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My ‘My Friend Sancho’ review

By on Sep 11, 2009 in Reviews | 2 comments

My rating of My Friend Sancho by Amit Varma: 8.9 / 10 Publisher: Hachette India Price: Rs 195 I ordered my copy if My Friend Sancho many moons ago (right when it was launched in fact) through Flipkart. Now, I had the time to read the book again. What struck me is how simple – yet beautiful and quirky – the cover design is. (Those adjectives describe the story too perfectly.) The artwork on the cover is embossed in the way it’s done on greeting cards, which is, I’m sure a first in design cover making. I think Hachette is new to India, which is why they are willing to experiment. (They’re also the Indian publishers for The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.) Moving on to further minutiae, I love the typeface that the book is set in. Normally I don’t care about that but the particular font that was used in the book – Bodoni MT – is just so…pleasing to the eyes when reading. I generally prefer sans-serif fonts but printed stuff usually stick to serif fonts; Bodoni MT was a good choice in that regard. A little irreverent, just like the story you might say. Okay, before everyone packs up and leaves let me really start with the review. Written by Amit Varma, ex-journalist and author of the wildly popular blog India Uncut, My Friend Sancho follows the life of a reporter in Mumbai named Abir Ganguly over the period of a few days as he witnesses a fake encounter – and is then asked by his newspaper’s editor to do a feature-length article on the lives of both the murdered man and the police officer who lead the time which raided that guy’s house. Unknown to most others, Abir was present outside the housing society when the incident happened (he had been called by the police to be there to cover the story once the arrest of some underworld gang members was over) which makes him somewhat uncomfortable about interviewing Muneeza, Mohammad Iqbal’s (the dead man’s) daughter, for the purposes of the story. Over that period, Abir falls in love with Muneeza (her nickname is Sancho, thus the title) and ends up losing it too. The love angle is definitely a major aspect in the story, but how Abir goes about dealing with two opposing views – one, of Inspector Vallabh Thombre that Iqbal was a gangster, and Muneeza’s that he was innocent. Falling in love with Muneeza, and yet understanding the rationale behind what happened from Thombre confuses Abir further. The story in itself isn’t highly complex. You’ll breeze through within an hour or two this book. What still makes it a worthy read is deliciously witty humour – and genuinely witty at that and not just an exaggeration on the blurb. The character of Abir Ganguly has a penchant for fantasising and thinking up conversation snippets – on how or others are actually feeling about a situation – that are many in number and funny. In a way, My Friend Sancho is like a Quentin Tarantino movie. Tarantino movies often have not that complicated plots, but where they truly outshine everyone else is with the engaging, somewhat quirky dialogue. I liked the fact that Amit Varma doesn’t stereotype anyone. Even when he seemingly does so in the beginning, he later moves on to focussing on what made the characters to become or behave in a particular way. The bit where Inspector Thombre speaks on why he became a police officer and what his job entails is particularly interesting. It even makes you sympathise with Inspector Thombre who ended up killing an innocent guy, and the fact that policemen, just like any other human being, can make mistakes too. In the ruse of writing a dual portrait story of both men, Varma leaves you thinking on how life isn’t all black and white. The character of Abir’s mom though is bang on target. :D Seriously, the first question that a Bong mom asks you in case she gets to know you’re going out with someone would be “Is she Bengali?” Amit Varma also has a Tarantino-ish obsession with promoting his blog India Uncut (“Then I go to India Uncut, the only blog I read every day”) which I found extremely annoying the first time I read the book; by this second reading though, I chuckled at those bits and let it be. This book is definitely R-rated and not PG-13, so if you’re planning to gift this book to someone I suggest you to be careful. A quote from the back cover on the back cover itself should make this clear: My name is Abir Ganguly. I work for a tabloid in Bombay called The Afternoon Mail. I am 23. I masturbate 11 times a day. I exaggerate frequently, as in the last sentence. Comparisons with Chetan Bhagat are inevitable. My Friend Sancho isn’t a Vikram Seth, and yet it isn’t quite down to the level of Chetan Bhagat either. It’s an easy read, and yet I can’t help thinking at the same time that you definitely need to be an avid reader to appreciate the brand of humour Amit Varma brings to the table. This is not a book that will be enjoyed by Orkutards. At another level, Amit Varma and Chetan Bhagat focus on ‘different Indias’. Amit Varma’s India is that of...

