Thursday, December 30, 2010

Making America's Roads Better

Years back, when I was buying my first car, someone warned me about all the additional expenses that I am going to incur. Among the other mundane items like insurance and repairs, he mentioned, traffic tickets. As a hesitant driver in a new country, I did not pay much attention to that then. Five years down the line, I definitely know what he was talking about.

I am not talking about occasional red light jumpings or parking violations. Those are part of life too, but much rare, and immensely avoidable. It is actually quite incredible. that for a country known for its orderly and law abiding society, speeding is not looked down upon at all. The posted limits are taken as just suggestions by most, from celebrity popstars to Nobel winning physicists. As for mere mortals like us, it may make otherwise boring drives thrilling, or make up for the lost time, but mostly we speed because we can. As my friend claimed after getting a $300 citation for going 22 miles over limit, the people speeding should be rewarded, not punished, since we know what we are doing. The real hazard on highways are slower vehicles, which block the flow of traffic and make things chaotic. No truer words were ever spoken.

I was caught 22 miles over limit once too, but the fine was much less. It was a sleepy village among the cornfields in Illinois. and I was in a real hurry. So not being recreational speeding, that does not count. However, all the other times, I speed strategically, following the old adage, never go alone. The other speeding cars are your best friends, and friends never let friends go far away.

Of course, nothing can be full proof. Driving down from Jacksonville airport to Gainesville, one passes through small towns of Waldo and Baldwin, and outsiders tend to speed by them, not caring about what seems artificially low speed limits. And mostly they get pulled over. The main source of revenue for those towns are traffic citations.

But thankfully, that idea has not caught on. I was driving back from Grand Canyon on this one lane Arizona highway, and that was the craziest collective speeding frenzy I was part of. A bunch of cars were going probably over 90 mph on a 65 mph zone, crossing slower traffic going into the opposite lane, and then kind of camped on the other side, occasionally coming back to let poor incoming cars pass by. One of those crazy cars came almost face to face with a police car in the other lane, and in any other place, he would have been pulled over for speeding and aggressive driving. Here the cop blinked his red-blue light once, backed off a little to let that car (and the five others behind him!) to merge back in, and went by.

This was also in Arizona, my highest speed ever, and dedicated to all the friends and strangers who speed, making the highways better places to drive.

You cant fake this picture!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gold does glitter!

Life as a frequent flier is not always fun, contrary to what the movie "Up in the Air" showed. Waking up at odd hours, traversing timezones, forgotten cellphone charger or medicines, every little annoyance adding up. And when the unpredictable weather and random flight cancellations are factored in, it is almost a perfect recipe for disaster. I see all the people stranded on their way to or out of Europe in last few days, and I realize I could have been one of them. In fact, I was, briefly in Berlin, before I was accommodated in a nice hotel, provided with food and was put in a direct flight to US next morning.

All because once my original flight to Cleveland via Zurich and Toronto was canceled, I could stand in the infinitely shorter rebooking queue for first and business class travelers, and get a seat in the direct flight to Newark next morning. If I were in the general queue, with a million people, I would have never made it. That's what happened n Paris last year, when I spent all my day standing in queues, and my night sleeping at the airport. I was a lowly "silver" then, in Delta frequent flier program.

Now after flying over 50,000 miles (when all said and done, I will end up flying almost 75,000 miles this year), I am "gold" in United, and what a difference that made. Flying back to Dresden via Frankfurt last time from US, I was stuck in an utterly chaotic snow covered Frankfurt airport. But instead of standing in endless queues, I could queue up sitting inside the lounge, and spend the night at airport Sheraton, before getting a first class train ticket for next morning, all on Lufthansa. Yes, lounges are nice with free drinks, internet and relaxing ambiance, and domestic first class upgrades are fun, and it is cool to see my bags coming out first, but the real benefit of having "status" is how you get treated in case of these irregularities. To use a borrowed phrase, that is indeed priceless.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A German Graduation

Writing this post from a "world" I have never experienced before. Lufthansa lounge at the top floor of A concourse, Frankfurt airport, with abundant luxuries. Free food and drinks of all varieties, internet, a piece of paradise tucked away from the all the chaos.

In a world which is trying to become more and more uniform every day, unique local traditions and customs feel like breath of fresh air. Yesterday I was fortunate to see one of our group members get her Ph.D, and while that it by itself is a fantastic occasion, what followed next caught me by complete surprise. After the presentation, the mandatory faux-suspense wait while the committee deliberated inside (an aside: turns out in Germany, there are also grades associated with a Ph.D degree, and that probably took most of the time)once she stepped out of the room, she was put in a dolly, designed as a funny take on her time here. Turns out on an April fool,s day years back, she jokingly asked her advisor for a cot in her office, and there it was, the dolly was designed as a bed, replete with a pillow! To reflect her incredible work ethic, a model computer screen was put on, along with a alarm clock showing 2 am. She was working on detection of this particle called the Higgs boson, decaying into some other particles called Tau leptons.
So, of course cutout of Greek tau and H was all over it, and her graduation hat was designed like a Mexican hat, which is a popular representation of how Higgs bosons interact, and there was little white ball depicting the Higgs inside her hat too. She sat in the dolly, a beer in her hand, and was pushed around the campus by enthusiastic members of the group, her advisor included. This was completely new for me, and so much fun!

Here is a picture from the evening:

Anyone seen any other funny graduation customs?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Looking back at the choice I made

Disclaimer: this was written as a response to a question from a very good friend, if this reads too trivial and personal. may be it is. Also, no disrespect meant to any one making any career choice, the opinions expressed reflect my personal bias.

Why are you doing what are you doing? I guess this is one of the most frequently asked question to those of us who are considered not doing a "real job". While I discussed about why I love doing what I am doing years back here, the other question would be, how did I end up doing it. My usual answer is that I ended up doing physics because I was not good at anything else, which strangely does not satisfy people at all.

