloody red tape (Rant)

The centre is holding interviews today and we’re short-staffed since today’s officially a holiday. I was asked to help out with office work. Shouldn’t be hard, should it?

One part of the office work I was assigned was to look at train tickets for reimbursement. Interview candidates are given sleeper class fares for train/bus journeys from wherever they currently study/reside to Hyderabad and back. In order to make sure that this provision isn’t misused, the rules say the journey has to be made by the shortest route. You’d think that the “shortest” would be interpreted liberally. After all, train journeys between the same two locations can be shorter in one direction than the other.

For instance, a sleeper class ticket from Bombay to Hyderabad is Rs. 345. A sleeper class ticket from Hyderabad to Mumbai is Rs. 350. There seems to be a small difference in the distance travelled (8km or so) and an even smaller difference in the fare. What would you say is the reasonable response to this?

One response is to say nobody is trying to cheat anybody, and the difference of five bucks hardly matters. The time it would take to check whether the train the candidate took was indeed the shortest journey (there are 15 trains between Hyderabad and Bombay) is worth more than the five bucks that the centre would save by skimping on the reimbursement.

The other response… well, you can probably guess what the other response is. We’ve all been to government offices at some point. Unsurprisingly, I got told to go away for arguing this point. Typical.

Linux NooB to World: Can you help me out?

I use Ubuntu. I’m running 12.04 Precise. My laptop has a 64-bit i5 processor with an AMD Radeon 6550 graphics card. Trying to troubleshoot a failed installation of the proprietary driver for the graphics card is another name for the fifth circle of hell. I am not kidding.

[Edit: a correction, courtesy Sayash: X is the drawing system. It uses display drivers to interact with the graphics devices. The standard display driver is called “radeon” or “ati”. I wasn’t joking about being a Linux newbie.]

So as I understand it, the X system is the simplest video driver for Linux. It uses system memory (RAM). Then there are the fglrx drivers, an open-source set of display drivers that run the graphics card. There are also proprietary drivers for the graphics card written for Linux supplied by AMD. This driver–or set of drivers–is called Catalyst.

For a long time, I had just the fglrx drivers installed. I didn’t face much trouble, but then I don’t do much with the laptop that uses the graphics card strenuously–g++ runs just fine on standard memory. I installed the proprietary driver, with some trial and error and lots of help from people, after somebody told me about them. The proprietary driver is better-performing than fglrx. Transitions became smoother, for example.

However, the proprietary driver has a habit of conking out; it has done this twice before. Ubuntu would go back to the X system, I guess. Both times, all I had to do was to reinstall–I say “reinstall”; I mean type ./installer from a shell and press enter–the driver and all would be well again.

This time, though, I was locked out of the GUI entirely. And no amount of fiddling, wheedling, or ubuntuforums drudgery brought back the GUI. I tried installing fglrx instead of the proprietary driver. I still get only a shell when I first switch the computer on. I have to log in and say startx, which brings me to the Desktop without the Dock or the system tray. I then have to start or restart lightdm — the desktop manager to get to the Ubuntu login screen, after which everything proceeds as usual.

Unless the shell loses its connection with the X server, which happened twice… afterI had installed fglrx.

Needless to say, I am bugged. Has anybody seen this sort of thing before? Do you know what the problem is and how to fix it? Please please help.

In which I send you off to read an article in The Caravan. Mine.

And Anjali Vaidya’s. It was her idea. She was very nice and included me in it.

The article’s called Shelved AwayIt’s about Select Book Shop in Bangalore. It’s only one page or so and features in The Lede. Do read. I’ll start you off with the first paragraph:

JUST OFF BRIGADE ROAD in central Bangalore is a quiet store, remarkably removed from the nearby bustle. This is Select Book Shop, a name familiar to many book lovers in the city. The store overflows with books old, new and rare, and the two men who will direct you to the treasures within are the owner KKS Murthy, and his son Sanjay.

Questions, comments, bouquets, brickbats and so forth are welcome.

Me and my peabrain

“I sometimes think”, writes Stephen Fry, “that when I die there should be two graves dug: the first would be the usual kind of size, say 2 feet by 7, but the other would be much, much larger. The gravestone should read: ME AND MY BIG MOUTH.” Fry wrote this in apologising for remarks he made about an antisemitic and homophobic political party in Poland. His remarks themself are irrelevant here.

Fry writes further that, over the course of a week and a half, he declined every opportunity to apologise. Surely they must be “mischeviously misconstruing” his remarks. After all, nobody could possibly think he had meant what he said that way. I know exactly what Stephen Fry must have gone through. My brain is nowhere near as well exercised or popular as Fry’s mouth. If you asked me right now, not even I am a fan of my brain.

