The Best TV Show of All Time

Without hesitation is the The Sopranos.  The show follows mob boss Tony Soprano’s life through the years as he struggles with managing his mafia organization, his dysfunctional associates and family. Where the show succeeds is that the gangster is not portrayed as some kind of a criminal rock star who bulldozes everybody in his way, but as a person with myriad day to day problems. The best parts are of course the unconventional and often violent solutions. Without a doubt, the standout  is the lead actor, mob boss Tony Soprano played by James Gandolfini (sadly no more). Gandolfini with his huge physical presence is an intimidating personality who figuratively and literally overshadows all other characters. Which is not to say that the others are not good – there is a huge range of standout performances by the rest of them, but in the end The Sopranos has always been about the boss. The show definitely is more popular with men than women.  The violence and the blood are probably not the only reasons. I think a huge appeal is that one starts living vicariously through Tony Soprano. Affairs with hot women, using power and violence to browbeat your enemies and generally get your way sounds better than a cubicle 9-5.  The show also has some great tracks that play in the background or when the credits roll.  The all time favourite has to be the title track – “Woke up this Morning” by the band Alabama 3. It’s part of the opening theme of every episode.  RIP James Gandolfini – one of the greatest actors of all time.

Shatabdi Travel Experience

Currently, the best way to travel Bangalore/Chennai is via the Shatabdi train.   The other alternatives all lack in some way. Road travel is a pain because of getting in/out of the cities and can get expensive.  Flying is not practical for a distance of ~350 kms.  The Shatabdi beats the bus both in journey time and cost.  Now, while the Shatabdi is good, there is a lot of room for improvement.

  • Make catering optional.  Not everybody relishes the “gourmet” food – and the catering charge is close to Rs. 200, so making this optional would be a great move.
  • While the food quality leaves a lot to be desired, the menu planning itself is ridiculous. Why serve messy options such as dal and curry which is difficult to package and is liable to spill on a train ?
  • The forced “entertainment”.  This is completely ill-conceived.  There are two TV’s that are mounted on one side in the centre of the coach that broadcast welcome messages, random fillers like “candid camera” and cut scenes from movies.  The audio is played out loudly through the TV speakers.  Why inflict this torture ?  Even for those who want to watch, not all the seats offer optimum viewing angles and the audio is too loud for some and not audible to others. Either provide seat mounted screens like aircraft or provide headphone jacks.
  • Reduce journey time. Currently Shatabdi takes 5 hours.  Why so long for a journey of 350km’s ?  Shatabdi’s are supposed to be a super-fast train (for which the railways levy a surcharge). The journey time must be reduced to atleast four hours.

Shatabdi is supposed to be the premier passenger experience on Indian Railways.  Hopefully it improves.



Spaced Out In Bangalore

Ok, Bangalore’s population is close to ten million now and the city is bursting at its seams. There is a huge space crisis in Bangalore, I am not talking about realty, property etc,  but about living space.  There is no escape to be found from the maddening crowds.  Parks, restaurants, markets, malls – literally every public space is choked with people at all times.  I think to have a sense of space is very essential for general well being.  I am not sure that is appreciated enough.  With the city becoming increasingly claustrophobic, stress levels are bound to rise – traffic jams, parking problems, road rage just to name a few.  Also, this implies that going out to relax and unwind is not a good idea.  With crowds everywhere, one will only end up getting more stressed.  Restaurants where an average meal for two would be upwards of Rs. 2000 are packed to the brim !

Would you want to shop here ?

The importance of living space was recognized pretty early on, Lebensraum was an ideology introduced more than 100 years ago, but was perversely misused by the Nazis to justify their crimes.

I know that it is hypcritical to complain about crowds, when one is part of the crowd themselves.  We know the solutions like better urban planning is just an illusion given the state of things in India.  So what are the alternatives ? Moving to the countryside will not work, since there is a lack of basic infrastructure. Moving to other second tier cities, Mysore, Kolhapur and working remotely from there is probably a better idea.


Bangalore’s Garbage Crisis

It’s an absolutely ridiculous problem – one that shouldn’t even exist. But yet it does. Bangalore has a stinking Garbage problem. There are all kinds of solutions proposed – ranging from an overkill solution of gps monitored truck with camera , to a more reasonable intention of inculcating citizens with better habits. But, the fundamental problem is that the concept of dustbins do not exist in the city.  The BBMP in all its wisdom has officially made Bangalore a dustbin free city, hoping that everyone will use the door to door garbage collection system. This is a seriously WTF policy. If you do not have dustbins, you will have a garbage problem. The current solution involves a worker with a pushcart collecting trash from door to door. The collected trash is then transferred to a three wheeler. It then goes from a three wheeler into a truck and then is finally unloaded into a landfill. The solution is unworkable from so many angles:

  • What if the worker doesn’t turn up on certain days ?  (People do take vacations, fall sick)
  • What if they don’t turn up at the same time everyday ?
  • What if that time is not convenient for everyone ?
  • What if the kind of trash you have does not fit into a push cart ? e.g. A mattress or garden waste ?

