Ego Trip or: How People Learned to Stop Being Shy and Embraced the Net

I remember the times when the internet was a novelty for folks in my friends’ circle. This was back in 1997/1998, when IIT-Delhi decided to introduce a 2 Mbps line for all of IIT. A lot of new avenues opened up for all of us – people scurried to create email addresses on websites that would offer them the most space. I remember creating in the bid to cash in on my nickname. Of course, given that most email providers let you have just 1 MB of space (Hotmail) or 2 MB (Mailcity / Lycos) or just a little more ( gave something like 10 MB), one had to be judicious about what they received.

There was also a heightened activity in chatrooms, with people claiming to be who they weren’t just so that they could try and get a date, or for much worse motives. Cases of an upstanding gentleman from my undergraduate class being conned into wearing a red shirt with brown trousers and going out to meet one Ms Poonam Chibber are well documented. Then again, if the gentleman in question knew that Poonam was actually the guy who stayed in the adjacent room then he might not have gone through the trouble to procure the offending clothes.

People wanted to have their own websites, and as students we could afford just the free providers like Geocities, Angelfire and Tripod those days. We had to live with the banner advertisements, because, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Those days it was a craze to know how to write HTML and more importantly, JavaScript because the more you knew the better looking your pages became.

After I graduated and started working there was no longer the requirement to cut corners in terms of cost and I could look forward to buying my own domain. Eventually I ended up buying 3 – for my undergraduate batch, for my undergraduate hostel (this was paid for by several alumni, not just me), and for myself. The whole focus was to stay connected, and also to try out some skills in an area that was really not very prominent in my day job. At around the same time two things happened roughly simultaneously:

  1. Google came up with the utterly brilliant concept of GMail, which essentially made email space a non-issue by offering 1 GB of storage on 1st April 2004. People were now able to send large attachments like pictures or movies in email and so on. This concept was soon extended to its web portal and was adopted by the other players in the same space
  2. A large number of social networking sites came up. Orkut, MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Social networking was really the concept that showed explosive growth, eventually obviating the concept of a website. People getting in touch with long lost friends (or foes) were able to display how much they had progressed in the years gone by, they were able to project their thoughts out in blogs, they were able to write what they pleased in self-acclaimed encyclopaedia like Wikipedia and so on and so forth.

People shed their shy persona online and became voices of authority in various fields. It never mattered that such people were incapable of carrying a conversation in real life, as long as what they wrote (or even plagiarised) looked good online. It often did not matter if they had any credentials whatsoever to be the voice of authority, as the case of the Essjay controversy illustrates. Quoting BusinessWeek from the referenced article:

Sadly, not everyone who posts to Wikipedia is concerned with the Ten Commandments. Some are concerned with revenge. Some with self-aggrandizement. Some just have nothing better to do. We live in an age of fake IDs, fake money, fake e-mails, fake URLs, fake IP addresses, and fake votes…


Don’t get me wrong – I love Wikipedia, for the simple reason that it is a trivia treasure trove. But relying on it for serious content is folly of gargantuan proportions. I look it up for quick information on general stuff, like the plot of a book or a movie, information on non-critical things and so on.

Obviously, since I am blogging right now, I have an opinion and I like to voice it. But to say that I have an unbiased opinion would be foolish. In fact anyone who says that he (or she) is unbiased is biasing himself towards his own opinion. Check out this article at SearchIndia. Most people who claim to be unbiased spend so much energy defending their own opinions that the whole concept of objectivity is tossed out of the window.

The other aspect I have seen is that blogging sometimes promotes extremely boorish behaviour. The blogger may be a perfect gentleman in real life, maybe even hermetic and reclusive, but if someone states an opinion contrary to his own, there is a flood of abusive language that comes out on the blog. Since the blog is maintained by this individual, he holds the power of “the last word” – something that cannot be fought against. Why does this happen?