One tends to think that career choice is a huge decision. May be it is, but as a teenager, it is hard to have that broad global perspective. Our decisions are mostly shaped by what we see happening all around us, in a very local scale. Although in high school essays one writes one wants to be a doctor when one grows up because they hate to see poor people suffering, I have a sneaky feeling that they want to be doctors either because the white coat looks cool in movies, or after reading Robin Cook novels.

I grew up in a very liberal (my parents spent considerable time abroad) yet conservative (in the sense that choosing a non-traditional career was not an option) household in the outskirts of a small town. We were not strikingly affluent, but all the basic luxuries were all there, and fortunately money was never something which influenced my career path. Like all the nerdy kids, I liked mathematics and sciences, but I also found history entertaining and geography enchanting. It is remarkably satisfying when you actually get to set foot on the places you read years back in those books, but I digress. I have to admit that while I liked reading books, of all colors and flavors, I could never find much logic in studying literature, which essentially involved critically dissecting the nice pieces and taking the fun out of them, or memorizing rules of grammar, which is merely a human convention.

My dad is a Ph.D physicist, and so were a few other uncles. My mom studied history. So that possibly helped to shape my initial interest. However, as I approached that inevitable point where I had to decide my "future", there were few other considerations too. Bright (and not so bright) kids left and right were desperately studying engineering in the hope of landing an "easy" software job, and at that impressionable age, that sounded tempting enough. In fact the accepted convention in those days was that the best minds study engineering and medicine, leaving the mediocre kids who could not get through to either study science and humanities subjects. I was fortunate to have been acquainted with computers from an early age, so with my limited (but certainly better than others who wanted to study computer engineering without having the faintest idea of what it is) exposure, I thought that may be a fun subject. But then I was told that you get to use computers in a lot of other disciplines too, and I was happy. Plus studying computers at a good place involved going through some pretty competitive, demanding but dull entrance examinations, and I was not sure if it was worth the hassle. (For the record, yes, I did take those exams, and yes did not get through to where I would have wanted, but at that point I already had my mind made up.)

It is hard to pin down a moment when and how I made up my mind to study physics, but I will try. Many people think, somewhat mistakenly, that I ended up choosing physics because of my family influence. While it is certainly true that there are/were some highly talented and acclaimed physicists I got to talk to, and my dad is an amazing teacher, something so easily accessible and "everyday" does not influence you so much. May be it did subconsciously, I do not know. However, a couple of things happened the summer before I had to decide. I ended up in a summer camp kind of thing (organized by the excellent people at JBNSTS), where toppers from different schools in North Bengal and North-East India gathered and we had short courses on advanced topics. The professor who taught physics, more specifically very beginning quantum mechanics to these bunch of starry-eyed kids was superbly motivational, and we were mesmerized. The class would start in the lecture hall in the afternoon, and at some point, when the lecture hall needed to be locked up, we would just shift to the adjacent cafeteria, and he would continue. Most of us fell in love with physics. Practical considerations meant not all of us taking up physics, but even now when I talk with someone from that group, they fondly talk reminiscence about those lectures. Around the same time, I happened to stumble on this book by James Gleick based on life of Feynman and I just could not put it down. I read though it, all five hundred plus ages in one go, and that was it. As an adolescent you need someone to idolize (Bill Gates for my computer science friends perhaps?), and no matter how cliched it sounds, he was that man. Of course other mundane things helped, that I actually did not get through to those engineering colleges where a lot of people around me expected me to go, but I had good enough grades to get through to perhaps one of the best undergraduate program in physics at that time, and incidentally the aforementioned quantum mechanics
teacher was a faculty there.

As a very young kid, I had a fascination for trains, like all kids do. Once a train driver waived back at me, and that made my day. I thought I wanted a to be train driver. Alas, that never worked out, but as a high energy physicist, I am going places afterall!

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The unknown perspective

We all read about that incident in our morning newspaper. Uttered a few sighs, commented about the what could have been. Then we moved on. I was haunted by the nightmare for a while, and I still vividly remember the scene.

It was a lazy weekday afternoon in Kolkata. Mexico was playing US in a world cup soccer game. As a passionate sports lover, there was no way I could miss that game - but also needed to go my university which was at the opposite end of the town. Fortunately, Kolkata metro came to my rescue, as they were showing the games live at the stations. So I watched the first half in Belgachia, took a train to Rabindra Sadan just as the halftime ended, and stood there, watching the game. People walked by, sometimes asking the score, sometimes obliviously. Trains kept passing by. Nothing distracted me.

Then it happened. I still do not know what made me turn around, and first time in my life, to witness death firsthand. The upper body of a man, stuck between the train and platform, was being dragged by the train screeching to a halt. For a moment the world stopped, the sounds seem to come from a parallel universe. I could not bear looking on. The story did come out the next day, and no, he was not attempting suicide at the metro tracks like countless other morons do, he just slipped and fell at the most inopportune moment. Sometimes there is no way to come back.

But sometimes there is, and that is perhaps the most glorious thing about life. We all had our share of misfortunes, and mistakes. We love to say they altered our lives, but that is the probably one of the worst vague generalizations one can make. We never knew to begin with how life would be if certain things did or did not happen. I am sure that I would not be doing what I am doing sitting on a dull Saturday morning at Dresden, if I did not join Florida in fall 2003, that much is clear. What is completely unclear though what would have happened if I got a chance and joined another university in US, or a research institute in India. I would not have met the same people or traveled the same road, but would that have been more or less rewarding? We do not know the answer. We have no way to find out.

We know we want to read this book, or watch that movie. Perhaps visit that place. I want Florida to win all football games every year. We probably also know how the results of our work would look like, although research by definition is probing the unknown. But beyond that, we do not know. And like the kid holding the raffle ticket in his hand, and imagining the endless possibilities, we prefer it that way.

No adventurer knew what lay ahead. That would have defeated the purpose.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Eastward Ho

The ruins of Roman and Greek civilizations draw hoards of tourists to Europe, and quite understandably too. Seeing ancient history, which we read in high school textbooks, right in front of our eyes is fascinating. However, we often tend to overlook momentous events in recent past, mostly because it is hard to grasp the significance of them when we are not directly affected by it. Living in Dresden, and traveling through Eastern Europe, I came face to face with this "modern history", and it is no less fascinating than those majestic ruins.

