The Man Who Ticked off the Indians

This person has PO’ed just about everybody around him. He is young and he goes about his job with a sense of zeal that does not seem to recognize boundaries that an older, more experienced, person would pay heed to. He reminds me of some people I know.  Love him or hate him, he is a character who leaves an impression. Follow this link for the complete story.

In The Mood

Many of you know that we visited The Great Smoky National Park in Tennessee during the week of March 15th. It was a great all-around experience for the family.   It was the time for us to get away to spend some “quality” time all together in a quiet place. The girls came home from college for this trip. The only real activity planned was to hike the trails of the park together, keeping to ourselves in general.

We walked the pathways in three different parts of the park over a period of three days. The weather stayed good for all of these hikes, and it rained only on the day we were returning. The three hikes were in three different kinds of settings, with three somewhat different types of terrain encountered, and natural surroundings experienced.  All of the hikes were challenging, with an approximately 2300 foot climb straight up a mountainside to a waterfall called Ramsey Cascades capping our efforts on the last day. Awesome! Pictures of the hikes will appear online at Pbase more slowly, and I may even write more about our outdoor experiences on this blog site, but this posting is primarily about what I was able to see from the place that we stayed at for four nights in the town of Gatlinburg.

Here is an excerpt from the review I wrote for the benefit of the owners of the place we stayed at:

This condo, located on top of a hill, and facing downtown Gatlinburg and the ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance, was a great find for us. It is a quiet location from which you can sit by the window, or lounge on the balcony, and meditate over nature and its different moods from the comfort of your home. You have an unobstructed view of an expansive scenery laid out in front of you. Imagine yourself sitting beside the window quietly reading a book. Having some interest in photography, I got some wonderful shots under wildly varying conditions – day and night, morning and evening, cloudy and sunny. Just a note that in order to enjoy this wonderful experience, you will have to drive up and down some winding mountain roads with plenty of hairpin bends and steep slopes. It will not bother you if you have a sense of adventure. It could be a little nerve-racking the first time, but you do get used to it. (Plenty of people live in these hills!)

All I am going to do in this post is show you some of the pictures I took from the place that we stayed at. (Click through the pictures to view them in their full size.)  I will be posting more pictures at Pbase.

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When Inspiration Strikes

I have found that moments of inspiration do not happen too often for me. And when such moments strike, I need to make an effort to do something about it quickly. If not the moment is lost. The worst that can happen is that you forget about the subject that got you excited originally.   The other possibility is that you end up thinking more and more about the subject and decide that it was not so inspiring after all. You end up making a judgement about something without even trying. You could end up fooling yourself. I say this from experience.

So it is with the way I write. There is that eureka moment when I think to myself that I have something to say, and if the moment lasts, I can get it on paper. But if I do not do anything about it, it could be a moment lost. You have to give it a shot even if you sometimes end up with something uninteresting, uninspiring, and off the wall.

I had such a moment last week where I did not get a chance to act on my instinct. But this time the thought, that spark in my imagination, persisted at the back of my mind. I do not know what will be lost in the delayed translation, but I am about to put the thoughts down on the virtual page.

It happened one Thursday, the day after an impressive snowstorm hit town. It had snowed the whole day on Wednesday. People had stayed home from work since no attempts were being made during the storm to clear the local roads.   I decided the next morning that I should drive the Subaru to Great Falls on the Potomac River to see how things looked after the storm. It was bitterly cold that day, and the roads were not in the best of shape, but that was not about to stop me. I dropped Teresa off at her place of work before heading out.

On the way to the park, at a gas station (petrol bunk?) where I had stopped to fill up on petrol, I ran into the building rubbing my frozen fingers (through which I could not feel anything) and enquired about using the restroom. The woman looked at me somewhat blankly, and wordlessly pointed me to a door with no sign on it. I tried the door a little warily since there were a bunch of cops standing around for some reason or another. The door did not open. I turned around and headed quickly back to the car before I could get into trouble with the law. But I still needed to pee. (As some can attest, the cold does that to me often!)

So it was that I ended up at the Burger King on Shady Grove Road looking around desperately for a restroom.   Once in the facilities, I proceeded to take care of business. But it was after that moment of relief that the moment of inspiration took place. My zipper got stuck!   No amount of effort would make the darned thing move. Things were made worse by the fact that I had not yet completely recovered sensation in my fingers. Since I had encountered the situation of the stuck zipper once before and had managed to resolve it, I knew that there was a solution. But it appeared that the solution was not going to present itself immediately. The long jacket that I was wearing provided a perfect cover as I slunk out of the facility with my front unzipped.

