Thursday, August 27, 2009

Edward Kennedy 1932 - 2009

"Born of privilege, and yet absorbed with the fate of those in need" -- The Nation.

"He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue" -- The New York Times.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Justice for whom?

The American and British Government are furious that the Scottish Government (is that an independent country?) have decided to release the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi (who actions killed 270 people in a transatlantic airliner), on compassionate grounds. He was released after spending 8 years in jail. One can understand the pain it must cause to the surviving relatives of those who died, particularly as it now turns out, the 'compassionate grounds' were actually linked to lucrative oil deals with Libya. The British and Scottish Governments are busy trying to blame each other for what has turned into a diplomatic fiasco.

Ethical issues such as these are notoriously difficult to settle. Moreover, in most cases, there is no objective solution. Coincidentally at the same time as this release, I noticed a small news item on BBC -- Vietnam massacre soldier 'sorry'. It goes on to say that the the US army officer convicted for his part in the notorious My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War has offered his first public apology. It reports "Calley, 66, was convicted on 22 counts of murder for the 1968 massacre of 500 men, women and children in Vietnam."

And here's the rub.

He was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings in 1971. Then-US President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to three years' house arrest.
Three years house arrest? For killing 500 people? And now he says he is sorry. Nobody asked the relatives of those 500 killed how they felt. In most cases the massacre was complete -- there were no relatives left to grieve over the dead. The Charlie Company of the US Army made sure they did a complete job. And presumably with a war going on, these men, women and children killed were so much 'collateral damage'. (You can see the details here.)

This post does not want to point fingers either at the Americans, the British or the Libyans. Any death is a tragedy and when hundreds die in a brief apocalyptic moment, it leaves a permanent scar on public consciousness. We still remember the Lockerbie bombing, we still remember (those of us who are old enough) the My Lai massacre. But our reactions are modulated by the affinity we feel for those who have died.

That's human nature.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Apple Care

For sometime now, as most of my friends are aware, I have moved to Apple. My desktop is an Apple iMac, my laptop is a MacBook, my iPod is the Touch, and my car is also (well, ok, no, just getting carried away - it does have an Apple logo though :) ). I have never regretted this shift from Linux because it has given me all the functionalities of Linux, as well as the added luxury of being able to find drivers for peripherals, organise my music and photos (iTunes and iPhoto) and generally a smoother, hacking-free driving experience within the familiar Unix environment. (and with no viruses unlike Windows).

Recently however, my desktop developed a curious problem - I kept getting an error message about a USB port drawing too much current, even though all my ports worked fine. Normally in my earlier avatar, I would have called the local vendor who supplies us the CPU boxes (on which we install Linux or occasionally Windows) and asked him to figure out what was wrong under pain of being blacklisted for ever if he didn't! With Apple, life, I discovered, is different! Apple vendors and service centres do not attend to problems unless their mother ship (i.e the Apple call centre) instructs them to. So, hating the thought of interacting with a call centre, I called Apple Care (that's 1-800-425-0744 if anyone is interested). After the usual mandatory wait of a few minutes during which I was assured numerous times that my call was important for them, I got a human with an American accent. Even though the call centre is in India, Apple still feels the need to employ people who are trained to speak with a fake American accent. The human took me through a procedure to flush the PRAM (boot using Command-Option-P-R) which I did and which seemed to solve the problem.

Unfortunately it did not last. The problem recurred in a couple of days and I had to call the call centre again. Fortunately Apple keeps a full record of each case, so even though I got a fresh new human with a fresh new fake accent (this gentleman had enormous trouble keeping up the accent - I really felt for him and wanted to tell him to let go - I wouldn't think poorly of him, at least not on that count!) who, after consulting a faceless product engineer, declared that I had to do a) a Hardware Test (1 hour) and b) an Archive-Install which essentially boils down to reinstalling the O/S from the original DVD though it preserves the working environment (1 1/2 hours).

Having spent the better part of two hours on this, I found that the problem had not gone away and I was already dreading the next step. This, as I found out on my next call and next conversation with another American accented man, was to do an Erase-Install (you see I had already peeked at the appropriate 'Support' section of the manual). This, as you will have guessed, actually erases everything and re-installs the bare O/S - it other words you are returned to the factory-level defaults. Not a pleasant thought, when you think of all the work you would have to do to set up the system again including accounts, files, environment etc.

Mercifully, I have been using 'Time Machine' ever since I had Leopard and everything I read on the net indicated that Time Machine would restore the system to the state I had just before the 'Erase-Install' and what's more, do it automatically.

And that's exactly how it happened - after cleaning up the machine, and booting with the newly installed pristine version of the O/S it asked me whether I wanted to restore my files from Time Machine (which was an external hard disk which it detected while booting), and it did precisely that. It took a long time (I have no idea how long - I went home and came back the next day but probably something like 3 hours or more) but the machine seems back precisely at the point at which I killed it by erasing it's life-force :) .

So here is what I would tell those who want to use a Mac. You won't regret it -- however be warned that if anytime something goes wrong, you will have to fix it yourself, following instructions from the call centre (and they appear quite reliable though completely mechanical - any question out of the ordinary, like asking which directories would be affected foxes them completely - I don't think they even know what a directory is). Of course this is the system which is followed in the US and most other Western countries, but in India we are used to calling our friendly neighbourhood service centre and hand over the problem to them. This will not happen here, unless the system has totally died or is inoperable and actually needs opening up. You are expected to do things yourself, which other than the time involved is hardly a bad thing - it allows you to get to know your machine better!

As of now, the problem has vanished. However, I have been (finally!) promised a visit by a service engineer next week if the problem recurs.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Keep it Cool

This is a (part) solution to climate change that couldn't be more appropriate to India. In fact the idea is so simple that one wonders what took it so long to catch on.

Most Indians know, to their cost, that having a flat on the top floor means hot, stifling interiors. So what's the solution - a simple physics principle that a white or light coloured roof reflects more radiation than a dark one. In fact a white shiny plasticized cover is even better and this is what is being attempted from California to Dubai to New Delhi. White roofs reduce air conditioning costs by 20% and the consequent lower energy consumption has a direct bearing on global warming.

The numbers are almost unbelievable. Apparently turning all of the world’s roofs “light” over the next 20 years (easier said than done) could save the equivalent of 24 billion metric tons in carbon dioxide emissions. That's the whole world's total emission in a year.

The only downside is that in cold climates, correspondingly heating bills would rise slightly. However, this is an irrelevant issue for tropical countries like India.

Of course there have been white tiled roofs in hot climates for a long time. The idea is to make this catch on all over the world.

Some more information is available here along with some links.