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So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish

By on Sep 22, 2009 in Personal | 14 comments

So ‘The Day’ is finally here. In a few hours, I will be flying cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows towards a new town which will be a home away from for me for the next few years. Yes folks, I’m leaving India today to join University of Surrey in Guildford, UK. I’m joining the four-year BEng Electronics & Computer engineering course there. (This course is a mix of both hardware as well as software related subjects.) As I do some last-minute packing at this ungodly hour, I can’t help but feel excited and nostalgic at the same time! My journey towards joining University of Surrey began many moons ago, in the beginning of 2009. UK-based universities used a centralized application system called UCAS, and that’s where I began. UCAS allows you to apply to a maximum of five universities – my choices were Surrey, Aberystwyth (Wales), Kent, Aston, and Cardiff (not necessarily in that order). To cut a long story short (I feel sleepy!), I got offer letters from all five universities by mid-May. I now needed to pick one of these. Surrey  is one of the best universities in UK for electronics engineering / computer science. Surrey’s faculty of electronic engineering is at the cutting-edge of research in the field, including working closely with Surrey Satellite Technology, a spin-off from the university’s Surrey Space Centre which has worked on major projects such as the European Space Agency’s rival to GPS. Surrey county is also where many electronics and software firms have their headquarters. Surrey, thus, was by far my first preference among the universities I applied to. Around the end of May, University of Surrey’s Director of Student Recruitment Dr Peter Marshall (who was a professor in the faculty of electronic engineering before taking this administrative position) visited New Delhi. (This was after I had got my offer letters from all universities.) I met up with him for a chat, and by the end of that meeting I felt that Surrey was the right choice for me. I accepted by the end of the day (via UCAS). I must thank Prannoy ‘Pony’ Sablok, a DPS VK senior and Code Warrior currently studying at Aston University for all his guidance during the application process. Then began the paperwork. I received my visa letter from Surrey towards the start of July. I applied for my visa on 17th July, and just three day later – on my birthday – I got my visa. :D That was a pleasant surprise, since visa processing generally takes around two weeks! My university is situated in the town of Guildford is approximately half an hour away from London by rail / road. I solemnly deny that the fact that Douglas Adams had a soft spot for Surrey (the county) had anything to do with my decision to join Surrey (the university). Arthur Dent stays in Leatherhead, Surrey; Woking is ‘the word for when you go to the kitchen but forget why’; Ford Prefect is (supposedly) from Guildford…and so on. More references to Surrey in popular culture can be found in Harry Potter, Lara Croft, and War of the Worlds. The past few weeks have been spent meeting relatives and school friends. Had a great time participating in the AIIMS college fest Pulse 2009 with ex-DPS VK Quiz Club members Rachit and Varun! (Came second in general trivia quiz, first on movie quiz, third in science quiz.) Making goofy faces at the Code Warriors reunion (more photos from CW Reunion 2009 here)… …total vellapunti… Stationary on an escalator gyaan.in, the associated meetup, technology (un)conferences have kept me busy too. Which reminds me, i’ve been working on the draft of a novel too. Shshshsh… No more details yet. One thing that I have realized is that writing a long-length work is tough shit. You start working on something, and then you find it doesn’t quite fit in. Maybe I’ll rework those bits, spin them off as short stories and then publish them here some day. Oh, and I’ve been doing this in Google Docs – revision control is a very handy tool. For the past few months, I have also been working with Youthpad (and to an extent, more.VoiceTAP) as a content writer. Coming up with new blog post ideas for Youthpad daily has been a fun task, although at times I’ve suffered from serious bouts of writer’s block. :) Sadly, with university starting I won’t be able to continue in this position. Anyway, it has been great fun! University of Surrey promotional video. I *heart* the catchy tune! I won’t be blogging daily from now onwards (I hear my RSS subscribers breathing a sigh of relief), but I think I’ll remain fairly regular in putting up new blog posts. I’m also introducing three new post categories on my personal blog – Surreyal, about happenings at the University of Surrey; Stiff Upper Lip, for everything else quintessentially British; Take42, which I intend to be a vodcast. I’ll try to incorporate more podcasts, videos, pictures in the future. And just FYI, I think it’d be a swell idea if someone starts a company called Take42 Interactive, as a parody of Take2 Interactive. ;) Wow. This has been one long blog post. Soon, I’ll be switching over to a new time zone. It’s 6am in the morning right now, and I still haven’t...