Of course, the flow is never one way – the cloak of anonymity lets most people making the comments post something offensive on a harmless blog, and then the blogger is left with Sophie’s choice to either censor the offensive comment (and be accused of censorship), or accept the offensive comment verbatim (and subject all others to the immature content), or retort with an equally crude follow-up.

Coming back to the concept of self-aggrandizement, have you looked at the site Ego Surf? It works somewhat like Google’s PageRank. Unfortunately my ego on the web is not high enough, which can is probably very obvious given that the number of posts on my blog is disproportionately higher than the number of comments. This reminds me of the anchor on the show Are You Hot?:

It doesn’t matter if you think they are hot or not. What matters is that they think they are hot.

J. D. Roberto, host on Are You Hot

At the end of the day, a few cases aside, I know that most people have benefited from social networking on the net. There is so much original humour to be found, so many informative discussions and so many nice informal articles that would have never reached us if they were to come through official channels. And I am glad that so many people have managed to find a voice through the net.

Sinful Places

You have probably heard of the quote: “Capitalism civilizes greed just like marriage civilizes lust”. I wanted to get other such civil analogies, when I came across this site. Add those places to your travel plans! Oh, and by the way, if you know the rest of the analogies please let me know.

Quel dommage!

Did you know that a company called Despair, Inc has copyrighted the frownie (the “:-(” that you put on your text messages and chats)? They sell “Motivational products and posters for pessimists, underachievers, and the chronically unsuccessful” and call their products “Demotivators”. They start off with a picture of their COO:

Just Condescending
Just Condescending

Check their site out – it is a masterpiece of gloom, something that Marvin the Paranoid Android could find great use for. Of all their demotivators, I found this one the most apt for me and my profession:

If you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem.
Consulting, indeed!

I looked at their website for copyright information to ensure that I was not doing anything wrong by putting their stuff on my page and here is what I came across:

I want to put your images on my homepage without crediting you or acknowledging you in any way, so that I can do my small part to violate the copyrights of your photographers and whoever else might have a commercial interest in your intellectual property. How cool is that?

It is okay with us provided you promise to throw an online tantrum when we ask you politely to stop.

On the F.A.Q. for Despair, Inc.


And There Goes My Confidence…

Have you come across any signs on the road or elsewhere that really scare you? This is a photo taken on a freeway near San Francisco. It is not a very uncommon road-sign and can be seen on several roads where there are sharp turns. I am sure the drivers of trucks feel very confident looking at such signs and the people passing them feel even more so.

Try Passing Me!
Try Passing Me!

Here is another that looks less risky, but when you think about it in a certain way, this sign at an airport sure looks like the plane is going to nosedive rather than arrive.

Plane Landing or Nosediving?
Plane Landing or Nosediving?

Thanks to Haldar for pointing these out.

One Ring to rule them all?

Before I start off with a situation I am sure some of you are familiar with, let me provide a quote which I guess most of you are familiar with

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings

I am sure the lines above need no introduction, but they definitely need some context. When I moved to the US, my first instinct was to purchase a TV, since a TV and internet are the two things that are absolutely essential for my survival. So with the TV I needed to get a cable service or a dish, which came with its set-top box.

To ensure that Tanuka wouldn’t get bored sitting at home, I got her a subscription to Netflix. Initially we were content with watching the movies on our laptop. But soon it felt too underpowered. So we got a DVD player. I like to think of myself as someone with foresight. Since I have a large number of DVDs from different countries I needed a DVD player that could play DVDs from multiple regions. So I got one of those.

In due course of time I bought a MacBook and a handycam. Very soon the speakers on my TV started feeling underpowered. So I bought a home theatre system. I then took a fancy to Nintendo Wii and managed to get my hands on one of those. Next I wanted to get a nunchuck for the Wii to try out games like boxing. I also thought it might be a good idea to play against another person. So one more Wiimote and one more nunchuck.

