Bihar: A Glorious Past and An Uncertain Future

As I walked past a small hut the chorus of ‘ek duni do.. do duni char.. caught my attention. The sound was coming from the hut on my left. I took  this route many times, but never stopped to have a second look on the hut. It was so commonplace in a village full of huts. I stopped and so did a couple of people who were with me. One of them was a visitor from Japan.

There were around 20 kids in the hut, swaying back and forth and reciting  do ka pahada (table of two). Some of the kids seemed too young to be learning tables.  The teacher was nowhere to be seen.  Yes, this hut was one of the several centres under Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). The kids spotted us, some kids stopped their recital and took stock of us. Soon, they realized that we are some random visitors making them victim of our stupid  curiosity. Soon a young lady, barefoot, hastily covering her head with pallu walked in to the hut. She was the teacher. Suddenly, there was more enthusiasm and participation in the recital.

ICDS Centre in Lalpura, Vaishali

ICDS Centre in Lalpura, Vaishali

There was a sudden onrush of mixed emotions. Nostalgia, pride, frustration, helplessness, happiness and hope were all mingled together. The kids were oblivious of the odds against them. Uncertain of what lies ahead of the hut. Many of them may were there because their parents sent them to get free food there. And, many of them will dropout after this school. But some of them will surely defy many odds to achieve what their parents never dreamt of.

Ashokan Pillar at Kolhua, near Vaishali

Ashokan Pillar at Kolhua, near Vaishali

It was very ironic. We were in Vaishali: birthplace of Lord Mahavir, workplace of Budhha and the capital of the glorious Licchavi clan. The hut was on our way to Ashokan piller and Abhishek Pushkarni : two reminders of our glorious past. Every person that you will meet from this area will not forget to highlight our past glory. I too, do it without fail when I meet someone who wants to know more about my home state. Often, this helps when I am not keen to discuss the embarrassing present and uncertain future.

A few meters away from that hut, one can find the world peace pagoda and several other palatial Buddhist stupa and temples. These stupas and temples are constructed by several Buddhist countries such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan etc. Every year a horde of tourist visit this place to experience and appreciate the work of Budhha and Mahavira.

I look at these temples and stupas which are meant for celebrating the teachings of our enlightened souls and several questions pop up. Would  kids there in the hut be able to enjoy and celebrate the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira? What if there were a few schools also built along with the stupas? What if there were enough schools here? What if teachers were inspired by  selfless services of Budhha and Mahavira?

Killer in the kitchen

Several news articles highlighted the deteriorating air quality in Delhi and its impact on health. Many of my friends and colleagues started contemplating options that can save them from air-pollution. They discussed options ranging from buying masks and air-purifiers to shifting to a city with better air quality. These frequent news and articles about air-pollution made them really concerned.

Mainstream media has an unparalleled capacity of influencing our priorities. However, mainstream media is very stubbornly selective in what it chooses to highlight and what it chooses to ignore.
One such issue that never got duly highlighted by the mainstream media is the impact of household air pollution (HAP) on health.

