Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Happy Diwali!

Let's take a moment to list some good news.

First, yesterday was Diwali, a holiday in honor of someone or other, depending on who you ask. It's about this guy, who is a God, and who slayed a Dragon. Or it's about some other guy, who is also a God, who came back home and people lit lights for him. The full list of interpretations is on Wikipedia, including the different opinions on when exactly it should be celebrated (Sunday, yesterday, or tomorrow. Trivandrum itself seems divided on the issue). Alternatively, it is a festival in honor Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and so during the celebration people convert their money into fireworks and burn it. It's a fun way to flaunt how rich you are, and to teach young children how to play with explosives. For instance:



Good good. Quite an improvement there Kini!

Second, more good news. I am a volunteer coach for two speed roller skate athletes. Binesh, here on the left, is seen winning the his race at the regional qualifications, and Shery, on the right, seen winning her race during the same event.

With the help of a small PLT Scheme program, I graph their times and shout it at them on every lap until they get faster. And they did -- they got faster and they went to win two solid gold medals at the KV Junior National Speed Roller Skating Competition. Way to go team!

Most impressive, they did it without any pasta. Normally, athletes eat nothing but pastas during the 24 hours leading to a race. This loads the body with the form of energy that most readily available for the muscles (That is, aside from sugar. Sugars may be the most available, but they cannot be stocked, since any extra intake is immediately burned in the form of a sugar rush.) So, since I do not know what is the nutritional equivalent of pasta in the Indian diet, and that here pasta is a rich foreigner's food that I can't afford (or anyone), Binesh and Shery had to win from the force of their own will -- no pasta-magic helped them. I am so proud.

Third good news, Kerala's celebrated its first web site to reach a Google Page Rank of 7. The State's tourism web site, was propelled to 7 when a sizable crowd of Bangalore bloggers linked to it as they prepared to travel to Blog Camp. The site managed to reach this position in spite of violating two core rules of web design circa 2001 (1- have no scrolling marquee, 2- have some substantive content on the first page). The news of the web site's success was discussed on the evening news, and printed onto the pages of the State's edition of respected national newspaper The Hindu, whose web site represents all the best rules of web design as they stood in 1997.

Fourth good news, and perhaps the most important, the neighborhood grocery store, in an effort to improve their imitation of a western-style grocery store, begun storing delicious-delicious Lindt chocolate. The jump from what was previously available is big: the members of the taste panel we organized were unanimous: At Spencer's, they sell one brand of awful chocolate, one brand of merely bad chocolate, some ok chocolate, and Lindt -- the only chocolate worthy of God's own country.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Watch me walk as I think

Attended Blogcamp Kerala. Met a lot of a fascinating people. Did an abridged version of the wrist talk, as well as a live demo of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Came back with a caricature of myself giving a talk.

People were taking picture of me like I was a tourist attraction. 100 guys, 3 girls and one Guillaume, and everyone is interested in the Guillaume (and the Guillaume is interested in the 3 girls.)

Spoke of the kinship between Kerala and Québec during the panel on politics. Trivandrum hosts one general strike a week. Members of the opposition party start the strike by threatening to throw stones at buses that dare bring people to work. Then the ruling partly declares a strike to complain about the opposition lunching too many strikes. Québec, on the other hand, boasts the first unionized McDonald's and the first unionized Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart responded to the unionization by closing the store and the employees sued, since it's illegal in Québec to close a store in retribution. During my talk I made a bold prediction -- that the employees would win. When I arrived home, I found out that they did win -- they won yesterday. (When we play the prediction game on December 31, can I get points for that?)

By order of the Ministry of Tourism of Kerala, the conference had to be held on a houseboat, and so it was. We drifted down enlarged Venice canals in what is essentially an enlarged gondola with a roof. I am quite glad that I came across this relatively mundane occasion to ride the houseboats. Traditionally, you have to get married.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Three days after the LHC's first beam, I started teaching

I started teaching on Monday, and I love it. Love it! Love it! Love it! Academic presentations are like theater. They are clockwork assemblages of tightly wound sentences, each one carefully chosen for maximum information delivery. Then the talk is rehearsed until sunset on Venus (58 days), and delivered as a spectacle. Teaching, on the other hand, is like improvisation. You start with an outline of the main points, then you play it off the audience and, if you manage to raise some interaction, you play along with them. I never had so much fun on the job since 1999 -- wait, since 2000 -- wait... well, since a long time.

I am settling into a routine, and it is quite a pleasant one. I train with a 15-year-old roller-skate athlete after work, where I make a big show off my graphing lap-timer in DrScheme. I meet with Kitty in the evening and we pun each other to death over chocolate cake. Then I share traditional South-Indian dinner with Shailaja, Venkatesh, and their daughters Kini and Mandriva, which usually ends with Venkatesh and I debating on the best way to verify the soundness of the firewall with Alloy while Kini dances Bollywood around everyone.

