Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mera Dabba

First of all, I would like to start off by saying that this post has been inspired by Atish's post. It made me pause and think of my own first PC. I had just entered class 11 and taken Computer Science as a subject for the boards. Many seniors and other random wagging tongues had claimed that it was impossible to get good marks without a PC at home. It was not so much as the marks, but the fascination of getting a new toy that motivated me to bug my parents to get one. This was the time when the PC boom had just started in India. To back up my point, I observed that many of my class mates got a PC around the same time.

Around a month before we had even thought of buying a PC, a computer magazine landed at my home, along with a free CD. I had participated in some Intel sponsored competition a few months ago, and was going to get this magazine for the next one year. With no use for the CD, it carefully placed in some cupboard, waiting for the day when a PC would be bought. I think it was the arrival of this CD which hastened the whole process of getting a PC. My uncle's friend had just bought a PC and he had apparently scoured the whole of Nehru Place to find a decent dealer. I had used Powerpoint, Excel and Word at school, but beyond that, a PC was literally a beige box to me. I had never opened one and did not even have the faintest idea about what lay inside the box, or what the various ports were for.

There was a lot of discussion at home about the PC. The cost was one factor. Another important factor was that the kids would play games and neglect studies. Where would it be kept ? There was also some concern that an Air Conditioner was needed to keep a PC happy. Finally all these doubts were overcome and one fine day, 14th May 1999 to be precise, my father, my uncle, uncle's friend, friend's son and yours truly set off for Nehru Place. The most ignorant people in this party were my father, uncle and me, placing all faith in the other two. We had planned to buy the same configuration as they had bought. I had seen lots of ads in newspapers, so I had a feel of the numbers, but no clue about their meaning.

The shop was a typical Nehru Place shop. Small, cramped and crowded. It was the same one where Atish bought his PC. And Laddu will buy his PC from here too. Uncle's friend chatted with the owner for some time. People kept coming to the shop, asking rates of various things. The owner used to type the rate on his calculator and secretively show it to the person. One of us jokingly remarked that give the calculator-wala rate too. The owner just smiled. Dont remember if he said something about small margins or other such crap. The configuration was decided and the flunkies went away to get all the stuff from godowns or whatever.

It was India-vs-SA that day. We saw the match on the shopkeeper's PC, which had a TV tuner card. India was batting too slowly, which ultimately lost us the match. All the things were loaded in the car and taken home, where they were reverently placed in my room. Some dude was supposed to come the next day and assemble it. I could barely sleep the whole night, with all the excitement.

That chap dutifully arrived the next day. I was breathing down his neck the whole time he was assembling it. Finally everything was rigged up and the only thing that remained was the installation of Windows. And then everything began to unravel. The installation stopped giving errors. Random BSODs with lots of stuff in hex. That chap fought out for a long time and left the PC in a barely working condition. I learnt my first lesson, PCs dont just work. Second lesson, Murphy's law exists. And third lesson, did I mention that yesterday was Saturday ? The evil Shanivar when nothing should be bought ?

The next day, we went back to Nehru Place, where the shop keeper obliged us by changing practically everything in the cabinet. RAM and hard disks were replaced many times, as we watched India get thrashed by Zimbabwe this time. It was restored back to working condition but some problems remained. There would be periodic Windows Protection errors and messages that Windows has performed an Illegal operation. We wondered what the problem was, after all we had an original Win 98 CD!! This continued for a few days, when one day we landed back in Nehru place and finally got the damn thing fixed. It took the whole morning, but finally it was working. There were still some issues with the UPS because of Delhi's summer low voltages, but it was for the most part working.

A few months later, the graphics card gave way. It was duly changed for a better one. Some more months later, this also gave way and an NVidia card was bought. With the onset of winters, some new problems emerged. The bloody thing would not start. After pressing the start button, there would be some noise from the hard disk and then silence. Trying doing this some 10-20 times and it would finally start. Yours truly, the budding engineer figured this one out and concluded ki compooter ko thand lag gayi hai. So I caught hold of a hair-driver and warmed it up a bit and voila ... it worked!! The problem was the (()%&(&*#@^*( do koudi ki chinese RAM. Back to Nehru Place, and this time round, the addition was a Simmtronics module.

Finally all ghosts had been exorcised and the PC was well behaved. It was on this PC that I explored the innards of a computer. I enjoyed taking it apart and putting it back together. It was on its tiny 4GB hard disk (my mp3 player has 5GB) that I first installed Linux. There was only one partition, so conventional distros were out. But once there was some WinLinux or something on a CHIP CD, which installed in the Windows Partition and could be booted from there. So there went 500 MB to Linux. There was another OS on some CD - BeOS. Another 500MB gone. I enjoyed triple boot on that tiny disk for some time :D.

