Sunday, February 28, 2010

Life's little pleasures...

There are certain days when everything that happens makes you grin...well I had one such saturday !

I was woken up by a phone call from a friend I hadn't talked to in 5 years and although I was still in the half-dazed zombie mode (I am not at all a morning person!), it was so great to catch up that we ended up talking for an hour. I was meeting another friend for lunch.

It was such a beautiful day, 12 deg C, bright and sunny (After 3 months of snow, 12 deg C is barbeque weather !) and I walked along the Isar river to reach the restaurant. My friend had invited another friend of his along with the family and although I had met them only once before, we got along as if we had known each other for years. I think befriending someone after a certain age is not really easy unless it happens on its own and it did.

During lunch I spent some time with their 5 year old daughter. Afterwards, we all decided to take a walk to the city centre and the first thing she does is run up to me and hold my hand. I was touched although I did not say anything (made me feel too girly :D)

While we were walking she decided to play catch-catch and started running and I ran after her...initially it was just to make sure she does not go out of sight but then I got into the game and we played it for quite a while much to the amusement of other pedestrians (and probably irritation of a few others...) was a lot of fun, reminded me of all the lock-and-key I used to play in the mottamadi when I was in school.

Then we went shopping and the store was cluttered and that made her decide that it was the perfect place for hide-and-seek. She would make me close my eyes, check if I really did and then hide. I had bought her a chocolate bunny with a bell around its neck and she dutifully carried it with her without realizing that the jingle of the bell always gave away her hiding place :)...we went on for a while and stopped when I decided that we had tested the patience of the storekeeper enough !

Her father referred to me as ''sowmya aunty'' and I corrected him saying ''sowmya akka'', he chuckled and said ''lets ask her'' and she rolled her eyes and said brightly ''sowmya akka''....and I smiled politely while I was dancing for ''uppu karuvadu'' in my head :D !

And finally it was time to say goodbye and she held on to my hand and said ''pogadhe'' and when I said I had to, she wanted to know when I was going to come to her house and she gave me a list of incentives to do so (in her words ''enga veetula dress, shoe ellam irukku''...ROFL) and I gave her a pretty cliched (but appropriate) response that if she was a good girl I would visit her soon (I wonder if knows the Santa story !)

I came home and I had a sms from her mother saying that she misses me and what completely blew me away was a phone call today saying that she insisted on talking to me....truly a heart-warming moment ! To me, it sort of made up for the time I miss away from my nieces and nephews all the while hoping that my cousins show them photos of me often enough for me to be recognised when I do see them....once a year is simply not enough...!

Gold fish translator:
Mottamadi - terrace
Akka - Sister
Pogadhe - ''Don't go''
Uppu karuvadu - (here) refers to a peppy number from a tamil movie (one of all my time favorites)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When parents become children...

What do I do when...

..amma, who made sure that I have all my meals at the right time, is now not having any of her meals at the right time ?

..appa, who explained to me that spending too much time in front of the computer is not healthy, is now going to bed at odd hours because he is reading vikatan online ?

..amma, who used to go to the temple and do 108 pradakshinam each time I had an exam, is now not even able to walk to the temple ?

..appa, who played tt with my brother and taught me to how ride a bicycle, is now having trouble with climbing stairs ? takes me 10 phone calls of yelling, begging, blackmailing to get them to go to a medical check-up when they did all they could to prevent me from having a single sick day ?

..all my suggestions for healthy eating habits, exercise does nothing except make appa call me HM (headmistress) ?

..a comparison with other healthy relatives for the sake of motivation ends up only hurting amma ?

..I have to teach discipline to someone who taught me the word, its meaning and also how to practice it?

..I want to bring them to Germany, show them where I studied, where I work, where I live all along knowing that it might be too risky with their current state of health?

..I want to fulfill appa’s dream (from ever since he was boy) to visit Switzerland and the feeling of exasperation drives me mad since it is so within reach (Zurich is 4 hours from Munich) if he was a tad healthier?

I am now ridden with guilt, caught in a realm of helplessness that drives my temper levels to unfathomed heights and I keep thinking that the only way to take care of ‘children’ is to be with them and force them to do what is right...So makkale, the next time I come to India and you do not get to see me or speak to me then you should know that I am busy being a parent !

Gold fish translator:
Amma – mother
Appa – father
Makkale – people
Pradakshinam – sanskirt for going around in a circle (in a temple) as a form of worship

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Are children safe ?

I read this article yesterday and while I am happy about the elderly being treated well in India, well for the most part, I am shocked by the child abuse statistics (not just sexual abuse). When I saw the movie ''Achamundu Achamundu'', I was equally appalled by the statistics shown at the end of the movie stressing the point that most children are abused by near and dear ones.

I used to believe that the culture and way of life in India where families and relationships take priority over everything else will be impermeable to issues like child abuse and those that we hear of in the news are the few exceptional cases....well, like I said, I used to.....I seem to hardly see a day's news without some child abuse case taking the forefront and it scares me, positively scares me !

Besides the sexual abuse, children are thrashed and punished in the name of discipline. It is true that using brute force or other forms of punishment to induce discipline is more or less accepted in India but clearly there is a line between this and insanity, right ? I have heard of desi parents having a hard time abroad since a simple phone call from the child can invoke the long arm of the law and result in embarrassing or difficult circumstances and I have also seen helpless parents here trying their best to reason with children with unbelievably unruly behavior. It all boils down to the parents doing what they think is best for their children.

Let me explain this right - I am not against occasionally giving a spoilt child a spanking when its impossible to reason with him/her to make him/her do the right thing. My chinna thatha* used to pinch me when I refused to do my maths homework at an age when he couldn't make me understand that studying basic arithmetic was going to help me in the long run. But when I read of stories where children are made to kneel down in the hot sun for a whole day that they faint purely out of exhaustion or a 12 year old girl being made to stand naked in the school, I think the people behind this should be properly questioned because I wouldn't be surprised if they had bodies buried in their gardens; this kind of sheer sadism cannot definitely be a one time thing !!