This routine is about to get extended. I visited Kovallam this weekend. There, I played beach-soccer with six refugees from Tibet who are also members of Kerala's team at the nationals. That was a remarkable event on its own. But the high of the day was the discovery of a honest-to-goodness espresso. Which, of course, means I will go back. I don't remember how I passed my Advanced Complexity Theory course anymore. I seem to have left my proof-making-ability somewhere. So, with the help of Venkatesh, I am trying to get better at mathematics. Finding a source of good coffee was my first step towards better math. (cf. Paul Erdos).

Friday, July 11, 2008

Wisdom of the locals

me: I want to drive around and see the temples
riju: In order to drive in India you need three things: good horn, good breaks, good luck

me: I have just received my water bill. It is written entirely in Malayalam. How do I pay it?
venkatesh: It is a complicated procedure

kitty: I wanted to be a psychologist, but mom said no
me: You should've said lawyer
kitty: I did, but mom said no
me: Or something else rich and glamorous, like hotel management
kitty: Mom said no
me: What did she agree to?
kitty: Accounting

me: The bad pop music of the 80s and early 90s made waves here, but it was not nearly the traumatic event that it was in America. Yesterday I asked the restaurant to stop playing the Michael Jackson and C&C Music Factory mixtape whenever I came for dinner. They couldn't see how much it was tickling my PTSD. Bad pop music was such a powerful cultural phenomena in America, it wiped off entire sentences from the English language.
colleague: Interesting
me: By the way, the network is down
colleague: If there was a problem I'll solve it

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Doctor, it hurts when I do this

March 1, 2004 was a sunny winter day in Providence. I was hard at work at home, crouched over my laptop. Earlier, my advisor and I had made a decision. I would abandon my current project and develop an unrelated idea, one that I had just sketched out on his office white board. The idea was good. It would become my master's thesis and an award-winning paper in a respected academic journal. It was also small and self-contained, which made the switch possible at all, this late in the program, a mere three months before the deadline for submission. It was a daring, almost reckless switch. It set me up in a race against the train to the crossing. I agreed with the new plan because, frankly, I love trainrunning.

The week prior to the sunny winter day in question, my wrists had been bothering me more than usual, though I took only passing notice of it. Mostly, I spent my time two miles deep into focus, coding, oblivious to the real world. But that afternoon, the pain finally grew beyond my ability to ignore it. I stood up, tried to make step but I was overwhelmed by the pain -- it sapped my balance and I kneeled on the floor, holding my injured arm with my merely-bad one.

That was the last time I programmed with my own hands. In the intervening four years, I have designed three large programs and directed the teams set up to construct them, but any lines of code I wrote I wrote as the copilot of a coding pair. My hands refuse any contact with a keyboard with the virulence of an immune system response. If I try to type, the pain creeps up and stops me before I have accomplished much. So long as I keep away from keyboards, I am mostly fine, and my condition has improved with time. I enjoy the occasional day without symptoms, and I rarely need to fetch my electrotherapy machine anymore. In comparison, there was a time when I spent entire days under ice, begging for forgiveness. I'm glad that's over.

I saw a doctor within a week of my injury. He gave me injections of cortisone and sent me home without two crucial pieces of advice (1. Don't type through the pain. 2. So long as the medicine is active, your tendons are as weak as al dente pasta.) The doctor I saw before him, in 2003, gave me a brace and sent me back to work. In 2002, I tried to consult with the company's ergonomist, but the waiting list turned out to be longer than my internship. In fact, the onset of my tendinitis can be traced back as early as January 2001, when I complained to my family doctor about occasional wrist pain. He reassured me that I was not showing the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, and wished me luck for my new life in the United States.

My story is shockingly common. In the period between 2002 and 2006, each year one of my colleagues would develop a serious disability due to keyboard usage. Behind them, there was a long tail of programmers with various amount of wrist pain. Recently, I had the chance to stand on stage and ask a room of programmers for a show of hands, who had wrist pain? Nearly everyone did. This is not okay. It makes computer science by far the most dangerous department to work for. Physicists in rapid explosion labs do not injure themselves nearly as often as we do. Biologists in level 5 labs working with revived strains of dangerous viruses do not injure themselves as often as we do. They are careful. Why can't we?

Something about RSI makes it fall through the cracks of the Western system of medicine. The efforts necessary to prevent RSI do not seem to fit in the 15 minute window that compose an appointment with a generalist doctor. To compensate, sometime in 2005 my colleagues Jenine, Liz and myself coalesced into an ad hoc RSI prevention team. Together, we taught the physiology of the wrist and the rules of ergonomy as a compulsory lecture to the incoming students. Throughout the year, we continued the teaching, one-on-one. We invited ergonomy experts, made ice packs available, and put together a lending library of ergonomic keyboards. It made a difference, and I have hope that the habits the community learned during that time will persist, since we also taught the students to teach each other.

I have gathered these lessons into a single article. Then I translated it so I had a French and English version.
If your wrists hurt and you want to prevent them from creeping further after you, read ahead. If your wrists are fine, read as well, so you can help the programmer in your life whose wrists are probably hurting in silence.