As time went by, I fulfilled one my my long-standing desires – getting an HDTV. There was an offer on at that time, which let us get a free upconverting DVD player. OK, so we got those. A few months later I wanted to move from my analog audio, which was essentially comprised of a large number of cassettes and vinyl records, to a digital format. So I needed a cassette player. It would be a bonus if that could manage to record directly to a digital format. Well, I managed to get one that recorded from cassettes to MP3. I still need to get one for the vinyl records.

Now I have one remote for my old TV, one for the set-top box, one for my DVD player, one for my Mac (Front Row), one for my handycam, one for my home theatre, 2 Wiimotes and 2 nunchucks for my Wii, one for my HDTV, one for the upconverting DVD player and one for my music system. There are 13 remotes/devices in all. Some of these are proprietary (4 for the Wii, 1 for the Mac, 1 for the handycam and 1 for the music system) and I hoped that the others could be replaced by one of them. Unfortunately I had no such luck. I had the highest of hopes from my Comcast cable remote and my Samsung HDTV remote, but they were the first to fail. At the end of it all I could just combine the HDTV and the upconverting DVD player remotes.

I could not find the one remote to rule them all and I am stuck with 12 remotes now. **Sigh**.


Tanuka is often amused at the fact that I suffer from spontaneous rotflosis. And no, that has nothing to do with the compulsive desire to use rotten dental floss. It is more like spontaneous combustion, except that instead of bursting into flames one starts rolling on floor bursts into peals of laughter. Today was one of those days. I came across this exceptional website called xkcd, described by its author Randall Munroe as “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” It has a lot of funny cartoons and this was the one that caused the spontaneous rotflosis:

Exploits of a Mom
Exploits of a Mom


Sun, Moon and Machu Picchu

This is something I have been wanting to post for a very long time. While watching Satyajit Ray’s last film Agantuk, featuring Utpal Dutt, I was very impressed with one observation. The reason I hadn’t published this so far was because I wanted people to watch this clip, and the VCD was not available at hand.

[jwplayer file=””]

For those not familiar with Bengali, here is the translation:

Utpal Dutt: … What did I say the name of the city was?
Kids: Machu Picchu!
Utpal Dutt: Machu Picchu… Here, take a look at this (shows photo)
Kids: Wow! Have you been to this place?
Utpal Dutt: Of course! It was I who took this picture. I had gone there 20 years back, riding a mule. Looking at the city I was awestruck. It was made entirely of stone, but there was no stone to be seen nearby. Where did they get the stone? How did they raise the stone up the mountains (the Andes)? Nobody knows. The Incas were a wonderful civilization.
Kids: Tell us another story.
Utpal Dutt: No, no more stories. Let me show you a magic trick (takes some coins out of a pouch)
Kids: What are these?
Utpal Dutt: I am going to ask you a few questions. Let’s see if you can answer correctly. Ready?
Kids: Ready!
Utpal Dutt: OK, which one is larger, the moon or the sun?
Kids: The sun!
Utpal Dutt: How did you know? Wait … (lays two coins of the same size side by side). This is the moon and this is the sun. They appear to be of the same size in the sky…
Kids: That’s because the sun is a lot further away.
Utpal Dutt: How far? Let me tell you. The sun is 95 million miles from the earth and the moon is just 500,000 miles away.
Kids: That is why they appear to be of the same size.
Utpal Dutt: Now let’s say that the moon wasn’t 500,000 miles away, but 200,000 miles away.
Kids: Then the moon would appear much larger.
Utpal Dutt: (Replaces the “moon” coin with a larger coin) Like this, right?
Kids: Yes
Utpal Dutt: And what if the moon was 800,000 miles away?
Kids: It would appear a lot smaller.
Utpal Dutt: (Replaces the “moon” coin with a smaller coin) Like this, right?
Kids: Yes
Utpal Dutt: But that did not happen. The moon was just far enough to appear to be of the same size as the sun (puts back the original “moon” coin). That is why when the moon comes in front of the sun and slowly covers it, the edges match up perfectly…
Kids: Solar eclipse!
Utpal Dutt: Total solar eclipse. And when the earth’s shadow covers the moon, again the edges match up perfectly.
Kids: Lunar eclipse.
Utpal Dutt: Total lunar eclipse. How does this happen? (The kids look at one another) Don’t know, right? Ask the greatest scholar on earth – even he wouldn’t be able to tell you. Nobody can tell you. This is a puzzle. In my opinion this is the biggest puzzle in the universe. The sun and the moon, the king of the day and the queen of the night, and the shadow of the earth on the moon – all circles of the same size. Magic!

