My City Is Under Attack

on Posted by Rajesh J Advani
As I write this, it's been more than 18 hours since the first of the terror strikes was reported in South Mumbai. The news channels won't report anything else, some of the presenters have been awake all night reporting on events as they emerge, and it seems to me like the whole city must be glued to their television sets waiting for all this to end.

I slept at around 2:00am last night, refusing to continue watching the news, expecting that things would be more or less resolved by the time I woke up. Even the news of top cops losing their lives, only made me believe that everything that needed to be done was being done. I resolved to not let the terror get to me, as that seemed like conceding defeat to the terrorists. And yet, I woke at 7:30am (an event in itself), and without bothering to brush my teeth, walked into the living room and turned the TV on.

If I were to track my mood since then, I'd say that I started the day simply assimilating all the information that all the different news channels beamed at me, still hopeful that things would end 'soon'. Seeing the Taj Mahal Hotel burning, was the first shock. The second shock was when I heard that the college classmate of an acquaintance died in the firing at Cafe Leopold. It always makes more of an impact when you feel you are connected to someone who was affected. It could so easily have been you.

Then there were the photographs of the terrorists themselves. They could easily pass off as visitors of the hotels and restaurants they have terrorized, if not for the weapons they carried.

A doctor from inside the Taj call up a news channel and said she was in a group of around 35 people, and that there was one person whom she was trying to take care of, who had been shot in the abdomen, and had been bleeding all night. She was speaking very calmly and tried to highlight the fact that the man urgently needed medical attention. In a second call from her a while later, she seemed extremely distraught. This while some people seemed to be leaving the Taj and were carried away in ambulances and BEST buses. The news presenters are tired and desperate for good news. Every assault by the army is termed the "final leg of the assault on the terrorists".

My father then told me that his cousin apparently visited Cafe Leopold almost every Wednesday, last night being an exception. She and her mother who lives in a building close to Nariman House are both safe.

Hours went by, and very little seemed to change. The hope I initially had, was replaced with fear, fear turned to sorrow, and sorrow turned to despair. Stop attacking my city, a part of me screams. End this insanity now.

And I'm dozens of kilometers away from where the main action is still on. Even 3-4 kilometers away from the Marriot in Juhu - the closest place to here where firing took place. This is the first time that I'm actually in Mumbai when terror has stuck here. All the other times, I was either in Chennai or in the US. And yet, a terror attack that has lasted for so long, can hardly compare with bomb blasts that are over in a short span of time. There is going to be a difference in the psychological impact of events that last an hour, versus events that last a whole day.

I thank all the soldiers, firemen and police personnel that have been involved in trying to end this stand-off, and hope that it all gets over soon.

Ubuntu On My Desktop

on Posted by Rajesh J Advani

I've been using Ubuntu Hardy Heron Desktop Linux (8.04) since April, when I got myself a new desktop PC. There was no way I was going to inflict Vista on my new hardware, and I'd really liked the ease of using Ubuntu Server Edition the one year before that, at work. The configuration of my custom-built PC is -

My choice of an ATI-based graphics card was based on the fact that ATI seems to be a lot more dedicated to developing open-source drivers than nVidia. They've released their GPU specs, which means anyone can write their own drivers without hacking or reverse-engineering the proprietary binaries, and without worrying that their driver will stop working with the next batch of the chip because some behaviour changed. This means that while currently nVidia has the best support, the future will favour ATI. It was definitely a gamble, but picking a manufacturer that supports Open Source, felt right.