Playing for the crowd

Yesterday I met Vincent, the gym teacher of a local high school. The school is built as two floors of mezzanines surrounding a central badminton court. We entered the school grounds during recess. Here, like in any schools, whenever a stranger intrudes in the daily routine, it is an event. There I was, a stranger, strange and a foreigner no less. Within seconds, I had two floors worth of high schoolers around me, their eyes following my steps. I have never felt such power over a crowd. At that moment and I could have yelled «cricket sucks!» and generated a riot. I choose instead to wave enthusiastically, and the whole crowd waved back ecstatically. Trust high schoolers amplify emotions; you can't beat that kind of energy.

Vincent and I set up a badminton game on the outside court, and I proceeded to attempt to beat the entire school. This was my first badminton game since my injury forced me to stop playing. My goodness, this sport is as much fun as ever. But more importantly, this match means that I am healing, bit by bit, year by year. And perhaps one day day I will be able to play at coding again.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Look to the right

This, is a tuk-tuk.

It is a three wheeled contraption that fits three persons conformably (counting the driver), four if they squeeze, and 10 if they are Indian. Tuk-tuks are made of single layers of sheet metal, yellow fabric, and Krishna stickers. Also known as autorickshaws, they are the modern art of transportation: minimal and effective. In comparison, Western cars look like a government payout to the steel industry. They are all so big on the outside and yet so small on the inside. In that sense, mainstream cars are reverse-TARDISes. I prefer the simple three-layered construction of the rickshaws: humans on seats on wheels (The frame is only there to hold the stickers.) There is so little space dedicated to non-human-body elements, they depend on the unfortunate miracle of the two-stroke engine to make them go.

Which means, of course, that they pollute like the farting of a sacred cow confined to a small bedroom. Bangalore is a parade of out-of-tune 2-strokers running off of salvaged lubricant. There is a real business opportunity in opening a shop that would pacify the exhaust of tuk-tuks for free, then sell the resulting carbon offsets on the market.

Until someone figures out how to build a small electric engine out of the recycled parts of a 2-strokes engine, India is stuck with this ugly, evil, insidious device hatched by misbegotten Communists.

Rather, the future rests with hip, cool, great ideas, such as the Topia HUVO.

Wish us luck.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Monsoon failure

It hasn't rained for more than a week. The rain in the two weeks before that was tentative. If you roll back yet another week, we were celebrating the arrival of the monsoon, in the newspapers and in the weather forecast. Well, it's not here. Where is it?

Before I left, and while I was traveling in the North, the advice on everyone's lips was to brace myself for the monsoon. So I came with a large umbrella, a trenchcoat, and dependable boots. I was prepared to open my mind and absorb the true structure of Kerala's culture, as it expressed itself under the torrential waters. I looked for a copy of Chasing the Monsoon by Frater, and when I found one in the library across town, whose policy is to not lend to foreigners, I imagined myself walking daily to their reading room where I would read about the meteorological phenomena that had drenched me on the way. But I remain dry. The only water on my shoulders is my perspiration.

Because without the monsoon, the humidity hangs in the air. The mercury may be still stuck to 31°C -- you truly do not need a thermometer in Trivandrum -- but the humidity-weighted temperature has taken off. The mathematicians say we feel the equivalent of 40°C in this 85% water/air mix. When I walk into the yuppie coffee shop, which is one rare building with full-on AC, my glasses fog like it's winter in Montréal. I stopped ordering sundaes at the ice cream parlor. I ask for family buckets now, chocolate flavored, with a spoon.

So, three weeks after opening the subject, the newspaper are talking about the monsoon again. If the rain doesn't come now, the crops will fail. People are getting worried.

Monday, June 23, 2008

This type system is a joke

In the rigid composition style of academic papers, there are little tiny cracks where one can insert bits of humor and editorial opinion, as exemplified by the following sentence from a paper on Java's type system.

Unlike the GJ compiler, which rejects an expression containing stupid casts as ill-typed, FGJ indicate the special nature of stupid casts by including the hypothesis "stupid warning" into typing rules for stupid casts. See [10] for detailed discussions on the rules for typecasts.

-- Atsushi Agarashi, Benjamin C. Pierce, Philip Wadler, in "A Recipe for Raw Types" (which, as it happens, also defines "cooked" types.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Profits are bad?

Is there a legal or economic basis for saying that companies must be unethical to profit?

Economically speaking, the contrary is true. The belief that profits are unethical created 50 years of economic misery in India. Before the reform of 1991, the draconian system of regulation meant you effectively needed license to profit, which the government gave but rarely.

The profit-is-ripoff interpretation -- which is still widespread in India -- comes from thinking of the market as a zero-sum game, which it is not. The power of the free market is contained in the moment where the seller and the buyer say to each other "Thank you - Thank you." Both gain from the trade. More importantly, the advantage to the buyer exists regardless of the profit margin of the seller.

Back in Montréal, there was a restaurant around the corner from work that used to serve me launch for 8$. I ate there every day because no other 8$ expense brought me as much joy. Perhaps if they had refused to make a profit lunch would be 6$. It would have been 4$ if the restaurant that refused to pay its employees -- to give them their part of the profit. It would be 2$ if the farmers were farming for fun. And so on. But that's neither here nor there. The transaction was advantageous to me at its stated price, otherwise I would not have entered into it.

