Friday, February 29, 2008

Science Corner!

On this edition of Science Corner, we are going to explore the female orgasm. But since that doesn't exist, we'll look at standards of the metric system.

There's a long history of trying to find a good standard of measurement in the metric system. It may seem academic to be so finicky with the length of a meter or the mass of a kilogram but it makes a big difference when you're sending satellite signals tens of thousands of meters into space, shipping 20,000 kilograms of bananas or machining parts for spy cameras that can fit inside a pair of eyeglasses. Originally, an important reason for creating the metric system arose from the differently sized units across Europe. The pound of the Saxon king's tax collector might differ from the french merchants travelling through their land and this caused many disputes in Europe at the end of the 18th century. After the French Revolution of 1789, France adopted the metric system and it slowly spread across the world (so slowly in fact that it still hasn't reached the bumpkins in the recently discovered New World). Now, the hard part: creating standards for the basic units of measurement.

We must start with the second because the measurement of the meter depends on it. The original definition was 1/86,400 of the average solar day. Always looking for more precision and relation to widely measured phenomena, it's now defined as 9,192,631,770 periods of vibration of the radiation emitted by cesium-133 at a certain wavelength and at a temperature of absolute zero.

And now with the second safely accurate, we can move onto the meter. The definition of the meter began as 1/40,000,000th of the circumference of the earth. And how did they determine the circumference of the earth? A good question. The French government sent out several teams to measure the longest stretch of meridian they could find over land. Luckily, they chose the meridian passing from Dunkirk to Barcelona that mostly goes over French territory. During the long process of measurement, war broke out between Spain and France (reading history gets depressing, I have no idea why this war started but I'm sure the people (or at least the governments) of that time thought they had a just and noble cause, it makes it so clear that history just repeats itself and nothing that's occurred in the last hundred years, no matter how important it seems to us, will matter in a few centuries). However, the Spaniards thought the process of measurement so important that they had their soldiers escort the french team through their territory. Once they finally measured the circumference of the Earth, they made a platinum-iridium alloy bar (which resists changes in shape) and stored it in a vault in France. They only brought out this treasure once a year to make new copies for use around the world. As the Industrial Revolution increased the need for precision and measurements of the Earth became more accurate, the weakness of this system became apparent. It's now defined as the distance travelled by light in 1/299,792,458 second in absolute vacuum (Aren't you glad we defined seconds already).

I'm saving the most interesting unit for last (although some of my faithful readers may declare that to not be much of a horse race). While the other two basic units (and the ampere for electricity), have an accurate definition using natural and repeatable measurements, the definition of a kilogram, originally one millionth the mass of a cubic meter of water, is now just a hunk of platinum-iridium alloy called "Le Grand K" (does that sounds like a perfume from Pepe Le Pew?) . Not a good system. What if something happens to this valuable piece of metal?

Here's some proposals on the table to sex up the kilogram definition from a Wired article on the subject (which prompted this whole post and gave me the material for the last paragraph):

The longest running proposal is to use a watt-balance machine, which measures the exact force required to balance a 1 kilogram mass against the pull of Earth's gravity. The hitch here is getting a suitably accurate measurement of Planck's constant, and that's proving tougher than anticipated.

As profiled in WIRED 15.09, Australian scientists are building an ultrapure silicon ball that should contain 215 x 1023 atoms, and would henceforth be the new definition of one kg.

A Georgia Tech professor proposed that a kilogram be defined as 18 x 14074481^3 carbon-12 atoms, but carbon is apparently a bit out of fashion in the physics community.

Well, I guess all we can do now is wait with bated breath for 2011 when metric system governing body takes a look at a kilogram redefinition.

guest blogging: astrid's account of the jharkhand wasteland

I left you last in Masifipur, on my way to stay in the lap of luxury with Prince Manu. We arrived by bus in Ranchi at 7:30 in the morning. The short story is that Manu is a lying thieving fuckhead. The long story I have just deleted because it sounded too whiny. Think waiting seven hours for the aforementioned fuckhead and then being met by his mignon who wanted us to pay a ridiculous amount of cash for a room. Compound to this that I had a rather horrible experience with a guy that was supposed to be one of Manu's friend's friends who did everything but call me a whore. Now imagine two really pissy and tired and stinky travellers. It does not make for a pretty picture.

And then... redemption!! The friend of Manu's who we met at Gangtok (not Daniel Craig, the other one) comes to fetch us and whisk us away to all things wonderful and good. Mayur Jaismal, is what I would call, a playboy. He is the kind of guy we would generally despise because his catch phrase would be, "Do you know my father is??". Unless we were friends with him and in that case would be saying, "Do you know who his father is???". This is the Jaismal family. Mayur and his brother Mayank, their trophy wives and their parents. The dad is incidentally running for mayor. And this happy family all live together under the same roof. Only in India...

They drive fancy cars, but also have chauffeurs. And servants. And the lisence to all mobile networks in Jarkhand. They technically work for this mobile thingy wingy but they don't really work, if you know what I mean. They took us to their "club" (think of elite Indian families drinking high balls and speaking in low tones, with "oh Muffy, where do you summer?" ringing across the lounges) where they proudly told us that you can't just join the club, you have to have your father invite you. Ahem *cough*. But we can come because we are their guests. It was all tres big boys club, darling. And I was just glad to relax and chill out and have things done for me for a while. So we were taken to a Valentines party and out for lunch and given a nice room to ourselves and spoilt really. Lex got ill and while he was playing Grouchy mcGrouch (which, incidentally, he is extremely good at) I chatted to the wives, read in the swing in the garden and watched two M. Night Shyamalan movies in a row. Bliss :)

After a few days of seeing how the other half lives, Lex wanted to get home to Mumbai and I was ready to start my travelling again. I boarded a train for Amritsar in Punjab and will write a separate email about that so it doesn't look like an essay.

No-one makes me bleed my own blood, Asti xx

PS. We had told the brothers that Lex and I were dating and they in turn told their parents we were married, so we could share a room. This gets confusing but I wore a ring in any case. Lex told me when we were alone one night that we were married last January in New York and we met when I was holidaying there. This means that the past few years stay relatively unchanged in that our stories about our lives are still our stories (university, friends etc) and this way we keep our lies down to a minimum and won't get tripped up. His attention to detail can be frightening... :)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

so it's come to this

Goody has a blog. The address is

If you don't know him, goody is a large hairy man with a weakness for beer, rugby and small crushable animals. He ruled my high school through antics such as eating an entire textbook (though I think he never finished the cover), the fattest most energetic mascot and singlehandedly fighting off a pack of bears that had been terrorizing old Warwick High (although the bears were only Asian Bears so it's not as impressive as it sounds).

He also became my birthday present one year. My friends told me to make sure and shower off after wrestling because there might be a surprise waiting for me. They had already hinted that a certain Jessica Gildea may be waiting there for me but apparently she fell through (I vagualey remember the words "recoiled in terror"). Instead, I excitedly throw open my van doors to find Goody naked on the bed with his junk tucked back and a smile on his face. It turned out to be a wild night but that's a story for another time.

This man is one of my best sources for funny comments on this blog and his blog has already made me laugh a lot with only three posts. I look forward to more.

Monday, February 25, 2008

speaking of the Cos...

I loved this online show from a few years back. It might be the reason I had to drop Signals and Systems my junior year.

It's called House of Cosbys, an animated cartoon about a cosby fan who invents a cloning machine and starts making clones of his favorite actor. Unfortunately, the clones tend to decrease in quality as the process goes on with each one receiving a special trait:
#2 - house keeping cosby
#3 - moral support cosby
#4 - tattle tale cosby
#5 - dancing cosby
#6 - bath tub cosby
#7 - standing cosby
#8 - curiosity cosby
#9 - buck naked cosby

The protagonist wants to give up the whole business until he creates clone #10 (data analysis cosby) who reports that every tenth cosby clone will have a super power.

The story goes on for 4 more episodes until it they get a cease and desist letter from the man himself. They make one more episode for the express purpose of attacking cosby and his lawyer and then give up the ghost.

And without further ado, here's episode 1 of House of Cosbys:

Channel 101 hosted the show originally. They may be the future of online video. People submit their own pilots for a TV show and then the fans vote on their favorites. The five top winners each week become prime time shows. Some good stuff comes out of here.