If we look at this issue objectively, it is surprising and confusing at the same time because the reasons do not actually point to poverty, child labour, lack of education etc. (these of course affect the lives of children but in a very different way). I am not a psychiatrist but to me it seems like in 8 cases out of 10, the reason simply points to depravity in one way or another.

And what is more worrying is the increase in nuclear families in India with no grand parents to watch over the little ones especially with both parents having challenging jobs.

And what is even more worrying is how sex and violence are becoming a part of one's life through media, magazines and technology (there are computer games where you get points for killing !)....Everyone was in praise of the movie ''Kaminey''...oh..well, to me it was nothing but shooting, chasing, killing and blood and yes, I appreciate the screenplay but I am also appalled at the violence considering the average age of the audience in India.

India is evolving...on the one side are the people who are trying to stick to the tradition and culture that they believe defines them and on the other side are the people who think they are enabling India catch up with the western civilization and everyone is confused ! While the former works on opposing inter-caste marriages, disco clubs, girls jogging in shorts, without in the least worrying about diet, health, exercise and tolerance, the latter is interested in dating, having October fests in India, Salsa classes, Mercedes without in the least thinking about how they are imbibing none of the right qualities from the western world (no, there is nothing wrong with salsa or Mercedes, but you get what I mean, right ?)....and the evolution should result in the survival of the fittest, only I have no idea what/who that is going to be !

But here is something I do know and can do - help campaigns that create awareness about issues related to Child Abuse. A fellow blogger, SK, pointed me to Dr.Shalini who is actively involved in such campaigns and she would really appreciate any help one can offer; be it technical assistance in conducting such seminars or providing contacts for organising them. Right now, the plan is to start with school teachers since they are the ones who keep in regular touch with the kids and are also open minded to issues like these when compared to parents. People, any suggestions you have or help you can offer, in this regard, would be appreciated. Just leave a comment if you know of a group of people who would be interested in attending one such seminar and would be willing to spread the word further.

*Gold fish translator (Doesn't goldfish sound a lot better than youknowwhat ? :D):
Chinna thatha - Grandfather's younger brother

Friday, February 19, 2010

India Vs China - (e)relations

A couple of months ago, this article caught my attention more so because from what little I know about the Indian army, its strengths and weaknesses, I can definitely say that if there is a war, both countries will lose but India will sustain the most damage and in a few years, everyone will conveniently forget any territories occupied by China (like the China-occupied Kashmir that seems to have eluded everyone’s memory). China already made a big fuss about the Indian Prime minister visiting Arunachal Pradesh. So what are China’s intentions towards India ?

I have always held the opinion that just because a country does not support democracy, it is no reason to suspect it of espionage or accuse it of unfriendliness. But this article refers to a report that shows a planned campaign of computer hacking by China. Comforting.

Internet freedom in China is very questionable and Google has already said that it may end operations in China . Previously, Google had been censoring the search results by filtering those websites that were categorized as hostile according to the Chinese Government. Agreed that Google is not the perfect platform for privacy. But even when Obama was in China, he aired his views on the topic of internet freedom and very predictably, it fell on deaf ears and the irony was that even his views were censored in various parts of the country.

I met a person from a Govt. agency in China at a conference. He voluntarily spoke to me, talked to me about his trip to Delhi a few years ago and then we moved on to discussing the conference itself. I gave him a business card and asked him for one. He searched for it in his pockets and said he would give it to me later (since the conference still had 3 more days to go). That was the last I saw of him ! Everytime I managed to talk to him during the coffee or lunch break, he would somehow evade me and I gave up after a while. Someone from a Govt. agency refuses to share a business card. Perfect. On the other side, the Indian army is requesting the personnel not to enter service-related information in Facebook or orkut for fear of leaking sensitive information. Democracy.

We used to have pot luck dinners at the University where students from many countries would meet and each would bring a dish from his/her place. There were 3 Chinese and during the dinner I asked them about their future plans and if they would go back to China. All the three said ‘No’ spontaneously and seeing my surprised look went on to explain that they liked it better in Europe and so on. Since then I have met numerous Chinese – friends and otherwise and until date I do not know of anyone who wants to go back. Do they all miss the freedom of expression, freedom of choice, freedom to watch a movie or browse without having the Govt. interfere? I wonder……

I completely agree that China and India view progress and success in very different ways. While China could conduct Olympics, India is still struggling to get the venue ready for the common wealth games (oh..what a shame) ! While China always figures in the top 5 Olympic medal winners, Indians look up the list everyday waiting for one winner to show up in the final tally. Yes, the Chinese are committed, and yes, they are working towards a goal. Everyone is talking about China’s growth and progress but how many people stop and ask ‘But at what cost?!’

War and colonialisation were seen as symbols of power of a country…oh…did I say were? Only there is the prefix e- to everything now, hackers are in demand and cyber wars are the way to go.

Amidst all this, the business week seems to have a completely different and interesting take. This article refutes the age old assumption that the China market is too big to walk away from and says India is a better market and here is the most interesting paragraph from the article - “The urban-rural income gap has steadily declined since the early '90s. Over the past decade, economic growth in rural India has outpaced growth in urban areas by almost 40%. Rural India now accounts for half the country's GDP, up from 41% in 1982. World Bank studies show that rural China accounts for only a third of GDP and generates just 15% of China's growth. Meanwhile, rural India is chipping in about two-thirds of overall growth”. This may be the cue for many firms to move from China to India and make similar or little lesser profits but without the difficult commercial conditions. If this is going to be good for India, well, that is a question that only time can answer.

PS: If you were expecting me to come up with resolutions for this issue, as flattering as that sounds, I would rather not. I am a simple minded person who believes in every country minding its own business and no one in the international political arena will be happy with that.

PPS: I was trying to look at the issue objectively but some of my biases could have found its way into my words. Sorry. Intention is only to think about the issue and hear what others have to say as well.

Mental note: I should stop reading so much about India and China using Google ! God knows where that will land me.