Before you read on, I ask that you take a look at this print from this t-shirt:


In the morning today, friends of mine gave me this t-shirt as a going-away present. I posted a picture on Facebook. We all had a hearty laugh.

There was a ‘Women in Science’ seminar held at NCBS in the evening. Rama, my professor, and Shobhana Narasimhan, a professor at JNC — scientists and women, both — would be speaking at the seminar. NCBS is about a 20-minute cycle ride away from JNCASR. I had to rush from JNC just after another talk I had to attend.

Here’s where my peabrain comes in. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I wore the t-shirt to the ‘Women in Science’ seminar? Think of all the laughs!” I would like to think that given enough time to think, I would’ve come to the conclusion that I can sometimes be a blithering insensitive idiot. Whether or not I give myself more credit than I am worth is moot. The fact is that I didn’t think about it. I changed into the t-shirt, got a cycle and left for NCBS.

Was I right? Would it be funny and nothing else? Friends of mine — people I know to be reasonable — had found the idea of a ‘stalker t-shirt’ funny. Does the context matter at all? Was this only a bad idea because I wore it to the ‘women in science’ seminar? Or is there something wrong with this humour to begin with?

After making a fool of myself in the eyes of people I like and admire, I’ve come to realise that context does matter. The late great Molly Ivins, a humourist and a political commentator of spectacular wit and more humanity than I can claim for myself at this moment, put it best:

Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, […] it is not only cruel, it’s profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple.

The reason rape-jokes aren’t funny, the reason this t-shirt isn’t funny (outside of my group of friends where the butt of the joke wasn’t the stalking so much as, well, me) is because the humour is directed not at somebody powerful who can defend themselves or laugh it off, but at somebody who is already a victim.

As is usually the case when somebody points out one is wrong, I dug my heels in when first Anjali, and then Shobhana, pointed out that the t-shirt was a bad idea. They’re just being overly sensitive, surely. “Would the t-shirt be okay if the man and the woman reversed roles?” I asked Shobhana. I am aware, now, of how stupid that sounds. Shobhana, of course, pointed out that stalking isn’t funny whoever does it.

Somebody else present added that it is also never going to happen that the woman is shown stalking the man. “Molestation shouldn’t be called eve-teasing,” she said as she walked away.

Of course it shouldn’t. Why is she telling me that? You know what popped into my head next: “I’m one of the good guys.”

Even somebody in my state of mind then should realise that appealing to the argument from one’s own personal integrity is a sure sign that one has fucked up somewhere along the way. And I did. This is me admitting to fucking up. I am sorry. Thank you for reading.

The Festival of ‘Lights’ strikes again.

The JNC campus is, I have always thought, quite some distance from anything. My parents’ house, on the other hand, is slap-bang in the middle of a proper locality. By which of course I mean that the idiot-brigade is well staffed – the temple-goers are in full-strength. There are three temples within a few hundred feet of the house. A festival – any hindu festival – is a bad time to be there.

This was the only reason I decided to not go home for this extended weekend, distended due to the occurrence of Diwali on a Friday. I’d take the peace and quiet of JNC, minus home-food and sweets, any day over the madness that will accompany said food and sweets at home. Oh, how my calculations seem to have gone wrong!

The festival of ‘lights’ has struck again.

Could somebody, for the love of all that is bright and colourful, ask the good people of Jakkur what pleasure they get by filling the air with all sorts of pollutants and the most dissonant of broadband noise, and disturbing the lives of every animal and bird around them?

It’s like these people have no power over their dopamine circuits. Sheesh.

Bangalore to Chennai and Oh, what a bother!

I’m going to leave for Madras* later this evening. The onward journey is going to be by train, thanks to Thatha who booked our tickets fairly in advance. The reason I mention that is this:

The Chennai-Bangalore train route is impossibly busy, and trains are invariably overbooked. One has to, then, resort to some bus or the other. KSRTC runs a million buses on this route, thankfully, and they have a website that lets one book tickets, just like the IRCTC website for the railways.

All that is to say this: if you want to use the KSRTC website to book tickets#, please, oh please, do it with IE and not with Firefox. (And especially not the Beta version of Firefox.) I’ve been trying to get tickets to get back to Bangalore since 10 in the morning, and made so many attempts that I know every number  associated with all my credit cards and bank accounts, before I thought realised that the KSRTC people might a bit slow on the uptake.

Damn them all to hell, and damn them some more!


(*) ‘Madras’ is IIT Madras. ‘Chennai’ is the rest of the capital of Tamil Nadu.

(#) If you want to check for availability, of course, it doesn’t matter. There’s a curiously silly thing that happens when you try to pay for your tickets. The bank’s website never gets the message from the merchant website.


The test I created is still open. I want enough votes for a statistically significant result. Do take the test!

[End? This is only the beginning!]