Rough Book

random musings of just another computer nerd

Category: Prose

Final thoughts

I need to write this down just to sort it out. Everyone says it’s not a “big deal” and that “life will go on”. I don’t know. In elections prior, I have been disappointed but I never grieved. I thought America was headed, or at least heading (however haphazardly) in a direction where we didn’t care about each other’s race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. I thought that we were poised and ready to tackle the problems of this new century. Then this happened. Instead of policies, we were literally debating a candidate’s fitness for being President. Instead of merely deciding the direction of this country, we were deciding its character. I never thought that we would elect a man who categorically stated that he wanted to ban an entire religion from this country. I never thought that we would elect a man who is a bully. I thought that we valued experience, knowledge, and intelligence in this country. I never thought we would elect an inexperienced man, who, based on all we know, is not even a successful businessman. I thought we valued pragmatism, poise, and compromise, if not in Congress, at least in the President. I never thought we would elect an immature, thin-skinned man, who goes into an apoplectic fit just from a mean word.

Growing up, we’re taught things by our parents to help us become civil, productive members of society. We are taught to say “Please”, “Sorry”, and “Thank you”. We are taught to respect each other. We are taught not to bully each other. We are taught not to discriminate against each other. We are taught not to take advantage of each other. We are taught not to lie. We are taught to work hard. We are taught to be good people. This election changed all of that. How can a man who disregards the social contract of a society ever be fit to lead that very society? I think those on the other side think I’m sad or disappointed because my party lost. No; it has nothing to do with being Republican or Democrat. But it has everything to do with deciding who we are as a country. Our principles. Our values. Hillary may have been a flawed candidate, but I don’t think that she is fundamentally a bad person. Think about someone you disagree with; an acquaintance, friend, or even a family member. Simply because you disagree with them, do you consider them a bad person? This is how I have felt about every candidate I didn’t support. I disagreed with Bush, but I never thought he was a bad person. I disagreed with McCain and Romney, but I never thought that they were bad people. They never did anything that ever made me feel that way. Think about Bush’s statement to Cindy Sheehan, his statement about Muslims after 9/11, or McCain’s response to a woman attacking Obama. They were respectful — that is how the people who want to be leaders of this country should behave. As much as I disagreed with any of them, I was confident that they have the best interests of the country at heart; but not Trump — he only cares about himself.

How do you explain something like this to a child? If you voted for a person who does everything you tell your child not to do, how do you explain yourself? A Trump supporter told me that one shouldn’t look to politicians for moral guidance. I’m not sure if they understood my original argument. This is not about having a source of morality; it is about an example. Think back to our earliest lessons in morality — fables — if you do bad things, you get in trouble. If you do good things, good things happen to you. Trump contradicts this most basic axiom. His character contradicts it, and now so does our national character apparently, in that a significant part of the country is not just fine with,but wanted a man like this to be president.

As a rebuttal I often get questions as to how I could support someone shady like Hillary. This usually comes with a gish gallop of numerous conspiracy-theory articles. But in general you can sum it up to the following: she lied about Bengazhi, she is corrupt, and of course, her emails. None of those paint her in a flattering light and in isolation they may be concerning. But it turns into a matter of priority. This is what Trump supporters need to understand: she is flawed, but she isn’t talking about banning a whole religion from the country. She may have made shady deals, but she isn’t talking about how it is ok to sexually assault a woman. She is establishment, and she may care more for establishment interests, but she isn’t talking about inciting violence or questioning the foundations of our democracy; she isn’t talking about using nukes or blowing ships out of the water.

I have never felt scared in this country before. That’s different now. Trump’s senior-most advisers are alt-right fanatics. He has regularly courted the white-nationalist and white-supremacist segments of society. He refuses to disavow them as well. I’m not white and I’m an immigrant. How is that supposed to make me feel?

