Magnetix

I wasn’t entirely sure, but now I’m somewhat convinced: Magnetix magnets can form an infinite chain that won’t break due by its own weight.

photo 1 photo 2

(This is not true, however, if you introduce the steel bearing balls between them. That structure collapses pretty quickly if you pull it up like a chain.)

So, this would be a really nice question for What If, IMHO. What if you made a 1 light-year chain of Magnetix? Well, to begin with, we’d need nearly 40 million trillion pieces. That’d cost at least 10 million trillion dollars based on the current prices at Amazon, and would be about 140,000 times the world’s GDP. I’m sure Randall could take this a lot further.

The next chapter of my life

I’m writing this post on a one-way flight from London back to India. I’ve moved on from Infosys Consulting, and am starting up on my own.

I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. There’s always more freedom in your own company than someone else’s. There’s often more money in it too, if you’re lucky enough. But my upbringing is a bit too conservative to make that bold step. However, given that my father runs his own firm, I figured it was just a question of time for me to do the same.

Two years ago, in Jan 2010, I picked up Rashmi Bansal’s Stay Hungry Stay Foolish at an airport. That book killed the last bit of resistance I had. If the people in that book could succeed, I felt I could too. And if what they did (building small companies, not huge ones) could be called a success, I could be successful too.

After the flight, it was clear in my mind. I would be an entrepreneur. I would create a small company that would probably fold. Then I’d do it again. And again, 10 times, because 1 in 10 companies survive. And finally, I’d be running a small business that’d be called successful by virtue of having survived. A modest, achievable ambition that I had the courage for.

I usually make big decisions without analysis, by just sleeping over them. I slept over it and announced it to my family the next day. I’m not sure they believed me.

Two months later, along with a friend, I built a dynamic digital image resizing product. We had our wives start a company in the UK, and tried selling it to retailers. There clearly was a demand. The problem was, we didn’t know how to sell. After a year and having spent £500 with no sales, it was clear to us that venture #1 had failed. We eventually shut it down.

In the middle of this, my ex- boss from IBM told me that he was looking to start a venture, focusing on mobile, rural BPO and energy management. This later on changed to data analytics and visualisation. They all sounded like fun, so I said I’ll help out in my spare time.

A few months later, a classmate told me he’d started a business digitising school report cards. That sounded like fun too, so I said I’d help out in my spare time.

Now, if that sounds like I had a lot of spare time on my hands — you’re right, I did. And it’s time to talk about the jobs in my life. My first 3 years at IBM were fun. I was coding, learning, and leading a bachelor’s life with friends, money, and no responsibilities. My 4 years at BCG were strenuous with 80-hour weeks, but it was interesting and challenging. I was newly married, and between work and home responsibilities, I had no time for fun.

I moved to Infosys Consulting in the UK with the specific aim of rectifying that (and for health reasons as well). In the last 7 years, the work has (except on occasion) been a bit boring, but very relaxing. On most days, I would spend 4 hours working, and 4 hours learning new stuff. The things I learnt only helped me be more efficient. So I ended up getting even more work done in less time.

Many things came out of this. Firstly, I recovered my health. We had a daughter, and I spent more time with her. I started coding in earnest again. By 2007, I was writing code as part of my projects — stuff that others whose job it was were unable to. By 2009, I had a few websites running, like an Indian music search engine, an IMDb Top 250 tracker, a few transliterators, and so on.

So when I said I’d help out with these startups, it wasn’t an empty promise. For the last 18 months, I’ve had a day job and three night jobs. I never did justice to any of them in my opinion, but I had more fun than ever in my life, I learnt more than ever in my life, and I produced more tangible output than ever in my life. Sometimes, quantity beats quality or reliability.

Both these startups are doing well today. Gramener.com offers data visualisation and IT services. I will be joining them as Chief Data Scientist. Reportbee.com offers a hosted report card solution. I will continue helping them out. And I will continue working with a few NGOs.

You’ll see me a lot more active online now. I can publicly write about my work — something I’ve been unable to do the last 11 years.

I am relocating to Bangalore. From a professional front, it’s an obvious choice. That’s where the geeks are. In my last visit to India, I was at Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. In the latter two, it’s tough to meet geeks. And when you do, it’s no easier to find the next. Bangalore has many more geeks, and they’re fairly well networked.

From a personal front, too, Bangalore works well. It’s close enough to Chennai without actually being in Chennai.

It’s 10am on Thu 12th Jan. Our flight is descending into Delhi airport. It’s the start of a new chapter in my life. Scary, but exciting. Wish me luck!

GarageBand in Phir Se Ud Chala

A month ago, I was at the theatre watching Ra.One. The movie was terrible, yet enjoyable. But I’m going to talk about something else – a song I heard that caught my imagination.

