Friday, June 29, 2007

wat u tawkin?

i hope ppl rote welll............ not coz t wud make teh world better....... but it wud make my hedache go awy............ i get a ton of mail....... n affte tw lvls of spam-filtering....... i stilll hav 2 reply 2 a few messages.......... tis means that i must b abl 2 red those messages....... n understnd teh content............ easier said thn dun...........

i hav noticed tis trend over sum time now............ most mail 2 me from my peers is horrribly written........ it is eitehr missnig spelllnig....... or grammmer........ in a lot of cases....... it is missnig english altogetehr.......... it is written in a sms langauge....... usnig acronyms that i havnt heard of....... like gtg....... btwn....... cyl n gr8......... if n wsn't rnd 2 explain sum of tehse 2 me....... i'd probably go insane......... i luv gettnig mails from friends....... but i detest teh throbbnig headache um of tehse mails give me.......... i luv teh content....... but teh presentation is so abssmal that i dread gonig beyond teh subject line.......... combined with teh fact that my mail prgram gives teh entire screen 2 teh message....... tehre is no escape...........

what am i cmplainng so much about.............. here is a laundry list....... but im sure u can add 2 tehm........... i'm sure you....... dear reader....... get a lot of tehe mails as welll...........

  1. lots of dots.......... loook....... one dot is a sentence end.......... three make elllipses....... which indicates sum sort of suspension....... ro omission........... i luv pavbhaji....... chaat....... idlivada............................................. but i realy should stop........
  2. acronyms for simple things.......... waht is gtg.............. or gr8....... or 2 in teh middle of a sentence.............. if u r tooo lazy 2 type gr8 instead of gr8....... tehn perhps that word should b omitted...........
  3. capitlization........... wy.............. hw hrd is it 2 press on teh shift key.............. teh otehr exteme is writing in fulll caps.......... thxfullly....... most ppl dont do that.......... but stilll....... capitalization is a goood thing.......... it helps pulll out teh sntnces.......... it hlps telll burns n burns apart...........

i am not advocting ptting on a formal dress....... n taling like pizsy nglish nbility here.......... alll im askng for is 2 fllow teh rules....... ro atleast eough of tehm 2 mke teh langauge easy for teh reader........

affte alll....... if u words r important enough 2 b read....... tehn tehyre important enough 2 b written welll.......... a pooor wriing style suggests two things 2 me...........

  1. you do not think your readers time is valaudle........... writing pooorly says that you're willling 2 trade your readrs time for yours........... it takes sumone forever 2 read a pooorly writen msage....... n u think teh tradeoff is worth it..........
  2. u do not think your words r important enough 2 b read........... if u could not spend teh time writing tehm welll....... expressing your thoughts clearly....... tehn perhps your thoghts arent of value.............. your words r a reresenation of your thoughts..........

a friend of mine....... who runs a smll cmpany in bmby once comlained about how trrrible teh email writing skilll of teh currrent crop of gadautes was........... he was shocked that tehse were ppl with a technical training (he does sum coputer conultancy)....... but could ot rite a sngle email that could b read........... e said that even ppl wrking for him wrot such awful messages....... that he ws ashamed 2 let tehm looose on clients...........

dut even busiess aspects aside....... mails r a means of communicaon........... emails that do nt folllow english r teh same astalking 2 a peronwho mubles n coughs affte every word........... both trnsmt teh message....... but being clear n pecise works better for you...........

dut i guess u know that already...........

What are you saying?

I hope people wrote well. Not because it would make the world better, but it would make my headache go away. I get a ton of mail, and after two levels of spam-filtering, I still have to reply to a few messages. This means that I must be able to read those messages, and understand the content. Easier said than done.

I have noticed this trend over some time now. Most mail to me from my peers is horribly written. It is either missing spelling, or grammar. In a lot of cases, it is missing English altogether. It is written in an SMS language, using acronyms that I haven't heard of, like gtg, btwn, cyl and gr8. If N wasn't around to explain some of these to me, I'd probably go insane. I love getting mails from friends, but I detest the throbbing headache some of these mails give me. I love the content, but the presentation is so abysmal that I dread going beyond the subject line. Combined with the fact that my mail program gives the entire screen to the message, there is no escape.

