Going slow

For me winter begins when they switch from EDT to EST. It gets colder and dark earlier. It won't snow till December but there are days with strong, cold winds. After an Indian summer in the middle of October it really got quite cold and I have been toting my gloves and ear-muffs around for the past week. It is one of the lessons I learned the hard way - Respect the cold.

However it was warm today. Normally, I would have been quite upset and would have wished it was cold so that carrying all this stuff around would be worthwhile. The warm weather & Neil Young through the speakers made today's bike ride a different one. As I biked slowly I realised two things -
a) Enjoy the good weather and stop complaining about the extra things you have to carry. (unless it is a huge parka meant for Arctic expeditions!)
b) Enjoy the commute!

Usually I rush as if I am competing in a race. I wondered if reaching 5 mins earlier was really going to make that much of a difference. I looked around and saw bright colors of red, orange and yellow which seemed to tell me the answer was 'No!'. I like to bike because it is nice to not to be slave to bus schedules or to geographical tyranny imposed by busstops.(That I am too lazy to walk is besides the point!) I wonder if the ride would as interesting as it is if the 10 min bike did not have so many ups and downs. So, as long as it doesn't snow and the temperatures remain above freezing, biking will be fun, provided I go slowly.

In Print

Anu Garg, who has been delighting and edifying about 600,000 people every day with his daily email called A.W.A.D., has published his second book - Another Word a Day: An All-New Romp through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English. Many, many moons ago I had written to Anu regarding some trivia related to the etymology of Joseph Heller's Catch-22. If it had not been for Leon Uris's Mila-18, Heller would have named his book Catch-18.
Yesterday I got an email from Anu,

Dear Hirak,
Just to let you know that your contribution made it to the book "Another Word A Day" which has just been released widely. Your story is on page 130: http://amazon.com/o/asin/0471778788/ws00-20

I biked over to Border's last night to get hold of the book and then straight to pg. 130 and there it was - Hirak Parikh, Pune, India. Someday, I shall grow up but yesterday it gave me a rush to see my name in print.

Among other things, Anu Garg also programmed the Internet Anagram Server which has been an endless source of entertainment.

Google Update: Another Winner from Google

Not a week passes by without someone prophetically saying, " Now, I too am going to start a blog." With so many blogs floating in the blogosphere it's hard to keep track. I have been a bonafide gadfly when it comes to the method I use for keeping track. First it was the sidebar of links, then I tried bloglines for some time. Then I switched to Thunderbird and have been quite happy and comfortable with it.

Like it has been for the past two years, Google always comes out with a better product than what is out there and I have to make the inevitable switch to the Google product - X-mail to Gmail; Mapquest to Google Maps;Pub Med to Google Scholar; Google Personalized is still not as good as Yahoo but is getting there. I like how it stores the history of your searches since who cares to remember anything these days.(Perhaps not something you might want your labmates or your advisor accessing!).

The latest from Google labs is Google Reader. The first thing that attracts your attention is the sliding window as you choose the subscription to view. While some stuff is mere fluff, the real advantage is the ease in finding the exact Feed URL or blog using Google's search engine. Incorporating some of the better features of Gmail such as labels & filters makes searching and reading through the million feeds more manageable; however, using the individual labels for the posts is a little complicated. Unlike other programs you can keep stepping back to access the previous posts. Once they sort out some of the issues after 'constructive criticism' from users like me, Google Reader will be another 'inevitable' switch.

Post Lunch Dream

One day this page maybe useful.

Codes and Puzzles over Lunch

We went out for lunch to Mongolian BBQ and at the end the waitress handed us an electronic hand-held survey. After filling in the survey, the machine reset itself to the login page - 'Please enter code...'.
Remembering the trick Richard Feynman used to crack the code of the 'super-safe' safe at Los Alamos, I tried the most obvious combination '1-2-3-4' and it worked!! With code broken, I was tempted to really mess up the survey data by rapidly entering false data for all the tables. I can understand why hackers do what they do or why stolen fruit is sweet. Can't wait to try '1-2-3-4' somewhere else.