Copyright for picture: no idea, the source I used:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Soy Chunk Upma

What do you need:
- Soya chunks (see picture below)
- half a teaspoon of Olive oil
- Salt
- Spices - mustard or jeera, turmeric and Rasam/Sambar powder/Garam masala
- Onions
- Tomatoes (Optional)
- Peas (Optional)
- Coriander (Optional)

Time needed: 15min work, 60 min soaking time

Kind: Very healthy, has a protein content of approx. 50%

How to do it:
- Soak soy chunks in hot water for at least an hour*
- Drain the water, gently squeeze the soy chunks to get the excess water out
- Use a blender or a food processor to grind the soy chunks to small pieces** (see photo - this is the one in the middle). Disclaimer: If you do not wash the mixer well later, I will not take responsibility for your apple juice smelling of soya.
- Take a pan, add olive oil and either mustard or jeera (depending on what you prefer) and allow them to splutter
- Add chopped onions and fry (I usually fry with some garam masala and turmeric too)
- Add chopped tomatoes and peas to the mixture
- Finally add the crushed soy chunks
- Add salt and sambar/rasam powder to taste
- Mix well, add a little water and allow the upma to steam
- Garnish with coriander
- Serve with anything with gravy like Rajma, Stew or even Raitha etc. (I usually eat it with anything that goes with rice like rasam, sambar, kootu, sabji, curd or just any sort of vegetable)

The last part of the photo shows my lazy version, it has only onions and nothing else, tastes good though :)

Soy upma with vegetables followed by a fruit for dessert is an ideal menu for dinner that fulfills all nutrional requirements and at a pretty low calorie content. What more can you ask for ??

If you are interested in crunchy soy nuts, you should read this.

*Soy chunks soaked in water stink, literally ! I find the smell so revolting that I actually keep the soaked soy in a different room (so you do not want to try this when you expect guests)

**Soy chunks are very often used as a replacement for meat. As a vegetarian, I find soy chunks (or commonly known as meal makers in India) unpalatable and hence the need for breaking the chunks and garnishing it with spices. If you prefer meal makers, you can simply add them to fried rice or kootu (vegetable stew) or dal (lentils) directly.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Buzz is driving people crazy.....

....and not in the right way !

I open my google reader and noticed that I have a new follower. To find out who it was, I clicked on it and was surprised to see 'request sent' listed against some of my followers (as in, I have requested them if I could 'follow' them) and am surprised because I never did send those requests. While muttering unparliamentary words about Google, I go a google search (!) to find out if I am the only victim and lo ! there is a whole thread on this issue. I have copy-pasted some of the responses from that thread and have mellowed the 'swearing' !

I found out that I sent requests to follow people in my google reader, but I did not. Google reader, after installing buzz on my gmail, decided that I want to follow a bunch of people. I DO NOT. I want to cancel the "request sent" but I cannot. I am a professor in a university and I do not want to send requests to my students to follow them. This is a serious problem, and I do not understand how to stop this. I tried to disable my google reader completely, but could not find how. How can I solve this?

I would be completely flattered (or freaked out as the case may be) if I get a request from my professor but I would also be on guard because there are only certain things you write that you want your professor to read, right ?!

I had the same problem, which is what brought me to this forum. To undo it, I went into "Buzz" and basically just clicked "Unfollow" on every single person I was "following" there. (Even though Buzz never asks if I want to follow those people, either.) When I went back to Reader, I changed my shared settings to "protected". After I did this, I was basically following no one, and I had to re-check "follow" for the few people I do want to follow. F---ing headache.

Mental note: Check settings in Google Reader.

This whole thing was ridiculous. First, I clicked the "no thanks" to Buzz, but somehow, it's still turned on and running with my account. Then it makes me follow ANYONE that's sent me mail that has a gmail password, even people that only emailed once (like for an ebay transaction). Seriously Google, get with the f---ing program!

Another mental note: Remove one-time transaction ids from my contacts.

The funniest part is most of you will probably read this in Buzz ! Devil thy name is Google !

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

All about Wines

During our trip to Paris, we took an introductory wine tasting tour at the O'Chateau. I have never been to a wine tasting before and somehow I never warmed up to the smell and taste of alchohol but I decided to surprise Ashok for our anniversary and I am glad I did because this tour made me see wine in a whole different light, literally and figuratively.

Before I move on the tour, I should explain my general opinion about alcohol. Before I came to Europe, alchohol meant taboo and drinkers meant bad guys and wine shops meant filthy looking places with drunkards and cops, in short, everything I knew can be summed up in sarakku, thottuka ooruga, adichitu kuppara padukardhu, galatta panradhu (sorry, can't translate this) - thanks to tamil movies and some local rickshaw/auto drivers ! In college, I heard kalyani, Pondicherry trip for beer (there is a hilarious dialogue from Santhanam in a movie where he is chased by someone, turns to his friend and says ''inga odinadhuku badhila ECRla odirndha Pondicherry poi sarakavadhu vangirkalam''...ROFL !), ragging for beer and one always kept a safe distance from all of these/them and pretended not to hear any of these/them. Then I come to Europe and find people talking about choosing a wine to go with Lasagne, another to go with dark chocolate, champagne with strawberries to bring out the flavour, Aperitifs, Digestifs, Glühwein, Feuerzangenbowle (we actually had both Glühwein and Feuerzangenbowle at work for christmas celebration) and the list is endless...of course there are people who get hammered for the sake of it but the concept of drinks with food was completely enlightening to me (although James bond drank Vodka Martini, you hardly see him drink it with a meal, right ?)

All this in-turn softened my judgement about alchohol and drinkers, in general, although I still cannot identify with people who think drinking cocktails is fashionable and juices are for kids.

Now to the tour itself......

It took place in a 17th century wine cellar and we entered to find a wine map (seriously!) that explains the different kinds of wines manufactured in different parts of France, on display in the centre of the cellar, with tables arranged with wine glasses, bread and a sommelier who spoke English with a very delightful French accent.

It was an introductory tour for an hour and we tasted (as in, had 2-3 sips) 3 different wines - a dry white wine and 2 red wines. Although to me, they tasted like a mixture of cough syrup and amma's kashayam, Ashok enjoyed them a lot. I thoroughly loved the interesting facts that accompanied the tasting and here they are.

Wines follow the same principle of desi food - using all senses to enjoy food - hear (the cork pop in this case), see, smell (no touch though) and then taste.

