Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Direct To Home - From The Geostationary Orbit

Last Sunday an Indian satellite sitting 36,000 kms away kicked out the cablewala from our home. Perhaps its too early to say whether Tata-Sky is more dependable than the neighborhood cable-TV network but as far as technology goes, I’m truly impressed.

When I flick the remote now, there is a time lag before a picture appears on the screen. This might take some getting used to…but I guess that’s not bad for signals that go up and down 36,000kms!

I was also impressed by the way Tata-Sky is managing this whole operation. The advertising is neat; they have smart people on the customer-service lines; and the installation process is perhaps the best I have seen from a mass-media company.

We called the customer service line last week. A couple of days later, on a Saturday afternoon, a delivery boy came up with the Set Top Box (STB) kit and collected the payment; Rs. 2999 plus Rs. 550 for scratch-card worth three months of subscription (wonder why they call it “free”). The installation Techies turned up the next day with the dish assembly kit, coaxial cable roll, a portable TV, the contract docs and assorted tools.

Since the dish is installed on a roof that belongs to somebody else they first get you to sign a form that doubles as a no-objection certificate. They then clamber on to the rooftop along with the STB kit. As soon as a site is agreed, an extension cord is rolled down 25m to the ground floor to activate the drills. Once the base is screwed down, a compass and an inclinometer is used to fix the dish at 160 degrees South-East at an angle of 56 degrees.

The parabolic dish assembly has 20 components, including some unfamiliar things like “flanged nuts” and “AZ-EL brackets”. But the critical thing here is a device called the “Feedhorn” or the LNB (Low-Noise Block-down converter). This one picks electromagnetic waves from INSAT-4A and shifts the signals from the downlinked C-band (3500 MHz) and/or Ku-band (~11 GHz) to the L-band range (1600 MHz). The final Radio Frequency output from the STB to the TV is at 470 MHz.

The transformation of TV antennas has been quite amazing. Just until 10 years ago Directional Antennas dominated our rooftops. Aluminum rods shaped like stylized fishbone pointed towards a TV transmission tower in the city. When cable TV arrived they were left to the crows and pigeons or to some scrap-dealer interested in carting it away. The cablewala ruled for a decade. His roof had the biggest dishes; he decided your “bouquets” and charged as he pleased. His coaxial cables were strung haphazardly across streets and buildings, adding to the mess of overhead MTNL telephone lines and power cables. Where are these fellows now? They seem to have quietly disappeared into the night with their ladders and crimpers.

The old black coax cable has been tossed out; a new white one is in. The range of services and options certainly surpasses whatever the cablewala had to offer. But is the system durable? Can the dish & STB survive the heat and dust of Delhi? Will the entry of Reliance make the DTH industry as price-competitive as the mobile industry?

In any case, if this is the future, I like it :-)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Bangkok Notes II: A Day Well Spent

If your enthusiasm to explore Bangkok is stymied by a shortage of time; if you prefer tramp alone through the underbelly of a city rather than endure the robots that organize conducted tours, please take a look at Wikitravel’s “One Day in Bangkok”.

I found it very useful. The itinerary takes you through the medieval districts of Rattanakosin, through its winding canals to gleaming golden pagodas; through the touristy sites along the Chao Phraya River, for a grand finale at the legendary pubs of Patpong.

At Wikitravel, Jpatokal covers quite a lot of action for one day. But if you have the enthusiasm you can actually squeeze out much more – especially if have at hand a copy of Nancy Chandler’s quirky, hand-painted guide-map.

My day started at Sukhumvit Soi. I walked out of my hotel, past Cowboy Soi to the BTS Asok station. A 100B rail pass goes a long way and my first ride took me from Asok-Sukhumvit through Nana, Phloen Chit, Chitlom and Siam to Ratchathewi.

Jpatokal’s directions are perfect – you come down from Ratchathewi, cross a small bridge across the Saen Saep canal and hop on to a boat speeding westwards. The canal is murky & narrow but is wide enough to let two boats through. They have plastic curtains to protect you from being drenched by boats speeding past in the opposite direction. But unless you stand and look over the sheets you are likely to miss interesting sights along the way - Jim Thompson’s House (the Yank who made Thai Silk so famous), Bo-Be Market, the back-streets and the towers of Siam business district.

There is no point asking the boat guys for a ticket to Golden Mount terminus. The local name is something else. So just buy a 10B ticket and get off the boat when you are nearest to a large golden pagoda.