A little later we passed by a local locksmith - Vogel Lock and Safe. The last place you would expect recreational puzzles but Ann Arbor has it surprises.

Quite an innovative way of window-dressing.
More Vogel's Rebus puzzles.

Why cast pearls before swine?

Getting summons should be one of the highest forms of flattery for a blogger but then things went a little out of hand when there was threatened violence which led to this courageous decision by Gaurav Sabnis. (The lukewarm reaction of his employer and its client were questioned by Kautilya.)
The facts of the IIPM matter are there for anyone to see. Will they get resolved without money muscling in and distorting the truth? Not if we all make a lot of noise about it and hence this post to add to the tons out there.

So are we responsible for what we post on our blogs? Can we post whatever we want? What are the limits and who decides that?
I feel the answer to these questions is simple: Stick to civilized debate.

Blogs are opinionated and there is no doubt about that. Not a week goes by without some sort of flame war erupting or some troll deciding to vent his/her frustrations onto someone expressing his or her opinion. Maybe most of it would be uncalled for if people understood civilized debate. 'Arguing' is why I like blogging. You argue and I argue - your point of view and mine. But at the end of the metaphorical day, either we agree or we agree to disagree. In the end we do agree on something. That according to me is the essence of debate. Everyone has a right to an opinion.(Including him). Opinions maybe unpleasant, misguided but they ain't the truth. How do people forget that?

I don't think it is too hard too tell the difference between a civilized response and one that isn't. Blogs provide an excellent medium for rebuttal. For one, you can actually sit down and calmly compose your arguments instead of hitting the person on the head (my initial reaction) and frame a at least a civilized response if not a rational one.

What about obscenity? I am not saying you CAN'T post something obscene, rather you SHOULDN'T. In any case, every thing survives on its merit.
Even with my most opinionated posts but my intentions have always been to seek the truth - for you to tell me so (nicely!). To some, like the IIPM, the truth might be exactly what needs to be hidden. Not only to hide but to try to scare away the seekers of the facts.

When Atanu Dey, blog award winner said,'Blogs can't change the world' - I didn't believe him one bit. You think I am doing this for nothing? Maybe not the world but atleast a small subset of it? Is that too grand a vision, Mr Dey?

For me, finally here is a medium that rids us from the tyranny of the main-stream news (Some 'main' streams have become dirty gutters!). If you manage to unite skeptics, enthusiasts, dreamers and doers will things not change? I have come across so many new and refreshing ideas and people thanks to blogs. We have built a community of people who are willing to stand up for what they believe is right - the right to speak out.
I wonder if such questions on freedom, libel, frauds in education and debates on moral courage would have sprung up if there had been no blogs. On a more mundane note - this incident has potentially made saved the lives and careers of hundred of future students who might have become victims of IIPM and animals of the same breed. Is it not ironic that education is being run by crooks?
Why cast pearls even before swine? Because, someone somewhere might listen and do something.

Why the little voice is little...

I consider my past few blogs in the light of this and I wonder if it's just me?

Swades IV - Last Episode

Progress@the cost of...?

At Vinzhar village we waited for the S.T. bus to take us back to Pune. We were advised by locals to take a six-seater. This would be our second six-seater on the trip. I am not too happy about these smoke-monsters which have made Pune a 'black hole'. People love them since getting from Point A to Point B is a higher priority than the environment. A billion people have to commute don't they? Jared Diamond's Collapse (perhaps the most influential book that I read this year) mentions: 'Of the six factors that determine a society's continued growth or collapse, the most crucial one is its response to its enviromental problems.' Whether rich or poor the environment is not too high on an Indian's list of priorities. After having spent two days in one of the most beautiful places in India that is being increasingly encroached upon by the city I wonder how long it will all last.