Installing Ubuntu is a breeze. I had downloaded the ISO for the 64-bit version, from the Ubuntu site and burnt it a CD. I booted off this CD, and except for selecting the language, timezone, and partition sizes (which I like to customize), just sat back and watched Ubuntu install itself - in under 20 minutes. And at the end of the installation, I had everything - display, sound, internet, music and video players, cd-burning tools, internet tools, a BitTorrent client, Office software, and even games (including Sudoku). When I tried to install Windows XP on the same machine in dual-boot mode, just getting the OS installed took more than 40 minutes. Then I had to install the motherboard drivers, the display drivers, and the monitor drivers. I only wanted XP to play my copy of Need for Speed Underground 2, but if I had wanted to use XP for normal purposes, I would have spent the next few hours installing Norton 360, MS Office, and some internet tools. Talk about a waste of time!

The only things I changed after installing Ubuntu, were
  • Used 'Restricted' (meaning closed-source) drivers from ATI, which work a lot better than the open-source ones at this time
  • Installed the msttcorefonts package, which contains some Microsoft developed true-type fonts, including the ubiquitous Verdana
  • Turned on Desktop Effects (Compiz Fusion)
  • Installed the compizconfig-settings-manager package to customize the Compiz settings to my liking

The fonts and drivers are not installed by default, for legal reasons. Closed-source drivers and fonts must be selected by the user specifically. Compiz Fusion - a compositing window manager that makes Vista's Aero obsolete - is still not as stable on large number of machines, and won't work on many embedded graphics card so for simplicity, it's turned off until you specifically turn it on. See this Compiz Fusion demo and find out why Linux users are so thrilled. And before you ask - No, you can't get this working on Windows.

I'm a complete geek, but one thing I noticed about Ubuntu is the fact that - as advertised - it just works. It'll be a lot easier for you to teach your grandparents to use Ubuntu, than to use Vista. Desktop Linux is definitely here to stay.

The latest version of Ubuntu - Intrepid Ibex (8.10) - will be out in 3 days. So head to the Ubuntu site and try it for yourself.

Note: Here are some good articles if you've never setup a dual-boot system before -
How to dual-boot Vista with Linux (Vista installed first) -- the step-by-step guide with screenshots
How to dual boot Windows XP and Linux (XP installed first) -- the step-by-step guide with screenshots

A Country Of Contrasts

on Posted by Rajesh J Advani
An 80-year-old political leader and some others are killed in Orissa by a group of suspected Maoist insurgents. Political parties blame the murders on a religious community. Religious violence breaks out, and many people die. Others are forcefully converted and humiliated. The state government looks the other way, for the most part.

In a different state, a young political leader forms his own party. In his greed for votes, he incites violence against people of other communities, in the name of protecting what he calls sons-of-the-soil. Many people (including sons-of-the-soil) are hurt, a few die, and there is fear and tension all around. This government looks the other way too.

Terrorists cross the border from other countries, and find the general public dissatisfied with a lot of things, and easy to divide on religious or other grounds. There are 'terrorist' attacks all over the country.

News channels monger fear and panic, using everything from ghosts under trees, to particle accelerators, to rumors about terrorist attacks, to the ineffectiveness of the government's security measures in preventing said terrorist attacks, to the fall of the stock market. They try to divide people along lines of 'people vs the government', 'people vs foreign investors', and even 'people vs science'.

In the middle of all this, a group of scientists of different castes, from different states, and following different religions, manages to launch a mission to the moon.

We seem to be a country of contrasts. Easily divided, easily provoked, easily offended, easily scared. And yet, when some of us put our minds to it, we can accomplish so much. Even the moon doesn't seem so far.

To think of what we could accomplish if everyone stopped trying to divide us, and worked on unity instead...

Chandrayaan-1: We Have Lift-off!

on Posted by Rajesh J Advani
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At 6:22am Indian Standard Time today, India's first unmanned mission to the moon successfully took off from India's satellite launch centre in Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, 80km from Chennai.

The success of this mission, which will attain lunar orbit 15 days from now, will bring no little pride to our country. And yet there are people who question the very basis of the mission. "Do we really need it?" they ask. And the reasons they give for why this mission is a waste of time and money?
The money (386 crore) could have been better spent feeding the country's poor.

