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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Flying an A330 like a glider

About six years ago I was learning to fly gliders. I spent about 40 flights, and though I never got the opportunity to finish my training and obtain a license, my coach had taught me how to appreciate the nuances of flying. He always believed that flying a glider was far tougher than a power-plane (since you have no engine support in a glider), but a good pilot must always learn to fly gliders since it kept them closer to the physics (and nature) of flying. He always said that a pilot who understood gliding should be able to bring down any powerless aircraft to safety (given the conditions, of course). He also cited an example of a pilot doing so, but I forgot the details.

I rediscovered the case. Captain Robert Piché and First Officer Dirk DeJager safely brought down an A330 (Air Transat 236) after all the engines stopped due to a fuel tank leak. The first engine failed at 39000 feet and the second at 33000 feet. From there on, the pilots adopted the principles of gliding to safely bring it home with no casualties or structural damage to the aircraft. Though they were also blamed for not detecting the leak properly and not following the checklist, credit must be given for the application of safety and presence of mind to bring it safely. My appreciation to them.

Oh and you can watch the National Geographic feature on the flight:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cricket: A better way of penalizing slow over rate

Ok, so Dhoni has been suspended for two ODIs following the slow over rate. I am somewhat satisfied that something has been done, but as always it feels like too little and too late (its after the match ended). Before you jump to put in your angry comment, lets analyze why we need a strict way of enforcing over rate in the first place.

Cricket is a long game, ranging from 4 hours (T-20s) to 35+ hours (Test matches). In these fast paced days, hardly anybody has the time to follow a full test match live on TV. Moreover, in the day of globalization, with viewers tuning in from various parts of the world, you need to account for the time differences too. A day night match in India is a evening-night match in Singapore and a night-night match in Australia. So, lets get this simple fact out of the way - cricket is not a viewer friendly sport.

Now, largely because of an utter neglect by the authorities of the game, successive generations of captains have gotten away with slow over rates, mostly in the name of strategy, but actually because nobody is looking over them and fixing it. It wasn't always so - with 4 pacers, West Indies of the 70s were famous for never going beyond their time. Slow over rates just compounds the viewer-unfriendly nature of the game, making it impossible for a viewer to time the finish of the game. Moreover, enough test matches have finished in a draw because one of the captains could slow down the game and reduce the number of overs bowled.

Now, lets look at what the ICC has been doing and why none of it actually solves the problem:
  • Reduce overs for chasing team: This was a ridiculous idea that only penalized the team batting second in an ODI while letting off the team batting first (they were penalized with match fees, but no one cared about that). You need to be more equal than that.
  • Penalize through money suspensions: This sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. If a captain wants to spend more time on the field defending in a tense situation in a major tournament's final, he doesn't care about getting fined or suspended the day after.
So, what do we need? We need an in-match solution (one that has the opportunity to affect the result of the game), equal on both teams irrespective of batting order, consistent on all matches (important or otherwise) and potentially penalizes the entire team for poor over rate.

I can't take credit for the proposed solution (I watched this on TV in a English County T20 game), but here is how it goes:
  • Fix the maximum time for the innings up front on a large countdown clock visible to all including spectators.
  • On each injury, keep record of the time involved, either in a separate clock, or by stopping the countdown clock. As soon as the clock hits zero, start the injury time countdown.
  • For every bowler not bowled by the end of the clock, punish the bowling team by adding 6 runs (per over not bowled) to the batting total.
  • The quantum of per over punishment can be debated. My suggestion - go with the average run rate of the past 100 matches in international cricket of the same form. This way, it gets adjusted to the form of the game and keeps in trend with the ever increasing run rates (I don't like that either, but I will need a separate blog post for that).
With this solution, the problem is solved. You have a solution that affects the match, and hence adds seriousness to the entire effort. Its equal on both teams and penalizes the entire team instead of just the captain. And since there is the entire match at stake and not just money, our rich cricketers will have something to fight for by being on time.

It is high time the authorities of cricket made the game more professional and more viewer friendly. Each of these minor improvements will help to hold on to your viewers and in these days of empty cricket stadiums, you better retain each TV eyeball-minute that you can capture.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Musings on the Telangana matter

Have you been following the latest news about Indian Government's decision to carve out a new state Telangana from the what's currently Andhra Pradesh? If so, you might also quickly realize that it is one of the very rare events involving a government decision which has left the Indian public opinion completely split.

While one section clearly despises the decision in the name that it creates yet another division in what is already a fragmented nation and sets a bad precedent, on the back of which, further fragmentation looks unavoidable. One the other hand, is a very sizable lot who believe that this was a very fair decision in the interest of keeping smaller, easily governable units which can only be expected to generate better results in the future. They agree with the first lot that the way the actual division was announced could have been done in a better way, they consider it only a trivial in what was a generally solid move.

I have been giving a little thought and hence the late response. Like the nation I have been equally split within my head over whether this is good or bad for our nation. Instead of trying to take sides, I am going to talk about various aspects of this and how we could have done a better job.

Let me start with history behind the formation of the States and the socio-political interests that emerged subsequently:
  • In 1956, with the establishment of States Reorganization Act, there was an impetus to uniting the country into a few small units mostly combined on the basis of language spoken in those regions.
  • The political class of the nation has always been found wanting. Instead of uniting the country into one homogenous unit, the class has thrived to keep them segregated into vote banks along lines of language, religion, regions, castes and classes. Hence what should been a gradual but definite building of strong nation based on these few states soon deprecated into an infighting to grab and control power.
  • Unlike the august thoughts of the freedom fighters and the leadership of the Independence era, the society in India never matured. They still put enormous impetus on holding onto what they knew best - the walls of religion, caste etc and hence each section of the society preferred to hold their own forte rather than merge into whatever was the larger cause of the larger unit they were part of. Maybe the poor political class contributed to it, but I believe this is the making of the society itself.
In the wake of this, lets analyze the current decision:
  • The principle behind the decision and what one section of the debate is supporting is that smaller units allow for better governance and would encourage the leaders to promote growth. As the population of these states grow, this principle definitely finds merit. We are pretty much the fastest growing large nation on earth and hence this is something we need to keep doing again and again. But the key is that the same issue will come up in almost every other state in the country. Why did the Government decide only on one state and not worry about every other state? Inconsistency #1.
  • The state of Telangana was fought on the following reasons (at least historically): Telangana had a less developed economy, but higher revenues (due to tax on alcohol, while the larger unit had prohibition); Dam projects don't favor them; Telanganas feared a disadvantage with respect to job finding with the natives of rest of the rest. Do you see the pattern? These are the same issues that are repeated not just within every state but across every state. Mumbaikars complain of north Indians coming and stealing jobs; TN and Karnataka have fought a bitter battle over Krishna water; Job opportunities have caused migration and subsequent pain to successive generations of Indians. So, what is required, I believe, is a stronger political will to solve these problems and not a creation of a new state. Unless the leaders wake up to start looking at solving these problems, forming a new division is not going to help.
  • The formation of smaller states is often underlined on the basis that a government of a smaller state can look after the interests of the residents better. Oh really? Do you know the small north eastern states (Manipur, Assam, Nagaland etc) as the most developed?
  • The bigger issue with starting a new state is the increase cost on the nation. Have you tried moving goods across states? Have you tried hiring a commercial vehicle from Karnataka and driven into Andhra? Have you tried to set up a company spanning factories across state borders? Have you tried understanding the complex plethora of inconsistencies across the educational systems of the individual states? We have just managed to create one more new division.
So, what could have been a better resolution?
  • Focus on the cities. Give them higher autonomy to control their finances and allow them to thrive independently. Many argue that this would leave the rural population into a disadvantage. So what? Over a period of time, the rural populace would move into the cities leaving what's left of the rural areas as a manageable units. This is exactly what has happened in the whole of the western world.
  • Focus on building a effective system of delegation leaving those at the bottom of hierarchy with enough decision making powers to make an impact. In the absence of that, new powers to a new CM sitting in a distinct state capital won't help the nation.
  • Have a consistent policy for the future fragmentation, if that is going to be the mantra. Indicate that when the density of a state crosses a particular number, a natural review of the state borders shall be undertaken. This leaves everyone in a happy state.
  • And for God sake, start working on homogenizing the nation across the lines of India and not let this game of divide and rule continue.
  • And I know I am asking for too much here - but can we just rewire the brains of all the politicians and insert some moral goodies into them. :-)
Debate on this page is most welcome. Waiting for the readers to start a constructive thread.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Retrospect on running the 10k run

I ran the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon 10K run today. I managed to finish it in one second short of 80 minutes, which I consider pretty good based on my training. It was the first time I was stretching my body so much. I had been practicing for it for a bit now, but even the longest practice run had taken me only about 6kms.