A citizen of a country like the USA has an ecological footprint of 10.3 and current estimate for India is 0.8 and for China is 1.5. The world simply cannot sustain India and China trying to achieve First World standards which means achieving levels of ecological footprints that are 6-7 times greater(assuming the avg. one for a developed country) than their present ones. It is a fact that in the name of progress India and China are doing a lot of ecological damage. Will we be able to develop and still not lose the most beautiful parts of our country?
I thought about this as we bumped along in the smoke spewing six-seater. It must be made clear that the word 'six' in 'six-seater' is a mere symbol which can stand for any positive integer. When you felt that now the driver cannot not possibly fit more people, he invites a few more and manages to stuff them in. I felt a little guilty as our three huge rucksacks might have cost him at least 4-5 seats!!! In the vehicle there were interesting conversations. A villager complained loudly how the damn government was now only allowing a limited number of six-seaters to ply on each route. You need to have a valid permit for the route to carry passengers. Another typical aspect of India - don't solve the problem but simply create the illusion of solving it and create another avenue for kickbacks. The six-seaters were a solution to the problem of providing cheap, reliable and frequent transport service. Six-seaters are a great short-term fix but are not enviromentally friendly and have now become a problem. The driver was driving like a complete maniac and yet the passengers were feeling quite cozy and completely at home in the overpacked vehicle.

Then we got onto an S.T at the highway that would take us to Swargate. My brother got chatting with some dude inside the driver's cabin who then invited us both in. He worked in the S.T. office and was a great source of practical advice and a philosopher of sorts. I was curious to hear his take on six-seaters and the private buses. Quite naturally, he had lots of things to say, here are some of his interesting observations and views.
1) The S.T. will never pack people like sardines for profit. People will gladly suffer the private operators: A lady in 6 seater will not mind almost sitting in your lap or if you accidentally brushed against her, but if such a thing happens in an S.T. she will scream and there will a huge hue and cry. (The pic above attests to situation in six-seaters).
2) There is no insurance or compensation in case there is an accident. For some reason if the private bus breaks down the operator will just shrug and you will have to walk. In case of the S.T. you will get another bus to pick you up or even a refund. (Some private operators do provide breakdown service. The important point is that it is not mandatory and it is few and far in between.)
3) There is no job security or benefits for employees. He pointed to the driver of our bus and said, "Look at him, he was a driver with a private bus company but he left them for this S.T. driver's job. Why?". As it turns out private companies might provide service but are not great for employees. Yes, the pay in the S.T. might be a little less but is still worth it. (Privatization seems to be great for the man with the big bucks, but not for people who work in it).

Maybe the S.T. guy had some his facts wrong but after my experience so far I don't think they were too far from the truth. Private transport can be great if there is:
- fair amount of competition,
- permits that are strictly enforced,
- there are minimum standards for passenger safety,
- employee benefits and accountability in case of mishaps.

For now these remain pipe dreams. Under the pretext of making things private the government is shirking its duties and responsibilities and things are getting out of control. Privatization can really work but there needs to be strong regulation(not control), well-laid long term progress plans and well-defined guidelines for operation. Many of my generation seem to be completely entranced by the word 'privatization' and think that it is some sort of silver bullet. A private company looks for profit and its interests may be in conflict with what might better for everybody in the long term. Privatisation is often good but not always. It is interesting to note that affluent always seem to be the champions of it since it allows them to do what they want. Heedless privatisation without proper guidelines or regulation is not going to much better in the long run. I am certain that 'laissez-faire' capitalism is not the answer for India and perhaps for any country.

Swades - Episode III

I had decided to get away from the city sometime during the trip. So in between the ceremonies and pig-out fest I had this trek planned. So come what may we (my brother, Javed and I) were going for 3 day trek in Sahyadris. Nothing like the Sahyadris in rains, right? We planned this grand trek from Singhagad to Rajgadh and then onto Torna. After being dropped off at Swargate we waited for the bus; after waiting for about 20mins a six-seater stops by and offers to take us there for almost the same price, minus the wait. The six-seater is a great leveller - we shared it with a couple of sweeper women, students, teachers, labourers and farm folk. I was too see the amount of houses and apartments on Singhagad road. The city now extends all the way to Khadakwasla.