La Robe: What do you look for?
Clarity, Brightness, Viscosity and Color.

Clarity: Any wine should be clear
Brightness: The more acidic a wine is, the more reflective its surface (if you tilt the glass and hold it against a paper, you would see what I mean)
Viscosity: The more the sugar, the longer the wine will take to flow down the glass when you tilt it and bring it back to the normal position
Color: If the surface is lighter than the body in case a red wine, its a young wine. The darker red wines are usually from the south (color attributed to the weather and grape produce). In case of a young white wine, the surface is darker than the body.

Le Bouquet: What do you smell ?
There are 5 flavours: fruits, flowers, spices, wood (depending on the barrels in which the wine is stored), animals (apparently leather is a flavour too! am not kidding !)

Take a whiff, shake the glass (gets oxidised) and then take a whiff again and you would be amazed at how different the wine smells !

La Bouche: What do you taste ?
Take a sip and think about what you taste. Then take another sip and take in some air (it makes a weird gurgling sound, so you might want to not try it at a work party !), and then swallow to experience another new taste.

Note: When Ashok was completely enjoying this step, to me, it tasted like nail polish remover and while I was wondering why it stuck me - oxidation => higher alchohol content => you never try this when you are having a hot drink which already has a high alcohol concentration to begin with and especially, if your body is not used to alchohol at all !

Ever wondered what all that information on the label means ?

Appellation: Refers to the origin of the wine (a region that is classified mainly based on the produce as well as weather)

Chateau/Domaine: While the former refers to large 40-50 acre vineyards, the latter refers to smaller ones. The smaller ones generally do not have mass production or exports and hence offer better choices at very reasonable prices. Chateau/Domaine is usually followed by the name of the winery.

Year: Obviously the vintage. 2005 is apparently really good !

Younger the red wine, the healthier: yeah, yeah, its not vintage but it is full of anti-oxidant that burns fat, improves blood circulation and fights cancerous cells. The longer a wine is storied, the lesser the concentration of anti-oxidant, so vintage wine burns just your purse and not your natural insulation :D !

Did you know that....

....white wine can be made from black grapes ?
....dark chocolates are perfect with spicy wines ?
....vegetarians drink organic wines ? and hence the grape produce influences the quality of wine and certain batches/vintage (like 1997) should be avoided ?
....sweet wines are always stored in transparent bottles ?
....and the sweetest of them can contain up to 900gm of sugar in a litre ? is illegal in France to call a wine, Champagne unless it is made from grapes grown in the Champagne region ?
....Bordeaux is the largest wine region in the world ?
....a glass of particular variety of vintage wine from the Bourgogne region can cost upto 12000 euro and is served only in one restaurant in Paris?

If you are thirsty for more, go wine tasting the next time you are in France. à la vôtre !

Note: Obviously I am making my feelings about alchohol clear since I know there is a good chance that my family will read this post ;) :D

Monday, February 15, 2010

What men dread...

...women and wedding - separately and together! It is a well-known saying that a woman's mind is a mystery to man but what is more confusing to them is a woman's excitement about a wedding, her's for the most part and others', for the rest of her life ! So menfolk, here is my attempt to help you with that and I am sure some tips will prevent you from getting killed !

Well, if we rewind to why I am getting so worked up is because I just saw an episode of ''Everybody loves Raymond'', where Ray tapes over their wedding video by mistake and Debra (his wife) learns it when she tries to watch the video on their tenth anniversary. She completely flips (very understandably) and goes bazookas on him and believe it or not, my first reaction was to check my wedding DVD to see that the copy is still there and what's more, I made a back up (even though I know my parents and in-laws have one each). A word of advice, guys - NEVER EVER and that means NEVER EVER mess with your wedding pictures or videos (or with someone else's for that matter), no woman will consider it funny and the likelihood of her turning murderous is really high....why you ahead.

Women crave attention, get jealous of other women (could range from family or friends to foes) and the one day that they know where the former becomes unnecessary and the latter becomes redundant is their wedding day (or days, I had 3 :D); a day that most of them have waited for ever since they were dressed up in a madisar for a fancy dress competition (yeah, yeah, I am replacing all white veil and related stuff with the Tambram equivalent) and everyone remarked how cute they looked. They believe it is more or less the last day (or rather the last phase) of their girly life and they have earned the right to enjoy it to the fullest.

This is also the one chance she gets to show off her man, all dressed up and gentlemanly (its quite an effort for many to do this on regular days) and proudly announce to the world that the wedding day is a preview of their happily-ever-after.

She gets pampered, oohed and aahed and above all, its that time of her life where the woman is at her best...I have noticed that all girls look gorgeous during their wedding (even if the make-up does not go well with them, there are always some casual pics that will prove my point), I do not know if its all the extra attention she gives to grooming or the inner happiness that moulds the exterior but its true.

I know there are scores of hollywood movies out there that show all this in vivid detail...obviously only seen by women since men believe (and rightly so :D) that these are chick-flicks. Although the planning-a-wedding part is not so huge in desi weddings where parents take a load off the girls' shoulder, she still remains a part of every decision making process. She cherishes every moment, remembers every compliment, works herself to insomnia to avoid every critical remark and its almost as big as choosing the groom itself (and in some cases bigger since there are also desi parents who choose the groom themselves and let the girl choose everything else).

Gentlemen, you do not have to understand why it is important as long as you understand it is important and play along. It's once in a lifetime, so go along and do not question her why she is upset that the shade of bangles is a tad different from that of her sari or why she is making you try 6 different suits before you can buy one for the reception. Just keep in mind that she is going to be looking at these pictures even when she is 60 and will be bragging to her grand-daughter about how pretty she looked on her wedding day and you want to keep up, don't you ? Since your kids are going to see these pictures too, make sure that you do not have to answer the question from your toddler - ''why is appa not smiling ?''

These are going to be her happiest memories for a really really long time to come and it wouldn't hurt (well, it actually might if you mess up ;) :D) for you to help her, right ?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why is Paris the city of Romance ?