What am I complaining so much about? Here is a laundry list, but I'm sure you can add to them. I'm sure you, dear reader, get a lot of these mails as well.

  1. Lots of dots. Look, one dot is a sentence end. Three make ellipses, which indicates some sort of suspension, or omission. I love pavbhaji, chaat, idlivada,..., but I really should stop.
  2. Acronyms for simple things. What is gtg? Or gr8, or 2 in the middle of a sentence? If you are too lazy to type great instead of gr8, then perhaps that word should be omitted.
  3. Capitalization. Why? How hard is it to press on the shift key? The other extreme is WRITING IN FULL CAPS. Thankfully, most people don't do that. But still, capitalization is a good thing. It helps pull out the sentences. It helps tell Burns and burns apart.

I am not advocating putting on a formal dress, and talking like prissy English nobility here. All I'm asking for is to follow the rules, or at least enough of them to make the language easy for the reader.

After all, if your words are important enough to be read, then they're important enough to be written well. A poor writing style suggests two things to me.

  1. You do not think your reader's time is valuable. Writing poorly says that you're willing to trade your readers time for yours. It takes someone forever to read a poorly written message, and you think the tradeoff is worth it.
  2. You do not think your words are important enough to be read. If you could not spend the time writing them well, expressing your thoughts clearly, then perhaps your thoughts aren't of value? Your words are a representation of your thoughts.

A friend of mine, who runs a small company in Bombay, once complained about how terrible the email writing skill of the current crop of graduates was. He was shocked that these were people with a technical training (he does some computer consultancy), but could not write a single email that could be read. He said that even people working for him wrote such awful messages, that he was ashamed to let them loose on clients.

But even business aspects aside, mails are a means of communication. Emails that do not follow English are the same as talking to a person who mumbles and coughs after every word. Both transmit the message, but being clear and precise works better for you.

But I guess you know that already.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Comment spam

I recently noticed a very interesting blog comment spam. This was posted on my article about The moon being made of swiss cheese, posted early in March this year (more than two months old). Go ahead, read the comment at the end...

The spam is interesting for the following reasons:
  1. The comment was made to an old post, so most people wouldn't even notice that they're being spammed. The post was made over two months ago, so the traffic on that post is dead. I only noticed since I get an email every time I get a comment posted on my blog. I don't get so many comments, so I want to know of one through email. This would go completely un-noticed if a person got a lot of comments on their blog.
  2. I have enabled a captcha. So everyone is provided an image with some letters on it, that they have to faithfully type before the comment is made. However, they might have circumvented it. Read on.
  3. They circumvented the captcha by logging into Blogger. Once you are logged in, then you don't have to fill a captcha. This most probably means that they have automated their comment spam.
  4. Their username is EGB Systems & Solutions Inc., and their user-linked website defaults to the spam target. There are a few links in their post that all point to the spam target. They have gone through the trouble of creating a blogger account, even though this particular spam (to my blog) won't help them at all.
  5. The company is an Indian outfit that does web design. Their website is filled with crummy clipart shots. You know, the kind of pictures of a multicultural group, in crisp clothing, completely delighted. You see a photo like that and you can tell it is a generic shot. No company looks like that. They also do Search Engine Optimization (SEO), so you would expect them to know of something called the nofollow directive.
This is a very interesting attack vector. All I have to do is find a way to keep the blog cookie safely, and present it when posting. There are no captchas, so this process can be completely automated. Post only on old posts, which are indexed by search engines already, and already have a decent page rank.

Why won't this spam help them? Because the problem is quite old, and many companies are aware of comment spam. Blogger (and other blog software) automatically adds the rel="nofollow" directive to their outgoing link. This directive make the link have no effect on their Google pagerank. All that effort to post to my blog, and none of the benefits. However, if your blog does not add the nofollow directive, the spammers will benefit from posting on your site.

But wait a second! The spammers need the links, right? So here they are: Comment spammers, Shameful comment spammers, liars and comment spammers, they might be spamming your website, where do I learn about comment spam.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Misleading and uninforming

Recently, there was an article about Microsoft's war with Open Source in the Financial Express.

It was interesting, though quite misleading in a lot of facts.