1-800-41-999-999

By on Sep 22, 2009 in Reviews, Tech Takes | 1 comment

There have been quite a few web-based ‘local search’ engines in India. ‘Local search’ is a search engine which enables you to find – at the very least – addresses and telephone numbers of various business establishments, restaurants, movie theatre show timings, etc in your particular city. A few major players in the Indian local search business are Yahoo! India Local Search, JustDial, AskLaila, OnYoMo; plus some niche players such as Foodiebay (restaurant listings and reviews) and Burrp.com (events, restaurants, pubs, cafes; I reviewed an associated service name Burrp! TV earlier). However, most of these services are intended to provide you with information before you leave your house / workplace. You can look up information for a place you plan ahead in visiting. If you want to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to some restaurant or find a business when you’re on the road, you were pretty much screwed. Sadly, most of these local search engines don’t have good mobile interfaces (except for JustDial). JustDial also operates a human-operator assisted telephone helpline (6999-9999). The way this works is that you call the number, a human operator types in your queries into the normal JustDial interface, and then reads out the results to you. As you can imagine, this procedure can be quite cumbersome. You may be unlucky enough to get an operator who isn’t that good / doesn’t understand what you’re saying. Many times call centre operations are based out of one city, and if you’re calling in from another city then they’ll be thoroughly confused (as I’ve found out at times). So you were pretty much screwed in such situations…until now. To circumvent these and other problems, Google India launched Local Voice Search about a year ago. It was a laughable attempt at that time, because the whole operation was based on a human-operator picking up the phone and keying in whatever you wanted to know into standard Google Search. Totally not worth talking about. Now however, they have shifted to an automated voice recognition system – which makes the game a bit more interesting. If you stay in Delhi (NCR), Mumbai, Bangalore or Hyderabad, dial the toll-free number 1-800-41-999-999. This connects you to Google’s automated voice-based local search system. The system will prompt you to speak a type of business (e.g., ‘cafe’, ‘pizza’…), restaurant / shop / other business establishment (e.g., ‘Subway’, ‘DHL’…), or movie for show timings (e.g., The Taking of Pelham 123). The voice recognition system will they play back what it understood, ask for confirmation, and then prompt you to speak the area name in which you are seeking whatever you want. In case automated voice recognition fails, the system will transfer your call to a call centre where a human operator will assist your search. (Human assist is available only from 8am to 12 midnight though.) Once the system has recognized all your choices correctly, it will read out the top three results for you – and also send you an SMS containing details for free (if you’re calling from a cellphone number). I have tried out the service a few times, and my reaction to it is mixed. Movie timings: Almost always fails to recognize movie names, especially if the movie name is weird (for instance the example I gave). When it does find a match, you don’t get results from all cineplex chains. That’s still understandable, because till now there’s no single service which allows you to check show timings across all chains. (Hint hint, entrepreneurs. Here’s an area you start-up. That is, if movie theatres stop being a dick and give you access to their data.) Restaurant / exact business names: Mostly gets it right. The problem is that the contact details supplied are often out-dated / not working, so you’re back to square one. Still, when it works this is a life saver. After all, you’re dialling in toll free, so it’s not as if your money is being wasted. ‘Vague queries’ (searching by business type): Hit-and-miss affair. Again, toll-free, so no harm in checking. The main ‘problem’ with Google Local Voice Search is not so much of not an extensive-enough database or voice recognition. The main problem is that it’s search engine simply does not understand the concept of ‘proximity’. Once I tried to track down courier services in Bhikaji Cama Place or Vasant Kunj. Voice recognition identified the place name correctly both times. Yet, when it came to giving results, it gave me address in South Extension and Lajpat Nagar! (People who live in Delhi will realize how ridiculous this is.) And it’s not as if those services don’t exist in the places I specified (as I found out from JustDial mobile web search). Clearly, Google Local Voice Search has quite some way to go before it becomes a dependable alternative to ‘calling your friend who lives closest to the area you want to go to’. However, the concept holds so much promise that I’m sure Google (and other companies) will invest into efforts such as this – and we, as end users, would definitely want to adopt services such as this. Searching by speaking out words is so inherently intuitive that it has the potential to bring the power of search to a lot more people and in a lot more environments (d0esn’t tie you down to your computer desk). Until then, we can only...

Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’

By on Sep 21, 2009 in Reviews | 1 comment

My rating of The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown: 5.5 / 10 Publisher: Transworld (India / UK), Doubleday (US) Price: Rs 699 Love him, hate him, you just can’t ignore him. Dan Brown is back…with his new novel The Lost Symbol. Initially titled The Solomon Key, the book was finally released on 15th September 2009. You intuitively know this book was going to smash a few records when you find a PDF ebook torrent of the book within hours of release (probably made easier by the fact that is was released as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle). The first few comments on such highly anticipated book releases are always from retards who shout “Fake!” without even bothering to check. I prowled around torrent sites for “You are a retard, <username of first commenter>” comments to pour in, and then got on to downloading the book once the I knew for sure this was the real thing. The hysteria has already started – The Lost Symbol has already broken the one-day adult fiction sales record and Washington tourism board has launched a special microsite dedicated to the novel. Heavens have mercy on us all. Watch a news report about the launch of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol In a way, Dan Brown is like the George Lucas of the publishing industry – he can make mega-hit books by the minute, but years down the line everyone will acknowledge his works as a piece of shit. Just like dear ol’ Chetan Bhagat. Here’s the ‘official’ description for The Lost Symbol: As the story opens, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned unexpectedly to deliver an evening lecture in the U.S. Capitol Building. Within minutes of his arrival, however, the night takes a bizarre turn. A disturbing object–artfully encoded with five symbols–is discovered in the Capitol Building. Langdon recognizes the object as an ancient invitation . . . one meant to usher its recipient into a long-lost world of esoteric wisdom. When Langdon’s beloved mentor, Peter Solomon–a prominent Mason and philanthropist–is brutally kidnapped, Langdon realizes his only hope of saving Peter is to accept this mystical invitation and follow wherever it leads him. Langdon is instantly plunged into a clandestine world of Masonic secrets, hidden history, and never-before-seen locations–all of which seem to be dragging him toward a single, inconceivable truth. You know what this reminded me of? The interactive Dan Brown plot generator. I’m not kidding. While I was reading the book, I was truly irritated by how Dan Brown kept following the template of Mickey Mouse watch wearing professor + chick-and-professor-rolled-into-one love interest for Langdon + an assassin + secret society. He repeats Langdon’s backstory as to why he wears the watch, has claustrophobia, does laps of the Harvard swimming pool, etc etc every 30 pages – just to ensure that if you start flipping through the book somewhere in the middle, you have a ‘deep understanding’ of Robert Langdon’s character. I’ll keep the review spoiler-free. Watch The Making of The Lost Symbol, the book with a five million print run Thing is, Dan Brown’s formula has worn down by now. After The Da Vinci Code this simply seems to be a half-hearted attempt to fulfill a publisher’s contract. Despite being riddled with plot holes, Dan Brown’s previous novels worked because they were fast-paced and exciting on their own accord. In The Lost Symbol, he tries to overdo this by making lame attempts to insert cliffhangers at the end of every five paragraphs. It’s not a compulsive page-turner. Another irritating bit is the overuse of italics. Every second line is in italics. This is done to ‘speak out’ the internal thoughts of a character. We readers love that, man, but for Christ’s sake don’t overdo it man. There is no need to emphasise everything. Certain phrases are repeated way too often in the book. The number of times something ‘dawns’ on Langdon will make you think he’s orbiting the Earth in a space shuttle rather than moseying around in Washington DC. (Astronauts on a space shuttle see a new ‘sunrise’ / ‘sunset’ every 45 minutes, approximately the same time-frame in which some ‘startling revelation’ ‘dawns upon’ Robert Langdon.) Every time one of these ‘dawning’ epiphanies happens, Langdon becomes a walking-talking Wikipedia entry on said topic which caused of ‘revelation’. Poor Isaac Newton is once again dragged into yet another secret society (this time it’s the Invisible College) and becomes party to fiendish conspiracies. Between being the Grand Poobah of the Royal Order of Water Buffaloes, Freemasons, Invisible College, Priory of Sion, and whichever ‘secret society’ Dan Brown cooks up in his next novel I wonder when did Newton get the time to work out the laws of gravity. Dan Brown does a volte-face to his attitude towards religion compared to his previous novels. Angels & Demons (the book, not the movie) had reasonably balanced Science vs Religion philosophical discourses. The Da Vinci Code came across as anti-Vatican despite not intending to. The Lost Symbol marks the complete surrender of Dan Brown to religion. The Bible, which was described in The Da Vinci Code as “The greatest story ever sold, rathe than the greatest story ever told“, metamorphoses into Dan Brown’s version of The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. He does mention Koran, the Bhagvad Gita, Zohar et al too, but more in the tone of extras – bouncers...