I am not writing this post to say I ran the race. A tweet would have sufficed for that and that I did earlier today. What I want to highlight upon is the amount of effort one has to put into doing something which involves one's body. Being from a conservative middle class Indian family, I was encouraged to do well in studies and discouraged from spending time in sports related activities since it was considered wasted time. Not that I didn't have my share of playing sports - I ended up playing quite a bit of diverse set of sports, starting from Cricket, Table Tennis (Ping Pong to those who live between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans), Chess and dabbled in Tennis and football too. That said, the general assumption, when you come from that background, is that sports (and I am talking about the casual type, not the professional type) is easy and studies is not.

I want to break that myth. The fact is that running long distances is hard, very hard. Seriously. Any long distance running beyond the trivial takes a lot of effort - both physical and mental. Thats the key differentiating factor - in studies, your physical fitness is insignificant - if you trained your mind, you were good. Running is about both - physical and mental endurance. You need to plan, focus, concentrate and improvise, both in training as well as execution. That's the key - you need to bring both your body and mind into alignment.

Having done this today, there are 2 individuals I need to thank. The first is Shyam Mani, aka @fox2mike. He is a fitness freak, but more than that, he is an encouraging mentor. When I had brought up the idea of running for this run, he instantly agreed to helping me out. He ran the first few training sessions and always offered invaluable inputs on training, running, and the mental games involved. Many thanks to him.

Second is my dear wifey. She encouraged me from day one and egged me on to do this. Waking me up at 6 and sweet talking me to head out; having tea alone (her favorite coupling thingy) while I was out running; or waiting to have dinner, while I switched from morning to evening - all of this helps when you are trying to achieve something thats difficult for you. Many thanks to her too.

What's next? I am not sure - there will definitely be more running involved - but whether I want to stretch on distance or improve on time is something I haven't decided yet. Sometime soon I hope to decide.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Secrets of Red Lantern: An odyssey into Singapore's past

One of my colleagues had organized a walkabout tour of Chinatown, Singapore through the Original Singapore Walks. The walk that we chose was the Secrets of the Red Lantern, and the objective was the travel the road less traveled. The walkabout was about 3 hours long and touched upon the history of Singapore - specifically with respect to Chinatown, migrations from China, its past of prostitution, opium addiction, poverty and slavery spread over 200 years starting from early 19th century.

To say that it I was completely enamored by what I saw and what I heard would be an understatement. A few highlights from what we saw:

  • Behind the prosperity of today lies a time when there was utter poverty in Singapore. With heavy immigration from China, all of whom hoped to make it big, what resulted was housing in small cubicles of about 30sqft each housing as many as 6-7 people at a given time. Take a moment to visit the Chinatown Heritage Gallery to see a depiction of the size of the cubicles, kitchens and toilets.
  • Behind the drug safe city of today lies a past where a significant share of Singapore residents were opium addicts. History goes that many of the rickshaw pullers of the day had to pull their carts with bare feet on melting tar that the pain of resting them in the evening brought out so much despair that a 15 minutes relief through opium was a natural option. The opium sale was promoted by the British rulers of then as a form of government income. They had licensed 43 wholesale vendors for the purpose.
  • Behind the highly women-safe city of today, there lies a time in Singapore's history when over 50% of the women were forced into prostitution and other related professions through a system that gave them no choice. There was a time when there were 60,000 Chinese migrant males, but only 6000 female migrants, out of which over 3000 were licensed prostitutes. There are stories abound of suicides by the girls of that era.
  • Behind a country which offers its citizens free access to over 150 countries through the prized Singapore passport, there lies a time when slavery was abound. Migrant workers, promised of a bright future would be shipped to Singapore and auctioned off, sometimes for anything as low as 30c to $1, by the underground organizations of the time. There is little proof of the British authorities of the time having tried anything to prevent the practice, barring one raid. The police officer leading that raid has confessed of having never seen such a deplorable sight.
I learnt that there is a lot more about the tumultuous past of the city and its transformation into a prosperous and clean city offering its citizens a standard of living matched by only a few other nations in the world.

Friday, November 27, 2009

2 states: post mortem

The past weekend, when I was in Jakarta, I found enough time to complete Chetan Bhagat's latest novel - "2 states, the story of my marriage". I generally like Chetan's style of writing, but the past two books somehow didn't have the same punch on the story front as his first novel Five Point Someone had. With 2 states, Chetan has presented a solid story with a very good narrative. I enjoyed every page of this book.

Having myself gone through pretty much the same story in my marriage - I am from a conservative Tamil Brahmin family and married a Saxena from Delhi - I can empathize with the characters in the novel. To be sure, Chetan has done a fantastic job of portraying the stereotypes of both the Punjabis and the Tamils. Having been in Delhi for too long and having been very close to many Punjabis over the years, I am also well acquainted with the Punjabi culture. So, I believe I am in a position to appreciate 2 states.

The unfortunate truth is that the story presented in this book is not far from reality. Only 4 years ago, I went through the same, and for all practical purposes, the families considered themselves modern and forward looking. The reality is that the peoples from various regions of India still have too strong an affinity to their own individual customs, that any thought of stepping outside of that and merging into one national identity is too difficult for them to fathom. I am saying not only from a TamBrahm perspective, but inferring the same from my numerous meetings with friends, classmates, colleagues from various places.

The most interesting part is that the peoples are willing to get together and mingle with others for purposes of friendship, wealth creation (business, employment etc) or even for national building (army, sports etc), but never for the concept of finding love, partners or family. Its quite sad.

That said, I have to admit that my generation is doing a wonderful job of breaking this and taking the progress on this front to the next level. My own group (friends, classmates, colleagues) has seen enough marriages across caste, communities, regions, religions and languages that I see immense hope for the next generation. At last, we might able to cut across all lines to find what's most important - love and harmony.

While I have already digressed, I wish to bring my focus back to Chetan's book to indicate what I believe are clear factual mistakes in 2 states. Some are trivial ones - like a Tamil sentence never starts with "Illa ...", its almost always the other way around, but the more serious gap is the projection that Tam Brahms treat the bride and the groom families as equal. He portrays that the bride's family (Tamils) had problems with dowry, or with the expenses or with the gifts. Thats complete and utter nonsense.

Tamils unite with their brothers across the country on this. The bride's family bears the cost and groom's family doesn't. The bride's family showers the expensive gifts and so on. In fact, it is in the north, where marriages make the groom pay for at least something. In the Tamil Brahmin community, nothing, and I repeat, nothing is expended upon by the grooms.

So, this whole part of the story where Chetan is trying to put together an alternative view leaves me rather disappointed. He was free to use his freedom of fiction, till it is not tried down to the stereotype of Tamils, but that didn't seem the case.