Growing up in the 80's, even in faraway India, we saw grainy images broadcast by the state-run TV channel. Nicolae Ceauşescu being overthrown in Buchares. Tanks on the streets of Moscow. Tearing down of the wall in Berlin. Apart from providing overtly-generalized coffee-table discussion on why communism is a failure (and also teaching me the word "coup d'état"), I dont think we gave them the due importance. The whole communist block crumbled down, ethnic conflicts ensued, resulting in formation of new independent countries. These were not merely geographical or political realignments, as I have been repeatedly realizing. In my recent travel to Budapest, it appeared that the most commonly used word together with "communism" was "terror". They upooted all the communist leader's statues from the city, and dumped them in the misleadingly named memento park A friend has experienced how in a German train, harmless looking Russian ladies were almost interrogated during a routine ID check. In a Czech shop, the salesman was horrified to learn that certain parts of India are still ruled by so-called communists.

Life in communist era was bad for sure. Food was hard to come by, luxuries were rare except for the top party functionaries, and everyone lived in an environment of constant fear and suspicion. Telling anything against the party lead to unpleasant consequences. But also, everybody had work and a place to live. Should not that count for something? Asking my friends here who formerly belonged to the east, I got mixed responses. Unification was not all good, someone's parents lost their low skill jobs, and they had a hard time integrating with the more competitive westerners. The quality of life eventually got better, but may have also created a problem of identity for the older generation. World can rarely be painted with one color.

Budapest was pretty, Bratislava was nice too. The charming old town architecture sits uneasily with modern glass-facade buildings and McDonalds. One of the attractions in Budapest was the underground labyrinth, decorated with faux-history artifacts and replica paintings. The most prominent feature in Bratislava skyline is the ugly UFO-like bridge, standing just across the medieval castle. You can use Euros in Slovakia, but you have to carry wads of local currency in adjoining Czech republic and Hungary.

In some years, before they all look and feel the same, a visit to these places is as interesting a historical tour as any other.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why this means nothing to me!

I am tired of this. Year after year, it is the same story, since I have moved away from Kolkata.
This time of the year, wherever you see a few Bengalis discussing something, it must be about the pujo. You cant escape it offline. You cant escape it when talking to a friend.
You cant even escape it on social networking sites. I am getting sick of this.

And before I appear as another suddenly-homesick Bengali, that is hardly the case. I can perfectly understand why people there will be excited about the biggest festival of the year. You must be excited when you are forced to make multiple forced voluntary donations, have to fight with millions of people to reach anywhere or enter a restaurant, and have the unenviable pleasure of listening to non-stop free music loud and clear from the adjoining pujo pandal.

However I see no reason why I would be excited. Or anyone living in any part of the world, where pujo means nothing. And no, I do not count the social get-togethers organized in these parts. The whole point of a festival is the ambiance, the surrounding. Seeing everyone around you having fun. In spite of all the inconveniences, that is why we want to go back to Kolkata this time of the year, although whether we will be able to survive the crowd is an open question. But I digress.

I am an atheist, so the religious part of it does not mean anything to me anyways. I suspect that is true for a lot of people, pujo is a social occasion, not an overtly religious one, no matter what the name suggests. The social aspect is completely missing here - no matter how hard you try to recreate the environment here. It is either you meeting up with all your friends, which you do once in a while anyways, or worse, an awkward gathering of complete strangers. A festival can not happen in isolation, and more importantly, it cannot happen without a buildup. You cant getup one fine morning, see your scheduler, get dressed, and go to a pujo. Even football games in Florida had more buildup, more expectations.

All festivals are critical functions of the surroundings. That is why pujo means nothing to me sitting here. Now, please stop asking me how I am spending my pujo. And, no I am not interested in listening to how was yours, or hear dhak on youtube. I see everyone working around me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First impression of Mexico City

Landing at the Mexico City airport past midnight, all I wanted to was reach my hotel and not get robbed or shot in the process. Not so fast, as the immigration guy kept staring at my passport for a while, flipped over the pages repeatedly, smelled it, made a little mark with his pen and wiped it off, and finally disappeared asking to "wait me". A more senior looking official emerged and and asked if I have another form of ID. I guess they were just confused why an Indian looking guy residing in Germany is holding an US passport. Strangely though, they never asked me why I am here.

The city is huge, and remarkably like any big Indian city. It is not just the crowd, or the crazy traffic or the tasty streetfood, but the character and smell of the city, so to say. It took us over an hour to come to the university from the center of the city, a distance of barely 5 km. The university apparently has 300,000 students, which is about 6 times that of a large public university in US. Overwhelming, to say the least.

Large crowds everywhere, be it at the metro or at tourist attractions. Everything from (cheap) spicy food to handicrafts being sold on the streets, or in the little carts. People singing or playing musical instruments and asking for money, or asking for money anyways. Mexico City is as lively and vibrant place as I have ever been to. The museum of Anthropology does a remarkable job of portraying the unique amalgamation of "Indian", Mayan, Aztec and Spanish culture that the present day Mexico is, apart from having an amazing collection of sculptures and relics recovered from the ruins.

I read all these scary things about the country. May be that is true elsewhere, but here in the city, I never felt unsafe. You do see armed cops and blinking lights literally in every corner, but no hint of any danger lurking.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Latest national park traveled: Yellowstone

National parks are quintessentially American. Ever since landing up in US in 2003, I have been to a small fraction of them:

Cuyahoga Valley (spring break, 2005)
Smoky Mountain (summer, 2005; fall, 2007)
Grand Canyon (Winter, 2005)
Shenandoah (fall, 2007)
Everglades (winter, 2007)
Yosemite(winter, 2007)
Petrified Forest (summer, 2008)
Acadia (summer, 2010)
Yellowstone and Grand Teton (fall, 2010)

When we think of natural attractions, mountains and seas are usual suspects. However, these national parks are unique in the sense that many of them present totally unusual vistas. Everglades certainly comes to mind - it encompasses the huge swampland of south Florida, an unique but fragile ecosystem. It is not terribly attractive if you want to travel marking the attractions on a map and then connecting the dots, but if for a few hours or days, you want to escape the "civilization", and just enjoy the vast wilderness and nothingness, that should be your next destination.