Photo album

A photo of Bill Cosby throwing a snowball at you.
A photo of that snowball getting struck by lightning.
A photo of Bill Cosby with two thumbs up next to a neon sign that says:
That snowball would’ve hit you in the fucking face.
A photo of you looking at that photo.
A photo of Bill Cosby looking at a photo of Bill Cosby.
A photo of Bill Cosby getting struck by lightning.
A photo of Bill Cosby with two thumbs up, in a hospital bed.
A photo of Bill Cosby which everyone says is definitely a photo of you.
A photo of you with two thumbs up next to a neon sign that says:
He’s a nice man but seriously I don’t look anything like him.
A photo of you for sale online, listed as a signed photo of Bill Cosby.
A photo of you with two thumbs up next to a billboard that says:
Look, I'm not Bill Cosby. This is getting ridiculous.
A photo of Bill Cosby which basically sums up your whole life.

via michael crowe at figcrumbs
(I love this guy)

political finger puppet theater

To be honest, I have not watched this because none of these internet cafes have audio and they get their panties in a twist whenever I try to load a video. However, my friends loved it and I look forward to seeing it myself some day. It comes from my former chess partner/religious scholar/man about town: Mikolaj Franaszczuk

Sunday, February 24, 2008

how to decide things

use silly websites:

Why you should vote for Obama:
via BarackObamaIsYourNewBicycle
Barack Obama warmed up your car for you
Barack Obama laughed at your joke
Barack Obama emailed your dad and told him how great you are
Barack Obama gave you a puppy

Why to not vote for Hillary:
via HilaryIsMomsJeans
Hilary can't stop talking about her cats
Hilary scratched your favorite record
Hilary drank your milkshake, drank it up

Why Chuck Norris is God:
via ChuckNorrisFacts
# When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.

# Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

# There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live.

# Outer space exists because it's afraid to be on the same planet with Chuck Norris.

# Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.

# Chuck Norris is currently suing NBC, claiming Law and Order are trademarked names for his left and right legs.

# Chuck Norris is the reason why Waldo is hiding.

# Chuck Norris counted to infinity - twice.

# There is no chin behind Chuck Norris’ beard. There is only another fist.

# When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.

# Chuck Norris is so fast, he can run around the world and punch himself in the back of the head.

# Chuck Norris’ hand is the only hand that can beat a Royal Flush.

# Chuck Norris can lead a horse to water AND make it drink.

Friday, February 22, 2008

book reviews

My favorite two edged sword of train travel (especially general class): I cannot sleep without laying down in a pretty comfortable spot (I know, it's sad, I'm not yet adapted my sleep for this country) so I usually just stay up all night reading. That means I got a lot of reading done in my last two weeks of travel. Here's my short review in no particular order:

The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre:
A Calcutta book that's sold at every book stall. An inspiring and maddening work. To see the courage of the people living in this terrible place and how much compassion that they have for others starkly contrasts the inhuman response by the government to their plight in a slum of 70,000 people on the area of three football fields. Lapierre weaves three stories together: a Polish priest who came to the slum in sneakers and a T-shirt and just moved in to start helping, a young doctor who wanted to take a year off to do some good and had to deliver a baby from a leper woman on his first night and a family with the familiar tale of being forced by drought to leave their village for the big city. It eventually turned into a movie with Patrick Swayze playing the young doctor.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins:
Another excellent book on evolution by the master. I found it a little simplistic for me but I enjoyed his elegant and simple explanations for complicated phenomena. He did throw out a theory about the origins of life that I never heard before and which I found quite captivating. He advocated the inorganic mineral theory of life versus the more commonly expressed organic soup theory. I plan to write a post to explain this is in more depth. A great book for any laymen interested in evolution (which I happen to think is the one of the most fascinating things you can ever study)

Atonement by Ian McEwan:
A decent book. I'd call it a high level beach read. I don't think it deserves the reviews so lavish that they call the author the best living english language writer. It got shortlisted for a Booker Prize which is probably why I liked it. If it won the Booker Prize, I would not have liked it. I've read five (I think) books that won this prize and I only liked one: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The rest were flowery horse shit like the Alchemist by Paulo Cohelo. I think of it as the Booker Curse.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini:
Wow. Three books in a row that got turned into a movies. I haven't seen this movie but a friend recommended the book. Not a bad fantasy book. Very creative world and strong driving plot. However, the plot holes and stupid decisions main characters got on my nerves. I mean, you're trying to hide your dragon but you let it fly all over a huge mountain range and then act surprised when somebody notices the first dragon in 100 years. And you have the last hope of humanity in the form of a 16 year old kid and you let him wander around the royal city alone where everybody is trying to kill him while you go off for a beer with an old friend. Argghhh. Still, the author wrote this book as he graduated from high school at 15. It'll be interesting to watch him as he matures into his writing.

Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
The NYTimes called his "One Hundred Years of Solitude" the first book that should be required reading for all of humanity since the book of Genesis. He published three books of short stories and this book collects them all into one. I found his first book to be downright weird. Only one story connected with me. The rest seemed to be this dark Kafkaesque works about being trapped physically or socially. Very disconnected.

However, his next two books contained some of the most clear and touching short stories I have ever read. You can see the growth of his particular and wonderful brand of magic realism. His "Artificial Roses" about a young woman and her blind grandmother stunned me. In fact, words fail me. Read it. It's the best.

Don't You Have Time To Think by Richard Feynman:
The collected letters of the world's coolest theoretical physicist. Richard Feynman cracked safes at the Manhattan Project to make a point about security, wrote equations on strip club napkins and showed a free spirited brilliance that always challenged authorities. He won the Nobel Prize and gave brilliant informative lectures. Admittedly, his letters are not that fascinating to read but I enjoyed the portrait they presented of this warm man. I got to see the beautiful romance between him and his first wife who died young of tuberculosis during the Manhattan Project. He had a reputation for little correspondence other physicists but wrote extensive letters to cranks, amateurs and young students. A good book for Feynman buffs.

The Village of Stepanchikovo by Fyodor Dostoevsky:
A comedy by the king of novels. Dostoevsky created the character of Foma Fomich Opiskin, a pretentious and despotic pseudo-intellectual who dominates the protagonist's uncle's house though the adoration of its women. He holds the entire household under his thumb but without any goal in mind such as money or sex, simply for the preening vanity and artistry of being center stage in the absurd theatrics. Sound familiar? He created this character 60 years before Rasputin's rise to power.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri:
This book made me tear up a number of times. It seemed to wonderfully capture the strain of growing up Indian in America, especially when your family decides to name you Gogol. I think it also just got turned into a movie that I'm excited to see.


In Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle", a woman has the ability to understand by studying how they index their own book. She figured out one of the characters was gay after looking at his index.

I hope nobody has that skill for capitalization because I fear what my irregularities would reveal.

bihar and jharkhand

I prefer to write blog posts like this. For starters, I have a few cold beers and my friend's laptop so I can take my time to make sure it sounds right to my ear. My dad long ago gave me the good advice to read your writing aloud to detect unclear writing and poor flow.

More importantly, this post focuses more on what I observe around me in this strange and wonderful country instead of my "hey guys, look at my crazy drunken adventures". Those stories form more of an online diary for me to remember what I did. I think the writing that actually interests other people (and me) looks at how 1.1 billion people with hundreds of languages and dozens of religions manage to fit into a country the size of Canada. And since the goal of this blog venture is to have lots of hits (which keeps me up late clicking on hundreds of times on Google), let's go with that.

So we last left our intrepid explorers in the much maligned Calcutta (now Kolkatta) on our hero's birthday. With no more television shoot, Tessa decides to return to Bombay and make money instead of spend it. After my delightful Darjeeling trip, it got me reminiscing about my first time in Kathmandu. I even started thinking about moving there once my Mumbai lease runs out so Astrid and I decide to head north to take a look around.

After a pleasant overnight train trip with a cute father and daughter to play with, we arrive at Raxaul on the Nepali border. We walked the kilometer to the border, much to the befuddlement of the rickshaw wallahs. The border police stopped us with a beautiful yellow lab drug dog. Admittedly, this caused a little worry because we spent the night before around some smells that might arouse said dog. Luckily, he just sniffed us and we all shook hands with the guards who seemed delighted to see us. We walked for ten more feet when more cops with drug dogs waved us over. We nervously kept telling them we just got searched by those guys back there. They insisted we come over anyway. Then they all gather around us with another pretty yellow lab so they can take photos with us. I love this. How often do border police want to take pictures with random foreigners walking by?

The extremely friendly Nepali border officer very regretfully informed of us something I should have known already. A strike around Kathmandu has left the city completely inaccessible. The Maoists plan to cut the city off from oil and force the king from his throne (hey, attacking the oil infrastructure worked for the Allies in WWII and it can work for you). I don't quite understand the Maoist position because they already have transformed him from a dictator to a figurehead in just a few years.

Nepali contemporary politics factbox: In 2000, the entire royal family was purportedly murdered by the drugged out son. Most people believe the current king actually had his thugs carry out the dirty deed and blamed it on the son so he could seize power. Strikes and violence by the long running Maoist revolutionary movement forced the king to lose almost all of his power.