The song is Phir Se Ud Chala from Rockstar. Around 14 seconds into the video, you’ll hear a guitar start off at the background. That’s what caught my ear first – because I’d heard it before. Listen to this piece below:

Mystic light

I’d created this a couple of months ago with GarageBand on my iPad2. It just plays two Apple Loops one after another.

photo

The first one that you hear – Cheerful Mandolin 07 – is exactly the same background music that you hear in Phir Se Ud Chala. Guess A R Rahman uses GarageBand too!

(The strange thing is, I found no mention of this anywhere on the internet, as of 2 Dec 2011. Thought I’d have a go and be the first… just in case someone searches for Apple Loops or GarageBand in Phir Se Ud Chala from Rockstar.)

Illegally in Germany

In October 1997, Ram, my manager at IBM, strolled over to my desk and asked if I would like to visit the US. I’d never been there before. The impulse was to say “Yes”. But…

I’d written the CAT exam once before. Didn’t get through. Applied once again. But thanks to my diligence, I’d given the wrong residence address, and never got my admission card, and didn’t bother following it up. This would be my third “attempt”. And I didn’t want to goof it up again. (I didn’t get through that one either, as it turned out.)

“Ram, I need to be back on Dec 11th.”

“Mmm… I think we should be back by then.”

“NO MATTER WHAT!”

He smiled, and said “OK. We’ll be back by Dec 11th NO MATTER WHAT.” He thought I was going to get married or something.


It was quite warm in Bangalore, so I set out with a T-shirt and formal trousers. As I was leaving, my landlord and landlady (very nice people, and in retrospect, very far-sighted) pulled me in and said, “Have some snacks. You’ll feel hungry on the way.”

I tried my protests. They’ll feed me on the plane. I’m already carrying some food. I have cash to buy stuff. I’m fat and dieting. Didn’t matter. I still ended up carrying a fairly hefty package. “And this is for Kallol.” Another package. A colleague travelling with me was an ex-roommate as well. I just hoped I wouldn’t exceed 27 kgs.

It was a KLM flight that would halt at Amsterdam. We were to land early morning in Amsterdam, take a connecting flight to Boston, and then over to Charlotte. We’d reach Charlotte by night, in time for the class next day.

The flight itself was uneventful, except for my first non-vegetarian bite.

And then the fun began.

Breakfast was done by around 5:00am local time. The captain announced that we were near Amsterdam, fasten your seatbelts.

5:30am. No landing.

6:00am. No landing. When I pulled the shutters up, we were still flying over clouds.

7:00am. No landing.

7:30am. The captain announces that due to bad weather at Amsterdam, we would not be able to land there. We were being diverted to Cologne.

Not having been on any long-haul flights before, I wasn’t even worried. It was a KLM connecting flight. KLM would do something. But for feeling a bit hungry, things were fine.

At around 11:00am, the plane began its descent. We were amidst clouds, though. For quite a while… and the plane kept descending…

Until, all of a sudden, I could see the ground about 20 feet from the plane! The fog dense enough to be indistinguishable from clouds. (Or at least, I couldn’t tell the difference.) Lucky the pilot managed to land, and I’m surprised he even tried.

8:00am. We’re still in the plane, waiting.

9:00am. Hungry. No one has told us anything yet.

9:30am. We’re all asked to get down. Delighted, we all got off, ready to board the next plane…

… only to be herded off into a glass building on the terminal, where our luggage was waiting for us. No problem. Pick up luggage. Wait.

10:00am. All the flight staff had cleared the terminal. And, looking out of the glass walls, we could see our plane taking off! There was a fair bit of confusion (and mild panic) in the room, but being the suave software engineers that we were, we stay put and relaxed.

11:00am. Still in the glass building. No flight has landed or taken off. Worse, no human in sight. I mean it: not a single human in sight other than us KLM passengers in this deserted terminal. We’re still hungry.

12:00noon. My snacks finally come out. We all have a bite. That turned out to be our lunch.

12:30pm. Some official enters the building and is mobbed. The closest we could get to him (or her?) was about 50m behind many hundreds of raised heads.

12:45pm. Official vanishes. We ask around if anyone knows more than we do. No one seems to.

1:30pm. Another official enters. Vanishes after a few minutes.

2:00pm. Finally, word gets around that we’ll be travelling via bus to Amsterdam. Clearly we’d missed our connecting flight. We’d be put in to the same flight the next day.

2:10pm. We hear a lot of activity. People start streaming out of the building. We try to join in the rush.

2:20pm. Ahead of us, we see a guy checking passports. Now, none of us had a German visa. Presumably it was OK, but in any case, we were entering Germany without a valid visa. The official stamped my passport without question.