Firstly: TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) studies with Linux are widely quoted, but usually fairly incorrect. The first study was carried out by the Yankee group, who were funded directly by Microsoft, and clearly, Microsoft came out the winner. Later studies are equally lopsided, and are debunked quite easily. A full report is available from Levanta's website. If you selectively set up the test environment, you can show anything you choose. So after all the criticism worldwide, if Microsoft sticks to its line of lower TCO, it is both misleading and uninformed. If there are new studies, then those should be presented. Otherwise, the Microsoft argument of lower TCO is plain marketing, with no real evidence. At this point, companies that are deploying thousands of servers should ask themselves what they know that Google doesn't. Google runs all its servers on Linux, and they have a lot of them, so clearly cost (and TCO) are very important to them. How important is cost: Google designs its own power supplies to get the most cost efficient machines.

Second: Microsoft's attempts to look like they're a part of the Open Source movement, with the launching of their Codeplex site is fairly meaningless. Free Software participation is measured by how much code is released as Free Software. Microsoft's contributions here are zero at best, and negative at worst. Their efforts at pushing competing standards (OpenXML to counter ODF), breaking standards (with the browsers), or forcing developers to reverse engineer their work (SMB version 2, because Samba was a better SMB server than Windows) is well known. Microsoft has never contributed any body of code to Open Source. Sun has released the Java language under GPL, IBM released many projects, including Jikes, and Eclipse, and are at the forefront of corporate Free Software development.

There is also the sticking point of interoperability. Microsoft's recent attempts are to pitch itself as a company that is keen to be interoperable with Linux. Nothing could be further from the truth. Two products at Microsoft form a bulk of their profits: Windows and Office. With ODF, and OpenOffice, Microsoft Office's user base is being steadily eroded. OpenOffice is very capable, and does nearly all the functions that you would expect (Word Processing, Presentation Software, Spreadsheet, ...). It runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS and is free of cost. You can download it and start using it right away. It might not have all the millions of features that Microsoft Office has, but it has all the ones that most people use. It can even open files written in MS Office format, which has traditionally been the lock-in for MS Office. To restore the lock-in, Microsoft is pushing its new document format called OpenXML, which, despite its naming, is neither Open, nor completely XML. If you have all the time, you can read why OpenXML is not really Open, or XML. Only Microsoft can implement it completely, as it depends on proprietary information, and breaks many existing standards.

The competition to OpenXML is Open Document Format (ODF), which is a published spec, that anyone can implement. It was created by the Oasis Group, which is the same team as the OpenOffice project, and has been successfully implemented by other independent groups. It is in Microsoft's interest to kill ODF, before its adoption is widespread. If Microsoft were to really support interoperability, they would implement ODF in Microsoft Office. This would be great for interoperability, but terrible for Microsoft's shareholders, since the Office cash cow would essentially vanish overnight.

The other place where Microsoft's Interoperability claims fall flat is its adoption of Web Standards. Microsoft's Internet Explorer is among the least standards compliant web browsers. This causes endless amounts of grief to web developers who write correct HTML, only to find that Internet Explorer renders it incorrectly. So they have to struggle to make their page work on IE, when every other browser (Firefox, Opera, Safari) does it just fine. Internet Explorer 6 was absolutely terrible at following standards, and Internet Explorer 7 is also bad with standards, and terrible at correctly implementing the standards it does follow. The previous links aren't about security bugs, but just bugs in correctly showing the web pages. And I should remind you that Safari (by Apple), Konquerer, Firefox (Free Software) and Opera (commercial) all are excellent at web standards. Either Microsoft lacks the incentive to write a good browser, or it lacks the people.

In the article, CESC Ltd's chief information officer Subroto Das makes some fairly uninformed claims. The first claim is that using Linux would mean that you have to release your code for free. This is completely false. Using Linux does not mean that you have to release all your source code under an Open License. Many companies use Linux desktops and servers, and maintain giant bodies of proprietary code: Google is a prime example. All their search code is proprietary, and they don't have to release it.
He claims that companies would have put their databases under third party control by using Free Software. This is also absolutely false, and a remarkably callous statement.
Lastly, he claims that "there is no such thing as free software". You have to pay Red Hat or Novell, or someone. Hey Mr. Das, why not download Red Hat's software free of charge, or if you can download 1.6Gb of software, here's SuSE, from Novell, or Open SuSE from Novell. It is absolutely free, in that you pay nobody to download it, or use it. So there is some such thing as free software.