Rise of the (venomless) cobra

By on Sep 20, 2009 in Reviews | 0 comments

My rating of GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra: B- (Fair) Cast: Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Dennis Quaid, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rachel Nichols, Jonathan Pryce, Arnold Vosloo Directed by: Stephen Sommers Studio: Paramount Pictures GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra belongs the same category of movies as Transformers – ‘lovingly’ referred to as ‘war porn’ by critics. An assorted collection of slow-mo shots of military equipment and special-op military forces. Heck, even GI Joe is a Hasbro toy-line – so that was something expected. And with Stephen Sommers – the Mummy guy – at helm, you can’t expect anything other than a popcorn action flick. My interested in this movie was piqued when I watched its trailer. The Eiffel Tower crumbling to bits? If this didn’t beat Transformers in sheer entertainment value, I don’t know what would. Before I begin the review here’s a bit of trivia, since it has been pointed out to me that I’m the most likely person to know random facts. Random Fact Of The Day is that Sienna Miller’s boobs caught fire while the movie was being shot. Details are sketchy as to whether an explosion was involved or they spontaneously self-combusted due to their hotness. Thankfully, as it transpired, no valuable assets were lost. Watch the trailer for GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra I admit that I’m not familiar with GI Joe lore. I played with GI Joe toys when I was a kid but didn’t really gave a damn about who belonged to which organization. Just let them loose (in your imagination of course) to bash each other up. I’m pretty sure our Indian shores haven’t had the (mis)fortune of being bombarded with Joe merchandising such as comics either. So my experience in watching the movie is that of a n00b to Joe-lore. The entire story of the movie can be summed up thusly: GI Joe is a special unit comprising of military personnel from across the world who ‘try to beat up bad guys’. The bad guys are M.A.R.S. Industries, who are contracted by NATO to develop nanobots that can eat through metal. They develop the weapon, and then for some convoluted reason the head of that company plans to steal it from himself while it is enroute to be delivered to NATO from his factory. Why not just make some for himself? Because then you wouldn’t have a big budget movie, dummy. Anyway, he succeeds in stealing the nanobot-equipped warheads from himself, decides to launch them from a secret aquatic base under the North Pole – and it’s up to our ‘average Joes’ to save the world. The movie is almost completely CGI. Everything except for the actors is shot on a green/blue backdrop. While the quality of CGI is good, it is quite obvious whenever you look at a scene that it is fake. (Note – not referring to you-know-what in the picture above.) Without the stylistic over-the-top-ness used in the likes of Sin City, GI Joe feels as if you are watching someone else play a video game. Stephen Sommers peppers the movie with bullet-time shots a la ‘300’…except he does it on a ‘grander’ scale using attack helicopters and whatnot. Acting is average at best. Honestly, the batshit insane story does not give anyone room to play around and even think about delivering a serious performance. Nobody seems to have informed this fact to Dennis Quaid though, who miserably drags through every scene as if he’s starring in some poignant war-drama. Many flashbacks in the movie; most of them done in the most juvenile and cheesy manner possible. Rest of the cast is completely in-flow and enjoying working on the movie. Most actors will come out with their reputation pretty unscathed. Sommers seems to have found a new muse in Sienna Miller. He rivals Michael Bay (and Bay’s fascination with Megan Fox) by ensuring that Sienna Miller is shown in every second frame. Just like Michael Bay, he devotes a lot of time to, erm, ‘close-up shots’. Nobody in the movie theatre complained though. ;) (Which reminds me , if you want to watch a movie in Delhi, watch it at DT Cinemas if possible. Plush seats, and the whole theatre is practically empty all the time. It’s like watching a movie in your own personal theatre. Food is crap though, and overpriced at that.) The story, as I said, batshit insane. In a flashback, a soldier is sent into a terrorist bunker to ‘shoot down those bastards’…when an airstrike has already been ordered on the building. Why do you need to shoot someone and then drop bombs on them. Probably just to say you can. So this soldier goes in, sees some weapons experiment being shown on a computer and decides to transfer a webcast on to his pen drive. GI Joe has opened my eyes. I never knew US soldiers carried Kingston pen drives while in the middle of a battlefield in Somalia. When he plugs in the pen drive, he first scans it with Norton AntiVirus. Such dedication is truly commendable. Putting his life in the line of fire, to ensure that his pen drive is virus-free, so that when he gets back to the US of A Pentagon computers don’t get infected. Or take the scene at the Arctic Circle. So they have a huge fucking military base the bottom of...