OSSCamp Delhi 2009

By on Sep 10, 2009 in Personal, Tech Takes | 4 comments

OSSCamp Delhi was held at NSIT Dwarka on 5-6 September 2009. OSSCamp is an unconference on open source software, technologies, and ideologies, one of the largest events related to open source in India. Even as I was travelling by Delhi Metro to NSIT Dwarka on the morning of the first day of the event, I met a guy from NSIT who was going for the same. (He figured I might be heading there too since I was wearing the ILUG-D t-shirt.) Met Kinshul Sunil outside NSIT’s administration building; he works as a community manager at a company called OSSCube, which is in the field of open source software development / training / support. Kinshuk oversees a lot of the organizational details of the event and even with this being a community-driven event a lot of credit must be given to him for managing the event so well. Was handed a name tag; designed by Yadu Rajiv. (Yeah, I know it looks like a name tag for a Rage Against The Machine concert, but they probably don’t use name tags.) Also met other people at the start of the day – Mohak Prince, Sachin Khosla, Ankur Sethi, Apoorv Khatreja, Udit Agarwal, Triveni Yadav, Sanchit Gulati, Anshu Verma. By 10-10.30am (of day 1) we had quite a respectable crowd of 142 people (I kid you not) assembled in the NSIT Delhi auditorium. The event kicked off with Kinshuk giving a short introduction to OSSCamp. Lalit then urged audience members to give jadoo ki jhappi [which made Lalit (in?)famous] to each other and we had a small-scale free hugs campaign going on for a while (only a handful of the audience participated). The talks started in earnest then. I won’t be going into the details of the talks since they have already been live-blogged on the NSIT CSI society blog – check it out for a short summary of sessions held (a few held at the end of day 2 are missing). During the sessions, what Mohak Prince and I noticed was  that every speaker mentioned licencing, but didn’t go further into nitty-gritties. We had quite a few first-timers to open source this time who seemed thoroughly confused by this talk of licenses, so we both decided to give a session on Creative Commons licenses. Unfortunately, NSIT administration hadn’t given us permission to set up a WiFi network, and their own WiFi network had been shut-down ever since Ankit Fadia had scared the living daylights out of NSIT faculty, post 26/11 Mumbai attacks. We both were trying to find a presentation to aid our talk so we borrowed a laptop with a Reliance data card from someone and searched out a suitable presentation. We scheduled the session post-lunch. Lunch took a long time to arrive. It was ordered from some big dhaba (oxymoronic term, I know) called Apni Rasoi or something which is apparently quite popular in Dwarka. Post-lunch the number of attendees reduced drastically, so I decided to postpone the Creative Commons session to day 2. Clearly, there is some such thing as a ‘free lunch’ at least at an unconference on open source – and that was what some seemed to have come for. Although I wouldn’t blame them entirely for wanting to leave, since some of the talks in the morning had nothing to do with open source. On of the highlights of the day was a video conference with Bryan House of Acquia on the future of Drupal 7, but could not be carried through because of low bandwidth issues (we had to switch to text chat and then eventually call it off). What else would you expect on a Reliance data card? After a session on indie game development by Yadu Rajiv, we wrapped up for the day. Day 2 started off late as it was a Sunday. (I was stopped at a Metro checkpoint for carrying a ‘walkie talkie charger’.) When I arrived at the venue at around 10.15am there were just a handful of people – almost all of them speakers who were schedule to give presentations that day. By 11am though the crowd has swelled in number to around 90 people; quite respectable for second day of an event. We had people from Adobe too to give presentations on Flex and BlazeDS – open source software released by Adobe (!!!) – and those were some of the best designed presentations by far. Students in the audience were given free (as in beer, not speech) licensed versions of Flex Builder. I think it’s a good start by companies such as Microsoft and Adobe to take some initiatives in interacting with the open source community and we shouldn’t be too cynical about it. Lunch was better on day 2 as we had pizza from Domino’s. While placing the order we had also asked them to provide ketchup sachets. The lazy asses thought “Why bother buying so many ketchup sachets when we can ‘solve’ the problem in one go by providing a 2-litre ketchup sachet”. I didn’t even know that they made 2-litre ketchup sachets! Hilarity ensued, or rather, didn’t since we sent that back. We had a working lunch with presentations continuing while the audience wolfed down pizzas. Mohak had to give an exam that day, so I proceeded with the talk on Creative Commons licenses on my own. The presentations I used were made by...