Yellowstone happens to be the first national park, where it all began, and no less unique. I have been up, close personal to a live volcano before (Mt.Etna, Sicily), but the sheer natural activity in Yellowstone is unlike anything I have ever seen. Spotting animals, (we did have some luck with seeing a bear and wolf/fox) hiding in the vast meadows or wilderness, is a favorite pastime, and whenever we would see a bunch of cars pulled over to the side of the road, we would slow down and ask, what do we see here? Easier to find are the Elks, we saw a herd of those relaxing in someone's front-yard. Bisons are omnipresent, often lazily crossing the roads holding up traffic.

However, you need no such luck or persevere to enjoy spectacle nature has laid out. Not only you have the geysers of all sizes sprouting hot water skyward in regular intervals, but also you have the strikingly colorful pools dotting the landscape. The old faithful is perhaps the most known, "faithfully" erupting at predicted intervals, but we were told that it used to go up higher in older days. Was not everything better back in the days when gas was 10 cents a gallon, airlines served food and immigrants did not flood the country?

That is just one of the countless geysers though.They seemed to pop out from everywhere, even from under a river or lake, a clear manifestation of the unseen activity underground. And when they subside, they form those pools. Combined with the metal particles, teeming microbe life renders surreal colors to those. At dusk, in the fading sunlight, the whole landscape transforms into something magical, the veil of smoke magnifying the colors. There are also some stinking muddy pools full of sulphur, bringing back memories of chemistry labs.

The pictures are in my facebook profile (apologies for not cross-posting them into picasa, but I am running out of virtual estate there).

Friday, August 27, 2010

Language, the final frontier

Austria one week. Italy next week. Back to Dresden for a couple of weeks before coming to Toronto. US next, with a Mexico trip coming up. At which point all the different languages get mixed up in your head?

It is mostly my fault. I envy people who can speak multiple languages, but I am too lazy to learn new ones. I joined a beginners German course after moving to Dresden, and even the presence of a couple of Russian beauties were not enough sustain my interest.

I realized I could survive with pointing at stuff in stores and restaurants, and for everything else, there was Google translator. Not that it was perfect, and worse, it is non-commutative. So translating a phrase from English to German, and then translating back to English would probably not give you the original phrase back. A while back I was laughing like crazy in my office, reading a (Google translated) mail from our chair admonish the students for not attending a seminar, and asking where did they all die.

Then there is my friend, who made a complete mockery of one of my hard(ly) learned German phrases. "Ich habe eine fragen" means I have a question, and its really useful to get the attention, before I can start rambling in English. She thought it sounded for like "itch hobe ei frog er" (with apologies to my non-Bengali speaking readers). Or this Indian guy, first coming to German was utterly confused why every female was named "frau" (equivalent of Ms.) or why everyone was asking him to choose ("tschüss", means bye).

However German is generally not so bad, you mostly get what is spelled. In French, you mostly do not get what is spelled, most letters are silent. And in Italian, no matter what is is, it needs to be accompanied by animated gestures. And then there are subtle differences too. I found out that there is no difference between "create" and "do" in German, everything is "made" You make babies as well as exercises. However they do have different words for free (indeed free) seats and free (costless) pizza. And German sentences can end with "or", which is apparently a polite way of asking someone, if you want to go to the movie "or (not)"?

Amusing, yes. But intimidating too. I walked upto a bus ticket counter in Toronto and realized I can actually use a complete English sentence.

Only if everyone spoke the same language.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Snippets from my sojourn through Austria and Sicily

In the summer of 2007, still a graduate student, I came to CERN for a summer school. That was my first glimpse of Europe, and after the school was over, I did a solo Geneva-Zurich-Rome-Pisa-Florence-Venice-Paris-Geneva trip, walking all day, spending nights at cheap hotels or taking night trains. A lot has happened since then, I graduated and moved to this side of the Atlantic. I have visited many exciting places, but most have been in tandem with academic trips, or weekend trips someplace with or to someone I know. While these have been great fun, nothing beats the sheer excitement of multi-destination semi-backpacking trips. So when this long-lost friend, proposed this trip, I was thrilled, and we spent days and weeks planning every detail. It certainly lived upto all the expectations, and I got to relive that first Euro-trip again, with someone who has never been to Europe before.

Some of my lasting memories from the trip, in no particular order.

Cinematic connections: First part of the trip took me to two cities associated with two of my favorite movies. Salzburg was of course the setting for "Sound of Music", and Jesse and Celine walked the streets of Vienna in "Before Sunrise". We did accidentally find the bridge they so memorably crossed.

Train on a ferry: The train from Rome to Sicily crosses Strait of Messina on a ferry. At Villa San Giovanni station, the train is split into 3 parts, and each is pushed into the ferry, the lowest deck of which has 4 set of tracks. At the other end in Messina, the tracks are aligned to the ground tracks again, the coaches are retrieved by an engine coming in and joined together, and the train rolls out.

Czech obscenities:
Not their fault really, but the Czech word for exit is remarkably similar to the word for copulation in Bengali, my native language. Oh well.

Small pleasures of life:
Walking all day through the charming streets of Prague on a hot sultry day, we were thrilled when we found people enjoying the water spray from this sprinkler in a little garden. Finding our way back to it at the end of the day, it was still on, and as people passing by giggled, we literally drenched ourselves. Pure bliss.

Sushi-coma in Vienna: After having a fill of Schnitzels, we stumbled upon this place advertising running Sushi. With a double-decker conveyor belt running by the tables carrying everything from cold sushi to warm dishes to fruits in small colorful bowls, in endless loop, it certainly felt like heaven. After two hours and countably infinite number of empty bowls in front of us, we walked out of the place in a trance like state.