Creating customized gifts (part 2) – Myntra.com

By on Sep 19, 2009 in Reviews | 0 comments

In my previous post, I talked about two startups in the field of creating customised gifts online – Dilsebol.com and Pringoo.com. Part 2 of my post is about another such startup called Myntra.com, based out of Bangalore. Overall rating: 9 / 10 Speed in dispatching items: 7 / 10 Diversity of items on offer: 10 / 10 Item design interface: 9 / 10 Pricing: 8 / 10 Items available: T-shirt, mug, coaster, keychain, mousepad, greeting cards, poster, jigsaw, diaries / notebooks, calendar, watch, pendant, sweatshirt, money bank, sipper, tiles, wine glass, plaques, engraved keychain, letter pad, magazine cover, jewellery box, marble pen & keychain, photo print (on various surfaces), mirrors, cigarette lighter, pen. Check out the complete list along with sub-categories here. I’ll be frank right at the outset. Out of the three companies reviewed till now, I find Myntra the best. Nobody beats them in the sheer variety of items that they have on offer for customization. And it’s not just the variety, but also the kind of gifts – many of them are truly unique and hatke. You would really want to give or get a gift of the types they have on offer. They also offer customization on a far more varied types of material / surfaces than the other customized gift providers. Once you narrow down on the gift item you want to give in the ‘Create Product’ page, proceed to the designer by choosing whatever specific type of that item you want to create within that category. Myntra’s design interface is a joy because of its simplicity. No baffling buttons, no broken layouts. All that you have is a simple step-by-step guided process. You also get more control than the others on position, size, and overall look of how the product will look when printed on. Within the designer, a higher number of fonts is available if you want to type in text; however, I would suggest you to stick to making your design as image and then uploading it. It’s the little things that make you want to order from Myntra. Any other company – whether a brick-and-mortar store or Myntra’s online competitors – will charge you extra if you want to print on both sides of a T-shirt; Myntra charges a flat rate whether you print on one side or both sides. When you are giving your order, for a small fee you can also specify the item to be a gift, to be couriered directly to the person whom you want to send it to. While I don’t think they’ll gift-wrap the item (duh, they’re sending by courier), they allow you to include a personalized message. When it comes to couriering (whether you choose the gift option or not) you have a choice of three different companies – BlueDart, DTDC, and Aramex. (The Aramex option seemingly can’t be selected though, since clicking on it actually selects BlueDart. Some bug in their code.) Courier charges are extremely reasonable. Curiously, they charge less to send via BlueDart than DTDC! :O Say you don’t want to design items, only want to buy something. Myntra has a thriving designer community who sell their designs on various gift items for you to buy. None of the other competitors have a thriving design community. They have a design community, but most designs are crap. Myntra has cornered attracted some good designers to its platform! I’ll share some of my experiences so far with Myntra. I ordered a jigsaw puzzle (to be sent as a gift), part of which you can see assembled in the image above. I was a bit skeptical how my uploaded image would look when printed on a jigsaw, or heck, how even the jigsaw would feel like – but when I got the finished product it was simply beautiful. I’d chosen this to be sent by BlueDart, and it arrived next day after dispatch date. The only thing I didn’t like was that it didn’t come in a box; just in a plastic package with a cardboard back. Otherwise, this turned out to be an awesome gift item. The most recent items I ordered from Myntra are these customized pens that arrived today. Myntra keeps you informed about your order progress via SMS, and these shipped right on time on 16th September – the deadline they had assigned themselves. (They set a deadline, and most times they deliver before the date they set.) I had asked for this to be shipped by BlueDart but I don’t know why, maybe because this was a large order, they sent it by DTDC instead. DTDC is a bit lax about delivery, so despite the items arriving in Delhi on 17th, DTDC brought to my home only late afternoon on 18th. (I’m sure this wouldn’t have happened with BlueDart.) I ordered these pens as gifts to be given to my schools teachers, but because of this delay on DTDC’s part the only option I have is to go and give these on the day I leave for UK. :| To some extent, this is Myntra’s fault, not just DTDC’s. Even when the invoice on the shipped product mentions shipping company as BlueDart, they goofed up and sent by DTDC instead. Why. The. Fuck? When I’m individually paying shipping for each product, I at least deserve to receive the items by the method I want. The pens themselves...