Ad and Lib

I have always grappled with ways to maintain a library or reading list on my blog. I recently discovered Rob Miller’s rather excellent “Now Reading” plugin for WordPress to meet this exact requirement. The plugin lets you add books that you are currently reading, or plan to read or have already read. In addition you can add ratings and reviews. As a bonus you can also hook up your Amazon Associates ID to every book in your library, so that if somebody reaches Amazon through the book’s listing on your site and purchases the book, you get paid.

Of course, you will need to pretty it up to suit your blog template, but the results outweigh the effort. Rob provides a pretty straightforward way to handle templates, so you don’t risk running into code conflicts.

I have so far put some books in my library. The list is far from complete, but I am glad I have a starting point.

A Unique Journey – Traveling with Murphy

In November/December 1997 I undertook a journey from New Delhi to Baroda (Vadodara, in Gujarat) through Durgapur, Kandi, Katwa and Kolkata (all in West Bengal). If you are familiar with the geography of India, New Delhi is in the North, West Bengal is in the East and Gujarat is in the West. This is an extremely weird route to take, since you can actually get from New Delhi to Baroda by train in just under 14 hours. The reason for this type of a route was:

  1. I was studying in New Delhi, hence the origin
  2. My parents and brother were in Baroda, hence the destination
  3. My cousin Shnaoli Didi was getting married in Katwa
  4. I had to also visit my native town Kandi, since it is pretty close to Katwa
  5. The easiest way to Kandi from Delhi was to disembark at Durgapur and take a bus
  6. The only way to go from Katwa to Baroda was through Kolkata

On a map this is roughly how my route looked. Note that this shows a route by road, while most of my travel was by train.

View Larger Map

The different points on the map are listed in the order of visit:

  • A – New Delhi
  • B – Durgapur, West Bengal
  • C – Kandi, West Bengal
  • D – Katwa, West Bengal
  • E – Kolkata, West Bengal
  • F – Bardoli, Gujarat
  • G – Surat, Gujarat
  • H – Baroda, Gujarat

First Leg: New Delhi to Durgapur
The journey started very well. It used to be a practice at IIT to try and find someone among our friends traveling in the same general direction, because we could coordinate the dates appropriately and completely cut out the boredom of traveling alone. In this case I had a pretty good friend Himanshu Khandelia going to Kolkata, so we decided to travel together. Durgapur was a stop on the way to Kolkata by train.

We were traveling by Poorva Express and looking forward to the trip. If you look at the map, you will see that the train had to pass through two states – Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (well, at that time Bihar and Jharkhand used to be a single state) en route to Kolkata. As luck would have it, we had people from both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the compartment. Now, people from either of these states don’t see eye to eye with the people from the other. After a lot of simmering discontent, things came to a head when the guy from UP said, “Kanpur aane de, phir tujhe dekhe lenge” (Let Kanpur come, then we will show you). Soon enough Kanpur (in UP) came, the number of folks from UP increased and a fistfight erupted. The neutral folks (i.e. the Bongs and the Delhiites) got pretty scared and some of them covertly pulled the chain. Actually it was Khandelia and me pulling it, but that is not the point.

Anyway, after the authorities intervened things settled down, though that did not prevent the adversaries from casting dirty looks at each other. Next afternoon at around 2:30 pm I reached Durgapur.

Second Leg: Durgapur to Kandi
At the railway station in Durgapur I was received by Dutta Kaku and Kakima, old family friends. This was a brief meeting – they made sure I got something to eat and put me on a bus to Kandi. At this point I should mention that on my trips from Delhi I would inevitably have a lot of luggage. There were a couple of reasons for this:

  1. My journeys were during the breaks at the end of semester. I used to have a trunk and a suitcase at IIT and our rooms needed to be vacated after every semester, even if we were to return to the same room the subsequent semester. We typically used to cram as much as possible in the trunk and dump the trunk and mattress in the cloak room. This would mean that all the stuff we couldn’t fit in the trunk would have to make the trip home and back even if there was no use for it.
  2. During winters travel by Sleeper Class trains would mean extreme cold at nights, given the range of temperatures in North India. This meant carrying a blanket and some warm clothing, all of which added to the luggage.