Other countries have already gone to the moon. What new can we learn?


First of all, this is an advancement of the country's technological prowess. As Dr K. Kasturirangan, chairperson of ISRO said when the Chandrayaan-I project was announced
It is not a question of whether we can afford it, it's whether we can afford to ignore it.

In dollar terms, the mission has cost India only US$80 Million. That's pocket-change when compared to NASA's Billion dollar space-probe budgets. And the returns will be great.

Antrix, the Indian Department of Space's commercial arm, earns valuable foreign exchange every year, by launching satellites for other countries, selling data captured by its satellites, and also selling hardware and software. This lunar mission will not only strengthen India's position in the commercial satellite launch sector, but will also give India more experience in the various aspects of space travel.

A mission to the moon - accomplished by only five other countries till date - will put India in the elite group of space-faring countries. So when humans do start visiting or living in space, India will not be waiting in line to be piggy-backed there. We'll be able to get to space on our own. And we'll probably be giving other countries a ride just like we did this time.

And as far as the question "What is there to learn?" goes, there's always something to learn. This particular mission hopes to capture the following information:

  • Map a 3-d atlas of the moon with a spatial and altitude resolution of 5-10 metres.
  • Get information about the distribution of various minerals on the moon

Apart from this, we also hope to get information on Helium-3 deposits, which will be useful for nuclear fusion research, and may be one of the answers to our energy problems.
Additionally, today's successful launch seems to have already cleared the hurdles towards government funding of our man person on the moon plans. There were earlier reports that the government was rethinking that mission because of the high cost.

All the attention that ISRO get out of all these missions might also help some of the brain-drain of scientists from India. I mean as of today, how many people you know actually want to become scientists working for the government? The idea of possibly working for something as glorious as your country's space program, can pretty motivating.

Of course, today's only been Stage 1, the easiest of all stages. India has been sending satellites into space for a long time now, and is so good at it makes money out of the exercise. The next couple of weeks will be really interesting, and will be the true test of Indian capability.

I'm not much of a believer but I think I'll have a chat with my friend just in case.

Update: has two good posts on the benefit of the mission - here and here.

Proper Nouns And Pronounce

on Posted by Rajesh J Advani
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Here I am, breaking my year and half long self-imposed Maun Vrat (Oath of silence?), to do what I love doing more than anything else.


Some things never change, eh?

A friend of mine, often pronounces certain words wrongly differently from what I consider the correct pronunciation, and refuses to correct herself when I point this out, because she says
You can pronounce proper nouns however you want.

A-hem. No, no, not that one! I mean like the sound you make when clearing your throat. Of course, that's more like Ghhmhhmghm, but I digress.

So, where was I? Right.

A-hem. No, you cannot pronounce proper nouns however you want!

Take the case of a name, like 'Rajesh' (that's my name, in case you were wondering). My name has a specific pronunciation, and pronouncing it "Rahash" - "j" is pronounced "h" in spanish/latin/mexican - would be wrong.
Similarly, it is not okay to pronounce the Indian name Dhillon, as "Dhee-yo-n", even if Quesadilla is pronounced as "Ke-sa-dee-ya". "Amit" is "A-mih-t", and cannot be pronounced "A-mite" or "Aim-it". "Iraq" if pronounced "Eye-Rack", is being pronounced wrong, even if it's being pronounced by the President of the United States of America!

Names derived from new additions to the English language are all the more problematic, since you often see the words in print long before you actually hear them. The "Wiki" in Wikipedia, is pronounced "Wih-key", not "Why-key". (On a related note, if you do decide to use the term "LOL" in real speech, then it's pronounced "Ell-oh-Ell", not "Lole"! Of course, I would recommend actually laughing instead.)

A proper noun is a name, and mangling someone's or something's name is not polite - to say the least.

So, the next time any of you decide to change the pronunciation of any so-called "Proper Noun", do consider taking the permission of the owner of that name.