Horse-steak in Sicily:
for only three bucks, nonetheless. While I loved it, my friend completely freaked out and ended up having a large chunk of watermelon for dinner. For the bravehearted, the next item in the menu was lamb guts.

Freezing point is, really freezing:
We ended up visiting ice caves near Salzburg in our summer clothing. Climbing up and down 700 steps inside the cave, often with icy winds made us sweat and freeze at the same time!

Train amenities: The Czech night train from Prague to Vienna had a shower. Never before I showered on a train. And the Hungarian train taking us back the same way had an outlet for electric shavers. Evidently shaving is a big deal for some men.

Music tourism in Vienna:
In every street corner, people dressed in strange costumes would try to sell you concert tickets, and they simply would not take no for an answer, rather keep asking insisting that in the city of music, you must be at these highly acclaimed concerts in the royal palace. Incidentally, these "popular" concerts never seemed to sell out. Amusing at first, major irritant soon after.

World in black and white: It could as well have been the surface of the moon. At Mount Etna, everything has been devoured by lava, and the landscape is starkly black with white smoke coming out from live craters. A surreal feeling.

Nothing beats Florida beaches:
Heard a lot about Sicily beaches, and while they are nice, most of them are strips of gravel. Not the alluring soft sands of Florida.

Seacaves in Syracusa:
A boatride in Syracusa took us to these amazing little seacaves. Very local, very pretty.

Catastrophe in Catania:
While walking on the cobbled streets, my friend ended up with a twisted ankle, and a bizarre sequence of events followed, culminating in me pushing a wheelchair around in Munich airport. Found out that German emergency healthcare is order of magnitude cheaper than US, and I now have a new-found sympathy for the mobility impaired people.

Friday, July 09, 2010


Disclaimer: this post is about the world cup, but not really.

Its a story of before and after, and the dramatic fortnight in between.

I realized I am in a unique position before the world cup began. I grew up watching football in India, which became soccer once I moved to US, and fußball when I came to Germany. But in spite of the excitement it generated in India, and the metamorphosis of people to Brazilians or Argentinians during that particular month, we never really had any stake in the championship. It was exactly opposite in US, where few people cared about the tournament, although I get a feeling that has changed this year.

But in Germany, the involvement was real. Although before it all begun, the expectation was not very high from this very young team. The first dramatic victory over Australia was treated almost as a pleasant surprise, and the subsequent defeat against Serbia made people cynical again. Then they sneaked by Ghana, and all people wanted was to win the "war" against England.

As they say, one game changes everything. That emphatic win, albeit with the English "no-goal", made people believers, and the systematic destruction of Argentina started the discussion about winning it all. The often dull, workman like German style was gone, and the fluent attacking game, complemented by the usual accurate finishing became a delight to watch. Even I found myself subconsciously rooting for "Die Mannschaft".

Rooting for a sports team (and getting disappointing) is nothing new for me. That Javed Miandad six off Chetan Sharma shaped our psyche, and every meek Indian capitualtion in cricket brought about national mourning. It turned more personal after I became a "Gator", and we were royally pampered with a pair of national championships each in football and basketball during my stay there. For all my non-American friends out there, that is a big deal. Wild celebration after all those championships at university avenue till wee hours of morning remain one of my fondest memories from my Gainesville days

So I was secretly hoping for an encore. Too bad, it did not happen. But what really surprised me was the sheer classiness of the people here. In Florida, we hated losing. We were fiercely partisan. Opposition players and coaches were ridiculed, called by profanity-ridden-names. Even when we were thoroughly outplayed, the crowd honestly believed we are one big play away from turning it around. People were not merely upset after the loss, but they were intensely angry. We would never acknowledge that the other team can play better. The Monday after, campus would be in mourning.

I was expecting something similar when it looked inevitable that Spain would score. I was watching the game with an enthusiastic, flag waving, vuvezela playing, obviously patriotic crowd by the river in a giant screen. Everything that moved was decked in German colors. Spain scored, and the crowd just went quiet. And they remained quiet, with occasional desperate "Go Deutschland" cries. And then it was all over. The crowd dispersed methodically, strangely emotionless. To all fairness, if before the start of the tournament, they were told Germany will reach the semi-final after crushing England and Argentina, most would have gladly taken it. But still, it felt eerily calm, considering the magnitude of the occasion.

Hell, when LeBron James ditched Cleveland three days later, more people seemed more upset.

Just when you start to think you have seen it all, you realize you have not.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Freedom from the mob!

It was roughly a year ago I got into it. A world of violence and crime, robbing and killing. I made new friends, who helped me to expand my activities, but a lost few, who could not tolerate it. It was fun while it lasted. Like all good things, it had to come to an end. So today, I obliterated my criminal associates, and claimed back my life.

Rather my facebook page, from complete strangers I added to play Mafia Wars. But facebook is life, right?

I never liked virtual games much. In the early MS-DOS days, I liked playing this game called paratrooper, where you had to protect your anti aircraft gun from a continuous flow of air dropped enemy fighters, wonder how many of us remember it? Games came and games went, but most were either too involved, or needed extremely quick reflexes, and I sorely lacked the patience. And at a deeper level, I realized losing against faceless machines made me depressed, while winning did not bring any great joy. Wins count only when someone right here is actually humiliated and bloodied, not when a little popup on screen says you won. No wonder I never developed a taste for online gaming too.

Racing games were slightly better, where I competed with myself. I actually liked them for a while, trying not to finish at the dead last position was surely a challenge. I gained a firsthand idea about how hard it is to drive around a F1 circuit. And I first got introduced to the gorgeous pacific coast highway via Need For Speed, and the curves did seem that treacherous when I first did the drive years later.