Chetan Bhagat's past success makes me believe that there shall be enough people who shall read this one too that there is a real danger that this error might be considered truth. I can't help that, but I hope that my bringing this to fore might help turn the tide the other away.

Any which way, do get a copy and read the book - specially if you are in love with somebody who is outside of your caste, community, region or religion. It will be worth every page you read.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Trip to Jakarta and miscellaneous notes

I just came back from a whirlwind trip to Jakarta. I was there as a volunteer/presenter/judge at the Yahoo Open Hack Day SEA 2009. There were a few uniques on this trip for me:

  • Firstly, its the first time I have crossed the equator. This means I have seen both hemispheres. Not a big deal, but still..
  • Its also the first time I have been on a trip where I did not step out even once. This is absolutely new to me. Whenever I travel to any place for official work, I always find time to step into the city, take a walk, do some clicking or just plain shopping. If its a place I have friends, then meeting with friends in included too. But this trip had none of it. All I did was go from Airport to Hotel, then to Balai Kartini for the event, back to hotel and then to airport for the return. Why? The reasons are multiple - We had a tight schedule; The company, and the International SOS, had scared us off too much from venturing out due to high crime rate in Jakarta (maybe its not true), and somehow it worked; I stayed at Hotel Mulia which was so comfortable that it managed to keep me indoors even when I had a bit of free time.
I had the privilege to work with some amazing people on this event:
  • I met AP, a fantastic colleague with loads of experience in traveling and conducting events. The other interesting aspect, as far as I am concerned, is that he is gay. I had the opportunity to chat up with him for long hours - something I haven't done with any homosexual ever. I am a big homosexuality supporter and have been to gay/lesbian bars at Castro St, San Francisco, and chatted up with people, but those were all strangers. This one was a better experience and I have to say meeting AP was one of the high points in my travel meetings with people. (I owe him USD 40 from my duty free shopping.)
  • I met PS, who is a swede but lives and breathes Asia. As a sales guy who has setup multiple teams from scratch, his experiences and opinions about Asia, including his stays in Pakistan was most eye opening.
  • I met JL, who is a french-canadian, but lives in the bay area. He is not only a great technical talent for Y!, he also threw some light on his travels and experience of being a Canadian AND a californian, including his thoughts on dual citizenship.
  • The entire marketing team (SC, Ly, DZ, Ta etc) from the Singapore office kept me enlightened on the various innards of being a singaporean and about the various races in the Island, the consequences thereof (w.r.t education) and a bit about Mandarin and Chinese, were all great discussions. Also, they were among the best organizing teams I have met. Great company indeed.
  • Everybody else who came there, including the Yahoo engineering team, the e27 team, the local organizing team, the execs, Stacy, and anybody I might have missed out inadvertently, were all excellent company. Its quite rare that you go to an event and meet 50 other people and not even meet a single dork who pisses you off. But this one that.
Thanks to everybody for making it a pleasant trip.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Exclusive interview with Mr. Smart Rider from Bangalore

I had the great opportunity to meet Mr. Smart Rider from Bangalore, India during my trip here. He is a well spoken-about person outside of India. Having achieved fame for having innovative riding skills in India, he spent some time in Singapore past week. In an exclusive shreeni.info interview, he speaks about Singapore riders' lack of value for time or money, self expression and freedom:

Shreeni: Welcome, Mr. Smart Rider, how are your doing today?
Smart Rider: Thank you for welcoming me on your blog, please call me SR.

Shreeni: Fair enough, so let me start by asking you about your Singapore riding experience. What were the highlights?
SR: It is a generally clean city, but I was most disappointed to find that all Singaporeans have no value for time or money.

Shreeni: How did you come to that conclusion?
SR: Take for instance the rider in Singapore. Not only do they wear helmets, but they also make their pillion riders wear helmets. Not just that, they apparently buy costly helmets which are good enough to survive a crash, but what's the use? Everybody knows the only purpose to buy a helmet is to show it to the cops. Why waste money on costly helmets? In fact, in my country, we can just mold used plastic in the shape of a helmet and carry it in our hands. That's good enough to keep the cops away. So, as you see, Singaporeans are a spendthrift lot.

Shreeni: What about your views that Singaporeans having no value for time?
SR: Again, I had ample opportunity of seeing riders there. They waste valuable road time on unnecessary things like stopping at red signals and pedestrians crossings. We Indians value our time. We cant wait for such insignificant things. As you might have seen in Bangalore, we don't follow these conventions.

Shreeni: Isn't that against the law?
SR: Not really. As you see, we Indians believe in true freedom. Not only is the nation free, but every individual is also free to do whatever he feels like. Thats what I like about our nation - we are not hypocrites like other advanced nations, calling themselves free and subjecting the residents to such restrictions like stopping their vehicles based on a color. That even sounds racist to me.

Shreeni: But what about the high level of fatalities in Bangalore compared to Singapore. Isn't that caused by "freedom", as you put it?
SR: Not really. All riders, both in Singapore and Bangalore, are performing nation building. Since India had set itself the goals of population control, all we are only doing is contributing our meagre bit towards it by keeping fatality rates high. But again, since Singapore birth rate is falling and all, motorists there are doing their bit by not having fatalities. You see, riders in both countries are a patriotic lot.

Shreeni: What about the incessant honking seen in India, did you see that in Singapore?
SR: No and that was surprising. In Bangalore, and in India in general, we consider it a mode of self expression. The volume of honking and the music are the way we express ourselves and our standing as a great free nation. I wonder why the Singaporeans don't do it.

Shreeni: But doesn't your "self expression" cause inconvenience to fellow riders?
SR: Thats mathematically impossible. Assuming I express myself at volume v1, there always exists volume (v1 + 1) at which a fellow rider can express himself. Since this is a recursive expression tending to infinity, any self-expression by any rider can, in theory, be mitigated by a higher self-expression by a fellow rider. Given that option, if a fellow rider chooses to only listen to my expression, he is expressing himself with that choice. So, its all a mode of self-expression.

Shreeni: Fair enough, Mr Smart Rider. I hope to be in touch with you.
SR: It was a pleasure talking to you.

(ps: For the humor challenged, this is a sarcastic post)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Administrative Note: Moving away tech posts

I generally never bother to separate out my tech posts from my general posts, which is definitely for different audiences, though there might be a small overlap. Since I have taken to writing tech posts more frequently these days than previously, I am moved that to http://tech.shreeni.info. The feedburner link for the RSS subscription is http://feeds.feedburner.com/ShreenisTechLog. Please use these two going forward to read/subscribe to my tech posts. All other posts shall remain on the current URLs - http://www.shreeni.info for reading and http://feeds.feedburner.com/TidbitsHereAndThere for subscription.

All the previous posts related to Tech have already been migrated and they shall be removed from this blog over the next few weeks. I am sorry for the inconvenience, but I am hoping separating them out shall leave you with less noise in the long run.

Friday, November 06, 2009

[Cricket] This is the One

Before I say what I am going to say, I need to take a bit of time explaining the context here. About 1994, when I started following Cricket, Sachin was just about starting to convert into a match winner from the child prodigy he was hailed as. He hit 4 match winning centuries that season and has effectively been a consistent solid batsmen.

He is one of the most stylish, technical-sound, calculative, confident stroke maker you will ever find in the game. It is no surprise, then, that me and millions like me around the world were his fans expecting him to perform his magic every now and then. And he enthralled us all will amazing match winning performances, the tipping point most certainly being the 1998 Sharjah final against Australia.

However, in the years to come, possibly because of captaincy pressure, or otherwise, there were one too many matches in which either he didn't contribute or that he couldn't close things out. Most of the fans, having more idolatry than objective affection for him, continued to idol worship, while a few select people like me started questioning the point of making so much runs when India wasn't able to convert these to victories that matter - Test series victories abroad; Major (World cup, Champions trophy) ODI tournament victories and so on.