I decide to buy a three day Nepali visa while I'm here to reset my Indian visa. There's a rule that anyone on a tourist visa in India has to leave the country every six months and I don't have plans to leave until a june Bali trip with family. By just stepping across the border and getting the paperwork done, I can avoid having to make a trip abroad later just for visa purposes. After getting my Nepali visa, I head back to the Indian side to get my stamp from them.

The two border officials on the Indian side loved Valentine's Day. I pleased them because I had already given Astrid a rose. I, of course, neglected to admit someone else gave it to me free to give to her. A photographer from a local paper came up to take our picture with the babus (this used to be a term of respect but now has become a generic term for bureaucrats). The photographer admitted that he saw us getting our passport photos taken and followed us from there so he get a picture of us for the local paper. Before getting down to the visa business, we sat down with the babus for chat and chai.

After the normal questions, tattoo comparisons and paan spitting, they took a look at my passport and started shaking their heads. I got my nepali visa before an exit stamp from India. They hemmed and hawed about this for quite awhile before telling me that they'll just give me both stamps and act like they did it correctly (exactly what the nepali border official said they do every time). Of course, they tell me, I am free to give them some baksheesh as a thank you for fixing this irregularity. As we left, I palmed a 100Rs bill to each one of them (I don't think I need to palm money here, bribes are understood and accepted, I could just hand it to them openly but I just do it to feel cool). They looked at the money and shook their heads. They each got another 100 Rs and then broke out into big grins as they wished us safe travels.

With Kathmandu out of the picture, we decide to go to Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, to meet up with the russophile Raja's son that we met in Gangtok. I wait in line to buy unreserved train tickets and get pissed when I notice that men walk to the front of the slow moving line to get someone else to buy their ticket for them. I loved the vigorous cop there who tried to prevent to stop this from happening. He marched around the front of the two lines like a bulldog with a stick. He''d stand on a ramp for a better view and then charge into the middle of a crowd that swarmed around the head of the lines. It looked like trying to push the ocean back with a teakettle. I did my own part and heatedly broke up any deal around me. I don't mind women being allowed to the head of the line (poor dears, they need all the help they can get, they must simply be lost without any testosterone) but men paying to avoid the line drove me crazy.

Astrid got a good laugh while she waited. She just couldn't believe how everyone stared at her quietly reading her book and no one even glanced at the cow taking a shit in the middle of the lobby. I have to admit, I got quite sick of the staring I received in the more secluded parts of northern India. I didn't want to be a rock star anymore. Even as we played a hand of rummy waiting for the train, almost everyone on our platform gathered around to check out the game. I got pretty uncomfortable with a group of thirty watching me beat astrid once again (beat in cards, I never beat her publicly).

We had two transfers ahead of us on this train trip. Unfortunately, our train got in three hours late so we thought we had no chance of making our connection and would be stranded for the night in some shitty bihar town. We called our friend in Ranchi and he actually had one of his friends come to the train station and help us find a nice cheap hotel room. The two guys who picked us up, wow, a writers dream. What an odd couple. Asit, our original contact, had his finger in many pies around the city and came from a family of almost all medical doctors: five MD aunts and an MD mom along with almost every cousin. A friendly enough guy who preferred to do most of the talking. Fine with me.

The friend he brought made me think of Dostoevsky's Underground Man which turned out to be fairly prescient. A tall twitchy man with a thin mustache and eyes that became intense with his mood. He mentioned a two year old daughter and a job with the police that he hates. He initially struck me as the sidekick clown of the relationship. He always had paan and would let it fill his mouth to the point that he needed to lean his head back to talk. I even observed him talking to his friend by grunting because he couldn't open his mouth. Amazingly, they seemed to have quite decent conversations in spite of the mouth full of red spit.

The next day, we took a long car trip to a big temple which turned out to be closed. I enjoyed observing the Bihari countryside. If Darjeeling runs on coolies, Bihar runs on small spirited horses. These cute hairy little horses pulled vehicles with entire families or wagons loaded high with goods. They seemed to always maintain a high stepping spirit, whatever their task. I also saw cows everywhere, the large black cow with horns and the inevitable string through its nose. They never did any work. Just walk around and around in the small circle allowed by their tether.

After the car ride, we rested for a few hours until almost time for the bus when our strange friend returned to see us off. Our last hour uncovered several more layers that increased my curiosity about him in conjunction with my repugnance. In a despondent mood, he complained about losing a million rupees in the stock market that day and vaguely blamed us because he was out driving us around instead of watching the market. He immediately started drinking heavily from a bottle of vodka he brought along. He would agree that it was only money and not something to get worked up over and would them immediately start getting worked up. After a few minutes of this pleasant conversation, I went to use the bathroom.

When I came back, Astrid was rigid with anger. On the HPIS body language scale (How Pissed Is She?), her level translated roughly to "Caught You With Your Secretary on Your Anniversary". I just tried to keep him talking to me from then on so he couldn't talk to her. It got harder as he got more and more drunk. Eventually he started getting a little weepy about things he had done. When he mentioned the word killing, my ears perked up because I suspected the truth all along. I finally drew out the most interesting piece of info I got out of the guy: he's an encounter cop.

I don't know much about encounter police but I don't think many other people do either. Here, they just know they exist. Because of India's amazingly backlogged judicial case load (fact time: if the Indian courts stopped taking cases now, it'd take them 300 years to get through what they already have, it's far too reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial) and the ease that power and money can makes cases disappear, small groups of quasi-legal secret police stage encounters with unprosecutable people and kill them. They make it appear that they only killed in self defense or make it look like a hit by someone else but most people know what actually happened. They go after terrorists, mob bosses and even politicians, anyone that could easily escape the normal routes of justice. I have heard hits need approval by a judge but I'm unclear on details. Wait for my expose article. The one I get killed for.

I realized why this strange man hated his job and why he could not quit it. He's carried out five missions but that's all the details I got. He clammed up quickly when I responded stupidly to his questioning of my curiosity. I said I'm a writer and interested in everything. Note to self: don't mention being a writer when talking to people about immoral or illegal activities (and yes, I know I'm not really a writer but it's becoming my goal and I love the best part about being a writer: no one asks follow up questions because no one really wants to here about what you're working on). He finally chose to leave us for a few minutes to go get a drink. Then Astrid told me had made some very disgusting comments to her about sex and called her a whore. He told her that I would never marry her (funny, because we tell everyone we're married just because it's so much easier). Luckily, he didn't come back before the bus so I had no chance to get into a fight with a secret policemen.

Nothing gets me ready to fight faster than rude behavior to women (eve teasing is the local term). This rarely happens publicly in India because almost every other guy feels like I do and would love the opportunity to put an asshole in his place. I see rude behavior in small groups of friends. There's always that jerkoff friend who doesn't know how to handle himself and then you're in a tough spot. How far do you confront one of the friends? Always a balancing act. This made me miss Tessa. I've never seen anyone better at putting rude guys in their place. I can watch it from across a room and know exactly what's happening. After a rude comment, she starts laying into them and they just freeze with a stupid forced smile on their face, caught like a frog in a blender. Her poor husband. I hope he's deaf.

Putting that strange incident behind us, we boarded our overnight bus. It had rows of seats running the length of the bus but it also had four sleeper berths on each side above the seats. Definetely worth the extra 30 Rs to get a bed. A nice ride except for the never ending loud Bollywood movie being shown near us in the front of the bus. Early the next morning, I woke up to watch for our stop but I didn't have to bother. The bus employees (and there are usually four per bus but only one ever drives, curious) knew where the foreigners needed to go and came to get me when we got into Ranchi.

We called our new friend, Manu, but he didn't pick up his phone so we decided to let him sleep while we got breakfast. We found a nice grocery store where we got crackers, spreadable cheese, grapes and other accessories. We sat down on the steps outside and gathered a small group of dirty friendly kids who watching us as they played. I might add, they played right next to the busy road. No fear here about 2 year olds running into traffic. Kids aren't that dumb and people here don't treat them this way. I eventually started showing off to the kids with one of my best tricks: throwing grapes high in the air and catching them in my mouth. It may not sound great which is why I keep my audiences to the "under ten"crowd, but hey, I throw them really high and never miss. I gave them the rest of the grapes and they wanted picture time so we have some fun shots of cute snot nosed grape eaters.

We walked to the train station and waited there for our new friend, calling him occasionally. We didn't hear from him for 7 hours (which is still not nearly as bad as me leaving my good friend stranded in a dresden train station late at night when I forgot he was coming in that day, sorry jimbo, good luck with the med school semester of hell). Short version: we got pissed at Manu and he sent his other friend who we met in Gangtok, the pants wearing half of a newlywed couple. They turned out to be amazing hosts and Manu turned out to be a flake.