Even though the restaurant was clearly profitable, I don't think anyone would call it a rip off (the food was excellent). To define ripoff, you have to look elsewhere.

There are companies that maximize their profit by amplifying market failures. Stadiums refuse outside food so visitor are locked-in to the concessions. Music producers organized an oligopoly so they could go price-fixing. Users of DRM aim to undermine libraries and secondhand bookstores. By doing this, they deny society of the advantages of a free market. It is unethical, and often illegal. The market distortions observed in these cases are the real ripoff.

India's confusion between profits and market failures had grave consequences. Interestingly, the United States has the same confusion, but backward. By celebrating profit as a force of good, and refusing to regulate, they are giving free rein to market failures. It caused Enron, the subprime collapse, of the sorry state of its cell phone market when compared to Europe or Japan.

It's illegal for a corporation to behave in a socially responsible way -- unless that socially responsible behavior happens to be identical to the behavior that maximizes profit?

It is certainly legal for a company to declare in their charter that their objective is not profit maximization, so long as the stockholders know what they are getting into. In practice this hardly matters. Most companies' charter promises to maximize profit, and so they are required act accordingly. Corporate Social Responsibility policies are common because they coincide with profits. Badly behaved companies lose their market share once their behavior is uncovered to the public. In the imaginary ideal market, with perfect information, the backlash is immediate. (Thus one strategy is to regulate towards more information.)

I believe that on the whole humans are a constructive force, and would rather not oppress each other when given the chance. I would rather pay more for coffee than have it processed by children. The arrival of the Fair Trade label, despite all its shortcomings, gave me a way to express that intent. Unfortunately, the finance world has no such mechanism. I own stocks through my investments in mutual funds. I may be unhappy with their profit maximization objective, but I am voiceless.

So, yes, the original criticism of corporations stands. While some company are founded by dangerous individuals, and do not need external help to misbehave, the legal structure of the stock market divides us, and will at time oblige respectable people to behave against their ethics.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Under the shadow of my umbrella

I had decided to spend my first Saturday in Trivandrum walking around the city. It was a hot day, but every day had been hot, and every day to come was going to be. I always refused to let Montréal's freezing winter storms to lock me inside. If coldness is a state of mind, as Montréal taught me, surely hotness was too. Besides, it was only 33° under the tropical sun, the sea's humidity, and the rickshaws' cloud of pollution. How bad could it be?

Trivandrum didn't agree with my plan and struck me down with a heatstroke. During this moment of weakness an opportunistic virus took over and sent me to bed for four days, feverish. I woke up to find myself afflicted by a stomach bug that let me feed on nothing but rice and curd. While that was going on, a lymph node that continued the battle against the remnants of the virus accidentally pinched a nerve in my neck, which paralyzed my right arm with pain.

Overcoming these afflictions occupied me for week #2, #3 and #4 of my stay in South India.

It's amazing what you can achieve with a smile and a merry disposition. For during these three weeks I had none, and so there was no occurrences any of the wonders that had been the hallmark of my previous month in India. There was no chance encounter with the locals, no magnificent food discovery, no fascination with tiny details, and so on.

There was, however,
  • an apartment with no fridge, no stove, no water filter, no curtains
  • which did have ants, mosquito, cockroaches, and geckos
  • which was surrounded by a city with no coffee, no beer, no wine, and nothing but melted chocolate
  • which hosted a library whose administration couldn't choose between refusing me membership or refusing me access outright, because I was a foreigner with a laptop
For the most part, I forgot the content of this list of annoyances now that the illnesses are gone. Either I found a solution or came to see the situation in a different light. Sometime it was a simple matter, such as realizing that geckos are just great. They really are.

This week (week #5) is going to be spent reading about Trigger Point Therapy in an attempt to make the remainder of the right arm pain go away. I will also get some work done, and go rest on the beach, under the sun. Wish me luck.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The moonsoon is coming

Ugh. I'm sick again. Headache, fever, crappy muscles, no appetite. It looks like a virus this time, which may or may not have been contacted from the water.

Please immunity, come quickly!

In the mean time, I am most happy to have Shailaja as a neighbor. She is a doctor and she has been watching over me like I was her own child. Thank you.

Here is a pretty table. The title of it is It's 31 C outside, the monsoon is coming!

High /
Low (°C)
Precip. %
May 26
Scattered T-Storms 26° 60 %
May 27
Scattered T-Storms 32°/26° 50 %
May 28
Scattered T-Storms 32°/26° 50 %
May 29
Scattered T-Storms 30°/26° 60 %
May 30
Scattered T-Storms 30°/26° 60 %
May 31
Scattered T-Storms 31°/26° 60 %
Jun 01
Scattered T-Storms 31°/26° 60 %
Jun 02
Scattered T-Storms 31°/26° 60 %
Jun 03
Scattered T-Storms 30°/26° 60 %
Jun 04
Scattered T-Storms 29°/26° 60 %

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Trivandrum, home of IIITM-K

I arrived on Monday to my new city of adoption, Trivandrum, Kerala, India.