I was carrying this grudge for a few years and stopped giving as much importance to him, as I did to people who were from a younger generation, but working hard to make those very same victories happen. First Ganguly started a trend of winning test series abroad and then youngsters like Yuvraj and Dhoni and the likes have started making it happen in the ODI/T20 arena on the big stage. Somewhere Sachin wasn't contributing to this movement all the much, with the like of Dravid and Lakshman in Tests and Sehwag-Gambhir-Yuvraj-Dhoni in the ODI making the crucial difference.

However, I started having a change of heart in the past year or so, as Sachin has started making that extra difference - closing out the win against England on the fifth day and the World series finals in 2009.

In this context, I wish to say that I was most privileged and honoured to have witnessed what a fantastic effort he put into play in making the stunning 175 yesterday. It was an effort in the second innings, which is generally harder with the tiredness of the first innings showing in, under the pressure of a huge total, with little support during the first half of the innings when the Indian top order was busy failing.

A few innings of such proportions come to my immediate mind, but none of them is better than what Sachin did. Saeed Anwar had a runner while batting first; Brian Lara batted first for his 169; Herschelle Gibbs had a solid partnership going for him during his 175.

And probably for the very first time, the result didn't matter. It didn't matter that he didn't close out the win, it didn't matter that he fell a few short of the ODI world record, it didn't matter that India lost the match, and possibly could lose the series on this one match. It doesn't matter. The effort was the absolute best I have ever seen in an ODI. Period. Full stop.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

[Backpacking Travelogue]: People I met

Continuing on the travelogues of my backpacking trip, I am going to write a bit about the people I met. A few days before I was to leave, I was chickening out at the thought of spending an entire week alone, but D steeled me saying other backpackers are always a great source of quality company and some interesting anecdotes. How true did that prove!

Pretty much from the first day of my trip, I had some great interactions with people of various nationalities, traveling/living in these areas for various reasons. I am going to list them out here (of course in brief). As you can understand, there wasn't much identification involved - nobody asks your name and you don't ask theirs. You just keep talking to them and move on!

  • The Kiwi Couple: I met them first on the ferry ride from Penang to Butterworth and found them to be my neighbors on the train ride from Butterworth to Prachuap Khiri Khan. The couple had got a cheap deal to come to Malaysia, but realized they could enjoy a bit of Thailand too and they decided to just take the short ride to Bangkok. The lady was most enamored by the idea of meeting an Indian and asking some thankfully-not-the-stereotypical questions about India and I enjoyed the company.
  • The Vietnamese Salesman: A young lad of early 20s, this guy had come from Vietnam to Penang, malaysia in search of greener opportunities. As it turns out, he admitted, it is just a case of grass being greener on the other side. With a compensation attached to the number of book sales he made, the slowing economy and the inflation had ended him up with a bad financial state. On top of this, he was sorely missing his family back home. I hope the next time I see him, he is in a better state.
  • The English Marketing Dude: This dude was awesome company. A Brit by birth, but lived in France for too many years. A advertising creative person in his past professional life, he says he is in Asia because it is cheaper to live. He has two apartments in France, which he has rented out which supports his life in Asia. He has been to pretty much all countries in Asia and speaks very highly of the whole continent. He was traveling to Bangkok to pick up his wife who was coming back from a quick trip to France. Apparently, tickets from France to Bangkok are much cheaper than those to KL.
  • The American English Teacher: A english teacher by profession, this person has written a couple of yet-unpublished-books. He has been spending his time in various asian and south american countries. He has a financial support arrangement, which I am not going to reveal for privacy reasons, which ensures that he can live in these countries without having to work. The man revealed too many interesting anecdotes during our bus ride from Prachuap Khiri Khan to Bangkok, which I shall not reveal, partially because of privacy reasons, and partially because I believe I can morph those stories into something more creative. Again, a very good company.
  • The Malay-Portuguese: I met him while eating roadside breakfast in Bangkok. This person is a Malay national with his grandfather being a Portuguese. He wants to change his nationality to Portuguese so that he can find greener opportunities in Europe. He has been struggling with all the red tape involved in the process as he detailed me the horror of having to work with a system where the Portuguese embassy is only in Bangkok, while he has to shuttle between Malacca, his home city, and Bangkok and work with documents printed in 3 languages - Malay, English and Portuguese with translations thrown in and the typical delay with these organizations to get this done. His frustrations was turning out to an interesting anecdote to the unattached me, of course.
  • The Australian traveler: I met him at the same spot I met the Malay-Portuguese the next day. He is an Australian who spends six months of his life working in Australia and making his money while he spends the other half of the year living and traveling and enjoying Asia. He is a spiritual traveler and has spent multiple weeks in India too being a regular to Ramana Maharishi Ashram.
  • The Swiss-Postman: This former swiss posts supervisor was kicked out of his job a while back, but with his 6 month severance in pocket, he headed to Asia to spend some time here. He has been liking the area so much that he is planning to start a garment export-from-Thailand-into-Switzerland business. I met him on the train ride from Bangkok to Nong-Khai, while he was heading to Udon Thani, where he was going to visit a swiss friend who had married a Thai and had recently built a new house. A little convincing from my side was enough to get a promise from him to visit Tirichur in India to see if it is a better place to get his garments made rather than Thailand. You see, you got to be a good ambassador/salesman of your own country!
  • The German Girl: I met her on my ride across the Mekong river and into Vientiane city. She is a german by birth, but lives and studies in London. She was interning in Cambodia for the past 3 months and was currently on a backpacking trip across Thailand and Laos. She had just come off a few days with her german boyfriend who is living in Thailand these days. Like me, her partner wasn't interested in Backpacking while she was. So, she headed off alone to enjoy Vientiane, Luang Prabang and the likes that Laos has to provide. An Asian-Australian kid on the same ride was so excited about her german antecedents that he started shooting of questions about the concentration camps and such and the lady was mst graceful and patient in her replies. She says she gets a lot of these.
  • The Indian cook and Waiter in Vientiane: After a tired afternoon, I headed into an Indian restaurant to find some familiar food and Beerlao. I wasn't surprised to find Indians working there, but the anecdotes were definitely interesting. They are hired directly from Tamilnadu, India, with one of them being from my hometown - Tirunelveli while the other was from Nagapattinam. They are paid a fixed salary back in India, while they are provided boarding, lodging, a little pocket money and a once-in-two-years-return-ticket-to-India-to-meet-family. Getting a little comfortable, I chatted up in Tamil and asked why they wouldn't take their wares and start a small business in India and get more independent. On of them said the little salary he gets isn't enough to save up for something like that and taking loans from the sharks wasn't worth the risk. It just opened familiar stories I have heard in the past.
  • The Boxing Secretary from Malaysia: On my final day I met a gentleman at the lobby of my hotel. He is the secretary of a malaysian state's boxing association and was in Vientiane to check out the preparations for the SEA games to be held later this year in Vientiane. I couldn't help getting a little lecture on history of the sport in the region and the way the Laotians were preparing for the games.
The Indian-Connection: It would be an injustice to cut out the fact that pretty much all of them are highly respectful of India, her traditions, cultures and the traveling opportunities. Multiple of the people I met were also in love with the spirituality in India, while others were enamored with the Architecture in India. Its a different perspective of India, which I touched down upon in an earlier post.