My opposition to Trump is not simply policy. It has nothing to do with the fact that he was on a Republican ticket. It is something far more fundamental; it is about what it means to be an American and a good human-being. It is about how we treat each other. It is about transcending our differences instead of magnifying them. It is about who we are as a society. It is about staying true to the principles that founded this great nation. It is about the statement that we make to the world about who we are as a country. It’s not just about the next 4 years, but the next 400 and where we need to go as a civilization. I really thought we were there. I really thought we were close this time. I really thought that we could start fixing some of the brain-dead decisions that got us here. I really thought that we could actually tackle climate-change. I really thought that we could do it right this time. The irony of all this, is that Trump supporters will never realize that they not only voted against my interests, but theirs as well. And that is why this hurts so much.

The Feast

Inspired by The Codeless Code:

The master was meditating when a priest respectfully entered his chamber. The master opened his eyes. The priest bowed respectfully and said, “Master, I would like you to look at the code of a young disciple of mine”. The master nodded and followed the priest to a computer. On the screen, was a code listing. The priest pointed to the code and said:

“My disciple created an abstract class and another class that extends the abstract class. However, he has a method that should be of use to all future derivations of the abstract class.”

The master furrowed his brow and looked at the code. “Indeed.”, he said. The priest continued, “I pointed this fact out to him and mentioned that it would be better to define it in the abstract class”. “I see; what did he say?”, asked the master.

The priest sighed and said, “He said ‘You Ain’t Gonna Need It’ and that he could simply copy the method into each new derivation when the time comes”. The master then asked the priest to bring the disciple to him at once. The priest bowed and went away to fetch the young disciple.

A few minutes later, the young disciple respectfully entered the master’s chamber. “You sent for me, master?”, he said. “Yes. I have a task for you”, said the master. The disciple bowed, indicating that he was ready to perform whatever task the master required. The master looked at the disciple and said: “Tomorrow, we will have monks visiting from a neighboring monastery. In their honor, our monastery is providing a feast for them. I need you to report to the dining hall tomorrow. The cook will give you further instructions”. The disciple bowed and left the master’s chamber.

The next morning the disciple arrived at the dining hall as he was asked. He looked around and noticed a large number of seats. He assumed, correctly, that these seats were for the visiting monks. He then noticed the monastery’s cook approaching him. The cook was holding a bowl that was filled with a white substance. As the cook got closer, the disciple realized that it was salt. Once the cook reached the disciple, he held out the bowl to him and said, “Master has asked you to give salt to any of the monks who desire it”. The disciple took the bowl and the cook left. The disciple was puzzled, but smiled thinking that this was going to be an easy task. After all, how many monks would require more salt in their food? He estimated only a few; not much more than that.

In a few minutes, the visiting monks arrived and sat at their places. Other monks from the hosting monastery brought out steaming bowls of soup for the visitors. The head visiting-monk took a spoonful of soup, sipped it and wrinkled his nose. “This soup does not have any salt!” he said, rather loudly. The disciple quickly ran up to the head visiting-monk and bowed and said “Master, I apologize that there is not enough salt in your soup, please allow me to offer you some!” The head monk nodded and the disciple quickly added salt until the monk motioned him to stop. He had barely finished when he heard another monk complaining that there was no salt in his soup either, then another, and another. Soon he was running around the hall at full speed, bringing salt to each of the visiting monks, trying his best to make sure that everyone was happy. The hall was big, and the number of visiting monks was many. When he was done, he sat down exhausted, in the corner of the hall.

He closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath. When he opened his eyes, he noticed that the next course was being brought in. “Surely the cook wouldn’t have forgotten to add salt this time!”, he thought. Unfortunately, it was not so! “There is no salt in my meal!”, thundered the head visiting-monk. The disciple got up and ran to the head monk to add salt his meal. Soon other monks started complaining and the disciple was running around the hall as he had done before, offering salt to all the visiting monks. The disciple hoped that this would be the last time he would have to do this, but alas, there were three more courses! The rest of the courses passed by in a blur for the disciple. All he could remember was that he was running around the entire hall, bringing salt to the visiting monks. The monks didn’t all finish their meals at the same time and so the later courses were continuously being brought out. Hence, he was always on his feet and didn’t get a chance to rest.