Canned laughter

By on Sep 8, 2009 in Uncategorized | 4 comments

Am I the only one who finds laughter tracks in so-called ‘comedy shows’ irritating? Wherever you look, there are TV shows masquerading as laugh riots when they actually aren’t. And why are they considered to be comedy? Simply because they have a laughter track. The ol’ faithful Wikipedia points out… It was believed that the absence of guffaws meant American viewers could not tell if the particular show was indeed a comedy. …which is then followed by a list of TV shows that got their asses kicked for not including laughter tracks. Seriously? Are our American brothers that dumb that they can’t recognize comedy without having crutches to guide them when to laugh? So why did I snap now? The last straw ‘joke’ that broke the camel’s my back was this show they’re showing on Disney Channel called Home Improvement. Apparently, “in the 1990s, it was one of the most watched sitcoms, winning many awards“. Should have a reasonable amount of comedy, right? So I decided to watch one episode. Here’s a ‘joke’ from the show, in its entirety: My mother-in-law is coming next week. [laughter track with wild hoots of laughter] And then, every second sentence there’s canned laughter, regardless of whether any sane guy would call it a joke or not. Adding a laughter track does not make it a comedy show. It makes it a lame attempt at comedy, but not comedy. You know which other show on Disney Channel is guilty of the same crime? The Hannah Montana Show, featuring SnakeMonster. It’s a show which revolves around one and only one ‘joke’ – Billy Ray Cyrus calling out to “mah-lee”. But when it comes to not making any sense at all, having no jokes, and stuffing canned laughter into every second of an episode, nothing beats……F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Every second of the show is carpet-bombed with canned laughter. And that’s still okay, if there are any jokes. That ‘if’ is never fulfilled as the canned laughter is played out even in normal conversational dialogue. Maybe the cornerstone of F.R.I.E.N.D.S.‘s success lies in the fact that Americans are too dumb to recognize what’s comedy, so when a show comes along where lots of laughter is pre-included, they think it’s a very funny show. In overseas territories people might laugh along assuming there must be some pun in English they didn’t get. I know I must be the odd-one-out in not ‘liking’ F.R.I.E.N.D.S., but I also feel that shows which include laugh tracks are trying to insult the intelligence of the audience. Here’s a clip from the South Park episode Jakovasaurs parodying sitcoms with nonsensical laughter tracks: Watch the ‘Jakovasaurs sitcom’ PS – If you are a fan of F.R.I.E.N.D.S., could you please explain to me what is so funny about the...

The third mistake of my life

By on Sep 7, 2009 in Reviews | 8 comments

My rating of The 3 Mistakes Of My Life by Chetan Bhagat: 2.4 / 10 Publisher: Rupa & Co Price: Rs 95 Much as I would have liked the irony in awarding this book a 5.something rating, I can’t bring myself to do it. Simply ain’t ethical to give this a rating higher than what I have given currently. Five Point Someone was still bearable because it was, in a sense, a ‘path-breaking novel’ that brought about a flood of me-too alumni genre novels. (There was The Inscrutable Americans before that, but Jajau doesn’t really count.) By the time I read One Night @ The Call Centre I was suitably disgusted. “Never again”, I swore, “shall I read a book so transparently a Bollywood script rather than a novel.” Alas. Visiting your relatives at a place with no contact with civilization makes you take stupid decisions. (Yeah, this place does have dial-up, but then we know that doesn’t count, right?) You walk into a bookstore to stock up on books to read during the forthcoming trip, the guy at the counter pulls a these-are-not-the-droids-you’re-looking-for Jedi mind trick on you…and you find yourself walking out from the bookstore dazed and wondering why you have bought a Chetan Bhagat novel. Since we’re talking of stupid decisions, let me list down the three mistakes of my life: Reading Five Point Someone Reading One Night @ The Call Centre Reading The 3 Mistakes Of My Life Today, kids, I’ll focus on the third mistake. You pick up the book and read the blurb on the back cover: Based on real events, from the bestselling author of…comes another dark, witty tale about modern India, where God Chetan Bhagat brings out the ethos and isolation of an entire generation to the fore. ‘Dark, witty tale’? ‘Brings out ethos…of an entire generation’? Could this be an old wine in a new bottle, and possibly a wrong bottle at that? Or had Chetan Bhagat truly penned some masterpiece? Obviously not the latter, since a year has passed and nobody has called it so. I knew I should’ve never read this book. Goddamn Jedi mind trick. I opened to read the acknowledgments, which Bhagat for some reason keeps in the beginning. That’s still okay, because although it’s not the norm yet some other authors do do the same. I read the first line (in acknowledgments), and I froze in terror: My readers, you that is, to whom I owe all my success and motivation. My life belongs to you now, and serving you is the most meaningful thing I can do with my life. If there was ever a less veiled threat that said, “By God, I’ll write many more shitty novels in the years to come”, then I confess that I’m the Invisible Pink Unicorn. You know what image this line brought to my mind? It’s this one: [image courtesy aniche] Okay, so Chetan Bhagat doesn’t thank Messrs Bill Gates, Microsoft Word, Little Squiggly Lines Indicating Grammar-Spelling Mistakes & Co as he did in his first book. FPS started with a bang. (I mean, there’s a word for that kind of a start where you mention some part in the middle and then go to the beginning but the exact term for it escapes me for the moment. Like, you know it was there in Mission Impossible 3 too? Maybe one of you artsy-fartsy types can tell me what that kind of a start is called.) One Night @ The Call Center had a start that might be cooked up. The way 3 Mistakes begins definitely makes you feel that it was cooked up. Nitpicking here, but come on, it’s fair game once the blurb says ‘based on real events’ right? The first chapter starts with an email sent to Bhagat from a guy with an email address Ahd_businessman@gmail.com. Quick, I need to dash off to gmail.com to sign up for a Gmail address with an underscore in it. Seems that they’re giving those away now too. Dude seriously, if you need to anonymize or make up stuff, you’d have been better off with JignessKumar1973@gmail.com. Anyway, this guy pops a load of sleeping pills to kill himself, shoots off a mail to Chetan Bhagat who eventually tracks him down through the good offices of an IIM Ahmedabad professor who took excessive interest in Chetan’s college love life, then Chetan practically gets his boss fired, dashes off to Ahmedabad and starts listening to this guy’s story in a hospital. The plot is extremely simple (the guy, who is one of the protagonist, in the hospital is recounted it to Bhagat) and set in (old) city of Ahmedabad. There are these three cricket crazy dudes who start a sports goods store, get mildly good at it, try opening a shop in a mall which tears down during the Bhuj earthquake. Then they find a Muslim kid who’s like, the fucking Neo of cricket (he can see balls whiz in slow-motion), and through him end up in Australia. When they come back, the guy in the hospital – let’s call him Govind – starts fucking (literally, you know) his best friend’s sister under the guise of giving her maths tuitions. Hilarity ensues…until one thing leads to another and the post-Godhra violence is sparked off. That’s about it. Throughout, Chetan Bhagat goes overboard trying to tell us “This story is set...

