March 25, 2011

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When in Rome



Just another day at the office. Had a short discussion with a superior during which I was asked to take up a new task. Some information was given and some assurances exchanged. I was then asked to promptly prepare myself for the task at hand. So I spent the better half of the day trying to gather information about a topic that was so far quite alien to me. At some point during this massive exercise, it became imperative that I found out the full-form of an abbreviation that I had come across--GPTA. Nothing new or sensational here, since it is quite common for an engineer these days to come across something totally new, look it up in Google and spend the better part of the decade pretending like he already knew.

For the reader: the full-form of the GPTA that I was looking for is purely incidental. What amused me, however, were the results Google had to offer.

1. Georgia Professional Tennis Association
2. Greater Portland Telugu Association

Greater Portland Telugu Association. Their website, here.  And that, I felt, was worth a post.

Now, I'm fully aware that we, in India have our fair share of uniquely Indian terms. NRI, foreign-return, fast bowler, export quality, games village and others that I cannot currently recall. But the Greater Portland Telugu Association, somehow, sticks out like a Munaf Patel fielding display. Perhaps its because I am constantly in a work-environment where it is the dying wish of everyone I know to either settle abroad or to be sent onsite for just as long as it takes to be able to make enough money to pay off one's dues, pay off an uncle's gambling losses, buy a sauna-belt for all immediate family, buy enough Hershey's to appease the neighbours, gather sufficient interest from the girls in one's community(by way of the foreign-currency-salary-slip), print expensive wedding invitations, book a reasonably-priced choultry that is within walking distance from your childhood home, buy kanjeevaram sarees for all the women in your family-tree, pay a middle-aged topless man to conduct a wedding ceremony that, while in keeping with the highest of family traditions, also guarantees your spouse a ticket to foreign, before finally heading back with her to the Promised Land, in the hope of raising little angels that would continue this wonderful tradition, all of this, while trying to save enough for a honeymoon that your parents couldn't afford. Oh, and on Independence Day, uploading videos that evoke national sentiment on networking sites, with the comment Mera Bhaarat Mahaan

Nothing wrong with that. Because we, as a country are multiplying at a rate that would put Shakuntala Devi to shame. And since we do not know what to do with our population, we offload some of them to other, unsuspecting countries at the speed of light. That's still alright, but why this inexplicable urge to feel at home while abroad? Do the Norwegians form associations in Nellamangala? Do the Vietnamese form associations in Vijaywada?  

I do understand that it is only natural to miss the food, the language, the negotiable vegetable prices, the inconsistent traffic rules and the flexible bus timings, but surely, chitranna, basundi, mother tongues, native places and random festivals can take a backseat every so often? There are certainly things worth knowing and appreciating about other places and people, and surely, that should be the reason we travel? As opposed to the "give-me-your-dollars-but-keep-your-ungodly-lifestyle-the-fuck-away-from-me" or the "try-our-lassi-but-keep-your-Heineken-to-yourself" approach--the proponents of which, are known to prepare for foreign assignments by packing their suitcases with Priya Pickles and MTR Sambhar powder, home-made chutnies and alu bhujia from Haldiram's. The kind that would also not shy away from asking whether foreign Snickers is 100% vegetarian, whether a Black Forest pastry contains egg, or whether there is alcohol in the Rum 'n' Raisin ice-cream. However, ironically enough, members of this group would also have no hesitation in eating a plate of idly-vada with a fork and knife, since they were told during an intercultural training, that that was the most professional, corporate-y and aesthetically pleasing way to do so and that it might, some day lead to an unmerited promotion or an unwarranted salary hike.        


No doubt then, that the members of the Greater Portland Telugu Association are keen on spreading aforesaid traditions, culture and stereotypes. I wish them all the best. I also wish that they would eat a Whopper or two at Burger King, down a couple of Budweisers, smoke a couple of Marlboros and watch The Simpsons every so often. And maybe the entire Greater Portland area would be the better for it. So long as the Greater Portland Telugu Association do not someday fight for a 51st state, that is.



March 15, 2011

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Times like these



I do not generally write off-hand posts. It normally takes me a few days, sometimes a few weeks to figure out what exactly I am trying to say. I also try and stay away from current affairs. I try my best to also refrain from commenting on natural disasters and other calamities--a technique that is politely referred to as "milking a post". But, after watching what happened in Japan last Friday, and the ensuing tsunami and predicted nuclear crisis, intertwined with the clutter on social networking sites, e-mails requesting a donation and hoaxes about nuclear rain, among others, I felt that something had to be said.

First of all, my condolences to everyone who has been affected by this series of tragedies. I have no personal experience of any calamity, so I will not attempt to offer any advice to you.