Finally there is a gem of a quote from Microsoft India's Radhesh Balakrishnan,
Microsoft clearly stands out with a clear advantage of being able to give a short term and long term vision and roadmap.
Well, if Microsoft has such great vision, why is Vista floundering so badly? Vista sales are absolutely terrible, and corporates are not going to move to Vista anytime soon. Home users are either sticking with their old machines, or reinstalling Windows XP on their Vista computers. Why is Microsoft's online presence so shoddy, their web services are poor at best, with Maps Live being the only saving grace. Why is Linux on so many machines, starting from desktops, to the largest supercomputers, and everything in between? Developers are making web applications, or using Java, or other free tools. The amount of developer interest in .NET technology is very low. And why is Microsoft's share price so flat with little or no prospect of growth in the near future?

Microsoft has a clear vision for all its customers, and that vision involves a proprietary lock in for an unlimited amount of time. Indian companies, much like companies elsewhere are looking for a cheaper, safer, and competitive solution that ensures that they're not at the mercy of a single supplier. There is plenty of Free Software development and use in India. No matter how hard Microsoft's spin machine tries to change the facts, it is established that Free Software is a very viable solution for many tasks previous handled by proprietary software.

Dynamic companies are evaluating Linux to take advantage of cheaper, higher quality software.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Education rot -- whose fault is it?

There is a lovely article on a county in the US where rich whites and rich blacks live. Students study in the same school, and yet black kids have lower grades. An anthropology professor studied this problem, and published his findings. In his analysis, the students and their parents are to blame, for not rewarding success, for equating academic success with "being white". It might be hard for the parents and students to accept, but I think he is right on target.

This might help explain why Indians and Chinese abroad do so well in academics. Both groups are hell bent on academic success. Indian parents feel like their child has been a miserable failure if he returns home with lower than average grades. Indians are also more likely to track the academic progress of their child. A favorite dinner conversation among Indian friends is their children's academic achievement. And everyone finds out when someone's child fails a single subject.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Strikes give us a bad name

So the employees of Indian Airlines are striking about something they feel is very unjust. Yet another strike in our country, so who cares!

The problem with such actions is the terrible reputation that this gives India, as a working economy. The remaining world sees our functioning economy as one entity, and disruptions like general strikes, or (please, not another) riot, kill this reputation. Readers outside India remember reports like this longer than we'd like to imagine. Many years after the Bombay riots, I was still asked about them by people new to Bombay, or to India. These reports continue to be written into tourist handbooks, cautioning the traveler against unreasonable travel delays due to bandh's or strikes.

We should also be wary of a group which chooses to make its presence felt in this catastrophic way. What if all the poultry producers of India went on strike tomorrow? We are programmed to shrug it off as a "misery of the common man" issue. In reality, the poultry producers are just providing a service, and ganging up against all the consumers should be viewed as monopolistic practice. Just as easily, all milk suppliers in the country could strike, and force the price of milk to skyrocket? Still think it is alright? How about all medicine distributors strike? How about all wheat and rice suppliers strike? Where do you draw the line?

I have lived through taxi strikes, bus strikes, cable TV providers strikes. As a consumer, I was enraged that all the people offering the services could so easily gang up against me, to enforce their will.

As a consumer, I do not support a single strike. Strikes are too reminiscent of the license raj, where a single company was allowed to make watches (HMT), and their workers could strike when they wanted, without fear of reprisal. Who else can you buy watches from, anyway? Luckily, now we can buy a watch which is cheaper, and more functional from a variety of vendors. How often do Casio employees strike? How often do all the watch makers in India strike now? In this case, the government has taken a tough stand, and refuses to negotiate while the strike is in effect. I would advocate a much tougher approach, but this one is a healthy start. Countries that don't negotiate with aircraft hijackers have fewer hijackings, I would guess.

When you see a strike, look for the monopolist, the sole supplier in the background, and ask yourself: do I really want to live at their mercy? What have I done to grant this group so much power, and how can I take some of it away?

Update: The strike is over now. The Government was "acting tough" and suspended 27 people. In a strike of 13,000 employees, that is 0.2%, or 2 out of a thousand. That is acting as tough as a purring kitten.