I found this quite profound, and indeed a very big puzzle. Of course, some of you might argue that for the moon to cover the sun during a solar eclipse, the moon has to appear smaller than the sun, not the same size (think cones), but the fact remains that the moon covers the sun perfectly during the total solar eclipse. Intriguing, right?

Kids and the Darndest Things

Ever since my son Aikataan was born my wife Sutanuka and I have had a lot of moments to treasure. And wonder. Most have to do with the fascinating way a child’s mind goes to work.

Yes, it is all yours!
Is this all mine?

I am sure there are medical reasons for most things, but contrary to my nature this is one case where I don’t want to know the answers – the wonder of not knowing is much better than the satisfaction of knowing.

  • Almost as soon as the child is born, the mother is asked to feed him (I know I should be adding the “/her”, but that is too painful and I don’t want to refer to a child as “it”). How is it that the child knows he has to suck in or swallow?
  • How far can a child see when he is born (much to my consternation I was told the answer for this)? How far can he hear?
  • Is he afraid when he is still an infant? When slightly older, why do most babies feel afraid of the sound of hissing steam or a vacuum cleaner in action?
  • When does he start feeling protective of other babies?
  • One morning I was having my breakfast, when Aikataan was about one year old. Since we were training him to eat with cutlery, he could hold a fork in his hand and make attempts to eat. Also, he was in the habit of getting tiny morsels from us when we were eating. On the morning in discussion, I offered him something from my plate, on my fork. He refused and quickly ran away. A little while later he came back with a plastic fork in his hand, ready to eat by himself.
  • In what way do they miss people? Aikataan and Tanuka were in India for the last 4 months, with my parents and Tanuka’s. He rarely asked for me and always refused to talk to me on the phone. But it wasn’t like he had forgotten me, since he was quite enthusiastic during video chats. But once he returned to the US he refused to leave my side. He even shunned an outing with his mother to stay back with me and watch Superman Returns.
  • How well-developed are their memories? What are things that they remember? Aikataan has often helped find things that he had seen others misplace and I am sure other kids do the same.
  • My friend Arunda was telling me about this incident where he was assembling an air-pump for his son Ruman’s bicycle. Ruman is around 3.5 years old at present and he pointed out to his father by showing him the assembly manual that there was one component that was wrongly attached.

Oh Gallery, My Gallery!!

After my previous post I set about to do one of two things:

  1. Create a full-blown application for uploading photos – My way of uploading photos was a multi-step process:
    1. I would select photos I wanted to upload and put them in a separate folder on my local disk
    2. I would then use Picasa and export the subset of photos as a web-page. This would automatically resize all images and create the thumbnails.
    3. Next I would create a file with image names and descriptions. I had a script on my home-page that parsed this file on the fly and displayed the album.
    4. Then I would upload the photos, the thumbnails and the file with the names.
  2. Use a package and customize it using a template – This would require me to operate within the constraints of the application that I was using.