So there is a very real requirement of having a place to dump garbage. Since, this is not there trash piles up in road corners and other miscellaneous spots.

Trash on road side

A simple google search, presents a truly horrifying sense of the problem.  So obviously keeping the city free of dustbins is a failed idea, but the BBMP refuses to change.

Other negative aspects :
– Huge amount of manpower turning up in every street of the city, every day of the year without fail. This is obviously impractical.
– Treating sanitary workers in an inhuman way by making them manually transfer garbage from push cart to three wheeler to truck. This is a backbreaking hell of a job that has to be done every day.

With huge trashcans at every street corner, you can have trucks that come once in a couple of days and lift the garbage without any human intervention at all. This solves all existing problems mentioned above. No one is dependent on someone to pick up garbage, an ubiquitous drop off place for trash now exists, nobody has to manually lift trash and a massive reduction in manpower can be achieved.

Surely, this is not difficult to implement. Chennai seems to have done it successfully and it definitely is cleaner than Bangalore – no trash in street corners or in electric transformer boxes.

Chennai Garbage Bin – A better solution

Anyway, the (dim) light at the end of the tunnel is that BBMP is supposedly realizing that they need to provide dustbins after all. Here’s hoping for the best.

Firefox Awesome Bar is Awesome

One of the main reasons I continue to use Firefox over Chromium/Chrome is the address bar.  Unlike Chromium, Firefox does not use tie in the address bar with Google search, but instead uses the browsing history and the bookmarks to suggest URL’s.  The address suggestions are made using a combination of frequency of access of URL’s as well as how recent they were accessed. Also, the algorithm gets better with usage.  For example, I had recently read an article about something called the Zing JVM by a company called Azul, but when I wanted to refer to it later,  I could not recall the word “Zing” or “Azul”, so I started typing in “Java Performance” in the address bar and Firefox started pulling out the relevant URL’s and I could soon find what I wanted.

Firefox Awesome Bar
Firefox Awesome Bar

Combining search engine suggestions for URL auto completion as in Chrome, is confusing and does not do a great job of leveraging your own browsing patterns and history. Search suggestions are of course incredibly useful too and therefore separating them out allows the best of both approach.  The Mozilla support site has a very good article on using the address bar.   This feature however works well if there is a rich browsing history present.  There may be a need to ahem, not include certain URL’s in the search suggestions.  The straightforward way is to not allow these URLs to be recorded in the browsing history in the first place – this can be done using Private Browsing.

Chennai to Nagpur Road Trip

We decided to take a road trip from Chennai to Nagpur recently in our 2 year old Indica Vista. The plan was to break the trip at Hyderabad for a few days and then proceed to Nagpur. There are many different ways to drive from Chennai to Hyderabad.  The popular route is to take NH-5 from Chennai to Vijaywada and then NH-9 to Hyderabad. However, not being sure of road conditions due to recent cyclone Nilam, we decided to take the following route. Chennai, Renigunta, Kadapa, Kurnool, Hyderabad.  The Chennai – Renigunta road is basically the Chennai Tirupathi route and can again be done in different routes.  Since we left from south Chennai, we decided  to go via Thiruvallur and Thiruthani via NH205. Unfortunately, due to road widening activities, the road is in a dismal condition.  Newly constructed parts of the road are good, but the transitions from the old to the new are in a really bad shape. Therefore, I recommend that this road should be avoided for atleast 6 months.

I found a lack of good eating spots near Renigunta, so a good idea would be to fuel up at some decent restaurant before leaving. From Renigunta, we drove to Kadapa via Rajampet. This route is scenic as it passes through Sri Venkateswara National Park.  The road conditions were good, however it is a 2 lane road and I would recommend against driving in the night. We drove into Kadapa town for lunch. This is not a good idea as traffic is very congested within the city. Later, we discovered an APTDC Haritha restaurant on the outskirts of Kadapa. From Kadapa we drove to Kurnool via Nandyal. Road conditions were fairly good despite four laning activity in progress.  Similar, for Nandyal to Kurnool. At Kurnool, the road meets the Bangalore – Hyderabad NH4 which is a pleasure to drive.