It’s a nice view from the top of Golden Mount aka Wat Saket. Thousands of brass bells chime in the wind and you get a nice overview atop Rattanakosin of the urban sprawl of Bangkok. From here, instead of taking a taxi I walked all the way to the National Museum, the Grand Palaces and Wat Po.

The pavements are wide open and there are plenty of refreshment stalls along the way. There is a nice bookshop at the Democracy Monument circle – this is where I picked up my Nancy Chandler Guide, and some Thai instrumental music CDs.

Despite all warnings I fell for a tout - a smooth-talking fellow just outside the Museum. I was reading the map to get my bearings when he approached me with the friendly nonchalance of a passerby. He assured me that everything in Bangkok shuts down for a lunch break and that I could use time to see how his ancestors lived in the “real-original” city across the river. He even haggled fares with a tuk-tuk driver but when I reach the boat station at Phra Pin Klao, a mammoth white boat lay waiting on the quay for gullible Firangs. Dark windows, tables set for a 2000B lunch and no sign moving across the river. I hurried back to the museum and found it wide open -- no lunch break.

The museum has around seven sections in different buildings so it takes a couple of hours to see everything. Unlike the museums in India, everything seems to be manned by student-volunteers. It’s nice to see them in their bright yellow-T’s, explaining intricacies of Mekong-delta art & architecture. Other students are busy restoring old paintings and copying intricate motifs. The Museum cafĂ© is a good place to grab a coconut ice cream.

From here you walk past Thammasat University – a hotbed of all those angry student protestors you see on TV – to the Grand Palace area. This area is jam packed with tourists. After visiting the Emerald Buddha Temple and a couple of palaces, I got a bit tired of the crowds and all the gold and grandeur.

A walk along the peripheral walls of the Palace leads you to Wat Po where you have a large reclining Buddha. Interesting… especially those 108 auspicious symbols on his 20 feet wide “feet”. But a more practical place to visit at Wat Po is the Massage School. It is tucked away in the rear, at the end of an elaborate Chinese garden dotted with statues of hefty warriors glaring down at you.

The school is sparse – a reception counter, and a hall lined with about 20 cots. The students – again in yellow-Ts - start the massage after a few minutes of deep prayer. A 30-minute ‘dry-massage’ for 250B is worth a thousand grand palaces! The pier at Tha Tien was not easy to find. It sits on a rickety wooden platform; tucked away behind shops selling spices, dry fish and mementos. The Chao Phraya River Express boats take you on a cool, breezy trip downstream, past Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and new hotels to Tha Oriental (N1). This pier is rickety and partially flooded but once you are on terra firma, the road leads to straight the Oriental Hotel.

I did not find anything distinctive about the Oriental or its “famous Bamboo Bar”. Five-star hotels are just the same everywhere… the same immaculate uniforms, artificial smiles, spotless floors and obscene price tags. There is so much more character on the streets.

Back on the streets, I helped myself to some steaming hot street food, ambled through some malls, explored Patpong and got back to Sukhumvit sometime after midnight, thanking Wikitravel for a day well spent.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Books 2007 - The List So Far

December 2007

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - John Le Carre

Travels With Fish - Y.S. Gopinath

A gastronome's hilarious adventures through Cairo (aubergine=betingan), Jerusalem (Felafel, Tabbouleh, Challah bread), Bhusaval (Bharit curry by Leva Patils), Sydney, Liverpool (Scourse accents & Beatles trail), Chicago, Paris, Firenze (Florence), Kerala (Vaiduryam=Chrysoberyl; 'Syrian Christian Coconut'), Bangkok (chasing the ingredients of a perfect Green Curry - galangal ginger, Kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass stems).

November 2007

Doraemon - AaAa Nobita-kun
My first all Japanese book. Laborious reading but worth the trouble.

September - October 2007

The Argumentative Indian - Amartya Sen
A tough one...the language is simple, though. The section on China-India was absolutely fascinating; beyond the 'argumentative Indian' thesis, most of the book is a rehash of lectures delivered in recent years.

August 2007

The Jaguar Smile... A Nicaraguan Journey - Salman Rushdie

July 2007

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
Two little boys in inter-turmoil Afganistan - honorable Hassan the poor Hazara and spineless Amir, the master's son. A great story that got goofed up in the end with a bollywood-ishtyle action ending..

May 2007

My Name is Red- Orhan Pamuk
Shekure, sweetheart, I miss you! :)

April 2007

Who Moved My Cheese – Dr. Spenser Johnson
A bestseller built on metaphors. The story of a maze and its four inmates - two little mice, Sniff & Scurry and two Littlepeople, Hem & Haw. They all want to enjoy Cheese. The mice survive on their instincts but the Littlepeople paint themselves in a corner with false hopes and fears coming from their ‘superior, complex’ brains.
Ultimately, survival depends on two key questions – “What would you do if you were not afraid?” and “Can you imagine yourself eating New Cheese?”. Very Vedanta.