There were a few more interesting stories, but in the interest of brevity, I am stopping here. Also, a few not-so-successful attempts were made to strike conversations with locals at many places, but most of them ended up being short conversations with not much of an anecdote to report. I guess the span of the conversation and the language barriers were the problems.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

[Backpacking Travelogue]: Transport infrastructure, convenience and price

I promised to write a bit about my backpacking trip in form of essays. The first one I decided is also probably one of the easiest ones - transport infrastructure, because there must be quite less of subjectivity involved. Let me segment the transportation on a country-by-country basis:

Singapore: Easily the most developed infrastructure internally, but thats like stating the obvious. What does it hold for people wanting to travel out of Singapore? Its is connected by road/rail only to Malaysia. It has daily two trains heading into Malaysia into cities like Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth. Train is normally easy to get, but it is too slow and is available only for one direction - that of straight north. (Train tickets from SG is charged in SGD while the tickets from Malaysia is charged in RMY for the same amount. Its a ridiculous pricing mechanism of extracting more from Singaporeans.)

Then there are lots of buses criss-crossing into various destinations in Malaysia. My experience is that the bus infrastructure can be improved as follows:
  • There is no central bus stop for all buses. (There is Golden Mile, but too many operators are outside of it.) So, its not like you can go and hop on. You need to call individual operators, figure out which one is having seats and head there. That sounds a little dicey to say the least. The real alternative is to head to JB and then use Larkin as a central bus stop. There is of course the inconvenience of going to JB by the crowded woodlands route, but hey you can't have the cake and eat it too.
  • Its bloody expensive. Buses from Singapore is generally priced costlier than return tickets from Malaysia. There should be some way to address this.
Malaysia: Of all the countries I visited, Malaysia takes the cake for impressing me the most. Getting in and out of Malaysia through road/ferry/train across it's borders with Singapore/Thailand proved to be easiest. Trains have enough capacity that you can walk in and get a ticket. Local transportation in KL and Penang was adequate. All this comes are very reasonable price points.

The buses criss-cross the country, there a few good train options, though the frequency sounds suspiciously less to me. It also has good water and land connections. Local transportation at the cities I have tried - Penang, Butterworth and KL all look good. My previous trips to Malaysia have also left with a very good impression of the country.

The roads in Malaysia are a completely separate topic worth mentioning. The roads, to put it simply, are awesome. I have been on road between various cities in Malaysia - JB, Mersing, KL, Butterworth etc and the roads always impress me. Clean, wide, no-potholes, clear direction are just some of the attributes. Most of the main highways are tolls, but the tolls seem reasonable and definitely worth the quality of transportation you get.

Thailand: For whatever I had heard about Thailand, I found it's transport infrastructure below par. Don't get me wrong - I still had a good time - but it doesn't even get close to the reputation it tries to portray. Firstly, the train infrastructure is ages old. I don't think it is well maintained and with an accident happening too close to me, its wasn't a good feeling. The roads, albeit better than what you find in India, weren't as great as what you find in Malaysia. Also, the section of road I used - between Prachuap Khiri Khan and Bangkok, though it must be a major link, just didn't have that good feeling to it. There were no potholes, but at the same time, they weren't separated from the villages on the way - so they weren't truly expressways and the speed that the bus could catch was definitely less.

The commute infrastructure in Bangkok is completely and utterly pathetic. If you compare it with say Bangalore, which I always thought had bad infrastructure, Bangkok is still far far worse. There are a couple of metro like systems - one the Metro and other BTS. They both are quite costly and don't work with each other. So, you need to get down from one service and then get onto another and end up buying two costly tickets.

The road infrastructure is completely unusable. Even in the middle of any day, you are going to be stuck in a complete-halt-traffic-jam for maybe even hours. And with Bangkok being a very hot city, with most buses still non-air-con, the standing in the traffic can get to you very easily. Though it has to be mentioned that while the traffic is awful, people's response isn't so bad. They don't honk and create a ruckus. They just sit peacefully waiting minutes for next installment of the few meters crawl they shall get. I guess they are all resigned to the reality.

The only silver lining in the entire infrastructure in Bangkok is it's ferry services which goes along the chao phraya river. Get in and get out for a few bahts are pretty good speed. Definitely the service that impressed me the most.

While the infrastructure isn't that great, the thais have a great sense of service. The trains have great service for food and beverages, even alcoholics ones. All the berths have clean sheets and pillows on them with a blanket.

Laos: For a troubled country placed low on most living indices, I expected the infrastructure to be pretty bad. I was pleasantly surprised to find it good. It has good roads on which SUVs, and lots of them ply. Its only fair of you to ask why SUVs in a poor country. Apparently, the capital city has a significant presence of UN organizations and foreign embassies, all of which help in running a SUV economy. Even the local Laotians seems well off picking up their kids in their Air Con cars and SUVs. The roads don't have pot holes and the traffic seemed orderly to me. I guess, the french colonial past has had its good effect.

Walking in Vientiane is a pleasant experience, though the heat can get to you in the middle of the day. Also you can hire a bicycle and ride around. Thats not bad either. In general, I found it pretty pleasant.

Prices in Laos, in general, disappointed me. A short tuk-tuk ride costs as much as a air-con cab in Singapore! I believe I definitely overpaid for my transits across the Thai-Laos-Friendship border and the trip from the border to Vientiane. But hey, its the way it is.

Summary: In all, I have to complement all the four countries that a backpacking trip like this can be planned and executed with little trouble. There is definitely scope for improvement, but in all, south east asia is definitely worth a good long backpacking trip.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Backpacking trip SG/Malaysia/Thailand/Laos done last week

This post is at least 4 days overdue by now and I'd rather get it off my back. On Saturday, 10th Oct, I completed a one week long backpacking trip. I started off from Singapore and backpacked all the way to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos by land.

It was a trip I wanted to do for a long time. My wife can't do backpacking to save her life. Its not that she doesn't like traveling, just that she can't stand the chaos of a pure backpacking trip. So she skipped. I was hoping that D would join me, but he was too engaged and hence I decided to do it alone.

And it was fun. To say the least. The trip involved traveling from Singapore to Penang (Malaysia) by bus, transferring to Butterworth by ferry, then traveling to Prachuap Khiri Khan (Thailand) by train and from there to Bangkok by bus (actually, it was planned to go direct to Bangkok by train, but the unfortunate train accident at Prachuap, to which I was too close for comfort, forced me to shift into a bus. May the deceased souls of that accident rest in peace.)

After halting in Bangkok and soaking in the culture of all the backpackers to touch upon the thai capital, and after having enjoyed the Chao Phraya river, I moved on by train to Nong Khai (Thailand) and transferring to Vientiane (Laos) by a series of buses and tuk-tuks, while crossing the Thai-Laos border at the friendship bridge.

After checking out the Laos capital city for two days, I took a flight back to KL and then a quick bus ride back into Singapore. The whole trip was exactly 7 days long, involving 3 borders, 10 stamps on the passport, 4 countries, 5 currencies (the US dollars comes into play in such trips) and loads of experience to share and memories to cherish.

Writing one blog alone would not do justice to the trip, but instead of writing more travelogues, I did rather write essays of the distinct trains of thoughts that I had while on the trip. Hold on for that and the photos.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Runners in Cricket

I am so glad that this event happened - a captain turning down a runner for the opposition for reasons unrelated to injury. I am really very glad. Here is my take on it - a runner is not a general purpose substitute pair of legs. It has to be a specific replacement only in case of injury - injury that was collected on the line of duty in that particular match.

The problem is that all teams in cricket have been abusing the system of runners. I recall the days when weak players with less stamina would just call upon a runner as they ran tired of scoring their centuries (If you don't know who they are, think of a laughing Sardarjee and a enigmatic prince from an east Indian state.)

The system gets even more unreasonable when cricketers carry small injuries into a match and use a runner to replace their running. This happened in the ICC 2007 world T20 final, where thankfully, the umpire refused one to Imran Nazir for a injury he carried from a previous match.