Work is starting presto. My first lecture was yesterday, on version control with Subversion. I am glad to find that, despite the warning about the passivity of Indian students, I was able to get some interactivity going.

The semester starts August 1st. The plan for the summer is to organize lots of little workshop for the companies around here. We are thinking of selling workshops on Java Generic, on concurrency, on computer architecture, and Venkatesh's own Principle of Programming class. We are also thinking of doing a TeachScheme with college teachers.

I am getting settled. The two bags that I could fit on the plane sit in the corner of my large apartment. They are sum of my belonging. The rest of this middle-class 5 1/2 is filled with echoes of my footsteps. The search begins for those hard-to-find items of copious western consumption, a French-press, a kettle, a crock-pot.

Food-wise, I am very lucky. A new food court opened on the day of my arrival. It supersedes the shady cafeteria on campus, which served the most uninspired biryani have eaten of all India.

The North Indian food here could not surprise me. I was a regular of the numerous Indian restaurants in Providence and in Montreal, which served perfectly authentic food. Plus, I have yet to find a tomato spicy chicken that can match the one I cook from Madhur Jaffrey's excellent recipe (surely because I haven't been eating much chicken). The street-food experience, however, has been remarkable. The typical restaurant has no name, no decoration, no menu. The place has three walls; where the front wall would be there is a row of large pots containing non-descrip food. The owner plops a bit of each into a plate for you, pours a glass of water which you won't touch because it might be tainted. He charges you the equivalent of 0.75$CAN for the meal. You take a bite, and it's the best food ever.

With my arrival in Bangalore, I discovered I don't care so much for South Indian food. South India meals are composed entirely of chutneys, that you eat with your hands, perhaps with some rice or some chapati. Personally, I need more veggies, especially if I'll go on pretending I'm a vegetarian. The food discovery #1 of the trip is India's interpretation of Chinese dishes. They are as un-Chinese as American shopping-mall-Chinese, but it's so much better. It is perhaps the best Chinese in the world if, like me, you don't care for authentic Chinese. Trivandrum is a city lush with fruit trees. From my apartment window, I see the neighbor's house through the large leaves of banana trees, mango trees and of uncountable coconut trees. So, food discovery #2 are the fresh coconut dishes of Kerala, which appeal to the Thai lover in me.

It is hot. It is 32 C here, everyday. In Montreal, that temperature is the signal to do nothing with the day and go to an ice cream shop. Thus I have been eating three servings of ice cream per day. Breakfast at the sundaes place next to my apartment, lunch at the crunchy sundaes place in the food court, and diner at the Ben and Jerry's Baskin-Robbins' franchise.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Three minutes of silence

Seven bomb blasts in Jaipur this evening, around 19:30. Dozens dead. I was flying over the region at that time, on my flight from Delhi to Bangalore. Jaipur was not on my travel plan, Delhi is 260 km away, so the closest I got to Jaipur was 8000 meter vertical. I'm alright. [Google News]

A huge quake of 7.8 magnitude in Sichuan, China yesterday. Thousands dead. I was traveling away from the Indo-Tibetan border at the time, 2000 km away. Needless to say, I didn't feel a thing. I'm alright. [Google News]

Cyclone in Myanmar last week. Lakhs of people affected. Myanmar is the next country East after the Eastern States of India. It's very far way. I'm alright. [Google News]

I'm alright, but this week many people in Asia aren't. My thoughts are with them.

Dum Maro Dum

Mit Jaye Gum

Erase all sorrows

Bolo Subaho Shaw

Say in the morning in the evening

Hare Krishna Hare Ram

Lord Krishna lord Rama

Dunija ne jumko diya kya

What have the people given us?

Dunja se jumne liya kya

What have the people took from us?

Hum Sabki Parvah Kare Kyum

Why do we worry so much?

Sabne humara kiya kya

Have we done anything?

Everyone here who listened to What Cheer?'s cover of Dum Maro Dum was overjoyed by it. It was way more popular than my attempts at introducing John Coltrane to India. Thanks to Kartik for the rough translation.

I have spend the last five days in Kalpa, a 1000 souls village at 3000 meters of altitude, 100 kilometer West of the Tibet border. After a two hour hike, I was having a picnic at the snow line. It is a place so remote, you cannot surf the Internet nor can you buy a cola. I was able to find, however, a fading Coca Cola ad painted on the side of one house.

When I visited Poland, I made a point of covering the remaining distance eastwards to take a picture of myself facing the Russian control point. I didn't dare repeat the performance. The Russians might be crazy, but the Chinese are crazier, especially those in Tibet. Sorry folks, there will be no pictures of myself being pursed by the Red Army.

I grow more fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism the closer I get to their homeland. I sat down with the lady monk of Kalpa for the morning Puja. She sang in my presence and invited me to turn the prayer wheel. They are heavy, these wheels, as they are filled with scrolls which are covered with copies of the prayer. The scripting of the scrolls is a meditation exercise for the monks. The wheels themselves are an optimization. Once rolled tight, each turn of the wheel sends millions of copies of the prayer into the wind at once.

