Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Pile of Work

Looks like this.

You thought no one ever reads the volumes of bureaucratic files sitting on long-forgotten shelves collecting dust over the ages, didn't you? Well, you were wrong. Someone does read the volumes of bureaucratic files sitting on long-forgotten shelves collecting dust over the ages. Invariably, it's the new guy. On a totally unrelated note, I hope the office hires someone else soon.

Now back to work.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Previously Released Material

In the days of my youth, I had delusions of being of a poet. Not iambically gifted necessarily, but a poet nevertheless. So I'd write up these mindless doggerels and pass them off as free verse to unsuspecting victims. Some of these victims my friends have now suggested that I put these doggerels on my blog. Based on the rationale, no doubt, that they shouldn't suffer alone. I, of course, am only too happy to oblige.

Selected writings from my previously released work have therefore been uploaded at my Skaldic scratchpad. A link to the site has also been added to the sidebar. Those of you already familiar with the work may ignore this post. Or you may add a scathing comment about re-opening old wounds on a permanently scarred psyche. Others are encouraged to visit.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sanity prevails

The IAU has decreed that Pluto no longer classifies as a planet. The Solar system is back to eight planets, as it was in the good old days of the early twentienth century.

All hail the IAU.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Tuesday Morning Prophecies

Tuesday morning. Weekly staff meeting. Am still groggy as I drag myself to the conference room. The deputy Division Director walks in with a most solemn look on his face. Assumes his seat at the head of the table, and announces in faultless Received Pronunciation -- Gentlemen, I have some alarming news. For the first time in a hundred and twenty-nine years, a game of cricket was judged to be forfeited. This is surely the end of the world as we know it.

A couple of us in the know grin. Some look bemused. Few seem alarmed. The rest are too sleepy to care. Errr... what do we do about it, someone pipes from the back. Nothing. There's nothing to be done. This is the end of all things. Just goes to show what can happen if you don't bloody come out in time after tea.

This is where I disagree with the dep. d.d. I believe if anyone's to be held responsible for this farce, it must be Darrell Hair. Can't blame poor old Inzi. He's a gem of a batsman, no doubt. But not quite the brightest when it comes to keeping up with the rule book. Hell, he didn't even know he'd forfeited the match when he walked back on the field. I can almost hear him drawl I can't understand the rule. When we don't go on the field, we lose the match. When we go on the field, we still lose the match.

As far as the coverage of the actual event is concerned, I'm sure all the sites have done it to death already (and would continue to do so ad nauseam). The best analysis of the incident though can be found at King Cricket. Remember, you heard it here fifth.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

"If Charon is a planet, I'm moving out of this solar system"

That was Bill's reaction upon being told that Pluto's largest satellite could soon be a classified as a pluton. I couldn't have put it better myself. And while we're at it, I'd like to throw Ceres, Orcus and Quaoar in that sentence as well. This whole fiasco, if you ask me, is a perfect example of what happens when good science goes bad bonkers. This, in fact, is what happens when astronomers make decisions to appease third-graders' sensitivities.

One of the reasons the IAU has come up with its convoluted definition is because they've received thousands of letters, mostly from elementary school students, to retain Pluto's status as a planet. The problem is that if they include Pluto, they have to let a number of other asteroids in as well. As a result, we end up with twelve planets on our hands. With possibly several more to follow.

I was going to launch into a lengthy diatribe here against the IAU and how they are screwing up the solar system. But then it occurred to me. Is it possible, that the IAU are not just trying to be nice and appease everyone? Could it be, that behind this decision to have a plethora of planets lies a spiteful ulterior motive? Think about it. Who would be most affected by increasing the number of planets? Not astronomers. Not astrophysicists, surely. Not your average Joe sitting behind his desk solving temporal logic equations. No, it'll be none other than those pesky little elementary school kids. I can almost picture it now -- hordes of third-graders going into a collective fit of convolutions trying to answer the innocuous looking question Name the twenty-two planets in the solar system. Well, serves them right.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

No more Black Rhinos

The World Conservation Union has announced that the West African black rhinoceros might be extinct. The North African white rhino seems to be following suit, with possibly just four individuals remaining in the wild.

This news took me by surprise. Though I'm not sure why. For years conservationists have been warning me about this. I know quite well about the poaching epidemic, the habitat encroachment, the declining populations. I've read figures telling me that a hundred species become extinct everyday. This was but imminent. So why do I act so surprised, shocked even? Why do I find it difficult to believe that humans can destroy such a big, powerful beast? Is it because I see them on television all the time? Surely, if the baby rhino frolics on the telly, everything must be all right in its world, I tell myself, quietly ignoring the fact that the documentary was filmed ten years ago. Perhaps it's because the rhino is such a high-profile animal. I must subconsciously have equated their popularity with plentitude. I see fat men in shopping malls dressed in purple rhino suits and decide Nah, they can't go extinct. They are bloody everywhere.