Pune has its fair share of trekking enthusiasts and despite it being the 15th of August there were not too many people on Singhagad. On Sundays it is as crowded as a village fair. Climbing is among the few aerobic activities that has something immediate to offer at the end of it - the view. Wonder why views from the top are always so exhilarating. Everywhere I looked I saw green and it always makes me really happy. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the human eye is capable of discerning more shades of green than any other color (since green is in bang in the middle of the visible spectrum). After reaching the top we had the mandatory dahi-tak and a rustic breakfast. Due to it proximity to Pune, Singhagad is perhaps one of the most 'gentrified' of all the forts in Maharashtra. It is easily accessible by road (no need to climb), lots of food and water and tons of 'hotels'. But thankfully these pleasures are still quite rustic. The bhajis and wadas are fried on a primus stove and you are served water that is stored in brass handis. Often you see the wood-smoke mingling with the fog.

Currently the amount of commercialization on the Sahyadris is none or minimal. Even famous forts like Torna have no food or potable water at the top. Most of the people who live in this region are shepherds or small farmers. A thought crosses my mind - If better roads and paths are built, better equipped hotels and facilities these lovely mountains would become more tourist friendly. It may not be long before some politician seizes the idea of creating a chain of hotels on the forts in the region. Perhaps a glossy brochure advertising - 'The Sahyadri Monsoon Trail'. It will improve definitely improve the economy of this place. Seriously it won't take that much.
Already there are website advertising their services (like these) to the world at large. I wonder if in a few years this chap below is selling selling mugs, t-shirts saying 'Singhagad Rocks!'. Is that what would I would like these mountains to become? By not realising the tourist potential of this place are these people being disserviced? I am not sure what the answers to these questions are. Manali and other places in North India have long been overrun and I don't want these beloved mountains become a place like that.
Thanks to the low commercialization there were no boards and signs to direct us towards Vinzhar. So we did as Harish Kapadia suggested in his fantastic book (Trek the Sahyadris) and managed to get hold of some local to guide us to the correct ridge. Walking on the ridge in some place was like walking on the razor's edge. In our excitement or ignorance we managed to take a wrong fork and landed on wrong side of the mountain and found ourselves going down to a little hamlet. Lost, urban folk with huge backpacks are always are source of great amusement for the locals. This would be story of our entire trip - Lost and Found. I, personally was not really hung up on finding or losing the way. For a change I didn't not want to get to some place, just wanted to enjoy the ride. So we climbed back up on the right ride now having wasted a good 2 hours on the wrong path.
Even in the wilderness in India you are not alone and you cannot travel for long without bumping into a shepherd or two. We also heard the beautiful melody of a shepherd playing the flute and I assumed that such stuff only happens in books. Then there are downsides too - on one occasion we managed to climb into an empty village whose ground was a foot deep with cowdung. We truly were in communion with nature.
We had walked almost continuously for 8-9 hours and now the wet socks were having their effect. Only when you sit down do you realise how tired your feet are and all you want to do at that moment is get dry, get warm and sleep. We were hungry but too tired to eat. We all slept like babies and snoring was never an issue. It poured like crazy in the night and we were really proud of our skills in pitching the tent right and not a single drop of water made its way inside. The heavy tent with all that water got even heavier. As we trudged along Javed's hip started hurting and it become worse.
We finally made it to Vinzhar but not without another test. The rain had turned the road into the worst mud bog I have ever seen. At more than one point I was knee-deep in mud and unable to move with this heavy backpack and my shoes were acting like suction cups. When we reached Vinzhar we looked like as if we all had had a nice mud-bath. We were the local spectacle again as we washed ourselves at the village handpump. As we asked for directions to the bus-stop a local looked at us and said, KantaLAat?' or 'Bored!'. I could not but laugh at his cynical laconic remark. City-slickers like to spend their time and money to tramp along the mountains for fun but soon they tire of it and then want the next bus home.
Javed's hip was really bad now and I did want the blood of my friend on my hands so we decided to return home a day earlier. I loved being back in the mountains.

More images from the Trek