Anyway, back to the story. When Dutta Kaku and Kakima were putting me on a bus we had two choices: a private operator’s bus that would start earlier and a state-operated bus that would start later. Naturally I boarded the former, since a downpour had started. About 10 minutes into the trip the bus started lurching rather violently and came to a halt. The driver and conductor announced that the gear-box had broken and that the bus wouldn’t be able to go further.
Continue reading A Unique Journey – Traveling with Murphy

The Urban Legend of Process Improvement by Flies

I once received an email about how men’s urinals at the Amsterdam Schipol airport have pictures of a fly on them. Apparently having such a picture causes some subconscious compulsion in men to aim better, resulting in lower costs of cleaning. I had a hard time believing, though, that such pictures were indeed present. That was till my most recent trip to India via Singapore’s Changi Airport.

While making a trip to a restroom in the recently completed Terminal 3 (it was opened to the public on 9th January, 2008), I noticed that there was indeed a fly painted on the urinals.

Do you see it?
Do you see it?

Do you see it now?
Do you see it now?

I checked a few other restrooms in the terminal – all had this feature. Quick research using the (free) internet available at the airport told me that some terminals at the JFK International Airport in New York too have this feature.

I didn’t try to visit the older terminals to see if they had this design. As it is I received some what-a-weirdo stares from the janitors when I tried to take these pictures with my phone.

The Womderwomen and Supermen of Tennis

This is something I have wondered about for a long time. With the ascent of Roger Federer the debate about the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) has been full-blown and passionate. However, why is it that there is no debate talking about women? I am not talking about a unisex comparison, because that is more difficult to do, but in general, why is it such a big deal when a man completes a career Grand Slam, while there are three women who have completed calendar Grand Slams? (To be fair there are two men who have calendar Grand Slams as well)

Take a look at some statistics:

  1. Margaret Court and Steffi Graf each have more than 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Court has 24 and Graf has 22. Other players like Helen Wills has 19, while Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert each have 18. By contrast, among men Federer and Sampras have 14 (Wimbledon 2009 is on as I write this), Roy Emerson has 12 and Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg have 11 each.
  2. If you consider doubles and mixed doubles titles too, the margin becomes a gaping chasm – Court shoots to a humungous 62, Navratilova has an almost as high 59 (and she is still playing!) and Billie Jean King has 39. If you combine the lists across the two genders, the first man would be Roy Emerson at #9, with 28 titles.
  3. Donald Budge was the first man to win all 4 singles titles at the Grand Slams in one year (1938). Rod Laver followed him by repeating the feat twice. Laver first won as an amateur in 1962, then as a professional in 1969 and remains the only male player to win a calendar Grand Slam in the open era. Others like Fred Perry, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer did win all four titles, but not in one year. On the women’s side, however, Maureen Conolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf have all completed calendar Grand Slams, in 1953, 1970 and 1988 respectively. In addition several women have career Grand Slams – Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, Doris Hart and Shirley Fry.
  4. Statistically speaking Margaret Court was exceptional in her career – she had won a “boxed set” (career Grand Slams in Singles, Doubles and Mixed Doubles) twice – once before the Open Era and once during. Doris Hart and Martina Navratilova have their own boxed sets, but only once. No male player holds this distinction.
  5. Steffi Graf is the only player to have won singles titles at all four Grand Slams at least four times each. She also spent 377 weeks at #1 – 91 weeks more than Pete Sampras.
  6. Althea Gibson was the first African-American, male or female, to win a Grand Slam (French 1956, Wimbledon 1957 & 1958, US 1957 & 1958). Yet the stadium got named after Arthur Ashe. This isn’t to demean Ashe – he was a great player in his own right with three Grand Slams and a pioneer with his social efforts.

I agree that people like Federer and Laver represent a perfectly orchestrated symphony, that the men’s game of 5 sets is more physically taxing,  that most top men would whip the top women players of their time (I don’t say “all” because of Billie Jean King’s famous whipping of Bobby Riggs) and that Roger Federer is one of the most statistically impressive players ever. But somehow I feel that women have been shortchanged in GOAT discussions. Maybe we should start calling it GMOAT, just to be specific. Maybe we should start giving Wonderwoman too some credit, just like Superman.

Update on 5th July 2009: Roger Federer has now added Wimbledon 2009 to his collection, raising the total Grand Slams to 15 – the highest among men.