Linspire, Xandros, SuSE

What do the three distributions have in common?

Yesterday, Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony announced that Linspire and Microsoft are now in a patent agreement. The announcement is quite confusing and it is not clear what Linspire stands to gain, though my guess is that there is a lot of money changing hands behind the scenes.

The announcement makes little or no sense because of its timing. This deal comes in the wake of agreements that Microsoft has made with two other Linux distributors. Despite the intensely bad publicity these have generated, Kevin is convinced that this is a great idea, and something the customers have been pleading for. I do not know of any Linspire forum in which people were thinking, "What we need is patent protection from Microsoft".

In fact, it is generally believed by geeks and lawyers alike, that the Microsoft patent claims will not hold up: either because of prior art, counter lawsuits, or because the workarounds will be all too trivial. There is also the possibility that if Microsoft does enforce its patents, it will cause a major rehaul of the US software patent business, which sorely needs a rehaul by now.

The other thing that Linux users get is "interoperability". With Windows Media files and Windows IM. This might be more reasonable, but if this is required, why should Microsoft team up with Linspire? Why not make their IM protocol known, so someone can write his own program? Why not develop a Microsoft IM for Linux, like a little known VOIP company did? How hard can it be for the giant eye at Redmond to do what a few hackers at Skype did?

Then there is interoperability with OpenXML which, despite its name, is far from Open. If interoperability is so important, then why isn't Microsoft writing an ODF plugin for MS Windows? Or cleaning up its act with OpenXML? There are countless clauses in the OpenXML spec which ensure that nobody but Microsoft can implement it well.

Is this the same interoperability which prompted Microsoft to break SMB2, just so that Samba couldn't work with it anymore?

In the most extreme case, if it really was interoperability, then why doesn't Microsoft release a version of its software for Linux? Like VMWare does? Sell your software directly to any Linux user, and not have to sign a patent covenant with each distributor separately. Linspire sells software through its Click and Run service, and including Microsoft software should not be too hard. If there is such a huge growing band of Linux users screaming that they need interoperability, then they must be willing to pay for it, right? Why not sell to them directly? And if they're not willing to pay for it, then why bother?

That's the other thing I am not sure about: this growing crowd of interoperability demanding customers. It could be that these are all corporate customers. How many corporate customers does Linspire have? And if it is personal users, then it must show up on the Linspire forums, right? Why are the forums so silent on the interoperability issue?

If you do check the forums on responses to Kevin's move, it is filled with confusion. There are longtime users who have a feeling of betrayal. This quote sums up the feeling of some users,

And Thanks to you for your betrayal. I really really feel bitter and used.

How much are they paying Kevin? I am sure they had you sign a contract sealing your lips for evermore but it wouldn't prevent someone with a shred of honesty admitting they were "ahead" in the deal. You certainly didn't do the deal for me.

It is so hard to lie about what the customers wanted, especially when the customers are vocal, and their needs are easy to assess. Dell's Ideastorm is an acceptance of this fact. If you lie about what your customers want, you will find out, very soon, and very vocally, from the very customers you lied about.

So what's the answer to my question at the beginning of the post?
Their users have this link fired up.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Teach girls martial arts!

Despite all the drama about equality, Indian girls still get a very rough deal. While a family will allow a boy to venture out in shorts, the girl should dress up appropriately. If it is lewd for a girl to show her legs, then it should be lewd for a boy to show his. And in most of India, shorts are way more comfortable than something longer. People frown upon girls wearing comfortably short clothing. And in rural areas, even pants are the preserve of the men. The reason cited is very lopsided -- it is not appropriate, or that it is wrong for women to advertise themselves.

This logic reeks of something from the Taliban regime. When you force women to cover themselves completely, then their red socks will begin to excite men. Biologically, most men will be attracted to women, and trying to stop this is pointless.

A friend of mine was telling me about Gorakhpur, where she was brought up. Many years ago, when she was in school, she would bicycle to school, wearing pants. This was completely acceptable, and nobody expressed disgust. Today, it is unheard of for a girl in that area to bicycle to school, wearing pants. All in the space of about 20 years. What are we so afraid of?

