Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Flight 93

I ended up watching this one quite accidentally last night. I am not sure if they are calling it a movie or a documentary - but its a in a way either. They never really go beyond the information available in the public domain - do not speculate on the conspiracy theories that abound (a la Fahrenheit 911) and still convey the intensity remarkable well.

Everyone knows how things went on a chilly Tuesday morning a few years ago in east coast. Hijacked air crafts were turned into actual weapons of mass destruction - which perhaps changed the modern history like no other event. And we all also came to know that while three flights managed to hit their apparent "targets", one - the "United Flight 93" crashed into a Pennsylvania field just minutes away from Washington D.C under somewhat mysterious circumstances. The flight was hijacked - and was probably headed towards some D.C landmark - when apparently the passengers, knowing what is going on all around tried to take back the control of the aircraft. That's is as much we know from the telephonic conversations some passengers had with their families back home. And then the plane went down in a blaze of smoke - leaving only charred debris. Some say it was the passengers who preemptied another suicidal mission. Some say military air crafts gunned it down to protect White House at any cost. And probably we will never know the truth.

I wished it would have gone somewhat into that. It never did. It just created the events of that fateful morning with dramatic visual effects. It never goes beyond the prepared script - but it never needed to. It replays the phone calls of the last minutes with minute details - letting the audience though a range of emotions - from anger to frustration to sheer helplessness. In that sense it succeeds in serving a grim reminder of the terror and showing how ordinary Americans, "united" by the circumstances, desperately tried to prevent another catastrophe. But whether they succeeded or not will remain an open question - but their heroic efforts are the stuff of which folklore's are made of.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Tax Time!

It is that time of the year again. And I just saved a bunch of money in my tax returns !

Well, (with apologies to nice folks at Geico!) reading this for 5 minutes can actually help you to ear 5% or more in tax refund! Let me elaborate on that - and I must add that this is only for the poor Indian graduate students like me. First year students get all their taxes back anyway - so it is not relevant for them. I do not know if you can do this if you are filling your returns "offline", but I would be tempted to say that there should be a way. But anyway - if you have not tried filling up the tax forms online - should give it a try - its fast, easy and remarkably convenient. There are hundreds of free services ( as the IRS website would tell you) - I would personally recommend esmarttax.

So this is what you do. Apart from the W-2 form , you should have also got a 1098-T form - which is basically a record of the payments you made to the school for tutions and related stuff. And surprisingly - not too many people are aware of the fact that it is tax deductible. So at some stage of filling up 1040-EZ, you can subtract in that amount from the gross income - and effectively getting 10% or so of that amount back in addition to whatever refund you were getting. It is as simple! And it does not require that you recieve a 1042-S.

And it works. At least in my case it did. My tax return was "approved" by IRS within a couple of days and the refund is on its way to me! And for once, I did not do something in eleventh hour!

And just in case - if you need help in filling up those forms - here is an useful link.

Just Updating!

Again another long hiatus. That really shows how lazy I am.

Anyway the start of the term when I would in all probability face one of the toughest academic hurdles on my way to PhD. I definitely taking its toll. That is not to imply that I am burning midnight oil to read up every relevent book and paper - which I am not - although I guess I should in not too distant future.

And something else happened in past week which is truly amazing. I attended the Physics department colloquium for the first time last Thursday. Yeah , that is after two and half years of being in here. Now before you start frowning in utter disgust and start suspecting how complete my Physics education has been - stop. I did go to innumerable High Energy seminars, helped finish the pizza in journal club meetings, slept through the graduate student seminars, and even presented my stuff in some symposium. Just that I have never been to the department colloquium - which apparently is more important for the socializing bit than Physics! Either way - weirdly enough - I always ended up having one of my teaching classes at the same afternoon slot on Thursdays - never allowing me to venture to the colloquium!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Cheap Information!

As they say, seeing is believing. When I saw the story on CNN this evening, I was almost tempted to believe, oh this cant be true! But looking over the website - it does not seem that improbable - although I am really clueless about how do they do it.