After coming to IIT, this PC got its first major upgrade, getting a new 40GB hard disk and 128MB more RAM. 2 years later, the 15" monitor gave way and way sold in Nehru Place and a new one bought. Soon the mouse and the CD drive had started misbehaving too and were duly replaced. An offer in Digit resulted in the addition of a DVD Combo drive. Save the motherboard and processor almost everything had been changed.

Last year, when I was in Bangalore, XP crapped up and people at home were forced to get used to Ubuntu (YAY FOSSS!!). When I went back for Diwali, the time had finally come for this old warrior to be laid to rest. The keyboard stopped working too and the machine refused to boot. This machine was traded in for a spanking new Athlon 64 based system. Its various add-on parts were cannabilized for the new system. I assembled this system myself, times had indeed changed.

So today after reading Atish's post, I bid farewell to this PII-350MHz friend, which had served me faithfully for more than 7 years. And as I type on my new laptop, I wonder how long this one would last ? Hopefully it would outlive my old friend!!

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ctrl - Z for life

So how many times have you said something, only to regret later ? How many times have you faced a situation where a tough decision needs to be taken ? I have often thought that a Ctrl-Z option (undo for the uninitiated) would be the perfect solution. When writing something on a computer, do you really care that whatever you are doing will spoil the existing work ? Ctrl-Z makes you fearless, making lions out of meek mice. Dont worry keep typing ... keep that keyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy pressed and see what happens. Dont like the results ? Undo, as simple as that.

So, you are not sure what something should look like ? Simple. Just try out all your options, save as different files and compare. No pain at all. It should not be much of a problem to map this model to our lives...

In school, when the choice is between streams, do I want to be a doctor or a CA ? A journalist or an engineer ? So we choose one, secure in our choice that we could come back and start over. Of course, you might end up disliking all the options, which doesnt help matters, but that would stop all thoughts like ... what if I had done XYZ ? We you did do XYZ and found that it sucked too!

Such an option may have unintended consequences. When everyone starts turning the clock, funny things may happen. Actions do not occur in isolation and are the sum of the actions performed by all the actors. If any two of them try to separately undo their actions, something very different might happen. When editing a file, there is only one person doing the editing and not a whole bunch of people pounding away on the keyboard at the same time.

The charm of life lies in its uncertainities. We have the freedom to do whatever we want to, but the consequences are usually beyond our control. If we already knew everything that was to be known, where would the thrill of discovery be ?

I guess there is a pretty good reason why things are the way they are.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


I dont what happened today that made me remember this incident which took place nearly 2 years ago. At that point of time, I was preparing to go for an internship abroad and was generally involved in visa, insurance and other such formalities. I was also trying to get hold of an ISIC student card, since I had heard that these cards could be used to avail discounts in many places.

So the search for this card led me to CP one afternoon. After doing the needful at the this shop in the Outer Circle, near Rivoli, I was done for the day. I saw Mc-D's golden arch across the street and thought that I would go ahead and have a bite. It was around 2 pm or so. I must mention here that this area has many memories associated with it. It was a stone's throw from my school and so I pretty much knew the ins and outs. Also, my family used to do all their shopping for "nice" stuff from CP, so again I had been coming to this area ever since I can remember.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was happily munching my burger when I saw an old teacher from school. She was with some friend who I didnt know and kids. The kids were wearing school uniform (since it was pretty close to 1.30 when the school got over) and one girl looked quite like my teacher, so I guessed that she was her daughter. After recognizing her, I did talk to her, but didnt really have any hopes that she would remember me.

She had taught me in class 4, almost 13 years ago. So many batches would have passed before and after me. Even the kids who joined school when I was in 4th would be in 12th now!! To my surpise, she not only remembered my name, she also remembered that I had a younger sister!! It was a very pleasant and satisfying experience. The kick that you feel when you realise that your old teachers remember you after all that time ...

I had only one Hindi teacher in class 4, but she probably taught 2-3 sections in class 4, each with around 50 boys. And she taught more people in those intervining 13 years, but I went through class 4-C only once. I wonder how teachers manage to remember students after such long periods ?

Of course, it is possibly that she bluffed her way through the meeting, but being the nice person that she was, it seems unlikely. Contrast this with when I met my KG-C class teacher at a school fete. This fete was just after I had left school and so another good 13 years had passed. This teacher did seem to recognize me, but her only comment was - you were tall then, you are not now!!

I mean, she could have asked me anything she wanted to, but this comment was totally unexpected. When people meet after such a long time, they generally indulge in polite conversation, not fire random remarks!! Hope the next time that I run into an old teacher is better than that encounter.