Well, frankly speaking, there shouldn't be a concept of runners in a T20 match. Just let the injured guy get back to the pavilion and move things on. If your injured player has to come back as the eleventh man, then probably a runner can be allowed. If your entire batting line up can't survive 20 overs just because of one guy's injury, then sorry, you shouldn't be winning anyway.

Now, as happened in yesterday's match, a player shouldn't be asking for a runner because of cramps. Cramps is not an injury, its a problem of under preparation, and the sport shouldn't bother subsidizing their training. In fact, it gives an unfair advantage to the relatively-unfit cricketers. And that only decreases the value of the sport.

It also belittles accomplishment. When Saeed Anwar scored his world record 194 against India, I was left in a bad taste - I knew that Viv Richards didn't need a runner for his 189, so why should a runner-supported innings of Anwar's be considered better than Viv's genius performance?

The bigger problem is that ICC and the Cricket leadership is often found wanting in taking action to rid the sport of its ills. For instance, they haven't yet worked on the over-rate problem effectively. They are yet to effectively tackle the issue of toss-winners getting too much advantage in lopsided pitches. And this one - of not-so-fit cricketers using the game's rules to achieve what they couldn't have without the support system. In the end, I dearly wish the leaders of the game get together to tackle these, and other problems, to make the sport better.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Next JUG SIngapore meeting and introducing a new hack

Well, this blog is way overdue but life has been a little busy in the last few days and hence I have been lagging behind a lot of things including blogging. My sincere apologies for the same. Now, coming to the point.

Last Monday (14th September) was JUG Singapore's September meetup. The attendance was much better than previous one and pretty much everybody from the last one ended up here too. The attendees was a good mix of hackers, managers, managers-of-hackers and so on.

We actually had Sun Microsystem's office and hence we could do a couple of presentations and discuss in peace. The first presentation was by David, who spoke about a Java VXML based voice browser he developed back in 2001. He explained the purpose, architecture, gotchas and ran us through the essential libraries required for something like this.

I spoke about Marvin, a new hack I have been working on. Its essentially a twitter trend analyzing engine, finding out trends which people are positively or negatively describing or they are being neutral. Once the trends are found, I just link them to the news and photos of that trend. These are being brought in through YQL. The whole system is built on Java and hosted on Google App Engine. There are a few interesting challenges I tackled, which I shall blog later. If you are impatient, you can grab the presentation deck or email me or comment here. The hack is open as an alpha and feedback is most welcome.

The discussions were very interactive with lots of questions and loads of feedback. I hope we can keep the momentum going on this group. You can try to attend the next meetup on October 26th.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

[Video]: The world is amazing and nobody is happy

If you haven't seen this video, then you must do so now. It's a brilliant take on how thew world is amazing and yet nobody is happy. I have often found myself reflecting on similar thoughts. That said, I have to admit that I myself have been caught in feelings of how the world seems crappy.

Anyhow, the notable piece is his anecdotes on flying. I have to say that I am one of the people who finds it extremely fortunate to be flying - just flying. I hate it when people judge negatively the aspect of flying in a budget airline. And nobody has put it better than Louis in this video. For me, flying is always a great experience, with or without the bells and the whistles. Its maybe because I still have a dream of flying myself one day, or that I used to do gliding when I was in IIT-K. Ah, the dreams of piloting an aircraft!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

[Hack]: Chess runner

As I wrote a while back, I spend quite some time playing chess on the iPhone using Glaurung app. The interesting feature is that it sends out email of your game describing the game in the Algebraic Notation. I mentioned at the end of the blog that I wanted to have a simulator/runner, that basically runs the entire game when this email is fed to it. I couldn't find one online - so I built one.

The easy part is to take the data, store it, parse it and the simple UI I built for making the moves work. What is infinitely more complex is to understand the moves in the algebraic notation and changing the status of the board. The problem is that the notation only tells you where something is to end up at, not where it originates from - and that has to be computed by you based on your previous board state and a complex set of rules.

The one that I built looks ugly in code presently (and hence not sharing right away), but it works, including moves like castles and en passants. The UI itself is just two pages - one to feed your game and another to run it. If you want to embed the "run" page, you can do that too by adding "&nfh=1" to the end of the page URL.

So check it out at http://www.shreeni.info/chess/index.jsp.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inaugural Geekcamp Singapore

Close on the heels of JUG Singapore, I attended the Geekcamp Singapore on Saturday. Since I work for Yahoo and our company was hosting the event, I was also a volunteer. The geekcamp was quite a success. I did attend the talks till about 2.30 PM after which a sleep-deprivation-induced headache prevented me from continuing any further. The most interesting thing I learnt was that actual event here was better than the event in KL, which was the inspiration for Jason Ong and others to start off conceiving the event.

The talks on CouchDB by Arun Thampi and the talk on Design in programming by Justin Lee were my favorites. Having heard good things about Patrick from his colleague Trent Payne at the JUG meetup, I rather felt sorry for having missed his talk. But I am sure there will be a next time.

The details of the event can be found at the Geekcamp page. If you did not attend this one, try stopping by for the next one.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

JUG Singapore

Two days back, I spent my evening with the Java Users Group (JUG) Singapore. It is apparently yet another effort towards building a vibrant Java community in Singapore. Sven, the organizer has been in Singapore for 8 years and has seen the history of the Java guys coming together and breaking apart more than once. This attempt, we are hoping, will be longer lasting. We were 6 people discussing quite a bit, and not just Java. I am going to list down some of the discussion threads (and omitting details/conclusions. If you are interested, come to the next meetup :D):

  • Tech Culture in Singapore
  • Tech best practices (Test Driven Development, Continuous Integration)
  • Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Singapore
  • Startup ecosystem in Singapore
  • Cloud Computing growth, both Singapore specific and otherwise
  • And some personal anecdotes
We are currently hosted on meetup's JUG page. The next meetup is on September 7. Care to join?

ps: Even if you don't write code in Java, you can join in to discuss good ideas.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Happy Independence Day

Since I was holidaying in Tioman on Singapore's National day, I am going to take the opportunity today, which happens to be India's Independence day to wish both Singaporeans and Indians a very happy Independence day. May both the countries progress to great destinies.

Some of my previous posts on Independence Days:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Kami kembali ke Singapura

After having two days of fun, we finally arrived on the third day of our trip. We had bookings for the 4.30 PM bus from Mersing to Singapore. However, we had tickets for only the 2.30 PM ferry to Mersing. Our experience was that they are pretty late. So, we wanted to head out early. Ahmad suggested we try our luck with the 12.30 shuttle. So, we had time till then to kill. We decided to head out to the nearby waterfalls, as suggested by Ahmad. This trek was quite fun, with different scenes to absorb compared to previous 2 days. On the way to the waterfall, we saw a Monitor lizard from above.

A few minutes trek took us to a small spot where a little water was getting collected. Being Indians and used to large waterfalls, we decided to trek further to see if we can reach the source. Doing about 15 mins of it was leading us to nowhere and we decided to track our way back. We got into the point where the rock fall was and then returned back.

With that little adventure behind us, we managed to get into the 12.30 ferry, which arrived an hour late and dropped us at 3.30 at Mersing. We had enough time to get ourselves a table in the nearby cafe. On my own, I decided to explore a bit of Mersing and head to the Chinese and Subramaniar Temples in Mersing.

After that, I returned to find myself an extremely tasty banana split for only RM7.

Not just that, these folks had already managed to grab a well made tasty vegetarian Pizza at that place. Apart from serving good food, they also have rock on boards.
Mersing truly rocks.

The bus operator, though issued a ticket to Singapore, made us change buses at Johor Bahru into the local bus connecting JB to Singapore. This was quite inconvenient as the local buses are far crowded. Once we cleared emigration at Malaysia end, we had one more super long queue for the Singapore bound bus to contend with. Once we navigated ourselves out of it, the rest of the trip was most uneventful. We ended up at Queen street by 9.30 PM having to go to office the next morning. We decided to grab a good meal at nearby Komala Vilas before hailing a cab back home.