"The rich are different."
"Yes. They're better."
- Hemingway and Fitzgerald

We didn't do much in this backwoods capital because I spent most of the time on the toilet but I got to observe the rich of this town in their natural habitat. Our host family ran a business with an exclusive contract to install cell phone towers for the entire state of Jharkhand for the big three carriers. In this country, I'm very curious whether exclusive contracts of this nature operate above the table or if they involve obscene amounts of baksheesh. I have no idea but I lean towards the latter.

I found both the sons to be down to earth but aware of their power. They belonged to the most prestigious club in the city, the Rotary, and the youngest son mentioned they had recent problems with nonmember locals. "We've been trying to keep them out and keep it exclusive." He also said that if he ever got pulled over, all he needs to do is mention his father named to get waved off. We attended a Valentine's Day party at the club (which I also missed most of thanks to toilet duties) and I expressed amazement that they could play loud music until 2AM in this quiet town. I was told that "we're the cream of the crop. We can do what we want." However, I am not complaining about these guys. Just noticing some interesting effects of belonging to the great family of a town. Overall, great warm hosts who took wonderful care of us.

After two relaxing days, they put me on a bus to the closest train station while astrid traveled on to northeast india. I got a general class ticket for the Gitangli Express, a 30 hour ride. It only cost 270 Rs (7 USD) to cross the country but I have never been in such cramped quarters for such an extended period of time. However, it only renewed my amazement for what Indian's endure so casually. Complete strangers fall asleep tangled together like a bunch of puppies. The smell of farts constantly drift through the air and the easiest way to get to the bathroom involves climbing like a monkey down the aisles, over everyone's head. Nobody complains. Nobody gets angry. Everybody sleeps like cherubs (except your noble hero who simply gets a lot of reading done).

It's almost impossible to get a seat on a busy train unless you board at its first stop. I'm lucky because people always insist I get a good seat out of hospitality. However, you're always watching to see if you can maneuver into a better position. I'm usually aiming to get under the bench seat that everyone sits on. From there you look up through the boards at everyone's rumps but at least you can stretch out. It's the only way I can get any sleep (although the claustrophobia can make it tough if it strikes). It's also never fun to sneeze because I always forget and slam my head into the underside of the bench. In conclusion, getting a good seat on the train is like romancing a woman: when you get the opportunity, you take one small step at a time until you're under a bench of Indian asses or under the bed when her husband gets home.

On all trains, sellers offer samosas, chai and various snacks through the windows at stops. They often hand in a large amount of food quickly and it gets passed back to the people who want it while the money gets passed forward. It'd be easy to not pay for your food but I never saw any incidents. Everybody operated on trust. On less crowded trains, the sellers walk through the cars. They have an interesting trick (especially the chai wallahs) of using a nasally voice that refuses to be ignored. It cuts through the background noise of the train to make sure everyone knows what they're selling. It's quite effective.

This trip started with a man who reached a new level of industry. When I boarded the crowded train, he pulled me over to him and made sure I got a seat. He had a large pot between his legs filled with dahl (lentils). He supplied dinner to almost everyone in our car for ten rupees (25 cents) a dish. He had quite an operation. As I watched, he spent twenty minutes cutting onions and greens with startling efficiency (I love watching people that good at their job, whatever it may be). Then he put leaf bowls on the lid of his pot. I do not know how they are made (something I plan to investigate because they are ubiquitous here) but leaf bowls consist of a few layers of dried leaf in the shape of a bowl. Very cheap and disposable. He filled the bowls with the warm dahl he brought with him and then sprinkled the onions and greens over the top of the food. He squeezed some limes over it and added salt and spices from two containers. Then he stuck a wooden spoon in each bowl, the kind you would use for italian ice. Everything he did had such an economy of motion. Then he would climb over the aisles with his plates of food to other parts of the car to sell them there. I don't think he counted the bowls he handed out. He just assumed everybody would pay. He repeated this until he had run out of food and fed the entire car. I have to say, this man impressed me with his industry and his friendliness. As he worked, he happily jabbered on, obviously keeping the whole section entertained.

Entertainment is a welcome relief on these trips. Any motion attracts the eyes of everyone in sight because people generally just sit and stare. I simply cannot get through a train ride without a book to read. Otherwise, I would have to spend my time contemplating my life and that's just too unnerving.

So I finally return to Mumbai with apologies for lack of posting. I like being back in the city and it gets my creative juices flowing. The accumulated bad feelings from the annoyances of this trip just dissipated away as I rode the commuter train. There's no place like home.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

boobs: is there anything they can't do?

an email from my friend Asa, currently working on a grad degree from Columbia:

Below is a section of my R program for econometrics class. I got stuck for a bit and Colin Peer offered some help. Can anyone spot his contribution? If so, he will give you $5.

> print(cbind(bols,sebols),digits=3)
[1,] 0.871 0.0738
[2,] 1.903 0.0735
[3,] 3.007 0.0813
[4,] 4.063 0.0746

> confint (lm (y~X[,2]+X[,3]+X[,4]))
2.5 % 97.5 %
(Intercept) 0.7257972 1.016931
X[, 2] 1.7583147 2.048108
X[, 3] 2.8465362 3.167260
X[, 4] 3.9155509 4.209627

> boobs
Error: object "boobs" not found

> R2 <- 1-sum(e^2)/sum((y-mean(y))^2)
> R2
[1] 0.960695
> N
[1] 200

> R22 <- 1-(1-R2)*(200-1)/(200-4)
> R22
[1] 0.9600934

Mikolaj's comment:
Asa, are you going to fail your econometrics class if you don't find the boobs?

Colin responded:
hahaha. He was like, "Colin, do you know how to do a linear regression analysis with a p value of 2.5 or less on a recumbent threshold database?" I walked into his room and said, "Of course. That's why they made this program really, because it's so easy to do that on here with these sets." You should have seen his face light up. Like I just saved him a half hour of struggling with a new language. It made it that much better when I just wrote Boobs on the screen and walked away. hahahahahahahaha.


Wired's excellent Danger Room blog on national security has a contest to name the operation for knocking out that errant satellite (a feat performed by the chinese last year). My favorites:

Operation Everything Hu can do We can do Better

Operation not an anti satellite weapons test, honest

Operation No Satellite Left Behind

Operation "But It'd Be Bad if China Did This"

Operation "accidentally" drop it on Iran


elegant solution for book storage

Book storage will always be my main problem when moving and I love this bookcase built into a set of stairs. Link

from Apartment Therapy via BoingBoing

Friday, February 15, 2008

happy birthday to me

I spent my 19th birthday in eastern nepal, my 21st in dresden, germany (a depressing place to reach the legal US drinking age, surrounded by people who recieve beer prenatally to make them stronger) and now I spent my 25th birthday in Calcutta.

I woke up to my first rainfall since the states. That may sound depressing but rain is a welcome change to months of monotous dry heat. The three of us had a nice little day wandering around this city (a city I really like, by the way, much better than dehli and maybe better than mumbai, just a bad rap because of mother theresa who has a book about her accepting donations from third world dictators and other baddies, it's called "the missionary position"). Astrid made us go to a planetarium so I had a nap. Then we wandered into a nice photography opening and rediscovered the human rights film festival we enjoyed so much in Mumbai. The festival has been traveling around the country and we caught up to it here. We saw an excellent movie about the Sri Lankan governmental response to the tsunamis and showed us their clear strategy: make a 100 meter buffer zone from the beach, put all of the displaced people in tents, wait one year, declare the buffer zone to be good tax revenue and zone it for tourism purposes only, sell land to foreign corporations, leave people in tents. Everybody wins! I actually met a guy working with the UN in Sri Lanka and he reported a similar situation.

At the Salvation Army that night, we picked up a fellow Brooklynite backpacking his way around the world and a solid and attractive dyke from England. We find a nice little restaurant/bar with a decent cover band and a singer with jugs the size of my head. Since everybody in the group liked looking at breasts and she liked being admired, we had quite a nice little thing going. After professing my extreme dislike of vodka (a few too many bad nights in college left a nasty mental association), we ordered a round of whisky shots. They, of course, brought giant shots of vodka which I procedded to knock into Brooklyn's lap during one of my utterly fascinating stories (at least, I find them fascinating and who else am I trying to impress).

After they told the waiter about my birthday, I got two renditions of the happy brithday song, a free round of shots, a nice little cake (of course, tessa ate all of it) and most importantly, a big smile from Miss Huge Tracts of Land up front (if Monty Python challenged, see inserted video). The band played some good songs and we really loved an old Filipino man in the corner with his Big Blonde wife as they sat clapping and jumping up and down to the music. A funny little Willy Loman type came to the front with his pretty wife in red sari trimmed with gold and they wowed us with their dancing. Just goes to show, you can't judge by apperances, although that hasn't stopped me from trying.