Entering Hyderabad is a smooth experience because of the PV Narasimha Rao expressway which connects the Hyderabad airport to Mehdipatnam, within the city.  Overall driving time with all breaks (breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner) included was about 15 hours. However, traffic in Hyderabad is nightmarish compared to Bangalore or Chennai traffic. Road rules are non existent or flouted indiscriminately and traffic congestion is severe on narrow city roads.

Hyderabad – Nagpur route is completely on NH 7 and this is a fantastic road for 95% of the time. Road has quite a few bad stretches once Maharashtra is entered, but gets better when approaching Nagpur.  After coming back to Chennai, we had driven for more than 3000 kms which was a great experience. The Vista was amazing throughout – both  on the highway, city conditions and bad roads without any complaints.

However, the risk of planning routes in India is that road conditions are not guaranteed. This is a real shame, because bad roads really put a major dent in travel plans, in terms of time, fuel economy and adding to frustration. NHAI website does not provide too many details about current road conditions and of course, one cannot realistically expect NHAI to state that a road is not fit for travelling. There is a real need for a website in which road conditions are available. A community edited approach sounds like a good idea to me.


Firefox problems on Ubuntu

Recently, Firefox stopped working on my Ubuntu laptop for no reason. The hand cursor for hyper links turned into the text select icon, browser history stopped working and overall the browser became very sluggish. I couldn’t find any useful troubleshooting information, so I decided to reinstall Firefox.  I fired up Synaptic Package Manager and got rid of the Firefox and the xul-ext-ubufox packages, rebooted the machine and installed Firefox again. Same result as before, the new install had the same broken behaviour.

Since browser history wasn’t working, I then vaguely remembered something about firefox profiles and decided that a corrupted profile could be the problem. So I removed the default profile using the steps here and did a reinstall and everything was back to normal.

Me gusta !

Arriving in the UK and London

I arrived in the UK about a couple of weeks ago for my masters program in York and chose to stay in London for a couple of days.  When I booked my tickets, I acted like a cheapskate and bought tickets online for Etihad which flies Bangalore – London via Abu Dhabi and offered the best possible price. But of course nothing in world is for free and they had a ridiculously low baggage allowance – I ruthlessly packed light and still exceeded the limit, I had to juggle some stuff into my carry on laptop bag to meet the limits. So watch out for this when booking tickets. The connection time in Abu Dhabi was 1.5 hours which I thought was great, but a slight delay in departure to and arrival into Abu Dhabi ended up in me literally running between connecting flights – so make sure you allocate at least 3 hours when you have a connection to make. The flights were cramped and the service was nothing great, but I got my luggage !  Etihad – worth repeating ? I think not.

I stayed at a relative’s place in London who kindly agreed to host me for a couple of days. London was supposedly unusually warm for that time of the year, so I was lucky to take in some sights of the city where it was gloriously warm and sunny. I’ve always been interested in the history of the second world war, so one of the first things I visited was the Imperial War Museum.  It was one of the best museums I’ve been too, they had all kinds of weaponry and vehicles and detailed sections for each major war starting from World War I.   As soon as you walk in, there are some great quotes that are displayed, there’s one which I thought was amazing and stuck with me:

The essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is imbecility. – John Fisher.

I ran out of time and couldn’t see all the exhibits, because the museum was closing, but I plan on a repeat visit. Best, part of all it’s free – so I highly recommend it.

Other than that, I walked around some of the usual touristy things and spent a couple of very enjoyable days in London before heading north to York.

Here are some pictures:

One of the many tanks at the Imperial War Museum













Lawrence of Arabia's Bike !










Applying for a UK Student (Tier 4) Visa

I’ve decided to study for the MSc Software Engineering degree at the University of York in the UK starting this October.  Applicants from India require a student visa from the UK to enter the country as a student. I just received my student visa a short while ago and here are some tips from my experience that maybe of some use to you.