2:30pm. We exit the airport. The temperature was 0 degrees C. I was still in my T-shirt. My warm clothes were packed. That day, I learnt two lessons. One, never keep all your warm clothes inaccessibly in the check-in baggage. (I had my check-in baggage. But it was packed, and if I opened it, I can’t put it back in. Besides, we were being herded into a bus: not much chance of hanging around to open a suitcase.) Two, it’s actually possible to get a headache from the cold. For 15 freezing minutes, we stood on the road waiting for the bus, and enjoying the pleasures of our first day on European soil.

2:45pm. Bus arrives. Mob tries to enter bus. Half of our group manages to get through. I am left behind. Fortunately, next bus is only 5 minutes behind.

7:00pm. Bus finally arrives at Schipol airport. We’re herded out to the KLM counter. By now, it’s been well over 24 hours since my last full meal.

7:30pm. We’re told we’ll get a hotel to stay in, and our flight is confirmed for the next day. At this point, we’re famished. So we exchanged some currency, and decided to buy some food. I picked a green apple. This happened to be my first green apple. No one had told me that apples could taste sour. (While on that topic, I must mention apple pies. I love apple pies in India. I hate apple pies in London. I suspect it’s the red versus green apples.)

7:31pm. I take one bite. Another bite. Have a funny feeling in my stomach. Burning sensation. And at that point, I collapsed. Physically. Just dropped on the floor and had to be pulled up.

8:00pm. Finally reach the hotel. Not entirely sure how. I’m too tired for anything but milk, so I get a glassful and go to sleep.


PS: We finally reached Charlotte a day late. Fortunately, we didn’t miss much.

Apparantly, most passengers on the flight complained to KLM and received gifts / free miles of a substantial magnitude. We didn’t know of that till much later.

This remains my only trip to Germany till date. My passport still holds an entry stamp without a visa.

We did get the bonus of spending half a day in Amsterdam, which is a rather nice place. Again, without a visa.

Arrested in Paris

In November 2000, I visited Paris one weekend. Two classmates, Anand Binani and Ram Venkat were studying there, and we roamed around the city.

At around 6:00pm, we went over to Montmartre. It’s up a hill, and there’s a cable car that takes you up there. We went all the way up, and got out when a lady behind us asked:

“Is that yours?

We’d left something behind. Went back to retrieve it. The car was almost leaving for it’s return journey. We just got out in time…

… to be confronted by the French Police.

Now, this is a scary thing. Foreign country. I don’t speak a word of French. And I was dressed like a thug.

The policemen didn’t say a word. One of them just made us stand right a the corner of the entrance to the cable car — politely at first, and then physically, when he realised we didn’t understand a word of French.

Anand Binani Ram Venkat at Montmartre near the cable car where we were caught by police

Now he goes on the radio. He hasn’t said a word to us yet that we could understand.

After a minute, he comes back, asking for our passports. I hand mine over. So does Anand Binani.

Ram Venkat doesn’t have his passport on him.

Shit!

While he was panicking and I was rooted to the spot and Anand Binani was trying to explain something to the policeman, he walked away with our two passports.

Busy talking on the radio.

Relaying the names on our passports.

Worried that they were both “Anand”s. (We could here that repeated many times.)

Something about wearing a jacket. (We were all wearing jackets.)

Five minutes pass. In the meantime, we had various theories. Three terrorists had illegally entered the country and were going to blow up Montmartre, and we looked like them. Or, an Asian student group was going to murder a senior polician. Or maybe we just looked like the mug-shots on their Top 10 Most Wanted.

In my case, I didn’t even have a French student visa. Just a standard Schengen tourist visa, with a UK student visa. I wasn’t even studying in the country. If I were deported, would he put me back in the UK or in India? Which embassy would I have to speak to if he arrested me?

Five minutes later, he comes back, hands us our passports, and walks off.

Just like that. No goodbye. No “You’re free to go”. No “Don’t ever do that again”. Just walks off.

We just stood there for a couple of minutes, got our breaths back, promised never to venture without a passport looking like thugs, took a snap as evidence, and went on inside the Montmartre chapel, followed by a far more educative visit to Pigale.

Sex shop at Pigale. Paris

I am a vegetarian

I am a vegetarian. More out of habit than religion. (I’m not very religious.) What that means, in practice, is that I don’t eat non-vegetarian food knowingly.

But it has happened unknowningly. Many times.

Until I was 22, I had not been out of India on my own, and things were fine. In 1998, I went to Charlotte, NC, for training. (On a KLM flight that placed me illegally in Germany, but that’s another story.) I was pretty groggy after an 8-hour night flight. So when I was woken up by the sound of breakfast, I bit into the big yellow thing on the tray in front. Sleepy as I was, I did feel a little suspicious. Didn’t quite taste sweet, like I was expecting it to. I saved it for the last, when Ram, my manager, walked past.