Okay, here is the deal. If you pay these guys a measly $110, they can apparently give you call log of any person. And if you don't know the person's cell phone number, its just another $95. That's how cheap your and mine privacy is. You wont worry if law enforcement agencies could do this - but seeing any random people getting access to that much data within a few mouse clicks is alarming enough.

I remember when I started chatting with random people, one surefire way to check authenticity of their information was to go to Calcutta Telephone's sites and quickly do a reverse look up - seeing if the address and the last name matches with the phone number given. It became all the more easy after I came in here , a simple people search in the university's portal was enough to convince me if that girl is not actually studying computer science in University of Nebraska or which is more probable, if she is faking her name. And it gave me an immense sense of power to see that I can access that kind of information without even moving from my desk. So I guess this is the next logical progress - only thing is it no longer remains child's play. One can spy on ones spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend , employees can track employer's every move , in short ones life becomes an open book. And all this without the person getting the slightest hint of suspicion!

And in case you are interested , here is locatecell.

P.S - Birthday wishes to my sister Nandini (11th January) and Saiti (17th January).

Monday, January 09, 2006

R.I.P Independence Air

I never flew Independence. But I am sure a lot of times I got cheaps flights because of the competition offered by them. I hate to see low cost airines going bust.

Snippets from the trip

Okay, I must admit this. I am still suffering from hangover and driving under the influence of my last trip. So here are some random bits in random order!

Raking up miles: I had a brand new Chrysler PT cruiser to drive. How new? The sticker on the windscreen said purchased on the morning of the day I rented it and it had no number plate. Remarkably we were not pulled over once. (Even when consistently doing 100 in Arizona desert)
When I returned it - the mileage was almost 2500. If I had driven along eastern seaboard, I would have gotten to Boston and came back and still would not have driven that much.

Bangladeshis at work? This one caught our attention at Williams, AZ. Not even funny.
(No offence meant to anyone.)

Were we in USA or some American tourists around us in India? We came across Indians, Indians and more Indians ( our variety - not American Indians) everywhere. In restaurants , in Grand Canyon scenic points and even in Las Vegas shows! Imagine salwar-kamiz clad ladies looking at shows celebrating the "art of nudity"! (Photo by S.G - excellent work)

Zzyzx: On our way to Las Vegas, you come across this place. Except its name , I did not find anything remotely attractive about this.
(Photo by S.G)

Best Directions: Reaching Riverside, CA well past midnight - road work forced us to deviate from mapquest directions. We called our friend from a prominent intersection and heaved a sigh of relief when she recognized the place we are in. But then came the most astounding reply - she can only direct us to her home from there only if we can take her there!

I actually don't get this: Why after reaching a place like Grand Canyon, the first thing girls do is to walk into the gift shop?

Rout 66: All of us got pretty excited seeing "Historic Route 66". As it turned out - the person who got the most excited also had the least idea about why it is so historic!

Welcome to AZ: The roadside motel we checked in at Kingman, AZ had among other thing in the room - a car windscreen cover. Well , what else you expect in Arizona! ( I once heard a joke about how the best parking spots there are determined not by the distance from the building - but by if they are under a tree!)

Analogy of the trip: Someone said the bright lights and the hotel-hopping in Las Vegas reminded her of Kolkata Pujo.

Useless Trivia: Why they did not make the Eiffel Tower in "Paris" a full size replica? Because of the proximity to the airport.

P.S - And I actually won in Slot machine, $17.50 playing $4.

Monday, January 02, 2006

My West Coast Travelogue

Day 1
We start from Gainesville in the afternoon - a lazy drive to Tampa International Airport. Arrive at Los Angeles after a four and half hour largely uneventful "Song" flight. This is the first time I was flying Song , and I loved there little seat back TV's. Los Angeles from above looks simply awesome - lights spread as far as one can see. The unbelievably cheap rental car turned out to be a brand new PT Cruiser - it was weird driving a vintage looking new car! We finally reached Riverside well past midnight.