However, it has come to my attention that you are not the only victims. Clearly, a massive bunch of well-meaning souls with a lot of free time, who happened to watch Youtube footage of the natural disaster and promptly upload it to Facebook have been affected as badly, if not worse. Yes, the same ones that have "Pray for the people of Japan" as their status message. "Light a candle for Japan's tsunami victims". The same group have taken it upon themselves to raise awareness, panic and money, aided admirably by Messrs. Twitter and Outlook, in spreading unverified information. More despicable however, is news that a few invertebrates are trying to make a quick buck or add to the chaos by contaminating search results with malicious links and setting up fraudulent websites that seek donations. It is a damned pity that millions of years of evolution have produced such specimens.

In times like these, however, where information can be spread as easily as butter on warm toast, where technology has made it all too easy to pass on information without feeling the need to verify it first, I think that people--especially office folk and others with easy access to a PC, need to read the following 5-point strategy if they really want to help:

1. Take a deep breath.
2. Remember that you are not the only one who is feeling bad about the events in Japan
3. We know that the work you do in office may not actually change the world and therefore, you have an earnest desire to change the world with your mail forwards. However, it would be great if you could verify them every so often.
4. Point number 3 holds good for your status updates and tweets as well.
5. Stay calm. If you must watch or share a Youtube video, let it be this.




March 1, 2011

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Integrated Circuits and Internal Combustion



1996 was a great year. Summer holidays lasted from March till June. The Cricket World Cup was happening, and it was the first World Cup that I was old enough to remember. I remember sneaking off to a neighbour's house to watch an India v Sri Lanka league match, and crying after India lost miserably. I also remember hearing about Jadeja's cameo in the India-Pakistan quarterfinal and the ensuing "Have a nice day" between Aamir Sohail and Venkatesh Prasad. Great memories. It was also the year that we bought our first car. A trusty Maruti Omni that, while being the definition of versatility was also, (luckily for us) extremely low maintenance. Rumour had it that Omnis could and were actually used to provide PG accommodation, as moving restaurants that specialized in 20-rupees-biriyani, as school vans, to transport old aunties home after church, to transport drinks on to the field during cricket matches, to swallow large suitcases that came along with well-meaning relatives from the US and sometimes, very rarely, for driving pleasure.

It was also the first car I learnt to drive, and let me tell you, the Omni was a learner's dream. With no bonnet and with the turning radius of a collapsed compass, it could be driven into gaps meant for household plumbing. Sometimes, I would get carried away with this logic and two massive dents on the left side of the vehicle, one courtesy a stationary auto-rickshaw and the second, the handiwork of a speeding lorry are testament to my occasional complacence. The Omni initially came in 2 variants: 5-seater and 8-seater, although the manufacturers probably overlooked the fact that Malayalis can work wonders with confined spaces; 2 bean bags and a rug at the back could instantly equip the Omni with the seating capacity of a medium-sized multiplex.

So, a couple of months ago, when my parents decided it was time to buy a new car, I took it upon myself to identify a worthy successor, what with all the free time I had at office. What followed was a couple of months of extensive research, market analysis, test drives and brochures. We concluded pretty early on that we were looking for a petrol hatch, since our estimated usage did not warrant a diesel car, and since owning any vehicle larger than a hatch, in Bangalore, would require us to pay property tax and get a Khata Certificate from the BBMP.

The first priceless moment of this exercise was watching the sales guy squirm in his seat as I proclaimed that it would take me some time to get used to the bonnet and power steering on the Chevy Beat, as I took it for a test drive. Not too impressive, it was. Next up, it was time to test-drive the Swift; no need for showrooms, brochures and sales reps here---every middle-class family I know has one. So, the Swift was taken out rather tentatively for a test-drive, since it belonged to my <insert near/distant relative> and suffice it to say that graduating from the Omni to the Swift is sort of like graduating from Russell Peters to George Carlin. The most powerful petrol in this class will have you pinned to your seat in second gear, provides a smooth gearshift, is quite spacious and for the कितना-देती-है? types, offers excellent fuel economy. Trouble is, I was told, that the Swift VXi with ABS comes with a waiting period of about 3 months, within which time a new Swift was to be expected on the market. That, plus Maruti produces more Swifts than Don Bosco Institute of Technology does incompetent engineers. Next came the Fiat Punto. This was really the looker of the group, and although the white Punto bears an eerie resemblance to a ZooZoo, the Punto wins hands down when it comes to the styling and exteriors. The interiors aren't too bad either and you immediately realise that the Punto, like most Fiat cars, is built like a tank. In fact, it wouldn't be a total loss to buy the Punto just for its looks; on the flipside that could sometimes feel like you had married Kareena Kapoor just because she was wearing make-up. Also, since the 1.2 Petrol has the power to weight ratio of a tranquilized Sumo Wrestler and the 1.4 Petrol was out of our budget, we decided against it.