The last ones to leave at the late hour of 11, we headed next door to the "hottest club in Calcutta". We only had one problem: girls get in free but boys have to pay a hefty cover. Brooklyn didn't have money and I'm too muleheaded (thanks to my dearest mother) to pay for covers. We didn't have time to argue our way out of the cover because a hulking drunk guy started making a scene about something. The man with the stamp in his hand stopped moving to watch the commotion and I took the opportunity to press my hand against the stamp. I showed my stamp to the bouncer and he stopped me from walking by but then he also stopped to watch my savior, Captain DrunkFace McLoudYelling. I brushed by and entered the club with the gentle pride of a job well done.

That's actually about all that happened. We drank (sparingly for price considerations). We danced (badly if we happened to be blonde scientsists). We tried to get the dyke a lady friend (no luck in the land of sexual suppression). We climbed over the Salvation Army gate when no one let us in (they never told us they closed the gate). We got in a disagreement with a man on the street about climbing the gate (lousy busybody). I told him if he didn't like, here's my chin, right here (he didn't swing at it). Tessa puked all night (because of flu and not drinking). I woke up married to a Mormon minister from washington state with a grand vision of the future involving public branding of all sinners (I lost him in the sewers after a three hour chase). End of a good birthday.

reasons I might make it as a writer

1. Writers are notoriously bad in bed

that's all I have so far.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My first train trip in India

We took a bus from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, to a train station in West Bengal. The trip took four hours but the time flew by because of the scenery. I believe I passed through the most picturesque I have ever seen. The road stayed about halfway up the steep mountains, giving us a perfect view of the wide sapphire blue river flowing beneath. Monkeys played by the side of the road in of bamboo and old growth trees (Fact Time, hit it girls: New shoots of bamboo can grow up to 1 meter a day). Luscious.

We took a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the train station. We had half an hour and this should be a ten minute ride. However, our driver picked up three more guys who climbed into his tiny front seat with him. The weakly powered giant cockroach could barely move with all the weight. Then he started taking a direction that didn't seem right to me until we found ourselves in tiny back alleys. I start yelling because I told him we needed to get there and he's fooling around. He keeps apologizing and I get more angry as the time approaches for our train.

We pull up to the station exactly as the train should arrive. We run over a long covered walkway and down to the only train on the tracks. I ask a half dozen people if this is the right train and where should we go. The tickets had different markings than normal and I had no idea what they meant. Whenever I pointed at the train number on the ticket and said is it this train, everyone said yes. But they were lying.

My friend just told me a good rule. For getting directions in India, ask five people and then go with the majority opinion. As an added precaution, I have begun to point in a direction I know to be wrong and ask if it is that way. If they say yes, they don't count as as my five. Luckily, the sixth person finally set us right. We checked with the station master and he told we had a four hour wait until our train came in. Rush rush rush to wait wait wait.

We waited at an empty restaurant by the station with pictures of Britney Spears on one side and victorian paintings of women on the other. They served us the beers (do they have gold inside? yes.) we requested but then told us we couldn't drink them there. Turns out they had no license for beer. We finally compromised by keeping the beer bottles on the floor and discreetly filling up our metal cups with the warm brew. They got really annoying and kept trying to take away the bottles before we finished them. Actually, I was drinking on my own after the girls declared the beer to warm and gross for them. It seems that the owners really feared the cops coming in and catching them.

As I complained to the girls about the owner's scaredy cat attitude and said the chances of police coming through now must be so low, three cops came in for dinner. The owner kept walking by and making googely eyes at me. We just hid the beer behind our legs and nobody ever noticed. However, I made a vow to never doubt the locals on such things again. I broke it promptly.

We received bad news as we waited there playing cards.We were taking this train to get to a television shoot in Assam that would have been a good chunk of money. We planned to travel in the northeast for a week before the shoot started. The owner texted us to say the shoot got canceled. I had to restrain Tessa from a nasty reply SMS. I probably should have let her. This woman has canceled on us last minute before and has a bad rep for taking more money than she deserves.

After a few minutes of ranting, we settled down to asses the situation. Tessa wanted to start working again soon but would travel for a little bit. Astrid and I had more flexibility. We decided to hit Calcutta because it was on the way home anyway. I went back to the train station and had no trouble refunding our tickets. However, I'd have to wait until tomorrow to get a reserved bed for the 12 hour trip to Calcutta. I did not want to wait in this crappy little town overnight so I got us unreserved tickets that left in an hour.

I called this my first trip by train in India because I realized it was my first true Indian railway experience. I had always traveled in a reserved class where you get a bed to yourself. It's pretty comfortable as long as you don't mind no blankets and a good number of cockroaches. In unreserved, they sell as many tickets as there are buyers. You simply cram yourself on the train and try to find a spot. I saw the true Indian heart that overnight journey.

We got on the train and the guys immediately made room on the top bench for Tessa and Astrid. Most seats had four to five people sitting and laying all over each other. People covered the floor and walking the length of the car took several minutes to ensure not stepping on anyone. One smart guy made a bed for himself on the luggage rack near the ceiling. Strangers played cards on a blanket set on their knees. Whenever a problem arose, everyone in the car threw in their advice about the situation in true Indian fashion.

None of us could sleep sitting up so they gave the girls a position of honor: laying on the floor underneath the benches. They cuddled under there behind a sea of brown legs. Astrid said that whenever she felt claustrophobic and tried to stick her head out, somebody's leg or hand gently pushed her back beneath the bench to keep her safe(?). In the morning, after a good number of new faces joined our bench, Tessa emerged from underneath the bench to surprise the newcomers. They didn't know they had a blonde under them this entire time. Watching their faces: priceless.

I couldn't sleep sitting up either so I just never slept. I'm glad I didn't. I got to observe the rhythm of the people. 1AM, people tended to all sleep for an hour with heads laying on stranger's laps and bodies intertwined on the floor. Then something small would wake a few people and the rest would soon awake too. More cards, more talk and then, after an hour, people slowly drifting off to sleep. In spite of the cramped conditions, everybody got along swimmingly and seemed to enjoy the trip. One more example of the lovely Indian heart.

Calcutta in snippets:

  • The worst part about being in West Bengal right now: bird flu means no chicken or eggs. Normally, I can walk into a रेस्तौरांत and point to any non-veg indian dish on the menu and know that I will like it. Now, there's no chicken and almost every non-veg dish has chicken. There's nothing to eat.
  • This led to the friendliest dining experience of my life. We went to KFC for a little western style food. We walked into a room full of employees smiling so wide that it looks they held their cheeks back with toothpicks. They had to be friendly because they had nothing else to get people into their store. Their total food offerings: two crappy looking veg sandwiches, fries and cheap ice cream. We got fries and ice cream. Then the place got down right creepy. It felt like disney world with extra sugar. You couldn't get away from the giant smiles and helpful people. They gave us dining surveys with a question asking "what would you like us to have". All three of us smart asses independently wrote chicken.
  • I got a snack of momos on the street and the woman got the girls to make some too. We all laughed at their wretched creations. Life lesson: It's easier to laugh at others than to try anything for yourself
  • We visited the supermarket from 1984. A man on the loudspeaker continuously yelled about the wild sales around the store. "Tissue paper on sale. Seventy percent off. That's seven zero."
Next post: an excellent birthday

Monday, February 11, 2008

this made me tear up a little

A sad and heartwarming story: Army Seargent Peter Neesley adopted two stray dogs while serving in Baghdad. He told his family that he would figure out a way to get home no matter what. He died there in his sleep on Christmas Day. After a month of negotiations, vaccinations and maneuvering, his family managed to bring both dogs home to their farm in Virginia.
Link to article

via DailyKos

and to be honest, I actually had tears streaming down my face while I read this

another comic and a video that keeps me in stitches (where did that phrase ever originate?)

It was also fun when those teenagers tried to egg our house and it insta-cooked the eggs in mid-air.

And then there's the guy who built the WaterHobo: a motion detecting automatic water sprayer to soak kids who cut across his lawn. His requirements for this device:

  • Must have automatic fire ability
  • Must be able to detect motion
  • Must be able to record the event
  • Must be able to turn off auto fire mode and take on manual control
  • Must be able to "Water the Lawn"
  • Must be able to cover a 30 foot field of fire
  • Must have a range of about 25 to 35 feet
  • Must have the ability to work at night with all of the above features
  • Must be able to Play back any recordings and laugh while sitting on the deck drinking a beer

  • His site has two videos showing his successful deployment of the Water Hobo. This man is my hero.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

And a few more thoughts on Darjeeling and the wedding before I continue the story of my travels. By the way, don't expect much here tonight. I have a headache and a fever but I want to write all of this down before I forget it. My mental limit doesn't exceed three days.