Day 2
On our way to Los Angeles stopped briefly at Ontario Mall - and girls just loved the outlet stores - it was tough getting them back on the road! Anyway after a sumptuous lunch at a Thai place on Sunset Boulevard , drove along the road , passing the oh so famous Hollywood sign and Beverly hills. Its a nice little stretch - starting from glitzy Hollywood -thorough the city to almost into the Pacific. Unfortunately that's all we saw in LA.

Day 3
Started early from Riverside for Las Vegas. Its drive mostly through hilly deserts and occasional elevations. And just like that the whole city opens up - not to forget the tempting billboards popping up everywhere! We found an amazingly cheap deal in the "tallest" hotel in the city - in fact later I learned that "Stratosphere" is the tallest building in the west of Mississippi.The first look at the Casino was definitely intimidating - before we figured out its the same everywhere. Las Vegas is effectively one long road - called the "strip" , with imposing structures lining up on either side. Most of those hotels have impressive architecture,a huge casino and surprisingly affordable restaurants, not forgetting the "shows" which is an integral part of Las Vegas experience. We started our evening with the Fremont Street Experience - which is a dazzling display of light and sound. Then we had time to enjoy the stunning interiors of the Venetian , watch the explosion of fire at Mirage , climb up the half size replica of the Eiffel tower at Paris and see the wonderful musical fountains at Bellegaio before calling it a day.

Day 4
From Las Vegas , we started for Grand canyon. We did not really stop at Hoover Dam , drove pretty fast through the deserts to reach the national park just around sunset time. We checked in the rustic Maswik lodge and had dinner at Bright Angel restaurant.

Day 5
An early start to the day to watch sunrise at Hopi point. While not surreal - it was an experience nevertheless. Spent the rest of the day hopping from one vista point to another - culminating in clicking the sunset pictures again at Hopi. While everyone has a fair idea of what Grand canyon actually is - you have to be see it to appreciate the sheer depth and vastness of the structures formed by natural erosion and Colorado river. After having a nice dinner at Yavapai, drove up to Kingman in Arizona.

Day 6
Kingman is a little town on the historic route 66. It takes just over an hour to reach Las Vegas from there. That was our last night at Vegas - and what would be the better way than to watch a "show'? Searching for half price tickets , we managed to grab ones for "La Femme" in MGM - turned out to be pretty "entertaining". We also had time to enjoy the inside of magnificent Mandalay Bay and generally the lights all around us.

Day 7
Drove back to Riverside in which was otherwise a pretty uneventful day.

Day 8
Started late for San Francisco - a very boring drive through the freeway.

Day 9
Like LA before ,it was the only day we had in SFO. Started with the predictable Golden Gate Bridge (it looks pretty bland red in day time though!) - had a great seafood lunch at Fisherman's Wharf and spent the evening in Pier 39. San Francisco should be a drivers nightmare - most streets are one way with nasty slopes - sometimes going up or down almost vertically. I dont know how they parallel park on those places!

Day 10
Not surprisingly , this turned out to be our longest day! Started pretty early in the morning - hit the Pacific Coast Highway at Santa Cruz. Till Monterey nothing seemed to happen - but once we crossed the little town - the landscape started to change dramatically. It was wild Pacific on one side with steep hill on the other side - the road itself was full of sharp curves and hairpin bends. I always heard about this drive - but unlike "Road Rash" the margin for error is very less. Initially we stopped at every scenic vista point - appreciating the wild beauty - but had to hurry up a bit at the latter part. It continues like that till San Simeon - we barely had daylight that long - the sunset was magnificent too. Eventually reached LA at night - before taking the red eye to Tampa.

Link for the Photos -
I had a tough time selecting which pictures to upload from the thousands we have taken!
Los Angeles and Pacific Coast Highway
@ http://community.webshots.com/user/dipthought4
Las Vegas, Grand Canyon (yet uncaptioned) and San Francisco
And if you would rather look at us with those wonderful places forming the background, those pictures are

Back Again

Time for some pending wishes. As someone famously said - its just an arbitrary choice of initial phase - but people do fondly exchange new year greetings. So here I wish the invisible readers of my blog a very happy 2006 and beyond.
And Birthday wishes to Hiradi (23rd December) , Sanghamitra (28th December) , Vivekananda (31st December).