So, I was skeptical when I signed up for Mafia Wars. Make no mistakes, it is not a role playing game, no matter what the name and the actions suggest. It is purely a strategy game, where you have to optimally use your resources. That is the aspect which got me hooked, although the part where I had to add hundreds of strangers in my facebook profile was a bit disconcerting, But, as the popular saying goes - there is no such thing as a free game, and the developers simply wanted to expand their business. I can not really fault them for doing that.

It did not really require fast reflex, well not much anyway. But it needed one to login often, as time was effectively the currency in the game. So for almost a year, no matter where ever I were, I would go online and keep up with the game. I tried to time my gameplay so that I do not lose much when I slept, or took a train or flew. I had to turn on my laptop sitting in workshops and meetings, to makes sure I do not l miss anything, and then I would see the guy sitting in front of me is doing the same. Mafia Wars did become a phenomenon, with every other person you know on facebook seemed to be playing it, and spamming your wall with meaningless posts. There were online forums, with veterans and newbies discussing strategies and rumor, I made sure I did not miss any discussion. I liked the social aspect of the game, knowing that you are dealing with real imperfect human beings made the game not just a game, but more part of a lifestyle. If I played it anymore, I could almost have claimed it to be my profession.

Well, eventually the inevitable happened. Work caught up, and my continuous traveling meant the game had to take a backseat. And to "popularize" it even more, the developers introduced new features, which made the gameplay more and more dependent on others. And just like that, I grew out of it.

Being part of the imaginary mafia was fun though. Certainly more fun than growing virtual crop in virtual farms.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

It is all your fault, ladies

The issues change.

In high school, friends complained about getting low marks, or getting bullied.

In college, it was mostly about getting treated unfairly by members of opposite sex.

And then we grew up. The pet gripes changed. Two body problem is certainly ruining the world, no doubts about it whatsoever. Also insensitive husbands, unsympathetic mother-in-laws and male dominated society are to blame. While each situation is unique and a generic oversimplification is unfair, I say this to my oppressed sistren, mostly you are at fault. You waited, and just let it happen to you.

It is always about who has the position of power. In Indian context, an arranged marriage and subsequent loss of financial independence effectively hands the power over to the husband. Once he is allowed to be the provider, he has the control, and quite rightfully so. Complaining of subjugation at that stage is pointless. A disproportionately large number of Indian women think their career is expendable when they enter in a matrimonial relationship. Now of course everyone would not have a very successful, or even a happy career, and that is often the excuse. That is however, beside the point - financial independence can do wonders is times of crisis. And generally for the morale.

The problem is deeper than that, of course. Many (not all, thankfully) Indian men marry because they want someone "at home", as clearly evident by the matrimonial advertisements in newspapers. In that case, obviously a woman having a job would not fit the bill. Now before one starts blaming men as the chauvinistic pigs, look at the mirror. Why these men are getting a steady supply of females willing to act as maid servants? I am no economist, but evidently the law of supply and demand holds. As long as a man can get someone to cook his dinner, wash his dishes, and generally clean after him everyday, with some free sex thrown in, why would he not take it? Why would anybody not take it? He is not to blame. If the supply was cutoff, marrying actually meant marrying a real person for these guys, sooner or later they will get used to it. Like in many other cultures - men do not get to completely dominate domestic dynamics, because women can easily walk out of the door, carrying only emotional baggage, but not worried about food, shelter, and what the neighbors would say.

But we Indians, do it strangely, We want the best of both worlds. We want to be traditional yet liberal. We force them into marriage which require them to quit their study or job. We expect them to sacrifice for the sake of family. And then, inexplicably, we want them to be happy too. They try. When after trying hard, things do not work out, it is too late for them to take a stand. No sympathies, mate - you brought it upon yourself. If you are taking s***, because you are allowing him to get away with it.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

(To my Indian friends) Why "you" are not a Brazilian?

I like tragic heroes. Be it in literature or sports, and so the Dutch football team has always been a personal favorite, helped in no small amount by the exquisite crisp football they play. They play like world beaters one day, and lose to an unsuspecting opponent the next day, never really fulfilling the promise they show. Tragic indeed. But what would be more tragic? If I buy an orange shirt, run around my neighborhood with a Netherlands flag, celebrate each their win as "our" win, and when they inevitably lose, pick a fight with someone who denigrated "my" team in anyway.

Oh wait, is not that a majority of Calcuttans (and others from subcontinent) do? Replace Netherlands with the Brazil or Argentina, and during the World cup, you would like think Calcutta is an extended suburb of Rio or Buenos Aires. Except, that it is not. And you make a complete fool of yourself.

You may think dividing the world up in so many countries is purely artificial. However, since that is indeed the case, national identity is synonymous with national pride. Be it for the smallest country playing in the World cup, who would suffer humiliating defeats and go out, their supporters would still be passionately cheering for them till the last whistle. That is why club football is different from international games, or in US, professional sports from college sports. You can be a fan of any club or professional outfit, although in most cases, they loyalty is geographic. However, you can not be a citizen of another country, or somehow be affiliated to a college, unless you are actually one.

I get asked if India is playing in the World cup a lot. While that is embarrassing, at least now I have another team to support, since I have an American passport. I hear all sorts of snide remarks from Indians, starting from who cares about football in USA to they are lucky to win. Well, my friend, this team is at least in the world cup (just an aside, the US soccer federation chief is of Indian descent) while your team is not. No, your team does not wear yellow or striped white-blue colors.

I know you will get angry and hurt hearing that. You have no affiliation/attachment to another country, where you are neither living, nor were born. Liking their football is one thing, but identifying yourself as one of them just betrays your complete lack of national pride, and identity. Whether or not you can sympathize with street children playing the game in rags in Brazil is completely irrelevant here, since they are not unique to Brazil (why not support Ghana then?), and the national team players are hardly underprivileged. You are unlucky that your teams sucks, but that hardly makes you a Brazilian. Even a pseudo-one for a month. Brazil winning is not you winning, it is still they winning. Hard luck.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Helsinki and Tallinn

Helsinki is an interesting city. Not terribly unique, considering I have been to many European cities, but it has its way of imposing its will on the visitors. That is in spite of the fact that most locals I interacted with speak excellent English, certainly a welcome change from Dresden. However, despite the similarity in language with the Germans, the mindset did not seem German at all. Trains and trams were running late routinely, instructions were often vague, and worse, buses did not announce stops. The name of main train station seemed different depending on which tram or train you are coming by, and many of the other stop names were either too long or had too many vowels (and magically ones got added or subtracted overnight, I am sure), making them indistinguishable from each other!