But the moment of inspiration was not specific to a stuck zipper, something that in itself is quite amusing. The inspiration was to write about my experiences with buying clothes, more specifically pants that fit me, while I have lived in the US.   It is this ongoing adventure that had brought me to this particular moment in the restroom at Burger King.

I came to the United States in 1980 as one skinny kid. I was most certainly underweight by American standards. Back in India there was no issue with getting clothes that fit you because the normal practice in those days was to get them stitched to your size. This was certainly not the case in the US. However, that having been said, I did not really have an issue with pant sizes during those early days.   The natives of this land may have been bigger than me in general, but not big enough that they did not make pants in my size. A statistician might say that my waist size was just a few standard deviations off the mean waist size, and this justified the vendors actually creating pants in my size. And perhaps vendors were more willing to cater to people who did not meet the “average”.

But things slowly started to change. I began to have more difficulty finding pants that fit me. I think there were two factors in play. One was that the manufacturers were tightening up their production to try to cater more to the customers who had waist sizes closer to the average. The other factor was that Americans were becoming bigger around the waist in general. I could find something that fit me, but it took a lot of searching.   It did help (in a sense) that I began to put on weight during those days. (This phenomenon of putting on weight was something that used to happen to a lot of people who moved from India to the US.)   But I would also guess that my rate of increase of girth did not quite match some impressive achievements by some other people from the Indian subcontinent in this regard. While others kept up and could get pants in their size, I was always on the threshold.

And then something else changed. I began to lose weight once again. This time it was because I was forced to try to do so because of my health. This turns out to be a mixed blessing when it comes to matters of clothing. While my waist size continues to drop, the general population is trending in the other direction. Getting proper fitting clothes has become an issue with both shirts and pants. During the last few years, on more than a few occasions, I have bought pants that I knew were too loose. I did this because I had no other choice. I have become dependent on the use of a belt. My hope was that the loose shirts I was wearing would hide the fact that the pants were scrunched up and tightened around the waist to a size less than what they were designed for.

As a last resort, I have started looking for pants in the “young men” sections of stores. I have started looking online knowing that warehouses are most likely to stock fringe sizes. (Buying clothes online is risky endeavor for other reasons.)   After a long search I recently managed to find something that seemed to work in the kids section of a department store. The problem is that the cut of the pants in this section is different from what I am used to since the product is targeted towards a different demographic. It seems that kids wear their pants quite low and tight these days, perhaps to emphasize certain aspects of their physique. The crotch area is snug to say the least, and it takes quite an effort to attend to nature’s call quickly. When you are in a semi-public place and when your fingers are frozen from the cold, it gets more interesting. Somehow the design of the front-end is optimized for looks rather than purpose. And if the zipper has a tendency to catch, the situation becomes all the more interesting, leading to moments of inspiration!

I can tell you of another amusing incident with regards to pants that do not fit. I was wearing this pair of jeans than had fit me reasonably well in the past but had become quite loose around the waist. Since it was quite old, I had decided to wear it in the working environment at Manna where it was likely to get dirty and/or ripped up. But fortune (or misfortune, depending on the way you look at things) had another adventure in store for me. My belt broke while I was working. The pants were loose enough that they could have slipped completely off my waist. It was an emergency situation!   I looked around for something I could use as a replacement for the belt. Luckily I was able to find a plastic strap that had been cut off one of the boxes. I did not want to walk through the warehouse holding my pants up with one hand, and holding a strap in the other. I found a quiet corner of the facility close to where I was working where I could do the required re-engineering, managed to tie the strap around my waist with a bow in front. I got through the day without losing my pants!

And so the search for a solution to the problem of oversized pants continues. I was lucky very recently to find a department store where they had a pair of pants in the adult section in an abnormally small size, smaller than anything I had seen anywhere else. Hopefully the store will not go out of business, the store will continue to sell that particular product, and specifications for that product will also not change. I will find out the next time I need new pants whether there is still hope for me in the future.

And so I have come to the end of my delayed effort to recreate the moment of inspiration. I do not know if this has been a successful effort, but I have to admit that I did enjoy writing this little piece.

Catch you later….

Here is a picture taken during my trip out that day.

