Category Archives: Non-Tech

Mosquito love. Not.

My two least favourite things about my hometown are mosquitoes and mosquitoes.

A close third, would be load shedding. For those of you unfamiliar with the jargon, it’s basically a daily state-wide planned powercut for saving unicorns. Or energy. Or something. I can’t remember the details except that it’s annoying. Especially that time it was scheduled to go off right in the middle of a Kung Fu Panda 2 airing on HBO. **Especially** when they seem to introduce the practice only when I’m home for vacations.

So, let’s say you’re suffering from acute internetaddictionitis and the load-shedding kicks-in, leaving you hanging half-way through the Gangam Style video on Youtube, and also leaving you in the not-so-pleasant company of a squadron of mosquitoes. What do you do? Since there’s no such thing as negotiation when it comes to these miniature vampires, the only option is battle.

Now these aren’t ordinary mosquitoes. These are mosquitoes that have been hardened in their craft through generations of exposure to mosquito repellents. I’m pretty sure that evolutionary processes have gifted them a gland that harvests these repellents and converts them into energy or some arthropod-adrenaline-equivalent.

That said, mankind has had to resort to modern science in order to forge a weapon capable of taking on Satan’s pets. Behold! The constant-voltage-electro-plasma-weave-scepter-3000. Or, for the less scientifically inclined, the mosquito bat.

This is what Thor’s hammer probably looked like

Those of you who’re from less threatened corners of the known universe might find this piece of technology rather overwhelmingly difficult to understand. But here’s how it functions. The device works with the wielder holding the charge button, and swinging the device at a mosquito-monster, which upon successful contact, will deliver a very satisfyingly awesome spark thingy to the target. Sometimes, the target ends up stuck in the metal mesh, causing the mosquito to burn with the rather unpleasant odour of a burning mosquito.

Whoever came up with this idea actually brought some fun into the endless and futile battle that routinely happens in most Indian households every evening.

Anyhow, my entrepreneurial instincts tell me that there is room here for improvements.

Enter gamification:

  • Turn these bats into Internet capable devices that can connect over WiFi, 3G, 4G, Parle-G, anything.
  • Users register their device(s) through an online account.
  • The device keeps track of the number of mosquitoes you pwn, and updates a score on a central server.
  • The more you kill, the more you gain experience.
  • As you gain experience, you level up. All users start at Lvl 1: Militia, and progress their way through to Lvl 100: Zeussian Mosquito Centurion Overlord. With each experience level, unlock features on your bat, like the anti-anthropod-plasma-cannon, and the zappa-mosquito-fragmentation-grenade-launcher.
  • Compete with friends, family, neighbours, or fellow countrymen to slay as many of these buggers as you can in mosquito zapping tournaments. Win exciting prizes!
  • Profit.

See? No “???” in between.

Unlike other capitalistic endeavours, this one is purely driven by a social angle which can be summed up by three words, “Kill. All. Mosquitoes.” At the end of the day, we empower people with this device, and get rid of mosquitoes at the same time. Problem solved.

Now to figure out how to solve the load-shedding problem.

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Chasing the Thesis Carrot

My thesis defense is scheduled for the 22nd of June, so I’ve been in writing mode since the last two weeks. In parallel though, I’ve been evaluating my system, which seems to be producing pretty graphs for the time being.

I’m both surprised and sad at my ability to be distracted when writing my thesis. I’ve always had an attention span within the order of microseconds, but this is an all time low.

Here’s how my typical weekday seems to go off late:

  • 8.30: Wake up.
  • 8.30 – 9:00: Ponder about the mysteries of the universe whilst showering.
  • 9:00 – 9:30: Have breakfast, and watch a full episode of the Simpsons or Family Guy.
  • 10:00: Reach the lab. Setup laptop, mouse, keyboard, and extra monitor. Open window for some fresh air. Go grab coffee.
  • 11:30: Done checking my mail, zero-unread-ing my feed of web comics, browsing through HN, Slashdot, and some other news sites (and a few “Oooh! Cat picture!” moments).
  • 11:30 – 12:30: Lunch.
  • 12:30 – 13:30: Post-lunch-procrastination (see 11:30).
  • 13:30 – 14:30: Body has begun processing lunch, so feeling drowsy — Need. More. Coffee.
  • 14:30: Open up editor for writing thesis. The “let’s settle this once and for all!” feeling surges through my body.
  • 14:31 – 14:45: Check Facebook.
  • (The above two repeats for a while)
  • 15:30: “This is boring! I think I’ll do something that matters. Like code!”
  • 15:31: Implement new feature! “Byzantine-fault-tolerant-key-value-based-scalable-elastic-hadoop-LTE-fabric-on-the-cloud!”
  • 16:00: Realise that new feature broke all unit and system tests.
  • 16:01: git reset –hard HEAD
  • 16:01 – 16:02: Check Google+. Doesn’t take that long though because there’s nothing there.
  • 16:30: “That’s it! I’m going to do more experiments! Nothing like graphs to make you feel like a scientist!” * challenge-accepted-rage-face *
  • 16:45: Fire shell script and watch as the whole testbed dances to your bidding, cables filling with packets, WiFi waves flowing through space. You feel empowered, like you’re about to introduce a tear in the fabric of space.
  • 16:47: Realise that you misconfigured everything.
  • 16:49: Repeat experiment. Pretty sure it’s correct this time, so need to do something useful for an hour.
  • 16:50: Continue with writing thesis.
  • 17:00: Time for more coffee.
  • 17:05: Back to desk, “What was I doing again?”.
  • 17:06: Facebook time.
  • 17:08: Booooored.
  • 17:10: Write a few more lines of related work. “Previous work by Joe et al [10] has been known to suck”.
  • 17:15: Discover some feature in text editor. Optimise key bindings for maximum productivity.
  • 17:49: Experiment’s over. Fire SQL queries to extract data from measurements database, and pass it through gnuplot.
  • 17:50: Add graphs to thesis. Defend weird results with “Proof-of-concept”.
  • 18:00: “Woah! Is it warm here in the lab or what? Screw you guys! I’m going home so that I can write comfortably!”
  • 18:30: At home. Have dinner with the company of Homer or Peter.
  • 19:00: Feel sleepy. Idle around.
  • 23:00: Sleep.
  • Repeat.

And I wonder why the carrot’s never getting closer.

Let’s make metros more interesting

After moving to Europe for my masters, I’ve been accustomed to finding my way around cities using the subway trains. They’re convenient, relatively cheap (unless you’re in Stockholm, where using the word cheap throws an exception), and usually fast enough as well. The only problem I have with metros is that they’re boring as shit to travel in, especially when you’re alone. Sure you can carry a book with you or invest in a tab/pad/slate/smartphone/whatever, but we definitely need to do something about the view from the windows.

Given that there’s hardly anything interesting about rocks and the occasional flash of light in a metro tunnel, I think there’s a lot that can be done to make the metro experience better. Here’s one idea I have to solve this international crisis which is oh-so-more-important than anything else on this planet. I call it, metro cartoons (the animated ones).

The basic idea is to insert cartoon panels between the tunnel walls and the tracks. Since we know the approximate speed at which the trains move, you can estimate the minimum spacing between the panels that would be required to provide a reasonable frame rate required for the animation. I’m sure artists understand these aspects better (thus, I don’t), and can come up with the right kind of drawings for this setting.

What say? I’m pretty sure someone must have tried this already, so let me know if you’ve heard of any such attempt.

Lagom

Lagom (pronounced [ˈlɑ̀ːɡɔm]) is a Swedish word with no direct English equivalent, meaning “just the right amount”. – Wikipedia

If you’re in Sweden and there’s one word you should know, it would be ‘lagom’, a word that defines the essence of everything that is Swedish.

More than two months into Stockholm and I must say it’s been pretty lagom so far. The city itself is beautiful, with the only downside being that everything is at least twice as expensive as in Lisbon. Maybe that’s what you get for everything around here being so perfect and systematic. And unlike Lisbon, you actually have easy access to a *large* collection of beers, which is definitely a plus.

It’s autumn here right now, and the scenery outside is fabulous. Sadly though, the weather in Sweden is not-so-lagom. Temperatures are already hovering around 5 degrees celsius, and for an Indian like me, this is pretty cold in itself (heck, it never gets lower than 20 in my town back home). The funny thing is, this weather is cute for the Swedes. Let’s see how winter ends up looking like.

Meanwhile, here are some pictures I took from Stockholm over the last two months.

Students aren’t cattle, they’re humans

Recently, a teacher at my alma mater turned barber and forcibly cropped the hair of over 90 students who didn’t follow the school’s code of conduct for haircuts (we didn’t even know there was one during our days). Obviously, the students, parents and locals weren’t amused by this barb-er-ic act. Neither were those of us who are proud of being former students of that school.

Indian educational institutions have always been rather conservative in their organisation. There is all too often a strict hierarchy visible in the way things work. Teachers have a commanding authority over students, and it’s common for students to stand up and say “good morning/afternoon/whatever” in unison when the former enters a classroom. Failure to do so is often seen as an act of disrespect. In many schools, even at a high school level, you find that students are expected to form and walk only in a line when moving from one classroom to another. I’ve seen institutions with really silly dress codes, like “boys should only wear shirts/t-shirts that *have a collar*”. There are many colleges where cell phones are banned on campus (and many that go too far to implement their policy). And there are also colleges where guys aren’t allowed to talk to girls.