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

Annually more than 4.3 million deaths occur due to HAP. The deaths are caused by HAP from household cooking. HAP is a silent killer in many households. The majority of victims are women and children from economically backward rural population. These households use solid fuels such as wood, crop-residue, dung, charcoal etc in their traditional cookstoves, often made of three stones put together. There are more than 3 billion still dependent on solid fuel for their cooking energy needs (see here for more info).
These lives can be saved if these households shift to cleaner cooking fuel such as liquid petroleum gas (LPG), electricity; or improved biomass cookstoves which can be used with solid fuels but emissions are within the permissible safe limit. In fact, improved biomass cookstoves make a very good case for replacing traditional cookstoves. These can be used with locally available fuel and are considerable cheaper (cost USD 10–70) than LPG. Sadly, moving from traditional cookstoves to clean cooking devices is not an easy transition.
LPG is expensive and access to reliable and affordable electricity is limited. Furthermore, households have limited budget for cooking fuel and stoves. Many households build their own cookstoves and collect fuels at nominal or no cost. This makes them reluctant to spend a significant sum of money from their limited resources. Households are also not aware of the extent of health risk. Most believe that smoke is just an irritating inconvenience associated with cooking. In some areas, LPG distribution network disappoints many of the households that aspire to get LPG.
There are behavioural challenges as well. Households have been using traditional cookstoves since generations. The traditional cookstove is central in many of rituals and festivals. Switching to a new cooking devices often requires changing the way a person cooks or compromising the convenience of their age-old cooking methods. Improved cookstoves are also not seen as aspirational as LPGs or induction cooker. Several households also do not feel comfortable paying the upfront cost of improved cookstoves despite its economic and health benefits.
All of the above challenges are surmountable. But the issue itself has not got its due attention from policy makers and most importantly from the users of traditional cookstoves. Households do not feel the need to move from life threatening inefficient traditional cookstoves. They have limited awareness on its ill-effects and fail to see the benefits of clean cooking devices in context of its cost.
Creating mass awareness about the ill-effects of emission from traditional cookstoves, and need for switching to a clean cooking device is essential in solving this problem. Our media can play a monumental role. I hope more main-stream media houses start highlighting this issue so that it goes up in the priority list of policy makers and households.

Malice – Another gem from Higashino

Keigo Higashino is referred as ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ on the cover of this book. I think this is a very bizarre comparison if I consider the plot and writing style of these two authors. The comparison can only be justified if we consider a) both write crime fiction, and b) both have been bestsellers in their respective countries. Anyway, I am happy if this comparison brings more people to read to this master storyteller’s work. wpid-PastedGraphic-2015-01-4-13-38.tiff
Malice, written in 1996, is the third book by Higashino to be translated in to English from Japanese. The other two books “The Devotion of Suspect X” and “Salvation of a Saint” are among the best murder mysteries that I read in last five years. In both these books, readers were aware of who committed the crime but the mystery was how the murders were committed. In Malice, we know who committed the murder but the mystery was why the murder was committed.
Kunihiko Hidaka, a bestselling author, was found dead by his wife Rie and friend Nonoguchi just before he was to move to a new country. Detective Kaga, ex-colleague of Nonoguchi, gets the responsibility of the case and soon he discovers major flaws in Nonoguchi’s alibi. Nonoguchi, a writer himself and aspiring to be a bestseller author like Hidaka, confesses his crime but there were many missing pieces in his confession about the motive of the crime.
Higashino narrates the story through Nonoguchi’s and Kaga’s written accounts of the event during the investigation. The two main characters of Malice are writers and there is a lot of discussion of meeting timeline and writing styles, yet Higashino’s prose is bereft of any literary-ostentatiousness. Higashino is easy on his readers.
Malice is another gem from Higashino. I am eagerly waiting for his other works to be translated in English.

The Goldfinch – A very short review of a rather long book

wpid-TheGoldfinch-2014-12-16-20-24.jpg
I just finished “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart. A really bulky book (784 pages) and on top of it this is a very slow book. I read some glowing reviews of this book and since I was planning to read something other than a murder mystery or thriller I chose to read this book. This was anyway the first book from this author so I had no clue about what kind of experience I am going to have.

This is a story of a son who lost his mother in a bomb blast in a museum and gained multi-million dollar painting “The Goldfinch”. The whole book is about a dead mother, a lost painting and growing up years of a grieving son. However, the supremely detailed narration is drab and dreary. I kept on going through this book, searching for things that made this novel the most talked about bestseller fiction of this year. The Independent and many others summarized this as a gripping page turner that describes modern day life. Surely my reading taste is different than many of these reviewers. Although, there are still some readers who will agree with me.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore – A nostalgic read

Some places might not be very exotic, scenic or on people’s list of must see-must visit but often they offer something that many places do not: nostalgia and comfort arising out of familiarity. The neighbourhood park where one spent many of the childhood evenings playing with friends is one such place. If we take this analogy to stories, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore is one such story. This is a story of 24 hour bookstore which employs a recession-hit, out-of-the-job website designer Clay Jannon.