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The FCC moves into action on Net Neutrality

Historically, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been have been able to provide their services without any real regulation targeted specifically towards the conduct of this business.   This situation is about to change. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided that the broadband Internet will be regulated going forward (link) under the umbrella of Title II of the Telecommunications Act. The concept is called Net Neutrality. The ISPs will not be allowed to manage their Internet resource in such a manner as to discriminate against users, whether they are companies that use the Internet or consumers. This is huge!   You might wonder why this is happening and what all the fuss is all about. Let me give you my own take on this.

For the past several years the growth of the Internet has been primarily driven by the Internet Service Providers who happened to have access to customers because they have traditionally provided other services to such customers such as cable TV and voice services. This service might have been provided via a traditional landline connection to the home, or through a mobile phone connection using a wireless cellular network. There have been a few exceptions, but the big players today not surprisingly happen to be companies like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, etc.. In the case of services to the home, these companies started out by taking advantage of existing infrastructure, and then building on this infrastructure (coax or copper-based) or moving to new infrastructures (such as fiber optics) as the demand for greater levels of service grew.   The growth in the mobile area on the other is being spurred on by new technologies from the ground up, including use of new wireless bandwidth resources that have been assigned for this purpose, and development of advanced transmission technologies that are able to support higher speed data service (as opposed to voice service) requirements more effectively.

In the early years, the applications that drove the use of the Internet were fairly simple, starting out with basic point-to-point requirements across the network infrastructure (think e-mail), and gradually evolving towards more client-server type interactions. The amount of data being transferred across the internet kept increasing as this was happening. The primary flow of data that came with functions like browsing were primarily unidirectional – to the home. The data movement patterns became less uniform in a certain sense from the early day. But the type of applications running in the home have also further evolved significantly in the last few years, with applications that involve significant downloads of data from the home to network servers, and also significant peer-to-peer traffic. People can now even stream videos from devices like smartphones to others, something that was unthinkable a few years ago. The traffic patterns in the network are a constantly changing story because of the innovation that is going on.

New kinds of applications are also increasing the traffic in the Internet further in many different ways. Video streaming services such as Netflix dominate bandwidth usage to the consumer these days. (link)

These days, Internet traffic is not necessarily driven by the customer. You have data that is being pushed to people who even do not know that something like this is going on.  Then there is advertising data that is being pushed to customers based on data that is being collected about you on network connected devices that monitor your Internet behavior. Then you have routers on the networks that are intercepting data traffic and taking actions based on what is being seen – such action including sending of additional data to the customer. In many cases, the Internet Service Providers are themselves affecting the amount of traffic in the system. When customers interact with vendors across the Internet, such interaction can initiate further communication between these vendors and one or more third parties that will now form a part of the transactions that are going on. And then we have the data traffic from illegal or semi-illegal goings-on on the Internet where entities, unknown to end-users, bury software in their computers, that will generate traffic to and from these computers without the user’s knowledge. (Such is the danger of always being connected to the Internet.)

And all of this is only a viewpoint only from the consumer applications. All networking for commercial interactions also use the same resource that the consumer applications are sharing.

Essentially, the Internet is the Wild West out there in terms of the nature of the data traffic. This was the promise of the Internet and I am not sure if it will also become its bane. I am not certain exactly how the ISPs keep a handle on the traffic on the network links today. Innovations in Internet applications happen constantly and each one of these has the potential to change the nature of the traffic on the network and the manner in which ISPs manage their bandwidth resource. In such a happy circumstance of innovation, one has to ask why anybody would think there is a need for regulation. There is a need to look at all of this from a different angle.

First of all, here is something going on in the global picture that might be shocking to some people.   The US is far behind some other countries when in come to the Internet. If one were to just look at the average speed of Internet connectivity available to customers, several countries in Asia appear at the top of the list while the US is nowhere near the top.  Also, according to one study of Internet penetration done in 2013 the US ranked 29th in the world, with a penetration rate of 84.2 percent (link­).

What is probably happening is that in a completely market driven environment the ISPs are selectively focusing their efforts and attention to where they can get the most bang for their buck. At the end of the day they have to make money for the stockholders. It turns out that there are still underserved and unserved areas in the US as far as mainstream broadband Internet access is concerned, and it would appear that this situation is not about to change on its own. The other aspect to consider is that the Internet can no longer be considered a luxury for the common man. It is becoming a basic necessity just like any other public utility. Our lifestyles have changed significantly during the last few years, and it will continue to change because of the Internet. It is not just the new applications that are made available on the Internet that move us in this direction. More and more of the traditional service providers are trying to adjust their operations so that more and more of their interactions with the customer happen through the Internet. In fact, people who do not keep up with this rapid change in the way business is done are in danger of being left behind. It is now beginning to make sense to consider the Internet as a basic necessity. This is a point at which government has to begin playing a role in what is going on so that people are able to get what they need. This aspect of the development and use of the Internet has already been recognized by more forward looking countries. Governments have taken a more active role in helping shape the development of this resource.