A distance of 100 kilometers might not be much, yet here it represents 10 hours of bus rides. Such is life when you are following the twisty little roads that grab to the sides of the plunging Himalayan cliffs. The ways are one car wide, plus half a width for the space that would be occupied by the cinder blocks, if there was any. When you meet another bus, the driver find space to pass, somehow, most of the time without stopping or slowing down. It is a feeling not dissimilar to flying. In both cases you have given fine control of your altitude to a trusted professional, and you have nothing to do for hours but to ponder that fact.

Some mountains here are so steep, they are devoid human presence, something I have not seen anywhere else in India. It takes a 70 degree climbs to discourage an Indian from establishing a settlement, apparently. Everywhere else, on the bus at night whenever I open my eyes I confuse the village lights for the stars.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


If you hike for an hour North of Dharamsala, you reach the Tibetan Children Village. While most of the population of Tibetan in exile lives in city, they created this special place for the children. For one, the adults are resilient. With efforts, they can overcome the culture shock of being adopted by India and integrate, something that the children may have more difficulties with. But the village was also created to give them a chance to grow as Tibetan. So that they could do more than remember their Tibetan culture, but be Tibetan.

Two of my future colleagues happened to be in town. It was a nice day out so we went walking. In the village, I pet the dogs and I cheered at the kids playing cricket next to Dal Lake. Then we had a meal of spicy chopsuey at the cafeteria.

The water pipes run along the roads, only occasionally do they go underground. When they leak, they gush more water than is ever available in the city. It is enough to create a new creek. The pipes to the Tibetan Children Village are broken in a number of places. So, as we walked, the road was lined with people who came to the leak to wash their car.

In India, the vehicles on the road are kept alive for decades. I would be curious to have an expert in antique with me to put dates on everything (Lucien?). The buses must be from the '50, the scooters from the '70, the motorbikes from the '80. But the cars are new.

I understand that India has little money and many hands. That is why they repair instead of rebuilding, and why the infrastructures are shabby. But why are the cars new? How do they afford them? Which disproportionate fraction of their income do the invest on them? Why do they do so?

That's the first mystery of India. The second mystery are the large smoke plumes raising from the hills. It looks like the forests are coming ablaze at multiple locations, every night, everywhere. In Rishikesh -- though nowhere else -- I was able to see an orange glow at the base. I was captivating like a camp fire: it was dangerous-looking yet safe. Natives I asked say the villages must be burning garbage. Sure, even in the city it is customary to gather a pile of garbage in street to incinerate it. But I don't believe it. The quantity needed for the plumes I see couldn't be produced by the diminutive hill villages.

The third mystery are the dry river beds. More than half of the bridges step over a ditch of rocks with a few trees. The Slumville picture, for instance, is taken from such a bridge. The river has been dried for long enough that, after the trees, the poor have taken roots. I mentioned it to a friend of a friend, my host in Kullu, Mr Kamal. He described how global warming had taken a unmistakable toil on the region. Kullu went from receiving 7 feet of snow to not receiving any snow in the last 7 years. Farmers are abandoning their apple trees and are looking for replacement crops. The newspaper talks of cities rationing water. Is global warming responsible for all the dried rivers?

I would like to thank Mr Kamal and his family for hosting me for a few days. I enjoyed being showed around the farm and having a chance to discuss the economy of India. The trip to Prashai Rishi Temple was equally memorable. Thanks again.

I spent the last few days in Manali, bathing in hot springs, waiting for the glacier to melt and the roads to open. Leh or to Kaza, near Tibet, whichever melts first, I will visit!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I am truly blessed with an indestructible sleep cycle. I felt asleep on the 14 hour bus ride from Dehra Dun to Dharamsala. Indian buses are infamous for being nosy, bumpy and animated. Long distance travelers sit while short distance travelers stand -- or sit on the sitters' leg. But despite the chaos, the babies never cry. It is an amazing display of the Indian character.

You will never believe me, but I had a good time on the bus. I kept conversation about Indian politics with a lawyer from Dehra Dun who was on his way to a court case in Dharamsala. I listened to lot of new music -- thanks Chris! -- through my invincible earplug earphones. It also helps that the bus makes regular stop in rural Indian villages. They provided many good leg stretches, good roadside Indian snacks (20% beans, 80% herbs and spices), and an astounding star gazing opportunity.

Small talk with the India is a bit different. It goes: what's your name, where are you from? Are you married, why not? (Because every one of my five girlfriend left me and I'm not bitter. Please give me an Indian arranged marriage now). Then they ask, how long in India, where, how much are you making? That one is a surprise too.

Dharamala might be a dream city. For one, it has no cars, or very few. I often dreamed that Montreal had resisted the appeal of cars during the 20th century. Dharamsala seems to have have traded the Indian's busy-bee activity for the Tibetan calm, and its rhythm fit me. It is a city-style village. It has only 20'000 people, but it is dense like a town.