The girl child is usually brought up in a very different state of mind: she is taught that she needs to be protected. Girls are advised not to walk alone at night, despite most Indian cities being absolutely harmless at night. Girls are not required to support themselves financially, since their husbands will provide for the family. Girls aren't expected to be fighting fit. Instead, they should have the two or three qualities that set them apart in matrimonial classifieds: 'fair, convent educated, and with family values'.

This gentle psychological warfare wreaks havoc on the minds of girls. When you are brought up with the notion that you are defenseless, you end up being defenseless. When you are taught all your life that all important decisions will be taken for you, you lose the capability to make the important decisions by yourself.

This is damaging for both girls and guys. Children spend much more time with their mother, and their maternal grandparents. Children learn more from their mother as well, since they see her much more than the father. For the first few years, the development of a child is influenced more by the capabilities of the mother than the father. Uneducated or undereducated women can teach their children (both boy and girl) lesser than if they'd been educated.

Also, there is a great freedom in both parents being capable of earning. They might not both work, but if required, the woman could be the wage earner instead of the man. This eases situations considerably in case of an accident, or a layoff. In America and Britain, the Second World War forced all physically able men to fight for their country. The war machinery was then run by women. Factories making amunitions, aircrafts, and tanks, were run by women laboring on the factory floor. Reading their accounts gives a sense of their wonderful sense of freedom and accomplishment. One woman was so delighted that she could "write her own cheques" instead of relying on her husband to write them for her. Without this massive manpower (womanpower, actually), the huge production required to sustain the war would have been impossible.

Independent, strong women are the key to India's success. They're half our working force, lying dormant. We need them to start companies, to work in factories, to work in the fields on their own terms, and to help open our minds to new ideas. Teach them martial arts, and get them started early with the idea that they are neither defenceless, nor helpless. We'd all be much better for it.

Linux Journal losing focus

I've been a subscriber to Linux Journal for a few years now. The technical articles are still top notch: they focus on real tech. Reuven Lerner's articles on web development, Marcel Gagne's focussed articles about a wide variety of topics, Greg Kroah-Hartman and Robert Love's articles about the kernel, Dave Taylor's articles about shell scripting. All very good, and highly recommended.

Then there's all the fluff. I was shocked to see the first article Nick Petreley wrote when he took over as Editor in Chief. It was an article a 12 year old fanboy would write. He also wrote this fine article. And this nutter became the Editor in Chief! Holy Hormones! Since then, his articles have toned down, but they are still pointless. Nick has little or no background, doesn't write any code, and is a fanatic on the loose. According to the bio on his column, he is "a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant". Greg K-H and Robert Love know what they're talking about, since they actually do write kernel code. But even if you think of Marcel Gagne: at least his column adds value to the magazine. Nick's articles are nearly always pointless, if not scathing and acidic. This kind of irresponsible behavior gives Linux users a bad name. I can still tolerate Richard Stallman making some wild remarks, but he wrote some large programs. His opinion carries more weight. When complete nobodies start making crazy statements on behalf of the Linux user population, we all lose our credibility. Many of Nick's articles, if posted online, would get marked as 'flamebait' within seconds.

And this month, there's an article by Doc Searls about death threats to a blogger. Why something like this should be covered in Linux Journal is beyond me. Sure, he does say that blogging is like Open Source development, but then the article goes on, around and around. No point to make, no story to tell, no lesson for the reader. An abject waste of paper, and time for the reader. Doc used to have reasonable articles, but now his Linux Journal articles are beginning to look like his personal blog: covering whatever it is he wants to.

While I have renewed my subscription because the technical articles are still great, I'm sad to see a complete lack of a good editor at Linux Journal. Maybe all the good geeks are out writing code.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Learn to cook, it is worthwhile

Last night N and I cooked up a few things: green beans, and pulav and rajma. It took us about half an hour to get everything prepared, and we had a lot of fun doing it.

I began cooking many years ago, when my mom needed kitchen help. It started out with simple things: I learnt how to chop vegetables, since this was something I could help her with often. Then there was a long period of no learning. I would assist my mom, but didn't venture into trying to cook myself. I think this is in part because my mom is a fantastic cook (whose mom isn't?) and no matter what I tried, it was disastrous in comparison.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself living alone, and missing Indian food completely. I enjoy a variety of flavors, but for everyday cooking: I need my usual dal and rice, or some veggie with some kind of wheat. So I started experimenting. My first Indian dish was cauliflower, cooked Indian style. It was absolutely horrendous, and I had to throw it all away. Luckily, that phase was very short. I soon learnt how to make basic food first: dal and rice, and then I moved on to more difficult food: like gourmet chicken curry.