So navigating all that, I finally find my hotel. I was slightly perplexed by the fact that the Finnish(?) word for elevator sounds suspiciously similar to the word for peeing in Bengali (well, with a million languages in the world, you will end up with such coincidences occasionally, like the Czech word for exit reminded me of an unmentionable sexual act in Bengali, but that does not stop one from noticing).

But the bigger surprise awaited me. At midnight, this is how the conversation went between my friend and me:

Me: You realize that this place is WEIRD?
Friend: Yes, its still not dark.

There you have it. At midnight, there was still light outside, like it is early evening. I have seen sun setting late in Paris and Geneva, but now I knew why Geography textbooks in high school mentioned these parts of the world as land of midnight sun. I dont think I ever saw complete darkness in my short stay there - and my friend says she did not either, inspite of staying up late a couple of nights. That is both good and bad when you are a tourist, good because you can start the day late and still have enough time to explore the places, however you miss out on the night pictures.

Few pretty churches and palatial structures adorn the city, the touristy part of it is remarkably small and walkable.

The most popular area is certainly the market square, an open air market adjacent to the waterfront. On a weekend morning, it was abuzz with people buying useless but tempting articles, and eating delicious meat pie and freshly fried fish. I bought a plateful of fried "vendage", and within minutes had to duck for cover from a bunch of mean looking seagulls hovering above - clearly having and eating your fish required some alert maneuvering.

Next was a short boat ride to Suomenlinna, a former sea fortress, mostly in ruins now. It was still nice to walk around the island, following what remained of the fortress wall, with canon carelessly lying around, and a distant view of the archipelago.

For the first couple of days, it seemed like Finnish food is like Canadian food, as in nothing is local. Eventually we did find interesting local eateries, and I added a new meat in my list, reindeer.

Olympic stadium and the tower was another popular attraction, however the stadium was all dug up. The infamous nude statue of Paavo Nurmi was right there, as advertised.

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia was only a couple of hours away, and I was not about pass this opportunity to visit a new country. The charming old city part maintains its distinctly medieval character, surrounded by crumbling walls and empty watch towers.The cobblestone streets and towering church towers made it a joy to walk around.

We had our lunch at this restaurant called Olde Hansa, which is old, and the the whole decor makes it look even older. The food was good, albeit a bit costly.

And then it was time to head back, by this huge ship! I have never been on a ship which resembled a hotel, a mall and a resort at the same time!

More Pictures here.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A hate letter

I liked playing chess as a kid. I played with other kids, and with a program with ran on MS-DOS. I would not claim that I was very good at it, but it was fun nevertheless. Then I learned that chess can be learned. I bought books, memorized different types of openings and strategies. I spent hours playing with myself. I won more. But every loss hurt more too. And somewhere down the line, the charm went away.

My feeling is, the same thing is happening with photography. I never wanted to be a photographer. I do not claim myself to be creative. I just liked taking pictures, playing around with each frame. Sometimes they came out nice, sometimes not - but there were never any expectations. With effectively unlimited memory cards and a backup battery, there is no limit to the number of photos you can take. Law of average dictates that out of a hundred or thousand tries, some would come out good. Digital camera and online photo sharing meant friends and strangers started seeing those, whether they wanted it or not. Some liked some pictures. Hell, one even won an "honorable" mention at the university organized photo contest. Of course I was happy and proud. I did not even enter the contest next year, or the years after, only because I could never remember the deadlines. Another landed up in CNN iReport. Taking a photo for me was never about entering a contest or gathering praise. although if they came as a byproduct I was too glad to bask in the glory.

Somewhere down the line, people started asking questions. Why I am not switching to a digital SLR. Why I do not use photoshop (it is another matter that most use illegal pirated version, which they should not be using at all) or post-process the images. Have I thought about reading about photographic techniques, or planning to enroll in courses. I held out. No digital SLR for me, because I am broke. I have no time to edit pictures and no inclination to readup technical details. And when I looked around, I saw people using fancy cameras and pirated softwares posting dull pictures, and garnering praise. The praise did not bother me so much, as did the general attitude that a costly camera must imply awesome pictures. In this era of artificial human interactions, what else one can expect!

When you do something spontaneously, it is mostly fun. When the same things starts becoming too technical, and you feel the pressure of expectations, the fun starts dissipating. I get asked often if I am not "tired" of studying. People identify studying as something they were forced to do as a kid, not as something you do because you want to know how nature works, or how you can positively affect human lives. Nothing forced is fun. Competitive activities can be fun, but mostly because you enjoy the competition and derive a pleasure out of vanquishing opponents.

Anyway, I finally gave in. I should be migrating from my high-zoom point and shoot to a micro 4/3rd interchangeable lens camera soon. I am hoping it is worth the money, and worth the hassle of learning a new technology. Otherwise, another hobby would become a victim of peer pressure.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

More politics, very regional

Dipthought's final thought on the recent municipal elections: in the world we grew up, none ever waved an opposition flag in the vicinity of Alimuddin street. That just did not happen.

The most striking image from last Wednesday? Precisely that!

From Calcutta Telegraph, 3rd June.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Why I support the Arizona Immigration law

Essential disclaimers before I start. I have not suddenly veered to the dark side. I still do not watch faux news. I voted for Obama, and will do it again. And I am a brown skinned male, very much look and smell like an illegal immigrant.

But I support this law. Or better, I do not oppose it.

It is not a perfect world. This law is not a perfect solution to immigration issue. Or any issue for that matter. And let us face it, this is more of a deterrent to scare potential illegal immigrants away, rather than pack and ship them across the border. I wish that was the case. but we have to many watchdogs worried about human rights violation, effectively negating the possibility. And then also, we have no idea it would work.