The fact that the black rhino was such a high-profile species is what makes this even scarier. There were national parks for these animals. Whole safaris were organized to watch them graze. Hell, they were even on postage stamps. It's not like they were some obscure insect in some forgotten rainforest. Who cares if the Xerces blue moth goes extinct. So what if it was a keystone species. No one's ever heard of it. No one cares. But the rhino, that's different. That has got to hurt. At least, I sure hope so.

I can't imagine how I'll react when the tiger goes extinct.

Rhino horns

Contrary to popular belief, the rhino horn is not used as an aphrodisiac. Typically, these horns are used as ornaments, daggers and traditional medicine. I don't know what is more disturbing -- the fact that we have hunted one of the most majestic species on earth to death, or that someone actually believes powdered keratin from a dead mammal can cure their typhoid.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Who is Benjamin Breeg Anyway?

According to some, Benjamin Breeg was an exceptionally gifted artist. He was born in London in 1939, and brought up in an orphanage. As a child, Breeg was obsessed with the bible and plagued by terrible nightmares, which he used as inspiration for his drawings. He produced several fantastic paintings, but none of them remain, since he destroyed all of them himself. Breeg travelled widely between 1960 and 1970, visiting many different countries in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. He returned to his native England in 1971 and wrote four books between 1971 and 1977, none of which remain in print. He disappeared from his home on June 18th, 1978. Subsequent efforts to locate him have proved unsuccessful. He is presumed dead.

On the other hand, there are those who maintain that Benjamin Breeg is a wholly fictitious character. He never painted, never visited any of those countries, and in fact, never even existed. Benjamin Breeg is nothing more than a clever marketing ploy.

And why exactly should you care? Because of this.

Note: Further insights about Benjamin Breeg can be got at the Iron Maiden Commentary.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Who Funds this Research?

A recent study at the University of Wales reveals that people who believe in God tend to be superstitious. Really! What brilliant insight will they come up with next? That ducks like water, or that most people in France speak French?

Honestly, I would like to know what kind of people fund this sort of 'research'. Do you have to be a member of the International Tautological Society to even apply for a grant? Maybe it is the same people who funded this brilliant research that reveals older people have longer life expectancy.

I can think of so many ways to better disburse research grants. Using preorder checking to compare semantics of Kripke structures comes to mind. But I digress.

[Links courtesy Jesus and Mo, and Peter Rhode.]

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Shenandoah River Adventure (or What I did Last Weekend)

There I was. Squatting down in a carved out log, hurtling down the mighty Shenandoah river. Cliffs to the left of me, boulders to the right. And heading straight into the mouth of a two-and-half-foot precipice, frothing at its jaws like a rabid leopard seal...

No, wait. Hold it a minute. I've gotten way ahead of myself here. You, the uninformed reader might already be scratching your head as to what’s going on. This is precisely the problem with writing an anecdotal post. One never really knows where to start. The writer has to strike just the right balance between establishing the background, and describing the interesting bits. It’s something I could never do. Well, I guess I’ll just start from the beginning.


Having just moved to Washington DC from Raleigh, and by virtue of not knowing anyone in the city, I had precious little to do on the weekend except lounge on a couch in front of the telly. Now ordinarily that would have been a perfectly fine way to spend the weekend, but for the fact that I hadn't got a couch to lounge on. Indeed, things would have been very different if only I had managed to procure myself a couch [1]. But it was not to be. Fate had other plans.

It was late in the afternoon on Thursday, while I was sitting at my office desk contemplating work that Ray came by. "Say, how'd you like to go canoeing?" I must confess he took me somewhat by surprise. I had just returned after a rather satisfying lunch, and was on the brink of an afternoon siesta. "Mmm... err... what?" was the best I could manage under the circumstances. "Canoeing. Down the rapids. Shenandoah river.", Ray elaborated. It turned out that he and his Church buddies had arranged for their annual canoeing trip, but one of them had pulled out at the last moment. There was thus an open slot, which was being offered to me.

I don't know whether it was the headiness from the meal or the sheer ennui, but I heard myself blurting out "Sure, why not". Ray said something to the tune of "Great, catch you tomorrow at four then" and scuttled out the door.

Now I'm sure those of you who know me well would be as shocked at this point as I was. It is a well-known fact that I am not one for the great outdoors, preferring instead to limit my adventures to watching National Geographic on the aforementioned telly. Canoeing! River! Rapids!! What the hell was I thinking? As the gravity of the situation began to sink in, I started feeling distinctively queasy. God! I've got to learn to be less impulsive. Canoeing down a river! Jeez. What will I accede to next? BASE jumping?

I spent most of Friday avoiding human contact. But come four 'o clock Ray was there at my door. "Ready when you are" he pronounced. So I walk up to my boss' office. "Hope it's all right if I leave a little early today. Ray and I are going canoeing." "Oh sure. Go break a leg", he responded. A nasty thing to say, for sure. But I let it go.