A simple story which takes you through some of the familiar world of books and technology. There is an undercurrent debate on traditional books/bookstore vs the modern technology; and a fistful of elements taken from mystery and suspense thrillers thrown in there. The story forces one to move from one page to another, but for me reading the book was akin to visiting the neighbourhood park of my young days. There were a lot of things to make me feel nostalgic or relate to the story. Clay was a web-designer, loves technology (is a MacBook/iPhone/Kindle guy) and loves book

Mr. Penumbra’s quaint bookstore is not a normal bookstore, it has mainly arcane and cryptic books for a devoted clientele. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore has a higher purpose and Clay Jannon, the bookstore clerk, is not supposed to know that. But the curiosity gets better of him. With the help of his friend ( a lady who works at Google ) and Google’s tech-tools, Jannon tries to figure out the true story behind this unusual bookstore full of books containing gibberish.

Robin Sloan provides interesting glimpses of a modern metropolitan life, and pervasiveness and potential of technology. However, the story takes a formulaic path in the end and is only salvaged by the characterisation and the narrative.

Decoded – An Unusual Thriller

Although, Decoded blurb and reviews considered the book to be a thriller, it is surely not a thriller in the traditional sense. It is a languid and intriguing story of a mathematical genius who worked for a top secret cryptography unit of Chinese government. However, this is surely worth a read for its beautiful, poignant  and intelligent portrayal of a life of a mathematics genius.

I had never heard of Mai Jia or any of his works before this book, but the glowing reviews and the bestseller status of this book made me pick this one. Also, since this year I am reading translated popular fiction of different countries, this book fit very well in my reading plan. In China, Mia Jia is a literary sensation and his work has been adapted in movies and television serials.

The blurb of this book and all the online reviews, highlight that this book is a thriller, about cryptography, code breaking etc., but I did not find any elements of a thriller or mention of these themes in first 100 pages. However, this book is not boring, on the contrary, the first 100 pages gave a very interesting snapshot of China in 1960s and described the childhood of a socially awkward mathematics genius Rong Jinzhen.

The story turns into a new direction, more familiar to the genre of spy thrillers, when Rong Jinzhen gets recruited by a mysterious character and disappears from the normal life to join the cryptography section of China’s military intelligence. Rong gets the task to solve two legendary ciphers PURPLE and BLACK, developed by his long time friend, professor and mentor who now works with Country X. Mai Jia (the pen name of Jiang Benhu), reproduces the development in the field of mathematics and cryptography with details that very few can provide. As Jiang Benhu, Mai Jia spent a significant part of his life in intelligence unit of People’s Liberation Army, and he borrows a lot from his personal and professional life to enrich the story.

Once Rong joins the cryptography unit, most of the story describes the challenges of cryptography, application of mathematical logic in cryptography and joys and frustration of code-breaking. Rong’s success makes him a national hero and a reverential figure in China. However, in subsequent turn of events he loses his mental balance.

The story does not start like a thriller and it also does not end like a thriller. The end of the story leaves some questions unanswered and might not be palatable to people who grew on Dan Brown, Lee Child or Baldacci. But as I said earlier, this is not a typical thriller.

Apple India- No options to customize iMacs

I often find laptops not adequate when I am working on multiple applications windows and require a bit of more power for photo editing or any other resource hungry operations. Since I have been pretty impressed by the quality (both in terms of software and hardware) of Apple products, I decided to invest in an iMac. A rather expensive yet the best options considering the compatibility with my other devices and already invested softwares.

A 27 inch iMac with 16 GB of RAM, 1 GB of graphics memory and an 1 TB fusion drive is what I am looking for. And, it is easily available in United States. However, when I approached the local Apple retailer, I found that Apple India does not have the required tech specification for iMac. I can only get normal mechanical hard drive of 1 TB, no option to upgrade to a fusion or SSD drive. There are not many options in terms of system with higher capacity RAM, though I can buy an iMac 8gb ram and upgrade it to 16 gb as the 27 inch iMac comes with 2 empty RAM slots. However, if you are buying the 21.5 inch iMac you can only get 8 gb RAM and you cannot upgrade it.