“Are you eating that?” (pointing to the nibbled food in front)

“Yeah… why?”

“It’s chicken.”

My nibble was small, and I was still hungry, but there was no way I could eat the rest of it. Unfortunately, that turned out to be my last meal for 24 hours. (But, like I said, that’s another story.)

At Charlotte, food wasn’t so much of a problem. A bean burrito for dinner from Taco Bell worked just fine. But we drove to Washington DC one weekend, and that’s when big trouble struck.

You see, a bean burrito contains beans. That’s why it’s called a bean burrito.

Presumably, therefore, a hamburger would contain ham. Why else would it be called a hamburger? I can’t eat that. Ham is meat.

But a cheeseburger is safe to eat, since it only contains cheese. So Ram, Gayathri and I (the vegetarians) ordered a cheeseburger each, while Kallol and Dev (the non-vegetarians) ordered some chicken.

As usual, I was the hungriest, and took a big bite.

It didn’t feel right. Neither the taste, nor the look of the big red blob that I had taken a massive bite of.

(mouth full) “Kallol, what’s this?”

(after a careful examination) “I think it’s beef.”

Aaargh! Meat is bad, but beef is a sin. My mouth was still full of it. Panic sets in. Spit it all out. Need to wash mouth. Where do I go? Does this country use tissue for that as well? Run into men’s room…

After a while, Ram (who HADN’T taken a bite) calmed me down. And I was wiser.

The person at the counter must have made a mistake. It was quite noisy at the Smithsonian Museum restaurants. She must have heard us say the “burger” part, and not the “cheese” part. Quite understandable.

So a few days later, under much quieter circumstances, we ordered two cheeseburgers (“with extra cheese, please”) each. For the night…


Two years later, at London Business School, Accenture’s pre-placement talk was scheduled just after lunch, and they were sponsoring lunch. Naturally, I was there. Wise as I was, I carefully picked the vegetarian sandwiches — after verifying with two people independently (and re-verifying after one of them had taken a bite of it.)

The good part about being a vegetarian is that desserts are OK. Meat doesn’t go into desserts. Or biscuits. Or snacks. Or so I thought.

The assortment of biscuits was good, and I helped myself to a few. One of them was a bit salty, and rather good. So I went over for a second helping. I couldn’t reach it from where I stood, given the small crowd that was busily discussing work at Accenture just near the table. So I politely walked over to the other side, from where the biscuit was closer anyway…

… and read the label.

“Prawn something”.

Shit. Panic. Nausea.

This time I had actually eaten it. There was no mistaking the nausea in my stomach. I gulped three glasses of water before I calmed down a bit. Convinced myself that it’s OK because it tasted quite fine until I figured it was non-vegetarian. And ended up skipping the rest of lunch and the Accenture PPT anyway. (Too queasy in the stomach.)


Things haven’t changed much since 2000. I’ve managed to avoid non-vegetarian since. And learned that Pepperoni is not a form of pepper, nor is bolognese a variant of lasagna. But on the few occassions people try to point out to the beef fat content in Mentos or fish liver oil in a sauce, my only response is:

Don’t tell me. I’m OK with non-vegetarian if I don’t know about it.

P.S: I’m OK with eggs, though.

You only eat plants

UTSUNOMIYA, Japan, Dec 1998. I was on a project with Honda R&D at Utsunomiya, Japan.

And I’m vegetarian.

The next day, Yoshioka-san — our counterpart at Honda — took us to the canteen and introduced me to the chef. Knowing that “vegetarian” in Japan includes eating fish and birds, I took the chef aside.

“I’m vegetarian,” I emphasised.

“Hai. Vegetarian.”

“I don’t eat fish.”

“Ah, so. No fish.”

“I don’t eat chicken. No birds.”

“Ah, so. No chicken.”

Pause. He looked puzzled. Just to be sure, I added, “I’m vegetarian.”

He thought for a long while, and then said,

“So, you eat only plants?”

P.S. I was finally served rice with brocolli. I ate it with pepper.

Earthquake and impact

Earthquake. We were in class this morning. We started off with 2 minutes of silence for the earthquake victims. At about 8:15AM, we felt a slight shake. We quickly ran out of the room and down the stairs. By this time, the tremors got fairly strong but they lasted only 7-8 seconds. At around lunch time, the estate officer said we were expecting more tremors at noon, so we lined up at the open air theatre, but nothing happened.

Incidentally, stand under a door in case of an earthquake. Or outdoors, of course.

Result: Sensex collapses, cement companies stay firm.