Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Marauders' Map for Muggles

Google Latitude, of which I was reminded because of a recent comment in one of my posts, is a remarkable piece of software that allows you to see where all your friends are. It assumes that you all have locational software on your phones (wireless or cell towers for rough estimates, GPS for more precise tagging). Then once you enable Google Latitude on your phones, and allow your friends to see your location, each one can see the others' location on a google map on your mobile. If you are on the move, your friends will see a little blue dot tracing your movements around the city or wherever else (exactly as in the marauders' map). If you find your friends are nearby, you could SMS them to meet you for a coffee at the nearest Starbucks, or in Chennai, the nearest Udipi restaurant!

As Mr Weasley often says, it's amazing how many things Muggles can do without magic :-)

Update: Some pedants, for such creatures, I regret to say, do exist, have pointed out that the marauders' map shows up all marauders whereas in Google Latitude, you have to allow the software and your friends to tag your position. You have the option of hiding your location. Indeed, I bow to superior wisdom -- Google Latitude is not quite the Marauders' Map. What would we do without these nitpickers....

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Julie, Julia, Lobsters and all that

Just finished watching the movie 'Julie and Julia'. Hadn't seen it in the theatre and was therefore condemned to watch it on a 13.3 inch laptop screen as an .avi file. And yet, despite this, it is difficult to imagine that any person with half an epicurean soul would fail to be touched by it.

For some of us like me, though, the movie has a resonance way beyond what most people might feel. I was never a Julia Child cook, leaning more towards the 'Joy of Cooking' (JOC) magnum opus and culinary bible by the Rombauer family (the legendary Irma Rombauer's character makes a brief appearance in the movie) but there are scenes in the movie which I could have penned with my eyes closed.

During my years as a graduate student in the US, I picked up a taste, if you will excuse the pun, for trying new recipes. We had a large American friend, whom I will only identify as David so as not to embarrass him, an amateur weight-lifter and a lover of good food (sometimes it didn't have to be good, as long as there was plenty of it). He along with a bunch of us Indians decided to try and cook the largest live lobster that money could buy along the south shore of Long Island and David finally, after many days of scouring up and down the coast of LI, succeeded in finding a seven pound monster which we all pitched in and bought, having starved ourselves for days to save up enough greenbacks to pay for this creature. David extracted a suitably large pot from his grandmother's garage and we all retired to one of our tiny grad school apartment kitchens in order to cook it.

It had already been decided by common consensus that David would do the honours -- apart from the fact that none of us knew how to steam a lobster, he seemed to be the only member of the party large enough to take on the lobster on its own terms. Water along with some salt, wine and some 'erbs was added to the pot, it was brought to what JOC would call a rolling boil, David grabbed the seven pound behemoth by its midriff, posed with it for numerous pictures -- I still have pictures of this event somewhere -- (those of you who have cooked lobsters in the US will know that their claws are kept shut by thick rubber bands so there is really no danger, except in that occasional instance where a band might spring loose and, to top it all, David did not deign to wear gloves unlike Julie) and then plunged the poor thing into the pot of boiling water and shut the lid. We all clapped and cheered lustily, David took a modest bow, the lobster in its dying throes gave a wild twitch, and the lid flew off and one claw emerged tentatively out of the pot. In an instant, the kitchen had cleared, us puny Indians having decided this was clearly David's baby (or rather lobster) leaving him slightly shell shocked but with enough presence of mind to grab the lid and bring it hurriedly down on the pot and hold it there for about a minute. There were no further surprises and the crustacean turned out to be big enough to satisfy 5 hungry graduate students.

Other scenes from the movie bring to mind, for example, attempts to poach an egg. I was not involved directly in this -- a fellow graduate student (who is now a very distinguished scientist and will therefore remain unnamed) tried his hand at poaching by boiling water in a tureen and dropping an egg in it ('egg drop soup'?) and stirring vigorously. At the end of this exercise, the only way the remains of the egg could be salvaged was by pouring out the water through a fine meshed strainer. The consistency - well, let us draw a veil over these unfortunate events.

When I first went to graduate school, I could barely make tea...having been molly coddled at home as the only child of my parents. However, strangely enough I took to cooking with great gusto, and over the years, while I may not have turned into a michelin starred chef, perhaps because I never went through the Cordon Bleu training Julia Child did, I learnt to follow recipes and turn out perfectly respectable meals. For the Indian part of my repertoire, I have Madhur Jaffrey and her Indian cooking books to thank, particularly her first --"An Invitation to Indian Cooking" -- her subsequent books being more glossy coffee table type ones, though still with that infallible Madhur Jaffrey touch.

'Julie and Julia' the movie therefore speaks to my deepest epicurean dreams.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Milestone and MotoNav

I recently got a Motorola Milestone (aka Droid in the US). It's a mobile phone which runs the Android 2.0 O/S from google and like most 'smart' phones these days, does everything (music, GPS, GPRS, Mail, facebook, youtube, you get the idea) except make coffee. One of the nifty applications it has is GPS assisted navigation overlaid on Google Maps. (The Nokia phones have Ovi maps).