  • Read up on the official documentation and all the literature on the UKBA site thoroughly.  This is important – don’t just read the VAF9 guide, read the Tier 4 Guidance document thoroughly as well – it has relevant information.  Yeah the document is long, but it contains information for all student categories (child students, medical students etc.) so the sections relevant to you aren’t that long.
  • Check the information regularly. The UKBA keep updating the information all the damn time, introducing new rules etc. so make sure you’re on top of any latest changes. I did this by subscribing to their news feed through my feed reader.
  • Make sure all the supporting documents meet the guidelines specified in the Tier 4 Guidance. I attended a Visa seminar organized by the British Council where I learnt that a lot of visa’s get rejected for not having the right supporting documents.  This is true with the Bank Statement – for e.g. it may not be printed on the Bank’s letterhead or the date of the statement might be older than what is required. So don’t underestimate any minor detail – make sure you get everything right.
  • Take a printout of the forms that you need to fill – the VAF9 and the Appendix8 and practice filling it up. If you have any doubts contact your university or the UKBA and get it clarified.
  • The University of York has very useful guides prepared on how to fill  VAF9 and the Appendix 8. They are the same forms used by the UKBA, but with step by step information for each field. Check them out, they could help you as well. (However, note that some information is York specific, so watch out :))
  • Any questions which are CAS related – make sure you get the full details and everything clarified from the University. This is because the information on the CAS should match what you write in the Visa application forms. For e.g. this could be the tuition fees, accommodation fees and English language test information.
  • You can call the UKBA office in the UK from India for any questions on the Visa form. Their number is buried somewhere in the UKBA Contact Us page. However I did find the best source of information to be the Tier 4 guidance document.
  • I applied at the VFS Bangalore centre. VFS is a global company that many countries outsource their Visa processing logistics to. They handled the Visa application fairly smoothly, but there were some quirks that I noticed as well. It basically works like this – VFS accepts all documents from the applicant, does some preliminary verification and takes your biometrics and forwards the whole lot to the UK High Commission. VFS makes some recommendations on the documents you must include – but the ultimate decision on what documents you wish to submit is in your hands.
  • For some reason, the VFS officer with whom I was dealing was particular that the “CAS letter” be included with the Visa application.  Since the guidance nowhere mentions the CAS letter, I hadn’t bothered with getting a printout of the CAS . The CAS is a virtual document and all that matters is that the right CAS number be filled in on the form.  Anyway, I insisted on submitting the application without a CAS prinout and it all turned out to be fine.
  • The other point what I noticed was that all though the supporting documents guidance mentions that a photocopy must be included with all the originals being submitted, the VFS officer didn’t seem to be keen on accepting the photocopy. I did submit the photocopies – but got them back with the originals after I received my Visa. Guess the UKBA isn’t too keen on the whole photocopy thing any more.
  • While applying, I also signed up for an SMS service for 100 Rs which is supposed to informs  you about “every stage” in the application.  I later discovered that the online tracking facility on the VFS website provides the same information. I guess the SMS can be useful if you aren’t the type who wants to check online frequently, but for me, the SMS thing wasn’t worth the money at all.
  • VFS on their website mention that there is no storage place for bags, etc. and strictly advice you not to carry anything. I was travelling by bike so I needed my backpack to put the documents in. I found that they do have facilities to store luggage. Weird. Why inconvenience people by asking them not to get any bags when you have storage place ?
  • Ditto for parking – they mention that they have no parking facilities, but the building did turn out to have decent parking facilities!
  • Regarding visa processing times, UKBA says most of the visa applicants are decided in a maximum of about three weeks, but I was pleasantly surprised to receive mine in about 8 working days.

Overall, I found the UK visa application process to be well streamlined. Read everything carefully, focus on the details and the visa shouldn’t be a hassle. Good luck !

Troubleshooting GoogleTalk and Webcam problems in Ubuntu

Of late, the google talk plugin wouldn’t allow me to make video calls. Audio used to work fine, but no video. (The tiny movie projector icon was missing.) I tried fiddling around with restarting the plugin, but it wasn’t solving the problem.

I then tried Cheese to see if the problem was with the webcam.  Turned out that it was, Cheese wasn’t recognizing the webcam. That’s why no video in GoogleTalk  – the strange thing is that the GoogleTalkPlugin didn’t provide any error messages at all when it tried to initialize the webcam. When it realized that there was no webcam, it just switched to audio only mode!

I then ran the dmesg command on the terminal which had the line:

uvcvideo: Failed to initialize the device (-5).

This seemed to point to a UVC problem.  Googling revealed that the problem could be fixed by removing and adding the UVC kernel module. Here are the steps to do that:

sudo modprobe -r uvcvideo;

sudo modprobe uvcvideo;

As soon as I ran the second command, the blue light of the webcam flicked on and voila everything was back to normal.  Hopefully this quick fix works for you if you run into this problem.

Otherwise, the recommended solution is to upgrade to the latest UVC modules. Linux kernels 2.6.26 onwards include the UVC driver natively, so upgrading to the latest kernel should also solve the problem.