The Man Who Planted Trees – Jean Giono
I found this book perched on a shelf at People Tree, Sansad Marg. Apart from the title, what attracted me to this book was its beautiful woodblock prints. It is also a quick read – in fact I read this sitting atop a flight of stairs at Jeevan Bharti Building – a sunny, breezy place overlooking the Banyan trees of CP.
Set in the inter-war period of Europe, It is the story of Elzeard Bouffier, an old man who stays by himself in a remote, barren region of Provence, France, devoting his life to planting trees.

The Namesake – Jumpa Lahiri
So-so. Guess the hype around Mira Nair’s film got me carried away. Reading this book seemed like the rail journey from Delhi to Trivandrum – mostly long and boring with short spurts of good writing. I liked the parts that covered Ashima’s longing for her Kolkata home; Gogol-Nikhil’s introduction to Maxine and her parents; the beginning of Moushumi’s infidelity (restaurant dinner, Bengali waiters) – but the rest of the book is a big yawn.

March 2007

The OvercoatNikolai Gogol
A short story --- so it doesn’t really fit in here. I had started to read Jumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” and since the entire novel is built around Gogol’s story, I had to read this first.
Story of Akakii Akakievich Bashmachkin, a poor government official in St. Petersberg whose life revolves around copying official documents. The Russian winter drives him to get a replacement for his tattered overcoat, which, in turn transforms his dreary life. Great story…No wonder Gorky said, “we have all come out of Gogol’s overcoat pocket!”

Only The Paranoid SurviveAndy Grove
Makes you wonder at Intel’s ability to “turn on a dime”. But I guess everything ultimately boils down to that nebulous thing called Great Leadership. Would a lesser general have nurtured a culture of constructive confrontation? Would he swallow his pride to admit that he had to learn something anew?
The book is a bit dated about the Internet but the analogy of “riding through the Valley of Death” is timeless.

MetamorphosisFranz Kafka
Gregor Samsa, an overworked traveling salesman wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a bug…incredible story – nightmarish, complex, bizarre and, well, Kafkaesque.

Never Let Me GoKazuo Ishiguro
This was course material last year for a cousin at IIT-Delhi. A smart idea -- its just the sort of book that can trigger a good discussion among teenagers about growth pangs, sexuality, relationships and other assorted dilemmas.
The story of Kath, Ruth & Tommy, students from Hailsham - an institution that ‘breeds’ clones who (which?) grow up to be “Carers” and then “Donors”. Vital organs from the donors fuels medical scientific research; but the society that benefits from this is in denial about their being normal people..

How to Speak & Write CorrectlyJoseph Devlin
A peek into the past…an Anglo-Saxon’s view of English language 200 years ago. Sample – “There are many hybrid words in English...In Asia it follows the British sway and the highways of commerce through the vast empire of East India with its two hundred and fifty millions of heathen and Mohammedan inhabitants”…
Wonder why this one figures in the Top-100 downloads from Gutenberg.

February 2007

Light on YogaBKS Iyengar
More of reference manual…made on the premise that a good book is better than a bad teacher.
I have benefited immensely from Pranayama and this book was needed to get the theory right. Every winter, for the past five years, chronic Sinusitis had given me breathing problems and sleepless nights. I had tried everything to get rid of it – Allopathy, Homeopathy, Ayurveda…nothing had worked. It is such a relief to discover that simple breathing techniques could help solve difficult problems!

Autobiography - Benjamin Franklin
I liked this giant for his honesty – he admits to be being a prodigal son and a selfish brother; to sleeping with whores and attempting to seduce best friend’s wife. But the “Errata” in his life has been overshadowed by his achievements as a pioneering printer, inventor, businessman, diplomat and politician.
The autobiography does, at times, seem disjointed – critical parts seem missing; his most celebrated achievements are left for others to write about. It is also difficult to believe that he had no personal opinion about slavery or about the Indian Wars.

January 2007

The Pursuit of Excellence M V Kamath
Maybe the good columnist should stick to his columns. The book seems more like a half-hearted collection of quotes and borrowed themes than a pursuit of excellence. Disappointing.

Chronicle of A Death Foretold Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Amazing narrative! A slaughter is about to take place…the whole village knows about it. The only person who is taken completely unawares is he victim himself.