So as a test, a colleague and I took it with us for a short drive upto Adyar (just about 3 km from the institute) and back. It dutifully recorded the car speed and to our astonishment, almost all the roads and landmarks (including obscure details like Thiruvanmiyur HIG flats, 'going under the Adyar flyover'). It produced useful information like nearby restaurants (Pizza Hut, Adyar Ananda Bhavan....), and help areas like VHS (Voluntary Health Services) 300 metres down the road from where we were, and a bunch of other clinics we had never heard of. The wealth of detail available is truly impressive -- both regarding roads, as well as nearby landmarks, shops, restaurants and hospitals. Clearly someone, or some people have been at work, entering this information into the google database. Along the way you can even SMS your position to someone who might be waiting for you (it sends a http link to a google map) or you can email it (it uses gmail preferably or some other push mail interface through your GPRS connection).

Overall a very satisfying experience. Perhaps this is all standard for GPS assisted navigation, but since this was my first, I am allowed to get a thrill our of it :-).

Friday, April 9, 2010

Thoughts on a 'Planned City'

I have been in the 'planned' city of Chandigarh for the last few days, teaching in a school for graduate students. Chandigarh, as most educated Indians have been taught, was designed by the architect Le Corbusier who was also responsible for various cities in Europe, Russian, North America and South America. The planned part in this case implies that the roads follows a Cartesian system of coordinates (nothing particularly unique about that -- so does Manhattan, except where it is broken by Broadway, and many other cities) which enclose identical sized sectors which can be confusing to a first time visitor since many of these sectors look completely identical. The other unnerving part is the habit of the residents to refer to Sector XX as if that is all that is needed for a visitor to find it. (I suppose that is true if you are taking a taxi or rickshaw but not if you are planning to find it yourself).

The first thing that strikes you when you reach Chandigarh is the traffic or rather the lack of it. Wide roads and avenues, flanked by trees and side walks where you can actually walk without being in danger of either getting knocked down or fumigated, with the occasional car zipping by is a familiar sight, totally alien from anything in any other part of India. Coming from a city where it now takes me about 40 minutes to traverse a distance of five and a half kilometers, this is as close to heaven as it is possible to get without actually getting run over ! Delhi also has wide roads, but every inch of space is taken over by all modes of transport. Which brings me to another aspect - auto rickshaws are few and far between, I never saw a bus, and few two wheelers. So here is my deeply thought out prescription for clearing Chennai roads -- remove MTC buses (ok, maybe keep 10 or 15), get rid of two wheelers (I am dreaming already) and cancel the permits of all auto rickshaws (I am drooling). Just cars and nothing else (perhaps pedestrians who are confined to Chennai's non existent side walks). The ultimate dream city of capitalist America (Los Angeles?) . How does it look?

And talking of cars, Chandigarh I am told has the highest standard of living in the country. This means big cars with few Altos and Maruti 800's . On my first day here, I counted seven Honda City's in the Physics Department parking lot in Panjab University (the rest were Maruti SX4, Ford Ikons and so on). Very different from a standard parking lot of an academic institution in the rest of the country. Presumably people have secondary sources of income since academic salaries are about the same everywhere. I also found out (yes, I like getting such information!) that these were all four to five years old which meant these were not the result of the largess of the sixth pay commission!

The other surprise is that motorists are regularly fined for traffic violations. This includes not wearing a seat belt, over speeding, jumping lights and other such infractions. As a result, traffic here, whatever there is of it is very organised and disciplined, and nobody tries to jump a traffic light even at night when there are no other cars at a traffic signal. (Am I really talking of an Indian city). The city is also full of parks, rose gardens, (the University itself has one) the famous rock garden, lakes, making quality of life distinctly a cut above the rest of the country.

The rock garden which most locals will tell you to visit is a concrete monstrosity, a park made up of the detritus of an upcoming city full of narrow tunnels with towering walls, the mandatory water fall and all kinds of items salvaged from garbage dumps set in formation with concrete. This is my second visit to the rock garden and I find it impossibly claustrophobic, with all that tonnage of concrete giving it a very hard and soulless character -- a three dimensional Jackson Pollock piece gone wild. I realise that this is probably a minority viewpoint but there you have it.

On the other hand the zoo, in the outskirts of the city is a pleasant surprise. There is a lion safari, a deer park and the usual collection of somewhat underfed lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards and so on. But it's spread over a huge area and it's easy to spend a couple of hours there, though I am told that the animal collection used to be much better earlier. I also had my first Rainbow Trout caught in the Beas at the 'Flamme Bois' in Sector 35B and it was excellent.

So is this utopia where most of us would like to move. There you have me -- one should perhaps ask those who live here -- including some of my colleagues who moved here recently. My guess is that it would come as a breath of fresh air (literally!) in the initial period. In the long run, though, I wonder if one would miss the bustle of a standard Indian city, the cultural life, the eating out places, the general chaotic richness of an Indian urban landscape. I leave it to readers of my post to comment. I am only a bird of passage, here for a mere 10 days.