The Divine Hand

In the history of sports there have been a few incidents where a hand has been dealt in a rather unusual manner

  1. The most famous such incident of course, was Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 FIFA World Cup Quarter Final in Mexico against England. The goal was the first of two made against the English (the second was an equally memorable goal, often dubbed the “Goal of the Century”). Maradona acknowledged 19 years after the incident that he had deliberately hit the ball with his hand and knew it was illegitimate, but the goal still stands. The England fans have never forgiven him for this transgression.

  2. Three years later in a different sport, Michael Chang was playing Ivan Lendl in the 4th round of the French Open at Roland Garros. Lendl was the reigning World #1 and Chang was the 15th seeded 17-year old upstart. Lendl comfortably took the first two sets 6-4, 6-4. Chang then started suffering from severe leg cramps. That is when he changed his strategy. He started killing the speed of the ball and started repeatedly lobbing them to the baseline (moon balls) and generally unsettled Lendl. This way he managed to win back the next two sets 6-3, 6-3. Then, serving at 4-3 in the final set, Chang suddenly hit an underhand ball (a perfectly legitimate way to serve, if you are wondering) that had a typically calm Lendl become atypically flustered and the World #1 eventually lost the point and his temper.

    I was trying to break his concentration. I would do anything to stay out there.

    Michael Chang, about the match

  3. The third incident, was chronologically the first among the three that I have listed. This happened in the 3rd final of the World Series Cup of Cricket at the MCG on 1st February 1981. This involved serial troublemaker Greg Chappell and his brother Trevor. New Zealand required 15 runs off the last over and had 4 wickets in hand. Greg tossed the ball to Trevor and the first ball was belted for 4. Trevor picked up Hadlee LBW the second ball. That brought Ian Smith to the crease, while Bruce Edgar was at the non-striker’s end, batting on 102. New Zealand 7 for 225, with 11 runs needed off the last 4 balls. Smith picked up a couple of 2s off the next two balls, bringing the equation down to 7 runs from 2 balls. Then he was bowled. This brought tailender Brian McKechnie to the crease with 6 needed off the last ball to tie. That was when Greg advised Trevor to bowl underarm, to ensure that the six couldn’t be hit. The incident triggered massive outrage among players, fans and officials alike and underarm bowling was outlawed after that.

    Quotes about this incident:

    No, Greg, no, you can’t do that.

    Ian Chappell, during the match commentary

    Fair dinkum, Greg, how much pride do you sacrifice to win $35,000?

    Ian Chappell, in a newspaper column after this incident.

    It was an act of true cowardice and I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow

    Prime Minister of New Zealand, Rob Muldoon

Atop Ballmer Peak

Going through some older issues of xkcd, I found this gem:

Ballmer Peak - The High of Excellence
Ballmer Peak - The High of Excellence

This reminded me of some binge-induced activities that I performed with astonishing clarity and devastating efficiency:

  1. The first time I drank was in 1999, during the first semester of my fourth year at IIT. Those days I was preparing for the GRE. The GRE, as you might know, has a vocabulary section that tends to get ludicrously tough. I had this book called Barron’s GRE, as did everyone else. This book had precisely 50 word lists, which most of us tried to cram. I normally had better luck than others and my typical tally was 3-4 lists a day at 80% accuracy at my first attempt.

    One evening someone had brought a bottle of vodka into our hostel wing. While other folks in my wing had already sampled spirits earlier, I was new to it. I went ahead and gave it a shot. What I drank was quite little and by no means got me on a high. For sure my BAC wasn’t in the Ballmer Peak range. However, a miracle occurred that evening.

    I went through 7 word lists that day and remembered more than 95% of the words accurately. I was never been able to repeat that feat.

  2. The second such instance was in 2000, at a WebTek party. This was the first time I had scotch and I really liked it. In fact I liked it enough to have 2 large on-the-rocks and a couple of Bloody Marys for good measure. After returning home I went about finishing some work. By around 3:00 am I had created a rather nice looking web-site for BTech96.
  3. The third instance was a few years later. This was an instance that would really qualify as a binge. On 1st March 2003 India faced Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup. This was a great match, made so by Tendulkar’s innings of 98, particularly hammering Shoaib Akhtar and Wasim Akram. This also happened to be a day when Deloitte had one of its All Hands Meets at the Kakatiya Sheraton in Hyderabad. Now I am extremely superstitious when it comes to India and cricket. So when Tendulkar was blasting away, I stayed put at home watching the match. Once Tendulkar got out, though with around 100 runs remaining to be made, I decided to go to the party.