Since Ranbir Kapoor and the button-start together gay-ed up the Nissan Micra, and since the design was not very appealing, we decided against the Micra without bothering to take a test drive. This in keeping with my policy of not buying any product that an incompetent Bollywood actor endorses. Therefore, it will also come as no surprise to you that Hyundai was not too high on our list either, since history has repeatedly shown that Shahrukh Khan will endorse anything from sanitary napkins to lead-based paints, just so long as the price is right. Pretty ironic how Hyundai has to pay a professional actor to tell us that their car is worth buying. Anyway, no i10 or i20 for me; iWOULDRATHERBUYADECENTCAR. With Hyundai and Nissan out of the way, it was time to think local once again.

I soon realized that the Indica Vista is in fact the most powerful hatchback in this segment, with 90 horses on the appropriately named Vista90. Not quite sure how this was overlooked; perhaps because owning a Tata hatch is about as noteworthy as working for TCS. Also, an Indica would probably not guarantee bragging rights among the neighbours. Which brings us next to that rare breed of vehicle manufacturer--Tata's autistic cousin--Mahindra. In an era where every other vehicle manufacturer is trying to shift their focus to the hatchback/sedan segment that caters to a massive middle-class, Mahindra has(with the exception of the Logan) repeatedly tried to shoot itself in the foot, first by acquiring Satyam and then, by managing to keep 3 SUVs in the market, almost simultaneously--the Bolero, Scorpio and most recently, the Xylo. And for those of you that are even remotely considering buying one, please note: SUV stands for Sports Utility Vehicle. Commuting to work is not a sports utility. Also, if you live in Bangalore, and are planning to buy an SUV, I'm guessing you have a lot of evolving to do. For starters, did your mother not tell you that the SUV is not meant for the city? Or are you just hoping that the space it occupies on the road will atone for the space in your pants? Seriously though, if you must drive an SUV, please do not take Hosur Road; make your own road.

Next, it was time for some German engineering. And although the VW Polo impressed in terms of ride and build quality, contemporary styling and interiors, the slightly underpowered 1.2-litre 3-cylinder engine, lack of features such as ABS, airbags, music system on the Comfortline(mid-segment), along with the alarming cost of the Highline, had us convinced that value-for-money on the Polo was pretty low and that a large chunk of the cost could be attributed solely to the legendary brand that is VW. However, the Polo does come with an adjustable tilt-steering that no driver could argue against and a brilliantly smooth gearshift that is way ahead of the competition, as is evident from a very unique mechanism to engage the reverse gear. For a brief while this swayed our opinions in favour of the Polo, but eventually, common sense prevailed.

Italian, German, Korean, Japanese and American cars had been tested by now and somewhere, in the middle of the lot, I had managed to get my hands on the Figo. The Figo Petrol is underpowered, and this is evident immediately. But it is a neat package that screams value-for-money. The Titanium(high-end) comes loaded with every imaginable feature--ABS, airbags, music system, rear defogger, rear wipers and so on. It is probably the most spacious car of the lot, with an incredible boot-space that would continue to "swallow large suitcases that came along with well-meaning relatives from the US." Also, the horsepower of an engine isn't really an overriding factor when you are coasting to Church on a Sunday morning. So, without complicating things any further, we booked the Figo. However, that's not what got me writing this post. The fact that we got 70,000 bucks for a 15-year-old battered Omni was the real shocker. Let me try and put that in perspective.

The Omni was bought for roughly 2.5 lakhs. 15 years on, we still managed to get roughly a quarter of the price we originally paid. Co-incidentally, I also happened to dispose of the Amco battery on my Pulsar a few weeks ago. It had gone dead after about 3 years. 2500 bucks it cost for a new one; I got 300 bucks in exchange for the old. Contrast this to a Pentium4 PC that we bought sometime around '96, for close to 25,000. The P4 is now badly battered, and crashes more often than a low cost carrier in near-zero visibility on a short, wet runway. I recently put up an ad, offering to sell it for 4000 bucks. No takers. Why? Because you can wash your car when its dirty, change the engine oil every 5000 kilometres, replace the clutch plates when they start to slip, replace your tyres when they go bald, top-up your battery when its dead, but what do you do when your remote control/cellphone/electronic gadget is not working as expected?

Take out the batteries. Blow the dust out. Hit it a couple of times. Try again. If all else fails, call customer care and ask for a replacement.

So, in a world where ICs are constantly growing smaller and embedded systems are becoming the norm, it isn't altogether unfortunate that the IC engine and the automobile remain just as reliable, but perhaps more relevant than ever.

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