We left for Virginia at around 4:30 in the p.m. and to avoid traffic decided to take the scenic route. A good idea, in retrospect. We circumvented the freeway and passed through scattered little villages with lush meadows and inns with quaint names like ‘The Village Idiot’ and ‘River Mermaid’. We crossed the Potomac on a ferry (something you can do only in the summer apparently), and meandered though winding hills. Kind of reminded me of the Western Ghats, although wasn’t quite the same without the smell of monsoon in the air.

We got to the campsite just before sunset and hastily set up our tent. Hastily, of course being a relative term. Venky, in his blog had equated understanding a printer to rocket science. I deem setting up a canvas tent to be quite in the same league. After about 30 minutes, innumerable juxtapositions of rods and strings, and some help from Paul, the pastor from Ray’s church, we had ourselves a glorious, unflappable tent. Taking a moment to marvel at our creation, we proceeded immediately to stuff our respective faces. The conversation at dinner revolved mostly around past camping trips. I did not partake much in the conversation however, choosing instead to marvel at the brilliance of the night sky in the absence of any ambient light. There’s something about stargazing that has always enthralled me, with its hundred billion billion stars, galaxies, pulsars, quasars et al. I did not get carried away though, with the roar of the Shenandoah in the not too distant keeping me in check.

I slept surprisingly soundly. Till about 3 a.m. that is, when I was rudely awoken by what sounded like a freight train passing by. I turned to trace the source of the ghastly din, only to find that a freight train was passing by. And no ordinary train it was either. It had more carriages than Kuan Yin had limbs, I tell you. Just when I was driven to the point of getting up to throw stones at it, the train finally passed. Lucky for the train, I’d say.

The morning brought bright sunshine, blueberry pancakes for breakfast and a sense of impending doom. At about 9 a.m. we trudged off to the river bank, donned our life jackets and set sail.

When I say ‘set sail’, I mean that figuratively, of course. There was no sail to speak of. Only a dingy little boat with two planks across it. I decided to take the front plank, while Ray steered from the back. Being a novice, so to speak, I spent the first few minutes getting the feel of the canoe, and trying hard not to tip it over. Just when I had finally figured out which side I should be facing, Ray decided it was time to take on the rapids.

We let the other, more adventurous folk take the lead. Paul (the pastor) had reassured us that he had his ‘Hail Mary’s ready to baptize anyone who takes a dip. Needless to say, his was the first boat to capsize [2]. When everyone else had gone across (or gone under), we headed for the rapids. The water seemed fairly calm till we were about 10 meters from the fall. Then it seemed to suddenly suck us in. And not in the general direction that we wanted to be heading either. “Get on your knees. Stay down”, Ray hollered from the back. I complied.

So there I was. Squatting down in a carved out log, hurtling down the mighty Shenandoah river. Cliffs to the left of me, boulders to the right. And heading straight into the mouth of a two-and-half-foot precipice, frothing at its jaws like a rabid leopard seal. I waited for my life to flash before my eyes. But there was nothing. Just the one thought -- "Must stay afloat. Must stay afloat." I don’t remember whether I had my eyes closed or not, but the next thing I knew, we were tossed up in the air and planted safely on the other side.

After a slight wobble, I made a quick assessment of my body parts, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself in one piece. HA! That wasn’t so bad after all, was it now? Bring on the next class II rapid. There weren't many more class II rapids though, just a host of pesky class Is. The rest was mostly relatively calm water, with picturesque landscape surrounding it.

For the next ten miles, we rowed and we paddled. At times we teetered. On occasion ran aground on some rocks. Bumped into a floating log. Lost a paddle and cajoled it back. But mostly we rowed. The last two miles were the toughest. By now we had negotiated all the rapids and the river had widened to a slow, shallow bed of river weed. And with the midday sun egging us on, each stroke grew increasingly laborious. But still we rowed. The light brigade would have been proud of us.

At last, after four hours of tireless rowing, we reached the landing post. We eagerly turned in our canoes and looked back at the river with a sore back, aching shoulders, and a triumphant smile. A smile that said I tamed the mighty Shenandoah river (or at least a ten mile stretch of it).

For all my pre-trip apprehension, I was really glad that Ray had brought me on this trip. I can’t remember when I had so much fun since... well, since my trip to Daytona beach earlier in the month.


I know, I know. It is highly unlike a recluse like me to go about frolicking like this (that too twice in the same month). But before anyone insinuates a mid-life crisis (or a one-third-life crisis, as the case may be), let me reassure you that this sudden spurt of activity stems solely from the euphoria of finally getting out of school. Give me a couple of months, and I’ll be back to normal.

1 Some of my less-informed friends often refer to me as a couch potato. I have it from very reliable sources however, that I look less like a potato and more like Bruce Dickinson.

2 In the name of the father, the son, and the holy glug... glug... glug