I spent my last morning in Darjeeling wandering around the town. Very friendly people and no aggressive shop owners or touts. That's such a relief. I hate these touristy areas (like the one I'm currently at in Calcutta) with assholes who won't leave you alone or try to rip you off. It only happens in touristy areas but it bugs me because I know how excellent life is outside these areas. Darjeeling had only smiling faces and helpful people. I even followed a cute puppy up to the top of a building and ended up having chai with a funny father and son and his wife's rather strange collection of dolls.

This town runs on coolies. With roads so steep and narrow that trucks have a hard time, these men with ropes resting on their forehead carry almost everything. Imagine life in New York where barefoot coolies hauled everything that currently gets delivered to the shops in trucks. I even saw one man carrying three propane tanks (aka bombs) in a harness. Pretty impressive.

I returned to the hotel and we went to another aunt's house for lunch before we left. We ate a wonderful lunch with a beautiful view of the mountains and then played badminton with the kids until we left. We rented a taxi for the four hour ride to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, one of the most northern states in the country. On the drive, Subba told us that it's already begun for him. The day after her older brother's wedding, various female relatives have already started telling him about eligible girls that they know. He's got a long hard fight ahead of him to stay single. Stay strong brother.

We woke up early the next morning for a day of sightseeing. We had a solid breakfast (often a hard thing to find) at a great little hotel across the street. I started playing with this giant of a boy, Wong. At only four years old, he looked like a mini Sumo wrestler and fought like one too. We had a number of mock fights and then I would tie him up with his own piece of string, driving him crazy. Next we played a game on the stairs called "throw the hard plastic container at the other guy"(trademark pending). He'd stand up, wind up like a high speed wind mill and rocket the container back at me. Whether or not he hit me, he would rock back and forth roaring with laughter and patting his tummy like a miniature chinese santa claus. Then I'd usually hit him in the face and get him really pissed. But he'd throw again and rock back and forth howling. I could have stayed there all day but we eventually broke the plastic.

We spent the day at the zoo (new fact: red pandas are adorable), took a cable car ride that gave us a great view of the valley (millions to build, pennies to ride, good luck recouping that investment) and had dinner at Little Italy (motto: come for the music get disgusted by our lack of decent food or beer (though it's hard to blame them for the beer because full moons are dry days in this state (what?))). Little Italy actually turned into quite a nice time. I found myself moved at the whole bar singing Pearl Jam's Last Kiss.

Then we met a russophile prince from West Bengal who invited us upstairs to continue the party. So we hung out with him, a giant russian man and a local friend. All three of them went to the north pole together a few years back. We had a fun time and the prince invited us to his place whenever we wanted. Unfortunately, we stayed too late and our cab had already left. Luckily, Tessa managed to flag down some cops who drove us right to our door. She paid them back by coyly touching their arms on the drive home.

We spent the next morning talking to Jenny, a pretty Swiss girl who has been studying the tribal people of North Sikkim. She told us about some of the problems the local people face. Where she works, a number of large dams will be constructed in the next year. Not many people homes will be displaced but it will change the course of the rivers and leave all of the farmers downstream in a bad position. They farm in paddies, terraces of level land that allow the river water to flow down to water the crops, and a changed river will render their land useless. We witnessed a hunger strike being staged by locals to try and stop the dams.

One of my favorite things about this area also causes problems when they move to the cities, especially Dehli. The men and women here interact easily with each other. There's a lot of joking, hugging and friendships. In Dehli, girls do not behave that way with boys. It makes the city boys think that the girls must be very interested in them and they get manhandled. It doesn't help that most prostitutes in the city look Nepali as well. This explains why so many Sikim boys get into so many fights in Dehli. They're just protecting their friends from aggressive guys who read the situation wrong. It got so bad that "chinky eyed" people are banned from clubs except on "chinky nights". Quite sad.

OK. I had a very crappy night last night with a fever and weird dreams and hallucinations. It means I'm quite behind in my writing. Our trip to Calcutta and subsequent adventures (like my birthday) have been quite fun and I look forward to sharing them but for now, I'm going to self medicate with ibuprofen, beer and new books.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

more comics?

Some people might say I post too many comics. Some people are idiots. From Wondermark:

Speaking of idiots, the new Economic Stimulus Bill will have the goverment send me $600 sometime in May. What will I do with that money? Invest in a new steel plant? Buy a new car from Ford? Or have enough money for 1000 meals (seriously, that many) at my favorite chinese place.

US embassy asks friend of a friend to spy on Cuban docs

and he decided to go public with the news. My friend Peter Montalbano (union activist, son of Portugual, fellow large testicled man) knows John Alexander van Schaick through his union work.

Here's the exclusive article he gave to ABC about the case: Link

a poem

Sent by the endearing and lovable David Goligorsky:

I made a dictionary which has
every word from every language.
There are over six thousand languages.
It’s enormous.
I really don’t know what else to say about it.
It’s hard to find the right words.

from fig crumbs

Friday, February 8, 2008

Tornadoes hate Hilary

"Gawker video guru Richard Blakeley MASHED-UP two of the New York Times' interactive newsmaps: one showing the deadly path of Tuesday's tornadoes, the other showing which Democratic candidates won which states on Super Tuesday. The results: does God hate Hillary? (And note: Obama won Alabama, but Hillary won each county in that state with a recorded death from Tuesday's storms.)"

Thanks Dani (I want to use your full name but I'm sure you do not want this blog coming up in your google searches).

the hills are alive or: the beautiful people, the beautiful

So I left you last time, in the deep mists of the past (been reading too much Eragon perhaps?), as we returned to our house for an hour nap before a flight north.

Well, we woke up at 7AM for our 6AM flight. That puts Lex in a poor humor. The hangover did not help matters. We slept through two alarms and some phone calls. To skip the inevitable bitching that would normally occur here (and softened by a very pleasant week between me and this event), we simply had to buy another flight. I just had to breathe many times and remind myself it's only money. However, money is damn important so feel free to send a tax deductible donation (deductible if you're the kind of person who writes off family vacations because you called the office one time to make sure it hadn't burnt to the ground) to the "I'm a Jackass" Fund. The address can be found the right side of the page. Also, boxes of artificial cheese products (goldfish, cheezits) would also be appreciated.

We met our friends Pratsut, who brother got shackled the next day, and Karin from Austria. We had a few hour layover until our puddle jumper flight so we loooked around for something to do. I found an internet cafe but it charged 50 Rs an hour. When told the price, I looked incredulous and asked if you get a massage with that he looked at me solemnly and said "Yes, yes it does." And so began a wonderful running joke with a culture who thinks its rude to say no.

With no food in the airport, we went to the taxi stand so we could get something to eat. They told us it would cost 300 Rs to take us to a restaurant and then wait there an hour for us. I looked shocked again and asked if the taxi was made of gold. With a straight face but a gleam in his eye the taxiwallah said "Yes, yes it is." We agreed to the price and I specified a non-veg restaurant that served beer.

After our veg meal with no alcohol, we returned to the airport and went through three different levels of security (all fairly worthless). At the last one, as the guard patted me down, he asked where I came from. I told I'm from America and now living in Mumbai. People always like that answer. He asked if I spoke Hindi and I replied "tora tora" (a little bit). In Hindi, he asked who I wanted to be president. I told him I really wanted Obama and he shook his head. He wanted Clinton to win. I just smiled and said 'I guess we have to agree to disagree." He nodded and shook my hand as he finally waved me through. It's these little interactions that make this country for me.

At Bagroda airport in West Bengal, we took a four hour taxi ride to Darjeeling. Pratsut warned us that many people got sick on the drive because of the bumpy roads and switchbacks up the steep mountains. I laughed him off as everybody take anti-nausea pill. Now, I know all of you out there sit there and hope that I blew chunks over a cliff but I have to disappoint you. I felt quite queasy by the end of the journey but I managed to make it with my lunch of chicken masala intact.

I got meet some more of Pratsut's wonderful family. His blood relatives belong to the Subba tribe from Nepal who originally came from the horse riding Mongols. His mom's family started as Buddhist. The oldest brother stayed Buddhist but his wife and children are Christian. The next oldest sister became a Hindu by marriage and the next sister remained Buddhist. His mother also became a Hindu by marriage. He told me none of this has ever created any strife. Fascinating.

Also, they have a wonderful tradition here of declaring any close friends to be brothers and sisters. With the young people, we had a dinner of momos (possibly the greatest food ever) and returned to the hotel to make jokes while huddling in front of the small space heater. I spent the night trying to wrestle covers away from one of Pratsut's friends and resisting the urge to punch him in the throat repeatedly.