Is it because that most heros and heroines right from Sidney sheldon to Daniel Steele books meet at Paris ?
Is it because of the dates happening at over-expensive restaurants with over-rated french cuisine and all the fancy names like Crème Brulée (which is custard) ?
Is it just the language...I have to admit that I love saying enchanté (pronouned on-shuan-te) which literally translated means enchanted (equivalent to saying 'my pleasure') ?
Is it all the wine and champagne combined with chocolates and cheeses?
Is it because FTV shows the most outrageous people in even more outrageous costumes but with good music and settings and most people are confused between glamour and romance??
Is it the extra touch of charm and chivalry that French display ?
Is it the French kiss ?
Is it the general American enthu for Europe that rubs off on us (since to everyone's surprise abroad, desis are more American and not British as expected)!
or simply is it just the city ??

My first trip to Paris was nearly 7 years ago, in October 2003. I was a student and had just been in Germany for about 6 months. Paris was the second city I visited after Vienna. I did the typical weekend desi student tourist routine - Go to the top of Eiffel, hurriedly look through the Louvre, queue up to see the Monalisa all the while wondering what the big deal was, Stop at McD, find they have nothing vegetarian and so buy biscuits and water, visit Disneyland and then back home exhausted on sunday night and miss lecture on monday morning. And naturally this did not live upto the city of Romance image that everyone else seems to be having, so I decided to give it a second go.

We were there for our third anniversary and although it was cold, it was much warmer than Munich. We began with an evening tour of Montmartre starting from the Moulin Rouge and ending in the basilica (shown in photo). Trip advisor had a lot to say about the tour guide, Chris and he completely lived up to it. Since we were the only ones that evening, Ashok had a chance to pour out all his history questions and what's more Chris was good at taking pictures too.

After the tour, we moved to the tower Montparnesse (the second highest place after Eiffel in Paris) to enjoy the view of the city (that one can never get from the Eiffel because of all the tourists in limited space) and not only did we get to see the Eiffel and the city in all its glory at night, we also got to have good dinner in the roof-top restaurant while watching it. Apparently, it was decided to light every street in Paris to reduce crimes in dark alleys and it worked, so to this day the tradition is maintained giving Paris the name - city of lights !

The next day started with a leisurely tour of the Notre Dame (picture above shows the color glass windows - something I loved in the church), walk through Champ Elysses and finally a wine tasting tour I had arranged as a surprise for Ashok. The wine tasting tour, like I was dreading, was not a place to get drunk but a place to learn the art of drinking wine, the dos, donts and many other interesting facts. I have so much to say that I am going to make this a separate post.

The third day was devoted to Chateau de Versailles. Although the castle was similar to numerous other castles and the state rooms reminded me of the Schloss Residenz in Munich, the hall of mirrors was worth visiting.

On another note, although I did not come across many people dressed fashionably, in all the three days I didn't come across one chubby girl or lady. Young or old, they are all in tip top shape. How unfair !

Anyway, I admit I saw Paris in a different light this time and yes, I enjoyed being there very much. I had a lot of romantic moments but all completely attributed to Ashok and our third wedding anniversary and nothing to do with the city now, I know, its the people, not the place....its always the people....I wonder if I should start agreeing with what Ashok says often 'If all your friends and relatives moved to Munich, you would love Munich as much as you love Chennai'......hmm...but when I think about it, I also love Pullayar koil, Pondy Bazar, Chaat shop at Vitan, Satyam, Marina Beach and many other places in Chennai...would it be possible to shift them to Munich too ??

Friday, February 12, 2010

Parents and Technology

It was the year 2000, when PCs were becoming affordable and the first time I sat at my computer at home, I felt like a space scientist in front of the panel (you have to imagine one of those sci-fi movies with nerds who eat and sleep in front of the monitors) and I had just opened MS word to type an email (those were the days where you type elsewhere and do a copy paste since you did not want the phone line to be busy for a long time and have your parents yell at you for that !) and did not notice appa walk in to the room. He had been observing me for a while, and then remarked ''nee en ivalo slowa type panra'' (why are you typing so slowly?) and I remonstrated with passion ''idhu onnum slow illa, en ganglaye naan dhan fasta type pannuven, unnala idhu kooda mudiyadhu'' (This is not slow, I am the fastest one in the group and you can't do any better).

He just smiled and left and I made a mental note that I would prove that I do type faster. The next day, I was typing a SOP (statement of purpose) from some notes I had made in the college bus and I left it midway to attend a call. I come back to find appa almost having finished the SOP and I was gaping at the feverish speed he was typing in.

He grinned mischievously and said ''You forget that almost everyone in my generation learnt typing and the keyboard is no different from a typewriter'' and went away humming ''enkitta modadhe.....'' and enakku 1000 watts bulb erinjidhu !

Although I have lost patience, unreasonably, with amma and appa many times while trying to explain to them today's technology, I would also be amazed at how much they cope with at their age, given their limited time and exposure. Appa takes the cake here.

I went home in 2005 after nearly 3 years and having enjoyed a home-meal, I was talking with appa when he says ''Can you help me with my LAN settings??''....I blink at his usage of the word LAN for obvious reasons, while he continues, much to my chagrin and amusement, ''LAN na local area network''...I laughed out loud and asked him why and he goes to explain how he had set up two computers at home - one for my brother and one for himself and how they were using a router so that both computers would have access to the internet. Clean Bowled.

Both amma and appa take computer as well as internet lessons at work since they have to cope with computerized systems and yes, they do frustrate me at times asking me to explain how drag and drop works (ada rama...) but when I look at some of the unbelievably dumb questions I get from this generation, I tell myself that I have to give them credit.

Amma is stubborn about her mailbox messages. Any time she calls me and gets my mailbox, she says ''amma calling'' in a very strict robotic tone and hangs up....ROFL ! Once she did that to me thrice on a work day and when I called back I was so anxious as to what was going on and when I heard that her cousin's son was getting married, I snapped.

idhuku dhan ivalo vaati phone panniya ? idha messagela sollalam illa ? idhukaga naan office lerndhu kavala pattu phone pannen - Is that why you called ? Couldn't you have left this as a message ? I had to call from work since I was worried

and she replies in a confused tone
mailbox kitta sonna epdi unkitta solra madhri irukkum ? - how is talking to a mailbox the same as talking to you

and all I managed to say was hehehe, nee irukiye.....