On-demand web page archiving

By on Sep 5, 2009 in Reviews, Tech Takes | 2 comments

I did a post yesterday at Youthpad on how popular websites looked in old days. Internet Archives’ Wayback Machine is indeed an excellent resource for this particular purpose, but its task is to keep snapshots of the Web as it grows, and not primarily as an archival service. Snapshots are made available six months after they are ‘crawled’, i.e., recorded by the Internet Archives’ automated scripts. What if you need to create on-demand snapshots of how a particular web page looks? Fortunately, there are a few web services to the rescue. The first web service is called Iterasi. (Cool sounding name and yet unique enough – a lot like ‘Google’). What Iterasi does is that it creates an exact copy of a webpage that you are viewing, including text, images, stylesheets, JavaScript elements, et al. Using Iterasi you can create working copies of a page you come across. We often underestimate the fluid nature of websites – what may be there today may not be a valid link tomorrow. For instance, I had to link to IIT JEE rules for a blog post I did a few months ago. The thing is that if I link to it right now, it no doubt points to the correct link; however, if someone visits the same post a year down the line and clicks through to the IIT JEE site it may no longer be a valid link. By storing a copy on Iterasi, you can circumvent this potential problem. It’s not necessary to Iterasi-ize everything you link to, just a few important ones. You will need to create a free account on Iterasi to start archiving (you’ll have to hunt around a bit for the free account sign-up link). Once you have done that, you can set copies of a web page as public or private. You also get a short URL to the copy. To make the task of archiving easier, you have a bookmarklet (works on any browser; just drag and drop the link in your bookmarks toolbar) and a Firefox plugin. The other archival or recording requirement you might have is to take a screenshot of a web page. Basically, just an image and not a ‘working’ copy as in Iterasi. Using the normal method of pressing ‘Print Screen’ key and then pasting in some image editing application, or by using a standalone screenshot application what you often get is a screenshot of just the visible portion of the web page. Aviary.com – an online image editing suite (the mind boggles at the various online image-editing utilities they have on offer) – has a free feature that allows you to take a screenshot image of the entire web page, and not just the visible area. All you need to do is this: say that you want to take a screenshot of gyaan.in, enter aviary.com/http://gyaan.in and it will take a screenshot which you can save to your PC. Just visit a webpage, and when you find one you need to take a screenshot of, enter aviary.com in front of the URL and press Enter. Aviary.com also offers a bookmarklet that you can drag to your bookmarks list, and a Firefox plugin that offers you the option to take a screenshot of whole page, visible area only, or a selected region of the page. You can then save the image to your desktop or edit it online on Aviary.com (provided you have signed up for a free account). PS – BTW, folks in Delhi can catch up with me tomorrow at OSSCamp Delhi at NSIT Dwarka from 10am to 5pm (drop in any time you want). I’ll be giving a talk on Creative Commons licenses and conducting a quiz on open source. There are goodies to win from Adobe, Mozilla, and OSSCamp branded...