The ISPs have also become smart to the game and have determined that there might be additional money to be made by not just charging the customers, but by also selling vendors that use their networks access to these networks. If they do so, they will be able to influence and control the experience of the customer to services from these vendors directly. This is already happening (link)! The ISPs can now have control over how businesses that use the Internet may succeed and fail, and ISPs may themselves even try to get into the business of providing such services to customers while giving themselves an advantage (e.g., Comcast might stream NBC programs with better Quality of Service (QoS) simply to give Netflix, HBO, ESPN or ABC a bad name).   Companies like Google and Netflix support Net Neutrality while those like AT&T and Verizon do not.

But the tricky part about regulating the Internet is that it is still an evolving mess. Any regulation that is put into place has to be done with a light hand. If not done properly, this can basically stifle the industry. There has to be room for the Internet to continue on a path of development. ISPs will need to continue to improve on their networks to support new capacities and capabilities that are yet to be determined, and applications and traffic patterns that continue to evolve. There should really be no issue if network capacities are always beyond the data loads being carried. But there does come a point where traffic needs to be managed, either when there are temporary bursts of traffic due to the nature of the applications running across the networks, or if the networks are themselves not properly sized to support all the traffic that is allowed to connect into it. The ISPs should be free to manage the data flow, even slowing it down as needed in order to manage the bottlenecks, but they must do it in a way that is fair. But how does one define what is fair? Should one type of traffic fundamentally have priority over others or is all traffic equal? For example, is Netflix streaming more important than regular data transmitted to a browser (e.g., a Skype session), and, if so, what speed of Netflix streaming must be allowed. Do different kinds of browser traffic have different priorities? One has to try to find a way to find non-specific and generic answers to such questions like this. It can become quite messy and dirty if one tries to solve each of the problems individually by jumping into the weeds in each case. If the FCC thinks it already knows the answer, they are fooling themselves. Hopefully they will keep an open mind and make sure they have some intelligent and experienced people working on this. Regulators need to have insight about the global implications while dealing with the specifics of each element of regulation carefully. And they have to do all of this even while they are being harangued by the lobbyists from various factions of the industry who have their own differing interests at heart.

Some say that regulation will stifle innovation. My take is different. I believe that it will shape the nature of the innovation rather than stifle it. It might even shape it in a very significant way. It could impact the businesses that end up being successful in the industry. And what is wrong with that? The truth of the matter is that a lot of the technological innovation in industries like this happens today because of the rules that the industry lives by, not necessarily all related to improving service to the customer, and sometimes because of regulation. The entertainment production and distribution system is a prime example of such an environment. As an example, a fundamental element in the conduct of the entertainment distribution business is copyright protection. Rules of the game come from the both the government and the industry in this regard. Many unique systems are in place from the perspective of content protection, not necessarily all for the benefit of the customer. Regulation does not necessarily drive away all innovation, sometimes it creates opportunities.

Will regulation lead to more cost to a customer? Will regulation be such that ISPs and users of the Internet are able to continue to innovate and grow their businesses and provide an adequate and fair level of service to their customers? I think we do not need to be afraid in this regard, but only time will tell if I am right or wrong.

http://business.time.com/2013/01/09/is-broadband-internet-access-a-public-utility/

Just for fun

There are a lot of fun things you can do with photography.  Here is an effect that I got when taking pictures while it was snowing.  The first picture was taken with the flash turned on.  The camera was focused on the background, but, as you can see, the light from the flash was being reflected by the snowflakes.

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For the second picture I turned the flash off but all other parameters of the shot were nearly the same.  The snowflakes do not show up in this picture, but I do think they impact the nature of the picture in a way that I cannot define too well.  Perhaps it is a little softer and smoother than normal.

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Which picture more closely reflects the perception of the human eye?  Does the human perception vary from person to person?  Which picture do you prefer?

What Happens to Aging Rock and Roll Bands?

The short answer is that they end up performing on cruise ships.

But this blog is about much more than the answer to the above question. A couple of days ago I got a call from my friend asking if I was interested in seeing Uriah Heep perform at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.   An old rock-and-roller like me cannot even keep his bands straight, and my mind gravitated towards Jethro Tull, the name of another band from the same era! I was thinking of the music from Heep while thinking Tull. Go figure! But it would not have mattered. I said yes.