The journey was quite good and Me and Nidhi greatly enjoyed the company of Hyacie and Rajiv. If you two are reading this, thanks for making the trip memorable for us. I would also like to thank Ahmad, the resort manager, for providing us with the deal fairly late in the game, when everything else was booked, and providing us with a good experience when we were there, including all the vegetarian food.

All our photos here are on flickr.

ps: "Kami kembali ke Singapura " in Malay means "We returned to Singapore" in English, just in case you were wondering about the title.

Kami pergi ke Pulau Tioman Day 2

Note: This is about day 2 of the trip. Read out Day one.

Up early on the second morning, all excited about getting into the water and doing some snorkeling, we were looking forward for the day. An early cup of Teh got us going.

Tioman island, apart from having clean beaches, also has some very lush green vegetation. Its a good idea to head out for an early morning walk and snap a few photographs.

Ahmad, our resort agent, took care of organizing a snorkeling trip for us as part of our deal. He organized for somebody to pick us up from the resort with the gear and the works. He even arranged for packed lunches. Of course, we had to pay for renting out the snorkeling gear, since that wasn't part of the deal.

The snorkeling guy took us near an island, and gave us one full hour for snorkeling. This was deep water. Here, a little problem presented itself to me. I did not know how to swim and did not initially want to try it, but given everybody's encouragement and the fact that life jacket was on, I decided to jump.

I was warned that I would feel a sense of panic in the sea, not knowing how to swim. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. I panicked, searched for the nearest thing to hold on to, which was the side of the boat. Once I held it, the legs, which were unsupported, starting looking something to anchor on.

All it could find was the side of boat, which was really a very bad idea. All I ended up doing was bruising myself at the side of the boat. So, my legs from knee down was badly bruised with scratches from the side of the boat. I somehow managed to get back into the boat. With so much blood oozing out, I was pretty disappointed.

Somehow, in all this, I did not want to spoil the party from Rajiv and Hyacie, whom I indicated to carry on. They did have quite a nice time snorkeling there. In the meanwhile, me and Nidhi (who never even bothered to get a snorkeling gear) decided to feed the fishes and watch them. It was quite a fun thing to do.

Once the designated hour was up, he took us to Marine Park, which was a far better place to snorkel, even for novices like me, since it was shallow water and you can launch yourself from the beach. I got back into the water (with the bruises still intact :-) and spent some time doing snorkeling. I have to say that the experience was quite worth it. It is amazing to have a peek into the marine life with all the dynamics there.

In hindsight, if the guy had first brought us to shallow water, allowed people like me to gain a little confidence and then taken us to deep water, I would have probably managed much better. But, hey, life ain't fair!

I did this till our time was up, after which our boat guy took us back to the resort. I wanted to do a little more snorkeling which I was hoping to do in the beach next to the resort, since it was shallow. Unfortunately, we had low tide and hence there wasn't enough depth to put your face into the water.

So, effectively, my experience was about as much as I could extract at Marine Park. Nevertheless, it was quite fun to try this out. At the end of the day, there was lot more Rummy before we headed to bed. We had a few hours to spare the next morning and we planned to do some trekking. Will write about it in the final article for this trip.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Kami pergi ke Pulau Tioman - Part 1

Me and Nidhi decided to make the most of the Singapore National Day long weekend and head out somewhere out of Singapore. We were also joined by Rajiv and Hyacie who were also looking for a similar break. Since all of us loved beach places, we decided on going to Tioman Island. About two weeks before the actual trip, we started working on it, specially trying to get accommodation and after a bit of a struggle, found a package with Sri Paya Tioman Enterprise for two nights stay + food + to-n-fro Jetty from Mersing + one snorkeling trip. We had also packed our hats, sunscreen lotion, insect repellents and loads and loads of beach holiday spirit!! So off we were.

Since we only had accommodation, we did not have any previous arrangement to go from Singapore to Mersing. The direct buses were all booked. So, we decided to cross the Malaysian Border into Johor Bahru by local bus and figure things out. This, in retrospect, was a pretty poor choice. Starting at 5.30 AM from Simei, we got into Malaysia Sultan Iskandar (after immigration clearance) by only about 11.00 AM. The long weekend queues were never ending and the bus infrastructure was just not good enough to handle the mass exodus of Singaporeans heading out for vacations.

Once there, we decided to hire a cab to take us to Mersing, a distance of 134 KMs. This experience was quite pleasant, to say the least. The car was comfortable, the driver was an energetic and pleasant Malay. He enthralled us with his Bollywood love. On one hand, he took the effort to explain why he loved Salman Khan and on the other, he actually enacted the Rajni Kant style. He is the only person on earth I have met yet who is a fan of both Salman and Rajnikant. I thought they served different demographics!

The roads in Malaysia are pleasant. It was just a two lane highway but considering that the traffic was less even on a busy weekend, I guess that was enough. A similar two lane road in India would have been ridden with potholes in India, but not in Malaysia. We could easy overtake when we wanted and maintained a good clip. Both sides of the road was scenic filled with Pineapple, Palm and other plantations.

We reached Mersing an hour before our Ferry booking for 2.30PM and our travel agent met us there. After having a quick lunch, off we were on our ferry to Tioman Islands. There isn't much to see in the ferry (except boring music videos) and so we slept!

Once in Tioman, we were stuck by the beauty of the location. The vegetation was lush green and the beaches were surprisingly clean. The rooms we got, essentially old style wood made chalets, were very close to the jetty and we settled in comfortably. By this point, it was already beyond 6.00 PM and all we had time is to soak in a bit of evening beach. Rajiv did some quick snorkeling.

After dinner, we all gather at our room for a round of drinks and a few games of Rummy. To say the least, this part was most enjoyable.

I would be doing Tioman injustice if I did not tell you that the most shops in Tioman are "duty free" meaning that duty would not have been paid for goods in Malaysian side. This means that everything from Chocolates to Liquor is quite cheap and worth your shopping. (Note: Be careful not to buy any alcohol to bring back to Singapore, since no duty free alcohol is allowed if you come from Malaysia by road/water.)

At some unearthly hour, it was time to catch some sleep and get ourselves ready for Day 2 - which was when we did the real snorkeling. That in my next article.

All photos uploaded to Flickr.

(ps: "Kami pergi ke Pulau Tioman" in Malay means "We went to Tioman Island" in English - just in case you were wondering about the title.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

iPhone Free Chess Roundup: Glaurung is my pick

I am a chess enthusiast, not the expert kind, but the amateur kind. I would like to spend a few minutes playing a neat player, but not one who is too strong who would keep beating me. It would be cool to be able to increase the level of the game and also awesome if the opponent would occasionally allow me to take back the move (yeah, that's a little too much to ask, I know :D ) And since I have an iPhone, what better device to use for playing chess?