We woke up the next morning and dressed for the wedding. Unfortunately, everyone cluck clucked over my clothes because I don't have any. I currently possess one pair of pants, three t-shirts, 2 pairs of underwear and three pairs of socks. I lost one pair of underwear and I think I'm relieved to not remember how that happened. Anyway, I finally borrowed a presentable shirt and jacket from various people to receive a grudging approval from the sisters.

The actual marriage ceremony happened at his aunts house in the morning. I loved the service. So relaxed yet special. About 15 relatives crowded into a small room with the priest and the happy couple kneeling on the floor in front of a hindu shrine and a large collection of artifacts needed for the service. During the hour long ceremony, people chatted, offered advice and took hundreds of pictures. The priest read various texts, offered small amounts of money to the couple for good luck and helped them to apply tikka, the red powder that makes a dot on a Hindu's forehead. In most Hindu ceremonies, the couple walks around a flame seven times and forever wed after the last circuit. In this ceremony, they officially married when they applied the tikka.

Then all of the husband's family started a procession to the wedding reception where the bride's family invited 400 families to eat, drink and take lots and lots of pictures. Seriously. I don't think I've been in something this well documented since my last court case or the time I tried to moon the Jumbotron at my first and last professional basketball game. As they walked into the hall, they each held up umbrellas to shield them from the high quantity of rice being thrown. Then they had to stand for hours as the families officialy introduced everyone to everyone, exchanged the mandatory presents of liquor and pork and then stand for a few hours of picture taking with everyone who came. People had to go by the couple for the pictures before they got food so it took quite some time.

I enjoyed the wonderful food and open bar until Pratsut sent his attack dog brother to get me to stop drinking. The three Subba boys (all whose names start with P making them PS1, PS2 and PS3) thought I was drunk because of the way I moved my head. It turns out that, unbeknownst to me (very normal), I have a terrible terrible head wobble. It apparently looks like I'm drunk or Tourettic. I took a break to shop for some warmed clothes and recoginized the spots where I had been five years earlier on my first trip to this part of the world. I decided to take a nap at the hotel and slept until seven so I could get back to party as it got hot. As I walked back to the reception hall, I met everyone coming back to the hotel because everything had just finished. Argghh.

We spent the next day on a tour of Darjeeling, tea capitol of the world. Fact Time: The most expensive tea in the world comes from Darjeeling's Castleton Estate and sells for $220 per kilo. I have never seen such a breathtaking place. It's a city built into the steep side of a mountain. Houses might be three stories tall and you can walk off the roof right onto the hillside. With clear skies, you have a stunning view of the mountains. Switchback roads make for patient drivers as you often have to wait for traffic to clear or even back down the hill for a hundred feet to let someone pass. Twice, I had to get out of the car so it could make it to the top of a hill.

And the people, don't get me started on the people. Gorgeous beautiful wonderful stunning women and men. Mostly of Nepali origins, they mix the warm brown skin colors of the indians with the rounded faces and sly eyes of the asians. What a relief. I don't want to say there aren't many pretty girls in Bombay but there's not many pretty girls in Bombay. Science Corner: This makes sense in terms of natural selection. (By the way, I have Richard Dawkins fever. He's Darwin's great cheerleader and a leading atheist. I want to be him/have his babies) In Darjeeling and other culturally Nepali areas, people generally get to choose their spouse. In India, the majority of weddings still get arranged by the parents. You can imagine which trends tend to get reinforced in these two systems.

That's not to say this region does not have its share of trouble. This ethnically Nepali area belongs to the state of West Bengal with Calcutta as its capital. The Nepali's feel slighted by the state government and protests for an independent state have been going on for years. Unfortunately, the "Gorkahland for Gorkahs" (term for ethnic Nepalis) movement has been splintered by violent inner party clashes and has seen a large number of assassinations, vote buying and goondas in the past 7 years. The current GNLF leader started as an optimistic figure for change but has become a corrupt old tyrant who has survived several attempts on his life. According to the protesters I saw during the wedding, he also keeps his wife locked in a closet for most of the day so I guess he's not all bad (I kid, probably).

Also, without much for the young people to do, stupid drunken fights tend to break out among these people normally known for their peaceful ways. On the way home one night, I saw some young guys take out one teenager and punch and kick him repeatedly while his friends stood by. One more case of "not my country". I also had to help carry a very very drunk very very fat girl into a cafe. Her friend's didn't realize that she supported none of her weight and I actually held her up by a bear hug that barely reached around her stomach. Fun times.

Overall, I did love this town even more than the first time I came here. We visited a lovely Buddhist temple, a war memorial on top of a mountain where we paid a little money to dress in ethnic clothes, had delicious lunch at an aunt's house where I talked to the fascinating uncle about his study of the extremely complicated Nepali burial rituals, went rock climbing by the side of the road and scared everyone with my daring maneuvers (not really that daring, they're just scaredy cats) and ended up on a tea plantation racing a seven year old around the hills. This trip reminded me of what I loved when I first came here. It makes me seriously consider leaving Mumbai when my lease runs out and trying Kathmandu. We'll see.

No time for edits. Have to get food before stomach starts eating my liver (Hey! back you, I need that for drinking)

buy buy buy

Here's all of the acquistions made by the internet giants. That Google. She's on a rampage:
Acquisitions by Internet companies

A link to the full PDF or JPG image
via Digital Inspiration

Thursday, February 7, 2008

for all you design geeks out there (I'm looking at you Goligorsky)

White House Redux: An interesting speculative project to design a new White House. A month long display of the winners will kick off in July in NYC. Sounds like something to watch:


my favorite prank

I've shown this excellent prank to many friends over the years. Now I'm showing it to you:

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Russian prison tats

English Russia has a great photo collection of Russian prison tattoos:
criminal tattoos in Russia 8

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

the Davos question

The Davos World Economic Forum met in Switzerland at the end of last month. They had a YouTube room where world leaders could answer The Davos Question:

"What one thing do you think that countries, companies or individuals must do to make the world a better place in 2008?"

Here are the answers from the likes of Kissinger, Karzai, Bono and other world shakers:

Unfortunately, I can't listen to any of them so I hope they're good.

via LazyGeek

new google offerings

With Google Transit:

  • I can specify the desired departure or arrival time.
  • It will show more than one trip choice, allowing some flexibility with respect to when I'd like to start.
  • It estimates the amount of walking required to get to a transit stop/station.
  • It identifies the length of waiting at each transit point.
  • It estimates the comparable cost of transportation options, where available
Google Labs just came out with experimental new ways to view your search results. Let me know what you think:

And in another direct threat to Microsoft territory: Google Apps Team Edition
"Team Edition enables co-workers and classmates to choose to share information just with each other, and not with outsiders, and it lets IT departments actively manage Google Apps, so admins can customize the Google Apps experience for users, including who should have access and which applications are available. ... Now you and your co-workers or classmates have a new way to share documents, spreadsheets, presentations and calendar information online. "

Via Google's Blog

minimalist design for an excellent message

Hooray for Super Tuesday! I'm waiting results on pins and needles. I'm going to the capital of Sikkim and I'm not sure if I can get Internet. Please please call or text me with results: 022 9833803869

from Sean Bonner's Flikr stream

For all you Boss fans out there

From Strange Maps:
"James Joyce once boasted that, should Dublin ever disappear off the face of the earth, the city could be reconstructed from the references to it in ‘Ulysses’. The maker of this map did something similar: ‘Bruceville’ is New Jersey, as it can be reconstructed out of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics."

skinny people overload

In honor of all the fashion TV I've been watching because it has better music than MTV or VH1, here's a comic from one of my favorites: Indexed

I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK

Tessa called me a lumberjack and we immediately launched into Monty Python's lumberjack song.
We immediately stopped because in true Pelger fashion, we only knew the first two lines. Here's the rest of the sketch from the funniest television show ever created (in my humble opinion):

Monday, February 4, 2008

last days in the city: alcoholics, whores and Iron Maiden (who are both)

On Thursday, I was looking forward to two events: getting drinks with Hugh and Saket's birthday party.

I met Hugh the night before at the train station. A funny old man with a clipped British accent, he made me laugh with his kookiness and Keuorac style talking so I gave him my number to hang out sometime. I impressed him by correctly guessing his age at late 50's. I actually thought he looked 20 years older and I thought my guess low to the point of absurdity.

He called me at midnight that night for an interesting conversation. He sang a lot of American rock songs including my favorite Goodnight Irene, talked about all the money he made in the oil business and rapped a lot of clever puns. He struck me as odd but I stole a line from "Man on the Moon"and told Tessa "He's crazy but he might also be a genius."