And then there is the chat. Many people, I have noticed, fail to grasp the meaning of chat. The reason I chat and not call is because (ofcourse the former is free) chat allows one to multi-task and you can get other things done while still chatting with someone. It completely annoys me when someone asks, you there or you busy when I haven't replied within the minute - defeats the whole purpose. Of course there are times when you need to be 100% there but not for every ''how are you'' chat. This is why it was amazing when appa was chatting with me and didn't ask ''you there'' even once !! He would type really long messages (he is good at typing, remember?) and assume I would either read it then or later as offlines - perfect !

Last week, he hit a new high when I sent him an email and received the following response:

Hello Sowmya Gopal,
I've received your message entitled "oru mukiyamana matter". I wanted to let you know that you're on my Priority Guest List. Boxbe helps me manage my email by prioritizing messages from people I know. You'd be amazed at how much better my inbox is now. This is the only email you will receive about Boxbe from me and there is no need to respond.
Learn more about Boxbe.
Thank you,

ROFL...ROFL....Idhu konjam over, illa ?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

From Beethoven to Kunnakudi

No, no....neither am I am going to claim that I heard kalyani in one of Beethoven's quartets nor am I going to find the similarities and dissimilarities between Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan's fingering techniques with that of Beethoven. As much as I like and enjoy classical music, I am in no way qualified to do that or ready to deal with the torrent of disagreements from other music lovers.

It all started with us getting invited to a Beethoven concert. We got the invitation 3 months before the concert and that goes to show how good the concert is, how difficult it is to get good seats and unfortunately it also gives one enough time to prepare for it (so you cannot go in with jeans and say you didn't have time to get yourself something formal to wear !)

My first experience was a Mozart concert in Vienna but that was catering to tourists and although the concert itself was very good and the ambience stunning (was in a castle), there was no pressure w.r.t clothes or etiquette. This time, I decided to wear my Dirndl, the traditional costume in Germany (comparable to namooru pattu sari - slowly dying and well-abused by the few who wear it) and I knew I had made the right choice when I entered the concert hall and noticed all the elderly ladies and gentlemen (I would guess the average age of the attendees as 50 and I am being polite) giving me an approving glance followed by the smile of approval !

The show was 45 minutes of a violin concert with solo pieces and after a short break, the Beethoven's 5th symphony.

I have listened to Beethoven before and more than the music itself, the concert, the orchestra, the conductor and the audience interested me. All along in the back of my mind, I was playing the last carnatic music concert of Ranjani and Gayathri, I had attended 2 years ago (and weirdly it was in Phoenix, Arizona and not singara Chennai) and I couldn't help comparing them.

There was pin-drop silence when the orchestra played that I was reluctant to open my purse to take a tissue out ! seriously !! What was hilarious was the bout of sneezing and coughing that would follow every piece......apparently everyone was holding it in for the break !!! Camera then zooms to our katcheri where people are talking to each other, next to them, behind them, in front of them, on the cell phone and all this is interspersed with occasional camera flashes and sounds of cranky kids.

The members of the orchestra looked grim and serious (like they were writing board exams completely unprepared) and not once did one of them talk to another or look away from their notes or show any sign of relaxing and not once did one of them smile while playing. I am thinking of the singers grinning at each other when one of them improvises, the Mridungam taking a break to let the violin in the forefront and vice versa and all along everyone seems to make eye contact with each other and with the audience.

When the violin solos were played, as much as I liked them, I did not find them powerful (inspite of all the great acoustic arrangements in the concert hall). When Beethoven's symphony was played, I enjoyed it very much and the power in it came from a well synchronised orchestra of more than 20 people. Rewind to the katcheri (Indian classical concert) in 2008 and couldn't help wondering how 4 people were able to produce the same effect on me, in a much simpler hall.

When the show was done, the orchestra got a standing ovation and we clapped until our hands ached and even when I stopped, the others went on, seriously ! It went on for minutes and the orchestra were tired of bowing at one point (I personally thought it was overdoing it but I learnt later that its the Dutch way) ! Obviously I thought about our Katcheri and how some clap and only a few of them whole heartedly, while the rest are in a hurry to leave to get to their parking spots before anyone else does.

I learnt during the concert that the role of the conductor is important during the rehearsals since he makes sure that the instruments and their tone complement each other and produce the intended effect but on stage, he is just there to satisfy the audience. The conductor was so excited that he was practically jumping with the beats and was red and sweating by the time the concert was over, when our host said ''now you know why there are no fat conductors''....true, now I know !

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Free Plastic Surgery

I got a forward from one of my friends about a free plastic surgery camp, at Pasam Hospital, Kodaikanal from March 23 to April 4, when internationally acclaimed surgeons from Germany will perform surgeries in the hospital to needy patients – apparently could be anyone ranging from a fire accident victim to someone affected with congential deformities (like cleft lip).

As with any forward, I first googled it to make sure it was legitimate and sure enough, I came across the same article in the Hindu. So pass this information on to others for you never know who may benefit from it.

Note: The forward seems to refer to a camp in 2009. Thanks to SK for pointing it out (...slap on forehead...). Google shows details of the camps having taken place every year since 2005. Please call 04542 240778 and 240668 (for those outside India, you have to dial 0091 before dialing the number) to learn the exact dates of the camp this year. If I get any more info, I will include it here.

Stay healthy, people !

A note for those who can afford the surgery but still want to act smart: Don't be cheap, cheap and cheap; allow the less privileged to make use of it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Competitors from tomorrow ?!

Who sells the largest number of cameras in India ?

Your guess is likely to be Sony, Canon or Nikon. Answer is none of the above. The winner is Nokia whose main line of business in India is not cameras but cell phones.

Reason being cameras bundled with cellphones are outselling stand alone cameras. Now, what prevents the cellphone from replacing the camera outright? Nothing at all. One can only hope the Sonys and Canons are taking note.

Try this. Who is the biggest in music business in India ? You think it is HMV Sa-Re-Ga-Ma? Sorry. The answer is Airtel. By selling caller tunes (that play for 30 seconds) Airtel makes more than what music companies make by selling music albums (that run for hours).