    The excitement was too much. In a span of 55 minutes I gulped down five large Scotches on the rocks and 4 Bloody Marys. Not only did I continue standing upright, I also very convincingly debated why Hyderabad was culturally more advanced than Bangalore, but Bangalore was more socially advanced. I then returned home and stayed up until 4:00 AM, finishing a very complicated module of code (essentially a workflow tool), which I was having a lot of difficulty doing otherwise.

    The next morning I had a ghastly hangover, but given my stupendous coding feat from the night before, I didn’t particularly mind it.

I still haven’t figured out the exact BAC for Ballmer Peak, but I am sure several people have had inexplicable bursts of brilliance after finishing 63% of a bottle of scotch of 44.6% alcohol concentration, followed by 57% of a bottle of vodka of 40.1% alcohol concentration. Just that none of them was on the team of Windows ME.

Doing an Asok

For all the money a consultant makes, the job is often thankless. Nothing exemplifies this better than today’s Dilbert:

There are some parallels and some non-parallels between Asok and me:

  • Asok, like me is an IIT graduate. Worse still, like me he is trained to sleep only on national holidays

  • I must have flunked the course where they taught us to reheat tea by holding the cup to my forehead

  • But I did meet the prerequisite for getting in

  • Asok is an intern, hence his position at the company is not permanent. As a consultant my privileges at my client are pretty similar, except that a consultant probably earns about 4 times more than an intern

  • I must have also flunked this other course, since I am still nutty about a lot of things:

My kinship with Asok often reminds me of this classic scene from Lage Raho Munna Bhai:

Yes, just keep doing it hoping that some day things will be better.

Arbaaz Federer

As far as likenesses go, nothing gets better than Arbaaz Khan and Roger Federer. People outside India almost certainly don’t know the Bollywood actor Arbaaz – heck, I will be surprised even if they know his more famous brother Salman Khan. Arbaaz’s acting skills are nothing to write home about, but he does have a few hits to his credit.

Arbaaz Khan, Bollywood actor, brother of Salman Khan
Arbaaz Khan, Bollywood actor, brother of Salman Khan

Federer, on the other hand will probably go down as the best tennis player ever and I will be surprised if any follower of any sporting event is not familiar with him.

Roger Federer, former World No. 1 in Men's Tennis
Roger Federer, former World No. 1 in Men's Tennis

Swoopo – An Interesting Auction Model

On the RSS feeds that show atop my Gmail inbox I sometimes see a ridiculously priced HDTV or MacBook at an auction. Instinctively I dismiss the link as a scam. However, out of idle curiosity I decided to take a look at one such link today and I came across a really interesting business model.

Swoopo operates very differently from a traditional auction site like eBay. In eBay you can buy or sell stuff. When you buy there is no cost involved in the bidding process. If you are eventually the highest bidder for an item you win it. You pay the seller the amount the bid was settled for. eBay makes money for each listing and takes a small percentage of the selling price. If something was not sold, eBay still gets the listing fee.

Swoopo is different. For starters you cannot sell stuff (if you can, I couldn’t locate it on their site). Secondly, you cannot buy using the traditional methods. Who in their right mind would sell a MacBook for around $7.00?

Swoopo, for ridiculously low prices
Swoopo, for ridiculously low prices

But there is a lot more to this than meets the eye. In Swoopo you actually pay to bid, so the cost of the item is divided amongst all the people making the bid!! Look at their Penny Auctions. The price of an item increases by 1 cent for each bid, however to bid you have to pay 75 cents each time. So if a $1,299.00 MacBook is eventually sold for $24.00, there have actually been 2400 bids on it @ 75 cents each. So Swoopo has actually made $1,800.00 in the bids alone, in addition to the minuscule $24.00 that the item actually sold for – that is a neat profit of $525 for the seller. And the best part is that even if the winning bidder has made 200 bids, he has only paid $174.00 for the item – a significant markup from the selling price of $24.00, though still way below the retail price of $1,299.

So what’s the catch? The rest of the price is actually being footed by the losing bidders. So unless you are absolutely sure that you want to buy something and are willing to go for the kill in bidding, stay away!! The thing about Swoopo is that everytime there is a bid it raises the auction time by some seconds. So you could potentially be stuck in a bidding war and end up making a big enough loss in an attempt to outbid someone.

Happy bidding!