There is an overflow of rules, and unnecessary requirements on conformance. I’ve had a lecturer yell at me for 15 minutes (out of a 40 minute lecture), ask me to never enter class again, and walk out of class herself in anger simply because I didn’t “write down” the last few steps of a solution to a problem she handed out in class, which I managed to solve in my head to arrive at the answer.

All the above is absolutely disgusting and is an antithesis to what is supposed to be education. We put a bunch of students into a classroom, expect all of them to conform to a strict set of rules, and punish the ones who don’t with expulsion. Ultimately, all these students end up having to take charge of society in some way or the other, and we basically leave our country in the hands of those who abide by silly dogmas, are well trained in the art of superficial respect, can’t think laterally, are used to hierarchies, and with regard to some of the specific cases I mentioned above, are incapable of working with the opposite sex.

I wonder what the net gain is from putting so much effort into running a system like this?

Our future leaders should be capable of making decisions that affect others positively. We need students to be well trained in networking with others, exchanging ideas, and communicating effectively. We need them to be open minded, embrace differences, and adapt to the pace at which the world around us is evolving. How on earth is all that supposed to happen if *this* is their education?

Furthermore, where do teachers get the time and energy to enforce such rules when they have so many important things to attend to?

Teachers have the responsibility of being a role model and not that of a dictator. All those teachers who’d inspired me over my life _strictly_ fall into the former category (from junior school, through high school, and upto where I am now). They were the ones who invested enough effort into figuring out how best to convey their ideas to their students, learned how to tap into our creative potential, and at the same time, stayed up to date with whatever it is that they were supposed to teach. They also served as moral and social instructors not through an iron fist, but through inspiration. They gave us enough room to develop, spared us the fury when we made mistakes and instead, taught us how to learn from them. They made us go “There is so much I can learn from that person!” as opposed to “That person will screw me over if I don’t do this”.

Sure, perfect pedagogy isn’t easy, but chaining students to a gratuitous set of rules is definitely not the answer. They are humans after all.

Bavarian Vacation

Say you’re a Masters student studying distributed systems, and you just completed 3 major project checkpoints, and wrapped up some work with a research project. So what do you do during the Easter break that immediately follows the deadlines? You go on vacation of course!

So I just got back from a wonderful four day holiday split across the dreamy fields of Schwangau and the Bavarian captial, Munich. Schwangau is a must see for anyone who wants to swim in a sea of breathtaking views and experience the European countryside. It is the home to the famous Neuschwanstein castle, which was the main inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The village of Schwangau itself lies under the protective watch of the Alps, running through the border between Germany and Austria. I stayed with a good friend of mine, and had a wonderful Bavarian Easter with her family, sharing stories of our cultures and lifestyles. On Easter Sunday itself, we went hiking up the Alps, and I’m still surprised that I made it alive at the end of a 3 hour ordeal. After years of not having any physical exercise of any form, this was indeed rather taxing, but I guess all the muscle strain was definitely worth the experience, the views, and most importantly, the satisfaction that followed taking a hard path up a 1.708km high mountain for your first ever hike. 🙂

The latter half of the holiday involved a visit to old city of Munich. Culturally rich and with a Bavarian feel all over, it was a fun experience to walk through the city streets. One thing I found particularly funny was that the Maximilianeum building, which houses the Bavarian parliament, had no gates nor security guards on the outside, which is in absolute contrast to equivalent buildings back home in India, which can be aptly labelled mini fortresses. The last day of the visit was reserved for a trip around the Munich marketplace and of course, the one and only Allianz Arena, which I finally got the opportunity to visit as a long time Bayern Munich fan. 🙂

As is always the case with my travels, cuisine formed an important component of the visit too. Thanks to Eva’s help, I was able to compile a list of dishes/drinks I had: Apfelstrudel, Neuernberger Rostbratwuerste mit sauerkraut, Kaesspatzen, Leberkaes mit Kartoffelsalat und Spiegelei, Weisswuerst mit Suessem senf, Schweinsbraten mit Kartoffelknoedel, Schweinshaxen, Brezeln, Radler, Weissbier and Weizen. I particularly loved the German variety as far as beers are concerned. Radler from an altitude of 1.708km tastes heavenly by the way.

I would have loved to stay a little longer, but as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Now back in Lisbon, I’m finding it a little hard to shake off the vacation mood and get back to my projects, but I think I’ll pull that off sooner or later.