Sad. Apple India should start providing either customization options like Apple US does or Apple should facilitate upgrade through their service centres.

Asus RT N56u is a big disappointment.

Asus RT N56U received rave reviews when it was launched and almost universally touted as the best N band wireless router for advance home users. It offered 2 usb ports, dual band frequency (2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz) and beat many other competitors on different test parameters such as signal quality and speed. I bought it going through all the reviews and finer details (not worth mentioning here) but after 6-7 months of use I can say it is a big disappointment.

The biggest annoyance is the frequent drop of connection. The moment I connect 6-7 devices, I get frequent losses of connection. And, the only cure is to restart the router. This router, though has two usb ports for sharing devices over home network, is difficult to configure for most of the devices apart from the usb storage drives and the speed is not unto the mark. I tried streaming media to xbox and television, but the experience was not good.

I also committed a mistake while looking at the specification and I had no idea that it does not support DD-WRT firmware. Moreover, the only reason I bought this, ignoring Airport Extreme or Airport Express was I thought it supports VPN client login. It does not. It has VPN server capabilities but it does not have inbuilt client login to VPN. So anyone who is looking forward to use this router to take all the devices online through a VPN, would be disappointed. However, it does support VPN if you have VPN client configured on each of the individual devices. But that is not the point. I wanted to use my XBOX to connect to US store for streaming movies over Netflix, but this was not possible as XBOX does not support any built in VPN capabilities.

I also experienced even more problematic connection (super slow speed and frequent connection drop) if I start my torrent client. Evidently, this is not a good router for anyone with moderate use of torrent clients.

Out of the two bands, 5 Ghz does not even show in all corners of my house (it is a small house and I do not think it should require two routers to cover all the corners). The list goes on..

I am stuck with this so I tried all the tweaking in the settings, upgrade to numerous official software version but things did not work to my expectations. However, I used a third-party firmware (http://code.google.com/p/rt-n56u/) to upgrade the router firmware and things have changed for a bit better. At least the frequent drop in connection is not there and I can stream my media at a decent speed.

muCommander – The best MacOS Finder alternative

After the recent upgrade of MacOS, Finder has been crashing without any reason. This was pretty annoying when Finder is at core of almost all the work you do on your macbook. I also realized that Finder is pretty useless when it comes to dealing with networked storage locations, specially using ‘smb’ protocol.

I just looked for free alternative for Finders and found muCommander. And since, then I hardly use Finder. This free software is brilliant. It has two panes so moving and copying files/folders is pretty easy. You need not open two windows of crappy Finder. It also worked seemlessly with all the networked devices and the connection is pretty stable. I faced many problems moving files from my computer to networked location using Finder. The connection to networked location kept on dropping. muCommander solved the problem. It is available for Windows and Linux platforms as well and surely its better than the default options available on these platforms.

It does not have finish of MacOs and lacks tabbed windows but it is far better than Finder. Highly recommended.

Powered by Qumana

Buying eBooks in India ?

A few weeks ago, Apple opened its iTunes music and movies store for India users but Apple bookstore is still not available for Indian users. Similarly, Google Market/Google Play does not offer its vast collection of ebooks to Indian users. The Indian stores Flipkart and infibeam do offere ebooks but their collection is nothing much to talk about. The only option Indian users have is to buy books from Amazon kindle store.

This is strange considering India is a booming market for tablets. And, many of the tablet users do use the tablets as ebook reader but when it comes to buying ebooks they do not have many optoins. Recently, we saw Amazon launching its outdated ebook reader Kindle in India and Asus launching its Nexus tablet. Although, ebook readers are not going to find much market here (even globally they are losing out to tablets) but people are looking forward to buying ebooks and reading them on iPads or android tablets. But eBook lovers do not have many options. As of now, there is only one option. Buy ebooks on Amazon and download kindle app for reading books on your devices (luckily the app is available for all your devices and for all operating systems). However, the prices of ebooks/kindle books are more than the price of hardcopy edition of the same book in India. I wish google play or Apple bookstove soon start selling ebooks in India till then we are better buying hardcopies of the books.

Powered by Qumana