Incidentally Airtel is not in music business. It is the mobile service provider with the largest subscriber base in India . That sort of competitor is difficult to detect, even more difficult to beat (by the time you have identified him he has already gone past you). But if you imagine that Nokia and Bharti (Airtel's parent) are breathing easy you can't be farther from truth.

Note: The article is from Dr. Y. L. R. Moorthi, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore . He is an M.Tech from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and a post graduate in management from IIM, Bangalore. My comments are in Italics.

Nokia confessed that they all but missed the smartphone bus. They admit that Apple's Iphone and Google's Android can make life difficult in future. But you never thought Google was a mobile company, did you? If these illustrations mean anything, there is a bigger game unfolding. It is not so much about mobile or music or camera or emails? - Nokia sure did but it is catching up by buying Navteq, the navigation data provider and what is more, Nokia phones are going to come into the market with embedded maps ! That pretty much will drive the PND manufacturers to the brink since they never saw the smartphones coming ! Who would have thought that someone would prefer to use their iPhone for Navigation instead of Tom-tom and Garmin ?! Who would have thought that Google, which mainly has the Advertising business model, would chuck Teleatlas and come up with its own navigable database ?! Oh..well, for Google to make money from local businesses like restaurants and musuems, they should be able to direct the customers to it, right ?!

The "Mahabharat" (the great Indian epic battle) is about "what is tomorrow's personal digital device"? Will it be a souped up mobile or a palmtop with a telephone? All these are little wars that add up to that big battle. Hiding behind all these wars is a gem of a question – "who is my competitor?" - a palmtop with a telephone....hmm...why does that remind me of the iPad and a probable new version?!

Once in a while, to intrigue my students I toss a question at them. It says "What Apple did to Sony, Sony did to Kodak, explain?" The smart ones get the answer almost immediately. Sony defined its market as audio (music from the walkman). They never expected an IT company like Apple to encroach into their audio domain. Come to think of it, is it really surprising? Apple as a computer maker has both audio and video capabilities. So what made Sony think he won't compete on pure audio? "Elementary Watson". So also Kodak defined its business as film cameras, Sony defines its businesses as "digital."

In digital camera the two markets perfectly meshed. Kodak was torn between going digital and sacrificing money on camera film or staying with films and getting left behind in digital technology. Left undecided it lost in both. It had to. It did not ask the question "who is my competitor for tomorrow?" The same was true for IBM whose mainframe revenue prevented it from seeing the PC. The same was true of Bill Gates who declared "internet is a fad!" and then turned around to bundle the browser with windows to bury Netscape. The point is not who is today's competitor. Today's competitor is obvious. Tomorrow's is not.

In 2008, who was the toughest competitor to British Airways in India ? Singapore airlines? Better still, Indian airlines? Maybe, but there are better answers. There are competitors that can hurt all these airlines and others not mentioned. The answer is videoconferencing and
telepresence services of HP and Cisco. Travel dropped due to recession. Senior IT executives in India and abroad were compelled by their head quarters to use videoconferencing to shrink travel budget. So much so, that the mad scramble for American visas from Indian techies was nowhere in sight in 2008. ( India has a quota of something like 65,000 visas to the U.S. They were going a-begging. Blame it on recession!). So far so good. But to think that the airlines will be back in business post recession is something I would not bet on. In short term yes. In long term a resounding no. Remember, if there is one place where Newton's law of gravity is applicable besides physics it is in electronic hardware. Between 1977 and 1991 the prices of the now dead VCR (parent of Blue-Ray disc player) crashed to one-third of its original level in India . PC's price dropped from hundreds of thousands of rupees to tens of thousands. If this trend repeats then telepresence prices will also crash. Imagine the fate of airlines then. As it is not many are making money. Then it will surely be RIP!

India has two passions. Films and cricket. The two markets were distinctly different. So were the icons. The cricket gods were Sachin and Sehwag. The filmi gods were the Khans (Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and the other Khans who followed suit). That was, when cricket was fundamentally test cricket or at best 50 over cricket. Then came IPL and the two markets collapsed into one. IPL brought cricket down to 20 overs. Suddenly an IPL match was reduced to the length of a 3 hour movie. Cricket became film's competitor. On the eve of IPL matches movie halls ran empty. Desperate multiplex owners requisitioned the rights for screening IPL matches at movie halls to hang on to the audience. If IPL were to become the mainstay of cricket, as it is likely to be, films have to sequence their releases so as not clash with IPL matches. As far as the audience is concerned both are what in India are called 3 hour "tamasha" (entertainment) . Cricket season might push films out of the market. - I think it was sheer brilliance on Ashutosh and Aamir's part to cash in on these 2 passions of desis with a patriotic twist to it !

Look at the products that vanished from India in the last 20 years. When did you last see a black and white movie? When did you last use a fountain pen? When did you last type on a typewriter? The answer for all the above is "I don't remember!" For some time there was a mild substitute for the typewriter called electronic typewriter that had limited memory. Then came the computer and mowed them all. Today most technologically challenged guys like me use the computer as an upgraded typewriter. Typewriters per se are nowhere to be seen. - Another emerging example are the job portals facing competition from social networking sites like facebook and twitter. A number of people have begun advertising for jobs using their facebook accounts that job portals like monster are now thinking on their feet....

One last illustration. 20 years back what were Indians using to wake them up in the morning? The answer is "alarm clock." The alarm clock was a monster made of mechanical springs. It had to be physically keyed every day to keep it running. It made so much noise by way of alarm, that it woke you up and the rest of the colony. Then came quartz clocks which were sleeker. They were much more gentle though still quaintly called "alarms." What do we use today for waking up in the morning? Cellphone! An entire industry of clocks disappeared without warning, thanks to cell phones. Big watch companies like Titan were the losers. You never know in which bush your competitor is hiding! - I think I did my bit here, as Bharath rightly mentioned, with my post on wall clocks, though it is on a different note.