So, I basically did a round up of all the free chess apps I could find on the AppStore and this article does a summary-review of all of them.

a1 chess Free: Too bad that it has only two levels (and I am guessing the paid versions might have more - but I only tried free ones). The level 2 (highest) plays too naively and you can pretty much defeat it every time with either white or black. You will pretty soon get bored of this app.
Rating: * (1/5)

Chess Free: Neat interface and good level of chess, but has a hard limitation of the games being 10-min a player only. What if I don't want that restriction? Time limit chess is only one of the forms of chess and not one that I fancy. It would have been nicer to have at least have the option of changing the time limit.
Rating: ** (2/5)

Chess O: I could never properly test this - because into a minute of using this, it starts complaining of the iPhone running on low memory, while everything else seems to be working fine. God knows how to make this work.
Rating: (0/5)

Deep Green Chess Lite: Very glib interface and good level of chess game, but no adjustments on the game possible. If that were possible, then this would be quite a good app to use.
Rating: ** (2/5)

Glaurung Chess: This is by far the best free chess app I have seen. It has loads of cool features. It has a timer - but it doesn't not stop the game after the time has lapsed but just indicates it in red on the top. If you want to make the time limit strict, you can finish the game then. It has easy ways to control the level - it has levels between 1-199 which means you can set it at multiple levels as you increase. It has the option of taking a move very easily - just swipe right to left at the moves section (and left to right to see what happened from a point in the past). Ability to look at your moves is a great way to learn. Finally, what makes it quite awesome is the ability to send emails to yourself when the game finishes. I have recorded a bunch of the games that I thought were interesting. If I find a simulator to run through the moves as a video, then that would make this feature the rock star feature. [Update: I built the Chess Runner]
Rating: ***** (5/5)

Free Chess: Has levels (discrete numbering 6), the interface is snazzy and you can save and retrieve games (within the iPhone), and hence is probably the best competitor to Glaurung. If only it had more levels control and emailing feature, I would have rated it a full 5.
Rating: **** (4/5)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Moving away from www

Since I have been spending some time recently on hacking, I wanted to start using custom domains and also start using www.shreeni.info for other things and not just this blog. Hence I am moving away this blog from www.shreeni.info to blog.shreeni.info. Not that it makes much of a difference if you are using the feedburner link to subscribe to the blog or if you are coming to the blog from other places. That said, if you do come to the site directly or use a bookmark, make sure you update those.

Update: All blogs posts from 2003-2011 will continue to work with the previous page urls too (although it will redirect to blog.shreeni.info) - thanks to a quick and dirty hack - I will blog about it later.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tracking me on Twitter

For a while, I have been thinking of hacking up a system which would track up all the tweets that talk of me - just for the fun of it. So, I started using the Twitter API and built up an hack to scan through the public timeline and store those tweets and to publish it later in whatever way deemed fit. Turns out, that's not so easy - since this public timeline only lists 20 recent tweets every minute (off the thousands or hundreds of thousands that might be generated.)

The right way to do this would have been to use the twitter firehouse, which of course is not openly available to everybody, or to use the search interface. As I was planning to shift the code to use that, I hit upon this neat little widget from Twitter, which allows me to create a widget to track all the tweets containing my name and allows me to publish this wherever. I am putting this up on this blog. I have taken out the widget showing my tweets to the new widget titled "Chatter about me on twitverse" and its a dynamically updating widget. At this moment, I am enjoying the look of the new widget on my blog.

Update: I have removed the widget from this blog since I have made my twitter stream private. You can still get the widget from the link.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The curious case of Rajshri and Incredible India

Ever since I moved to Singapore, I found that rajshri.com is a fantastic source of good Indian content legally available. The site is owned by the Rajshri group, the reputed Indian media house, which gave us hits like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Maine Pyaar Kiya. The site doesn't have anything cutting edge (new movies etc), but still has a lot of good older movies and lots of TV series content. Its quite appealing and while the user experience is not excellent, the streaming is pretty good. All in all, a good site to visit on a regular basis.

There are a bunch of technical problems - don't ever try going back or forward in the video, you will be stuck forever; or every once in a while, the streaming itself will completely freeze (and if it happens towards the end of a movie, you will miss the ending since the rewind and FF doesn't work), but this blog is about something else that I find grossly wrong about that site.

I understand that the site has to make money (at least for the cost of hosting and serving the content) and ads seem the best way. Being an Non Resident Indian (NRI), some of the ads presented to me makes sense - like those of banks advertising NRI products. But the most common ad you see on the site is that of Incredible India.

Right, I understand that the Incredible India ads should be served outside of India, but do you really want it to be shown to NRIs? NRIs, by themselves, have enough reasons (family bonds) to visit India every once in a while and if they don't want to visit India for that reason, I doubt they want to do it on the insistent claim of the Indian Ministry of Tourism.

The only reason it makes sense is if the content was seen by Foreigners - the Singaporeans, Malaysians and the like, who might actually make good tourists. But will they be visiting rajshri.com and checking out Hindi TV Series, or Mahabharat, or Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? I very much doubt so. I am yet to hear of a single Singaporean who sees any Indian Content. I have heard of the Bollywood craze in Malaysia and Thailand, but here in Singapore, there is no craze.

I am guessing that either the Incredible India guys have got it all wrong when they decided to serve ads on that site, or it is a case of collusion between an Indian Govt organization and a private one to move money in a particular direction (and you know which one I am talking about). I quite often imagine a guy from the Indian Ministry of Tourism (which runs the Incredible India campaign) receiving a neat kickback in exchange for channeling the Government's (in turn tax payers') money to run rajshri.com's bill and potentially give them a healthy profit to boot.

Whatever the reason, I don't like the idea of two organizations of high repute getting it either wrong or voluntarily doing it wrong.

ps: This blog is based on ads seen here in Singapore and the experience of visitors from some other region might be quite different.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Day trip to Pulau Ubin

Me, wifey along with fox2mike, hyacie, coolbanno and Rujuta took off for a day long trip to Pulau Ubin, the island off Singapore, and a preserved reserve. I had checked out Leone's blog on how to get to Pulau, but Fox2Mike had a better route in mind - turns out taking 29 from Tampines MRT will get us closer to the Ferry Terminal than taking 9 from Simei. Hence we followed that and he was right - 29 from Tampines is a better idea. You can also take Bus No. 2 from Tanah Merah Interchange.

The short, 10 minute ferry ride from Changi Ferry Terminal to Pulau Ubin was quite fun, specially since you have do it in rundown bumboat with pretty much nothing for safety. It costs it S$2.5 for a one way ticket per person.

Once you have reached there, the next fun thing would you be cycling (or biking to those who are used to that word.) You can get the bicycles at Pulau Ubin for a day rental of anything between S$2 - S$20. I got myself a "Giant" bicycle with 21 gears for $8. After everybody else got theirs', we were off.

We cycled to Chek Jawa Wetlands. Its a relaxing ride with lots and lots of greenery to be seen. The ride itself is fun with a little bit of tarred road, a bit of rough ride with both downward and upward slopes, sometime quite steep.

One at the wetlands, things to do include climbing up a tall observatory and spend a few minutes taking in the air, snapping a few photos, check out the sea from that height and of course do some planespotting - quite a few flights can be seen approaching landing at Changi.

Once you are done with the observatory, walk around and enjoy the boardwalk, checking out some sea vegetation and animals. When we were there, we had lots and lots of wind blowing at us and it was quite a pleasant experience.

Once we were done with it, we rode back our way back to the center of the town (where we started cycling) for lunch. We stopped at Ubin first stop, where my seafood loving friends grabbed crabs, while me, Nidhi and Fox2Mike feasted on Plain rice with veggies and veggie fried rice. You can order Beer if you like.

After a heavy lunch and some much needed rest, we cycled around a bit when we located this secluded spot where some there was nobody else and it was facing the sea. After hanging out there for a while, we headed back to Changi Ferry Terminal. While we wanted to hang out at the Changi beach for a while, we were all too tired and so we all decided to split and head back home.

If you are not used to cycling or physical activity, be ready to face some skin-rashes and cramps, as happened to me and wifey. If you are not careful, you can pass out in the train on your way back, as it happened to hyacie!

All in all, a day full of fun worth spending a weekend day and quite a good break from all the aircon and shopping arcades in Singapore. All the photos from my camera can be found here.

Administrative note

All tech posts have now moved to http://tech.shreeni.info or you may subscribe to its RSS feed. In due course, I shall be moving it out completely, so if you follow my tech posts, please shift to following that blog.