For those of you who do not know, Uriah Heep is a band from the 1970s that used to create music that would not have  necessarily been considered mainstream. Their heavier brand of rock music was actually quite innovative and catchy at the same time. Songs like July Morning, Easy Living, Lady in Black and Sunrise are all unique in their own way, with great vocals (including occasional notes up there in the stratosphere), fantastic extended guitar and keyboard riffs, and awesome drum solos. They were also one of those bands that were not afraid to make songs that were long. (This was not unusual for that time.) You could find yourself taken on a roller coaster of a musical ride that could last 10 to 15 minutes. Needless to say, the music was not necessarily targeted towards those with short attention spans.

I was surprised to find out that the band was still together.   A quick search on Wikipedia revealed that they have come out with new albums in both 2013 and 2014. While personnel changes happened very frequently during their earlier days, more recently there has been more stability in the group, except for the death of their bass guitarist in 2013. One has to remember that the older members of the band are now in their 60s!

Birchmere is small but a well-known musical venue that has been hosting music groups since the 70s. It is a somewhat more intimate setting than a concert hall or a stadium, with the audience sitting at dining tables not too far from the stage enjoying their food and drink. It makes for a great set up.

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The band started promptly at 7:30pm. There was no mistaking the age of the people who were on stage. The vocal lead was even displaying a nice paunch. They still had the long hair that was typical of bands of the 70s, as if they were trying to still keep some the reminders of their youth.  But they need not have worried about the hair. Their music instantly took us back to the old days. They rocked! Even the music from their newer albums had the same flair and style as the music of our youth.  The group had the same energy as a bunch of young rockers, and we even got our loud guitar, keyboard and drum solos.   The lead singer even hit the high notes that are unique to some of their songs with ease (he could be excused for losing his voice during the encore). This was great after my previous disappointing experience with BB King!   They did not play too long but they gave it all they had while they were on stage. They did not take a single break during their set.  (This could not have been easy for people at their age.)  One of the things I like about these type of shows is that it is less about the staging and the choreography and more about the music. I had a great time with the music, the food, and the drink.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne could not help but wonder what it takes for bands like this to stay together, and why they would choose to remain as a group for this long.   They are obviously not a mainstream band today (they tended to be a fringe band even during their heydays), and life cannot be that easy when you are performing in smaller venues like the Birchmere or on cruise ships. (Here is a piece of trivia. The band apparently performed at OAT in IIT Madras in 1983.) But these guys continue to come out with new albums with good music. They still appear to have their creative juices flowing. Is that all there is to it, or do they do this in order to be able to make a living and survive? But how can they manage something like that under the circumstances? They still seem to have most of the overhead of a regular rock band, but their audiences have surely shrunk from the days when they were better known.

There is probably no point to my wondering about questions for which I will get no answers – unless one of the band members decides to write a tell-all story.  For now one must just enjoy the music, and the nostalgic feeling that comes with the process of being taken back to a previous time in one’s life, in another century, when one was still young.

In Winter’s Icy Grip

We have seen temperatures in our neighborhood recently that have not been experienced in recent years. With temperatures in the vicinity of zero degrees Fahrenheit, and wind chill factors making it feel even colder, it is almost as if we were living somewhere in Canada. Thankfully we have been spared the storms that have hit the New England area. The winter has disrupted our weekly routine of going out into the woods every weekend.

It is beautiful outside the house. Looking out from the kitchen window one sees the swarms of small birds that are flying around undeterred by the cold. There are blue jays aplenty alighting on the crepe myrtle behind the house and then there was this one looking back at me from its seat on the fence behind the house.

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Beautiful patterns of crystals form on the cold windows.
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The stormy winter nights lead to sights like this outside our front door.
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Sunsets do not look too bad either.
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The deer are getting desperate with the cold and the snow on the ground and they are eating the stuff that they normally would not touch. I need to keep them away from the plants.

Seneca Creek at Riley’s Lock is frozen over.
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The Potomac River is also frozen over at Seneca Creek. One can cross over to Virginia if one wanted.
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Huge chunks of smashed up ice line the side of the river.
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And then there is this view at Violette’s lock.
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You cannot blame me for thinking that winter can be enjoyable in its own way.

We have snow falling outside right now, and it is expected to eventually change to ice and rain. The temperatures are eventually expected to rise to around freezing. It is going to be a different experience. Wonder if I will get a chance to go outside tomorrow!