I have attended a candle vigil for the Tibetans left behind. I have also started to volunteer for the education center. I am calling upon my little experience as an English teacher for the sake of the Tibetans here. One of my student trekked 25 days to flee Tibet and come here. His family is still there.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Assorted thoughts in Mussoorie

Everybody gets sick in Rishikesh. On my way to Mussoorie, I met three groups of western travellers, all leaving Rishkish, all nursing their sore tummies. I got sick too, from the family diner prepared for me with pride, by Monika, the daughter of the previous story. Bless her hearth, I couldn't tell her why I wasn't staying for tea.

A rickshaw is a bicycle-sized tricycle with a basket installed above the back wheels which seats two comfortably. They are taxis, essentially, but more fun. Earlier today, I paid 50 cents to ride to Mussoorie's Rope Way, 2 km away, up a slant. Rickshaws are blend of feeling for me. It is too cheap, I must be exploiting the merry old man. It is too expensive by local standards, I should be bargaining more. And riding the tricycle looks so much fun, I would rather be pedaling!

India doesn't believe in trash cans and it is messing with my Canadian sense of garbage ownership. When an Indian drops trash while in conversation with me, I wait until he is not looking and pick it up. I keep it until the next trash can, which is often the one in my hotel bathroom.

I am not nearly as daring as I think I am. Melanie pointed this out to me. At the 100-kinds-of-beers store, she proceeded along the entire rotation while I sheepishly stuck to my ten favorites. Here, I enter the restaurant determined to choose something at random, then select Mix Vegs. It is a meal not as boring as its name. In India, it might as well means mix vegetable with the house's own 50 special spices. It's never twice the same.

I dream to see Martin play a game on this basketball court in the hills.

The Ferris Wheel is amazing, the current picture doesn't show how. As discovered the next night, it has no engine. The two operators spin it by climbing on the structure and letting their weight pull it down. Once it is cruising, to keep it going they stand near the axis and walk on the traversal bars, chatting with each other, rolling cigarettes. I will post a picture of their acrobatics shortly.

I can get a Mont-Blanc here, who would have expected it? It is called a Slush with Softy. My five years of trying to instruct New England's creameries about this delicious combo failed like a New York poutine. Mussoorie must have heard of my arrival and practiced. It's delicious, and made out of filtered water.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Diner invitation

Does anybody knows what is an appropriate gift to bring when invited for diner in an Indian familly?

The integral collection of 50 pictures of the game are too big to upload without straining the Internet connections here. Here is one of the best:

Monday, April 21, 2008

Under- vs overground

The Delhi metro is a contrast with the life outside.

Inside, you have one of the best designed rails I had the pleasure to visit. Clean and wide wagons, with accordion connections between the sections. It rides quickly and in silence, in a tunnel of clean and conditioned air. No expense was spared, apparently. You enter by touching a RFID token to the gate's color screen.

Outside, it's grimy, noisy, and approximate. Entire building are put together hasardly, out of found material, and didn't see any maintenance for decades. The tailors work his sewing machine on the street floor, down in the third-word crouch. It reeks of poverty and hardship. Outside, I can't stop walking and rest. If I try, the tuktuk driver, shop keepers and beggars latch onto me and I have to resume walking to loose them. I usually retreat to the metro.

At the train station, a gentlemen ask to see my train ticket. He wears a name tag suitable for a Walmart employee and clothes taken from the same rack as the rest of the men of the city, except that they match, so it is a uniform. As he inspect my ticket, I analyze his behavior, checking for hints that he his a conman. The institution struggles to look official, but they cannot afford it. They can't even construct themselves a booth.

I saw two grown men holding each other's hand as they tentatively embarked on the first escalator ride of their life. I wish for the Delhi people that one day they will afford a city as nice as their metro.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Con artists

It is easy to tell con artists here in Delhi. When they introduce themselve to you, they always say "Nice beard sir. I'm sure it's hot with the ladies". They are so cute and harmless. Irresistible.

First batch of pictures on flickr.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Seat 30A is definitively the best seat in a 747. It's the first seat in the plane after the first class, so no one lowers their seat onto you. When you are done sleeping by leaning on the window, watching the pretty clouds, there is enough floor space to leave without disturbing your neighbor. And it is as far from the engine as can be, so it's a tad less noisy.

But that last bit didn't matter. I had my Shure ear-plug style earphone with me. The cute Chinese attendants were pantomiming to me the whole way, and I couldn't hear the baby crying in the next row. So, yes, I had a good 23 hours of combined flying (14 + 3 layover + 6), thank you.

On the ride between the Delhi airport and the hotel I saw: bikes caring more cargo that small trucks, two cows entertaining a conversation across the fence of the boulevard's median, a woman salving bricks from a construction site by balancing them on her head. I also paid too much for the ride (2$ instead of 0.50$) and was too easily convinced into the most expensive room of the hotel. It's all good; the first layer of the India experience comes easily.