I ultimately settled for the customization of a package. Writing my own photo-loader was way too much effort to handle in the hours after work. I considered a lot of options:

  1. Picasa web albums
    This was my first choice, because I love Picasa and I use Google for a lot of things. Moreover I could really harness a lot of things like Cooliris’ PicLens (which is awesome) and create some snazzy stuff. Unfortunately what got in the way was Dreamhost. While very good in most aspects, Dreamhost didn’t provide out-of-the-box support for Picasa. So I would have to customize my Dreamhost installation and make some changes to my PHP configuration for this. As it would turn out, this was less than a stellar idea because I had to run “sudo” on Dreamhost and I did not have the right permissions for it. While I did not get any email saying “Sayontan, you are a bad, bad boy”, I did get a return message on the command prompt notifying me that this incident had been reported!!
  2. ZenPhoto
    ZenPhoto is one of the two packages that Dreamhost provides. I tried it out, but unfortunately this falls under the category of software that you cannot customize on Dreamhost. So, two down.
  3. Gallery
    Technically Gallery was the first thing I attempted, even before my misadventures with Picasa, mainly because it was available with Dreamhost and secondly, I could customize it. However, I found it extremely counter-intuitive to use when I first installed it. But after I exhausted my other options I was compelled to revisit this. My typical style of using anything involves first fiddling with it, then reading the documentation / manuals to clarify any doubts that I have. Most software and hardware today have very friendly interfaces, so this approach works very well for me (as it does for most other people, I am sure). Naturally I had very little joy with Gallery the first time. But faced with no other choice to bundle on my website and with a mounting stack of photos to process I bit the bullet and dug in. Piece by piece it came together and with a few hours of effort I got the basic layout figured out. There are, however some annoyances:

    1. The BreadCrumb
      This is a pretty nice feature that could do with a few configuration options that would enhance control. E.g. I cannot ask it to exclude certain levels or to show the caption / title of the image rather than its name
    2. Sub-albums / Album groups
      This is a hard one to explain. On my earlier site I had groups like “2004”, and then separate albums under it. On the main page I would see both, 2004 and the albums under it. But I cannot conceive of a way to “tag” my albums without using sub-albums, and if I create one album called 2004 with a bunch of sub-albums, I cannot see the names of the sub-albums from my main page.
    3. Slideshow control
      One good thing that Gallery did is an integration with Cooliris. But now I have a new problem: I want to define things like the pause between two photos in the slideshow, I want to remove the links that show up at the top etc. I am sure I can figure it out, but it isn’t obvious.
    4. Square thumbnails
      This is a major gripe. Gallery can display a sized down thumbnail, but it feels the need to pad it with some solid color. The other option is to use a square thumbnail, which does away with the padding. I wonder, though, if it will allow me to set no colour for the padding.

Anyway, I guess it worked out alright in the end. There are a lot of things I would have liked to improve, but as is the case with packaged software, the best plan is to wait and play along. Most of the stuff comes by anyway. Of course, if you believe I botched some of the implementation or missed some features, please let me know – I would love to hear from you.

Phew!! This was a BIG Effort

I recently did a couple of web-pages:

  1. Something nifty with Google Maps API

    This was a LOT of fun. The API is excellent, though poorly documented. In the process I learnt how to do Geocoding, some AJAX and a bunch of other things.

    It was curious how I got started on this. My friend Munish Singla asked me for the whereabouts of another friend. I did not have the latest coordinates of the latter, so I looked up Google and got a few hits, which I provided to him. Singla then remarked that he thought my database would have the lates details. Since my database was stone-dead for the last few years, I decided to pinch an idea that another friend Vaibhav had earlier and I went about implementing it.

    The output speaks for itself, I guess. The next steps would be to add things like photos, employer’s name and a self-service site, but those can wait.

  2. A WordPress Theme for this site
    This was tough. I had the same blog at Blogger, but my main gripe with it was that I never could figure out how to do my own theme. WordPress seemed much better organized, and the fact that I own my domain helps. However the layout of my homepage doesn’t lend itself very well to reuse, particularly with blogs. Again, the result speaks for itself! By the way, the background that I have used here is based on Iceman’s Emulation Page. Though I had to change a lot of things, including some icons, I really liked the background of the original, so I used it.