After we met for drinks, I concluded that in fact, he was simply crazy. He rambled on and on in a flow of consciousness that, nevertheless, impressed me with its memory. As we left the little chai shop, some goondas (mafia types) outside tried to warn me but I had not been with him long and wanted to see a little more. We sat in a local park and he went through his bag for some papers he had for me. Food covered everything in his tattered briefcase including the resume he gave to me and his wife's death certificate that he kept. In a wise move, I saw my business card with my number on it that I had given to him. I slipped it into my pile of papers to escape the inevitable follow up calls from this lonely old man. I sympathized for him but I coudln't be around him anymore. I made up an excuse about Tessa being lost and escaped to the train station. An odd experience.

That night, I had a wonderful time at my friend Saket's birthday party. We met on, a site that is fast becoming my best way of meeting interesting people and acquiring cool house guests. Seeming much older than his 21 years, he's made movies for National Geographic and currently works as an editor for prestigious law journal papers. We immediately bonded intellectually over books, politics and movies. He's soon leaving for many months in the Czech Republic after a stopover in Vienna to see his Austrian girlfriend. I'm sad to lose him so soon after we met.

However, his birthday party turned into a networking extravaganza. I met a great couple who just moved back to Mumbai from LA. He still runs a wine distribution company in California but now also works for the slum rehabilitation project in Bombay. It sounds like depressing work for an honest man as the project becomes rife with corruption. I found an interesting fact from him: the technical definition for a slum is more than 40 families per toilet and lack of dug foundations. Proudly, this makes my place Slum Plus. His wife works with the Screen Actors Guild in California and offered me contacts at the Times of India, the country's most prestigious paper. They invited us for dinner upon our return to the city and I'm looking forward to it.

I also met Saket's godfather, Shawn from England. He spent 19 years in an ashram in the north of India with his wife who he met at university in the UK. In a sign I always love in new people, we never got to any biographical questions. Tessa and I picked up a travel companion from South Africa named Astrid. We've hung out for almost two weeks and still have not asked any boring questions of each other. It's great when it just flows like that. Anyway, Shawn dominated the room with his guitar playing (weak), his song writing (strong), his girl pinching (often) and his jokes (very often). I also had a hit with a spirited rendition of Jabberwocky complete with removing my shirt to show off my tattoo of the monster as it charges into view in the poem. A very fine night except for having to take a cab home from Grant Road. Still, it's a half hour ride for 4 bucks.

On the walk into our place, we found a little something I'd like to call the Heartbreaker. Tessa loves dogs. People always scold her for petting stray dogs but she loves them. They can sense it and she finds canine friends everywhere. I even heard her once say, "If I had a dog here, I wouldn't mind not having friends." We've been talking about adopting a dog by feeding it but having it live outside on the street. That way, even if we have to leave, at least it had a period of good food and love while retaining its street smarts. The stray dogs here have to be strong and smart by natural selection. Nobody helps them and its survival of the fittest.

Tessa spotted the Heartbreaker and fell in love. A tiny puppy with large souful eyes and all black coloring except for brown on its neck and paws, it hid underneath some bicycles as we approached. As the girls tried to grab it, it howled pitifully until they got it into their arms and settled it down. They spent the next hour at the house holding it, taking pictures with it and making little happy noises. It slept between Tessa and Astrid that night with me on the outside. Somehow, despite Tessa's status as bug magnet, I'm the only one who kept waking up to squash fleas.

She tried to give a bath the next morning but it howled so loudly that she thought it might wake up the whole neighborhood. When I went downstairs to pee in the shower, I became confused at all of the black hair dye on the floor. I didn't realize that the ten second bath had left a large pool of thick dirty water behind. She took it to breakfast that day and then to our friend's Bob's house to see if he could take while we left for a month. He didn't so we had to return it to where we found it. I felt bad for my little sister. She really loved that dog. However, I bet it will be there when we get back. At least, I hope so.

Friday was my last day in the city for a month because Tessa and I will be in Darjeeling for a wedding, travel around Nepal or the Five Sisters (the five little states to the extreme northeast of India and far off the tourist path) for ten days and then go to Assam for a week long television shoot where we will play husband and wife.

After breakfast at Hotel Shivvlas with the nice Icelandic boy and Australian girl who stayed over the last two days, I spent the morning taking care of errands. I went to the post office to have all my mail (especially the package of books, goldfish, blonde hair dye and cheez-its from my loving parents ) forwarded to my friend's house. Bob and Pratsut, you eat anything but the artificial cheese products. I need my artificial cheese. For this package forwarding I only needed to talk to four people and go to two locations, a marked improvement over my first post office trip.

Then I went to the tailor to pick up my favorite pair of pants that had a huge rip in the crotch. I dropped them off yesterday and they said come back at 5. I got there at 4:30 because I needed to be somewhere and they said they weren't ready yet. I had Tessa stop by when she went by at 6 but still no luck. They told her to come back at noon the next day. I come by at one and he says "2 minutes". Then he takes the pants and finished the entire job in two minutes. In the words of Charlie Brown, arghhh.

Then I headed down to Bandra to meet some people for the Iron Maiden concert. I blew a months rent ($25 USD) for a ticket. We got into the venue, after a severe pat down for liquor and a cigarette confiscation, to discover that the only thing they only sold shitty sandwiches and Pepsi inside. No beer. Let me repeat. No beer. As the yellow zig-zagged shirt said, arghhh. Also, since we had the cheaper tickets, they put us so far back from the stage. You could only watch on the video screens and could barely even see the 20 foot tall Eddy skeleton come out with his giant gun and point it at the crowd. They played a high energy show but I couldn't get really into it.

We blew early with a nice kid from Israel who came here to find music. There's lots of young Israeli's traveling India after their compulsory military service. We went to Bandra West for beer and dinner. We found a nice restraunt but they didn't have drinks. We asked him to recommend a spot and he told us about a place down the street called Topsy. I'm still not sure if it was mirth or spite that made him send two guys and three girls to a whorehouse.

In either case, we had a great, albeit expensive, time. We walked into a room filled with mirrors, a psychedelically glowing ceiling, a band with singers straight from 70's porn playing Bollywood hits, men seated quietly around the outside with their beers and whiskys and fairly pretty Indian girls in modest saris. However, in a country with little intergender eye contact, I quickly realized these girls meant business. Tessa and Astrid started dancing and some of the girls seemed to like it although I knew it hurt their business. All the men stared at Tessa the entire time. I danced for awhile too and eventually sat down. The singer came up and asked me why I stopped. I said I'm a terrible dancer. He nodded agreement and kept singing.

I studiously avoided eye contact although the madame (?) and I kept exchanging glances. A girl behind me kept accidentally touching my arms and looking at me in the mirror. Not knowing the etiquette of the place made it a trifle weird. However, I knew it mostly came down to baksheesh (Hindi word for tips, bribes or alms depending on the situation). I made friend with the head waiter but he wouldn't explain to me how things worked. I'm waiting to meet a rich guy who wants to find a place like this so I can spend his money to make friends there and learn how things work. One of my favorite activities in this country involves finding out all the complications behind every seemingly simple operation. Things in America generally operate as they appear on the surface. India always has many more layers than you would guess. I love it.

We had a round of beers and I tipped the female singer a few bucks. Apparently, this meant I bought myself an hour of singing just as we meant to leave. She got huffy and stopped singing as I got up to pay the bill. I had to apologize on the way out and assure I loved her singing and would listen more attentively when I came back with a better crowd. I tipped a few bucks to the head waiter and we left Topsy. I'm very curious to get back there.

Then we got dinner while my friend's Bob and Aimar showed up in their car. We headed to a bar/restaurant close to my house. Unfortunately, there's almost nothing in the way of as bar culture where people go for a quiet place to drink and maybe meet people. It's either clubs or restaurants with not much in between. We left when the place closed and got home with enough time for an hour nap before our flight to Darjeeling. Unfortunately, we slept through two alarms and a phone call but that's a story for another day.

Creed of Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson's rules for life:

  1. Make up your mind to be happy. Learn to find pleasure in simple things.
  2. Make the best of your circumstances. No one has everything, and everyone has something of sorrow intermingled with the gladness of life. The trick is to make the laughter outweigh the tears.
  3. Don't take yourself too seriously. Don't think that somehow you should be protected from misfortunes that befall others.
  4. You can't please everybody. Don't let criticism bother you.
  5. Don't let your neighbor set your standards. Be yourself.
  6. Do the things you enjoy doing but stay out of debt.
  7. Don't borrow trouble. Imaginary things are harder to bear than the actual ones.
  8. Since hate poisons the soul, do not cherish grudges. Avoid people who make you unhappy.
  9. Have many interests. If you can't travel, read about new places.
  10. Don’t hold postmortems. Don’t spend your life brooding over sorrows and mistakes. Don’t be the one who never gets over things.
  11. Do what you can for those less fortunate than yourself.
  12. Keep busy at so something. A busy person never has time to be unhappy.

via The Old Man