Still I think it is a step in the right direction.

Illegal is illegal. They should not have the rights and privileges legal residents enjoy. Now the definition and moral interpretation of the term may vary, but I'll stick by the current laws here. And whether one likes it or not, most of them are brown skinned, accented English speaking folks. Profiling may be morally reprehensible, but show me a better solution, please?

Most of the dissenting voices are worried about that. And the requirement of carrying an ID. Here is Germany, we are supposed to carry our passport all the time with me, whenever I step out. I have been asked to show my ID, politely but firmly many times in train stations, in trains, at the airport, when Germans walked by peacefully. Do I feel violated or discriminated? Hell I do. But then again, its their country. Its their law. I am free to leave if I dont like it. I am told this is the case in most of the Europe. Carrying your ID is not that big a deal, specially if you have one.

Once in Munich train station, I was asked for my passport. I was attending a conference, and did not have my passport with me. I explained this to the guy, he listened to my explanation patiently, looked at my conference badge and the ATM card I had with me, and allowed me to go, with a reminder that I should be carrying my passport. These guys have a decent feeling who is an illegal and who is not. They are not going to arrest every Id-less Indian/foreign grad student in Arizona, contrary to the fear mongering propagated by certain people. They have better things to do.

Protesting for the sake of protesting is not a justification to oppose this.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Travel Titbits

Back to what I do best, talk about traveling. However, rather than talking about how wonderful my last few trips were, and making many jealous, I will try to talk about how my outlook and preferences have evolved over the years.

Let us start by a uttering a simple word, which often prompts strong opinions from people I know. Greyhound. Well, not the dog (that would indeed result in a strong reaction from me, I am mortally afraid of dogs, any shape, size or color), but the inter city bus service in US. I know people who are terribly afraid of riding without even having been to the bus station, and then people who traveled cross country with it. My personal experience is mixed. They often do not have the best routes or timings, and mostly the bus stations are not in the best part of the town, but they actually run on time, and I never felt they are unsafe. A disproportionately high number of colored people causes some concern for some people, but that is a result of the socio-economic condition, and the the fear is more racial myopia then anything else. So verdict? I probably would not use Greyhound, but that is because driving gives me more freedom. But if someone is not driving, Greyhound is an excellent option, and cheap too.

I did ride Greyhound, and slept in Greyhound stations, when I could not drive. Not that I particularly enjoyed that, but money was the strong constraint there. It still is, however I have actually become more particular about my itineraries now. I never liked early morning flights, but now I actively try to avoid them. I would drive a a couple of hours to the next big city to get a cheaper flight, now I mostly would pay a little more but fly from Dresden, rather than Berlin. I can survive using a shared restroom in a backpackers hostel, but a room with a private shower is probably what I would end up booking. I am spending the money I do not have, but when you travel so much, these little comforts add up to feel you less jaded.

More so, when I travel solo. Sometimes it is by choice, sometimes not. Academic travels are by definition solo, but then there are trips I just make. Many people find it weird, or maybe downright scary, that one can go to a nice place alone, and enjoy, but it is not as awkward as it sounds. There are of course fancy restaurants and operas probably one would not want go by themselves, but walking around a city, hiking to an old castle, or even exploring a museum can be done alone quite efficiently. And at times, that gives me complete freedom to plan (which I love doing!), without worrying about what others may or may not like. Often I have got stuck with incompatible traveler companions, and I would much rather go solo.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A year later

Exactly one year back, on a snowy day, I landed here in Dresden. Without knowing any German in a completely German town, from a diverse environment of an American campus town to a strikingly non multicultural town. I did not feel I belong here.

One year down the line, it is a good time to revisit that question. More importantly perhaps, now I can try to figure out the intangibles which shaped my perception. Lack of local language skill does affect my judgment significantly in all fairness, but fortunately as a physicist working in an international collaboration, it has barely any impact on the work.

Most people, when trying to draw the contrasts between the two sides of Atlantic, cite the widespread availability of public transit as a good thing here, or the lack of open grocery stores on Sundays as a bad thing, and I am equally guilty of such assertions. While these on a superficial level indeed are very true, and significantly dictate ones lifestyle, more interesting would be look at where these, and other differences are coming from. The US lifestyle is built around the concept of individual space, and minimal restrictions. Passports are "checked" at the airport, not "controlled" as in most of the Europe. While one can argue that both are the exact same exercise, the clear distinction in the name does betray the different philosophy at work. The reason grocery stores are not open 24/7 because some laws mandate that people working in those stores need that time off from work - but it does not consider that some people might actually prefer working overnight or during the weekends for the money. The food court beside my institute has a couple fixed dishes everyday, and with fixed sides. No, you can not have fries with Gulash, they are only served with fish today. Too many things are too fixed.

These remind me of airport security persons in India putting a stamp on your carry on bags while passing through screening, and then inspecting it before boarding, The whole exercise is totally pointless, since one can not enter the boarding area without being screened. May be this was a necessity in the older days, but now somebody just need to realize the absurdity of this measure, rather than just following the tradition. Too many European norms are like that, once they made sense, but stopped evolving with time.

I should give credit where it is due. Public transit is useful, but never can be a substitute for personal cars. However, the extent the whole system is designed for conservation of resources is admirable. Grocery stores do not hand out plastic bags for every three items, in fact they do not give one at all, unless you pay a nominal amount for it. That forces people to reuse bags and not to throw them away indiscriminately as I did back there. Disposable cutlery and crockery are rarely used - and again. that is not only to look classy. People do not grab paper napkins in bunches, and the lights in my institute building are all switched off at night.

After a year of struggling with a new culture and a different worldview, I would say I am glad I decided to come here. It has been a learning experience, not always a smooth ride, but given me a different perspective about many things I took for granted over in the states. Life in Europe is certainly more charming, but deep down, I would still prefer the familiarity and predictability of American life.