Cooking food at home has a lot of benefits, and specially Indian food. First, home cooked food is nearly always healthier than eating out. Restaurants compete on price and flavor (in addition to service), and the easy way to make something tasty (and cheap) is to be generous with butter and other fats. McDonalds gets a bad rep for this basic idea: they're greasy, but for a brief while, the food is tasty. Even Indian restaurants abroad have greasier food than Indian homes abroad. And if you want to eat salad in restaurants, you can just as easily eat salad at home.

More importantly, a lot of Indian food can be cooked in advance, and stored for future consumption. This is not true of a lot of Western food, for instance, which must be prepared fresh. A prime example is a hamburger, or steaks, or pasta. You cannot prepare a week's pasta in advance, and stick it in the fridge. A few Indian foods are like this: dosas, bhel-puri, kachori. But in general, a lot of it refrigerates quite well. This means that you can make 2x the quantity, and avoid cooking on the second meal. Or even better, make 5x the quantity, and make two dishes, and stagger the meals so that you have one thing for lunch, and the other for dinner. An hour's cooking will easily last a few days. You only spend time cooking once, and for the remaining time all you have to do is fire up the stove, or the microwave, and food takes no time to prepare.

It is also cheaper - in terms of money, and in terms of the time involved in making the food. And since raw foodstuff is much cheaper than prepared foodstuff, you can buy the very best ingredients, and still come out ahead. Eating higher quality chicken at home is cheaper than eating poor quality chicken outside.

Cooking is a very social thing. Some of my nicest memories have been cooking with friends, or learning to cook their favorite foods. In most cases, helping someone prepare dinner, and the associated conversation has always been more interesting than if we had gone out for dinner. It is even better if the dining room and the kitchen aren't separated. Half my recipes have been learnt through such sessions. Such gatherings are even better when people have different backgrounds. These are the sessions that give rise to Macaroni Masala, and Pasta Bhaji.

It is surprisingly easy once you get started on the basics. Most North Indian cooking follows two or three basic principles. Once you know how to make one dal passably, it is almost trivial to cook the others. Rotis and naans are tricky, and I haven't practiced enough to make them well, but I make do with substitutes like rice, or bread. Even meats are quite easy, though the rules are slightly different. With little effort, one can whip up a killer chicken curry, with almost no grease, as spicy as you like, and with genuine flavor.

A lot of old traditional Indians laugh when my wife says that I'm just as good a cook as her. To them the idea of a man cooking alongside his wife might be amusing, but they have no idea what they're missing. We cook things twice as fast, experiment with new ideas, and have fun cooking together.

It's like playing with clay, or making music. Just that you get to eat it afterwards.

Yoga and the mystery of the Universe

I seem to run into this topic no matter how hard I try to escape it. Yoga, the great Indian export. Some stuff that really works, and a lot of rubbish around it which just cheapens the message.

Yoga, or specifically hatha yoga is a bunch of stretches, and balance exercises. Very nice if you want to stay fit without using much equipment, in your own home, or without exerting your body too much. I completely like this, can identify with it, and hope that more people do this. Some yoga postures are quite challenging, and one needs balance more than strength to do them right. Nothing more fun than taking a yoga class, and have a person in the back of the class lose his balance and fall loudly. This yoga I enjoy, this yoga I recommend.

Then there is all the mind and soul kind of yoga that I don't get. My yoga teacher would sometimes do a little of this towards the end of the class. She would put on some music involving running water (or birds chirping). Then she would read from a script, about the one-ness of the Universe, about the great flow of energy through our hearts, about capturing the energy in the palm of your hand, and about increasing one's conciousness. It was always about these nebulous concepts of conciousness, of great inner peace, of feeling one with the creator. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now.