The gender inequality here is large... the woman have all the grace. But for a few college students, they all wear colorful flowing traditional dresses. They are beautiful. The men on the other hand, have zero sense of fashion. They wear the equivalent of the first shirt off the rack at Salvation Army, paired the first pants, with no regards to whether they are faded or to whether they match. Could this be what life would look like if advertisement had no hold on us westerners?

Traffic here follows the laws of fluid dynamics, and little else. If there is an open space, your taxi will flows into it. It will also honk during the transition if there is less than 1 inch clearance, which is most of the time. The painted white line dividers act as a tribute to the colonial power that inspired the India to build roads, and serve little other purpose. Just as other fluid motions phenomenon, it is beautiful to those not terrified by it.

I would love to go blading on these road, just to see how traffic would react. Contrary to the expectation, the conditions do admits blading. But I forgot my blades, on a bus, in SF, while floating in toughs on how I hadn't missed any connection, lost my way, or lost anything so far. Damn. It is finally time to upgrade my wheels, after 10 years of loyal service of my Bauers 7-wheeled skates.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Providence & SF

It does not take much to make a home. Start with a good breakfast place (Bagel Ole), good pastries (Cheese cake factory et al.), good music (AS220). Then all you need is a few good friend amongst whom fun and focus flow naturally. Chris, David, Tori, Sam, Danny, it was a great time in Providence. It's homely.

We might get a fresh wave of DivaScheme downloads. I had the chance to do the wrist talk on stage at LUGRadio. I was happy to find my own stage self back after the bliztweekend presentation. There we managed a 3rd place on the popular vote, despite me falling on my face during the presentation. At LUGRadio, the audience was laughing on queue, which is always a good sign, and a good dozen people were asking me about DivaScheme after the talk. It not every one gets to do a speech sharing the stage with a naked guy. Good times.

I have two days left in SF to explore the city. To those skeptic of the rollerblades in my India-bound luggages, they will prove useful here. I resolve to blade down SF's crookedest street before I leave. Wish that my ankle, which still hurts after being strained under mysterious condition, will accommodate me.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Backup bacteria

There is an argument that says it is unethical to run a Windows machine without an antivirus, even though the threat to yourself is relatively low. Namely, herd immunity works for computer too. You should install the Free software ClamWin.

If you are worried about viruses, you should backup your data. Your data is a valuable thing indeed, and viruses is only one of the many ways it could be damaged. In the last year, I've had two friends lose their data when their external hard drive was stolen along with their computer, and my brother lost megabytes of notes when he accidentally overwrote an important folder.

I tried dozens of backup software before making this post. There is so much awfulness out there, for such a basic function, it's unbelievable. Backup, it's simple, how hard I can it be?

Here are my recommendations. Normal people will want Mozy. It is click-install-and-forget. It does off-site backups, so you are protected against the house burning down. It might not be open-source software, but it's free up to 2 GB. Moreover, at $60 a year for unlimited space, Mozy is the cheapest disc space you can rent.

If you have objections against safeguarding your data on somebody else's computer, try SyncBack. After some fiddling and tweaking it will do an OK job. Necessary trick #1, configure four backup schedules : daily, weekly, twice weekly, and monthly, each with a different destination directory. This way your backup contains four different versions, and you can revert to a good copy of your files ever becomes corrupted. Trick #2, buy two external hard drives and leave the second one at your mom's. Then, each time you go visit her, exchange the two drives. Your off-site enclosure becomes the bedroom one, and your bedroom one becomes the off-site one. Just ensure you switch them with some regularity, otherwise you are vulnerable to thieves and firemen.

Finally, geeks will want rdiff-backup. It is the only open source software I know that does incremental backups with byte-level diffs for both transport and storage.

Update, Nov 09, 2008

A full bitwise system copy done in hardware. Best solution, but somewhat expensive. If you are serious about off-site backups, you will need two.

A really cool combo consisting of online backup space + collaboration sharing + web sharing. Slightly more expensive than http://mozy.com :

Online backup priced at 15 cents per gigabyte. Cheaper than http://mozy.com if you need less than 33 gigabytes. Three-way portable Win, Mac, and Linux.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Journalist: Mr. Venter, with the experiments happening in your lab, do people say that you are playing God ?

Mr. Venter: oh... we are not playing.

Craig Venter and his lab successfully printed a bacterial chromosome and booted it. Soon, biology will develop a software engineering division where programmers compose the DNA code for a bacteria that consumes CO2 and produces fuel, thus solving global warming.


Creating an artificial life is a way to manipulate the world one atom at a time. It gives engineers access to many feats that seemed reserved to nature, such as spitting CO2 with a molecule-sized cleaver. We will invent our own chemical reactions and build our robots from the inside out, the same way our mother built us.

The promises of artificial life forms are the same as those of nanotechnology. It is shocking to see one arrive so far ahead on the schedule than the other. In comparison, nanotechnologists still get excited about building individual bearings. Apparently, the goo of the future will be green, not gray.

In his talk, Craig Venter suggests we start carbon sequestration efforts as soon as possible. In all likelihood, whichever technology we develop to turn CO2 into fuel, the process will work better at high concentrations of the gas. If, by then, we have large stores of CO2 underground, it will ease the transition to the new production.