On a lighter vein, who are the competitors for authors? Joke spewing machines? (Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, himself a Pole, tagged a Polish joke telling machine to a telephone much to the mirth of Silicon Valley ). Or will the competition be story telling robots? Future is scary! The boss of an IT company once said something interesting about the animal called competition. He said "Have breakfast…or…. be breakfast"! That sums it up rather neatly.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sherlock Holmes, finally.....

I have been waiting for the movie forever and it got released on Thursday, the 28th of Jan (one of the issues of being in a non-english speaking country!). I had a good mind to go alone for the night show that very day, when one of my friends, also a Holmes fan (-atic), invited me to Stuttgart for the weekend. So I decided to wait a couple of days more since its always fun to watch it with someone who understands what all the excitement is about, right ??

On another note, seeing Stuttgart brought back a flood of memories...I think one never forgets the place where one was a student......and with a great effort, I managed to only fondly think of Stuttgart without missing it too much.....yeah, yeah, no easy goodbyes is equally valid for places.....ohh...I miss singara Chennai....sigh......

I had made a telephonic reservation. We were 4 to start with and we turned to 8 and I was having my doubts about being such a large gang (given that I was meeting 4 of them for the first time) because this was a movie I wanted to direct my full attention to and not be distracted by questions from non-Holmes readers….that would indeed be very annoying (I am sure Harry Potter fans can back me up here - they give you a dirty look if you do not know who Malfoy’s aunt is!! - although Holmes is on a completely different scale) and I had made a mental note that I was only sitting next to my friend, the Holmes fan. We were going for the night show and when I saw how it was snowing in the afternoon, I started wondering again if we will even make it given that the theatre was at least 40 km away (My friends lived in Reutlingen while the theatre was in Stuttgart and once again, I made a mental note that I would force everyone to start early and that no weather was going to get in between Sherlock and me! When I mentioned this to Ashok, he replied in an amusing tone – ‘I don’t even think you have been this worried while catching a flight to India or when appearing for your final exams!!’

My first disappointment was when I entered the theatre and saw that the movie was allocated to the smallest hall (Of all the darned cheek!). As one of my friends rightly pointed out, the screen looked more or less like an A3 paper in landscape mode! To top it all, there was a couple in front of me who seemed to be extremely fond of huddling and cuddling. Every time they did one of those (without thinking that not everyone in this world is over 6 feet!!); I had to shift, crane and do everything I could…..

Finally, to the movie itself (Warning: has many spoilers)

- To me, the biggest one was the movie not being a supernatural one and akin to the Hound of Baskervilles, there was a ‘simple’ explanation (simple for Holmes, of course) behind every thing that seemed humanly impossible.
- Using a different and original plot while still retaining the essence of a Sherlock Holmes story
- Verbalising Holmes' thoughts (and at the speed he thinks) was very well done, completely enjoyable
- London with its dreary weather, four wheel horse cabs, king’s cross train station completely caters to the reader’s imagination
- Dialogues directly from the various stories, that make the familiar fans grin :D !

- The biggest was Holmes being characterized as a ‘funny’ character. Yes, he is eccentric but he only fools others and never makes a fool of himself!! The scene showing Holmes handcuffed to the bed (by Irene) and the one where Mary pours the drink in his face offended me very much (you should now imagine my nerves showing up like in the Ratchagan movie)….oh..come-on, there is a difference between not liking women and being tactless with them.
- How in the world can Watson be taller (and look healthier) than Holmes?? What in God’s name did the casting director think when he made even Lestrade taller than Holmes!?!? In many scenes, Watson comes across as a life saviour and steals the scene….utterly unpardonable and on behalf of all fans, I object, I most vehemently object.
- The explosion scene was like one from a Gabdun (Vijaykanth) movie, where Holmes comes out unscathed...friendly explosion !

All in all, a decent movie but certainly not starring the Holmes that Conan Doyle fathered!

Copyright for second picture -

Monday, February 1, 2010

The 2 red lights mystery

The first time I saw it was outside my friend's house in Reutlingen. I turn to him and ask ‘why are there 2 red lights?’...he ponders for a minute before saying ‘I have not really noticed before and I really do not know’. I sort of assume that this was some weird mistake and move on.

As we go closer to the city centre, everywhere I look, I spot only these 2 red lights (arandavan kannuku irundadhellam pei logic) and it slowly starts driving me crazy. We met 2 other friends and the 4 of us decided to brainstorm the reason behind it (and yes, we were vetti but in our defense, it was a weekend and we were driving to the Alps). Here is a list of suggestions we came up with (all sensible, funny, ridiculous suggestions are included)
1. People in Reutlingen need to be told twice before they would start listening :D !
2. Maybe one is for the visually challenged and changes with a tone while the other is an old fashioned one without the tone and the overhead of removing them was higher than the benefit.
3. Maybe it is to help the color blind (those who cannot distinguish between red and green colors) who actually drive/walk only by the position of the traffic lights. So the two red lights are to indicate the red and amber signs for the pedestrians and bike riders.
4. Maybe the traffic lights for cars (red, amber and green) and pedestrians are connected to the same trigger circuit (cost/energy conservation) and one switches on along with the other.

In every case, the argument was flawed. In 2 and 3, for example, it still does not explain why the second red light (in the middle position) needs to glow. Even if you cannot ‘remove’ it, it shouldn’t be difficult to switch it off and this is Germany where mechanical sensors are installed everywhere to automatically switch off lights in offices and public places when there are no people in the area (unlike in the US where buildings are lit through the night to help birds fly into glass doors and die!!!). The same argument holds good for 4 where the purpose of energy conservation is defeated by the redundant red light. What is more wrong in this case is that, the traffic lights for pedestrians and cars do not change at the same moment, but there is a lead time in between (for overzealous walkers/bikers or hasty drivers).

I tried even asking a taxi driver and he blinks and says ‘I have never noticed it before’. I looked in vain for a cop to ask him the same question because it literally did drive me crazy.

Today I am quizzing my colleagues about it and they do not know either. I have a good mind to call the ‘Stadtverwaltung’ (city council) in Reutlingen to find out what is going on.

In the meanwhile, readers, go ahead and guess and if you can come up with a good reason, I will share my boost cake with you, I promise :)
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