I have no problem with doing the stretches, since I found it genuinely useful. After a month or two of practice, I could do postures with comfort. That was nice. But this mind and soul business never did anything for me. There wasn't a single instance when I was in a tight spot, and her "one-ness with creator" speech came to the rescue. For starters, I wasn't sure how to achieve this elusive one-ness. And when do I know it is done? It wasn't like the postures at all, where you could tell you are doing the postures well. The great flow of energy was missing in me when I started, and I guess it was still missing when I left. I didn't ask the teacher to find out how much energy I had managed to capture in palms of my hand, or how much more I could expect to capture at the end of the course. There is a direct parallel between this and the Chinese martial arts. The physical part of the training is very valid, and there is a marked improvement in agility and strength when learning martial arts. And then there is the whole drama with chi: the life force. There is so much hype about chi, about how you can knock someone cold by throwing a ball of chi at them. Not every martial art stresses this chi (or ki) angle. As a complete outsider to Oriental martial arts, I think chi is a bunch of hooey, and I would like to be proven wrong.

Invariably, I open my big mouth at inappropriate moments, and there is usually a heated discussion about this whole mind and soul business. The most common retort I get is that I am too inexperienced to get this whole thing. Too stupid to understand these deep concepts, and what is worse, there is no place I can learn this from! Perhaps one day I'll see it all.

So I don't have this knowledge, and nobody can teach this to me. How do all the others get it? Meditating? Tried that, and found it mildly useful. But didn't come across any one-ness or flow of energy. Yoga? The postures are good, but they didn't teach me any one-ness.

I think this stuff might come across as very profound, but it cheapens the real utility of yoga. If the mind and soul stuff is central to yoga, then someone should come up with real answers, and not this touchy feely stuff that nobody can teach you, nobody can measure, and nobody can learn. If this is not central to yoga, then it should be taught as a separate entity, for people who are looking for a belief-system in addition to their fitness routine.

Eventually, I find the mind and soul stuff to be an impediment to really learning yoga well. I would like to spend time to get the postures right, but if I consult a teacher, they'll feed me this assorted blend of mysticism that doesn't interest me. Further, a strong belief in this mysticism makes me nervous, and doubt the knowledge of the teacher. It is like trying to learn arithmetic from a person who forces his choice of diet on you at every lesson. He might be right about the diet, but it just gets in the way. I've learnt many things from people holding different political, religious and dietary views, and it would have been impossible if they required me to subscribe to their entire thinking before they taught me something.

It is entirely possible that I'm a child, screaming my head off about something I don't know. It is also entirely possible that I'm yelling about an Emperor who is walking around with no clothes.

Dell and Ubuntu

I recently posted a full review of Dell's Ubuntu laptop. The device has great promise, in more ways that one.

First, the laptop is a very capable Linux machine. Historically, Linux has supported a very wide variety of hardware, and yet hardware support has been its weakest point. While it can run on many platforms, and work fairly consistently across them, newer hardware makers see Linux as a non-entity. Thus flashy new graphics card makers would ignore Linux drivers, since it was too hard to setup a group to make Linux drivers, and too intrusive to reveal the inner workings of their device. It is changing considerably, with Nvidia commited to releasing Linux drivers, and ATI making routine pronouncements that it will do the same. In this laptop, all the hardware works with a stock Ubuntu Feisty Fawn install (32 bit, or 64 bit: your choice). If the sales of this laptop can help the sagging sales volume of Dell, customers can look forward to more Linux laptops, both from Dell and other manufacturers.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this is a machine that needs very little maintenance. Linux is resilient to the Windows specific virii, and spyware, and so the daily grind of the anti-virus, and the adware, spyware blocker is un-needed. That is old news. With Ubuntu's simple and easy user interface, it is easy for anyone to use this computer. I am specifically thinking of setups where the person using the machine needs the standard computing functionality: browser, email, office suite, without the hassle of being a full admin for a Windows machine.

Further, the localization on this computer is good enough to encourage non-English speakers to begin using computers. The translation is not perfect, clearly. But with the fast release cycle of Ubuntu, and the open development model, this could be changed by a few classrooms of 10th standard students. Already, one can type Hindi documents, and send Hindi mail. The desktop also can be switched to Hindi. Of course, there is localization for Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, Gujrati. This would be nearly perfect for cybercafe's, where you need to provide desktop access, but you don't want the customers downloading untrusted programs, or running arbitrary code.

I hope this computer is offered soon in India.