Finally, the monks stopped asking for salt and the disciple wearily went back to his corner. Dessert would be next, and there would be no need for salt then. He had barely sat down when he saw the cook approaching him. This time he had another bowl, also filled with a white substance. When the cook got close, he offered the bowl to the disciple and said a single word: “Sugar”. The disciple was almost in tears. He knew was was coming and prepared himself for the endless rushing around that he would have to do. Luckily there was only one course of dessert. When the feast was done, the disciple collapsed in the corner. He opened his eyes and noticed the cook walking towards him again. “What more will he want me to do?”, thought the disciple frantically. He noticed with some relief however, that the cook’s hands were empty. “Master will see you now”, said the cook as he got closer to the disciple. The disciple wearily got up to his feet and walked to the master’s chambers.

After a few minutes, the disciple arrived at the master’s chambers. He walked in and bowed in front of the master, his legs burning with fatigue. “How was your task?” asked the master with his eyes still closed. “It was exceedingly difficult master! There was no salt in the soup or the meals, and no sugar in the desserts! I had to run around the whole hall bringing salt and sugar to the visiting monks!”, said the disciple. “It must have been exceedingly tiring…”, said the master. “Yes, master! It was!”, said the disciple nodding his head. The master opened his eyes and said, “One could say that your task would have been much easier had the salt and sugar been added to the meals at the source, and thus before they were brought out to our honored visitors.”

In that moment, the disciple was enlightened.

Data and Code

Inspired by The Codeless Code:

A novice monk had just started learning assembly programming when he was troubled by doubt. He approached his master and asked:

“Master, how do I know which is code and which is data?”

The master who was meditating, opened his eyes, smiled, and said:

“Each is the other, yet neither is either.”

“Master, I do not understand.”, said the disciple.

The master then brought out two identical pots and said. “Take these. Fill one with the water from the lake, and fill the other with water from the stream that flows into the lake. Then bring them to me.”

The monk bowed and took the pots. He walked to the lake, which was some distance away and filled it with water from the lake. Then he walked around the side of the lake until he found the stream that fed water into the lake. He used this water to fill the second pot and then brought both pots back to his master and set them at his feet. The master looked at the pots, and then back to his disciple and said “Now go. You may come back tomorrow morning.”

The disciple came back the next morning to find his master standing with the two pots. He held up both the pots and then threw them to the opposite sides of the room. The pots smashed, and the water from both pots flowed towards the center of the room, forming a puddle.

The master then said, “Which pot contained water from the stream? Which pot contained water from the lake?” He then pointed to the growing puddle that was forming in the middle of the room. “Which part of the puddle contains water from the stream? Which part contains water from the lake?”

In that moment, the novice was enlightened.

Ghost in the Machine

Yes, I know this is not a very original title, but it’s all I could think of. I’m a skeptical person (being an engineer and all) and although I love reading and listening to ghost stories, I’ve always thought that there is a scientific explanation for supernatural stories that I’ve heard. I don’t believe in ghosts either. If there is no explanation, I just chalk it up to coincidence or observer bias.

That’s what I thought until I experienced the following. Even though I still think that the vast majority of ghost stories and supernatural occurrences have real-world explanations, I am willing to concede that there may be things out there that cannot be explained. Now on to my story.
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The Problem with Shaadi.com

Arranged marriages are common among Indians. I’m not going to go into the merits and demerits of it; that’s not what this post is about. What I want to address is the problem with sites like shaadi.com that supposedly make it easier for Indian people to arrange these marriages. Now don’t get me wrong. There are many people who have met their soul-mates through shaadi.com (and similar sites). My sister met her husband through that. But the problem with these sites is that they are not geared towards the individual. Before I elaborate, we need to talk about what arranged marriages are, and why they are arranged.
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How I Joined the Army, Went to War, and Came Back

This is an article that I originally wrote for Anjali, a publication from KHNA (Kerala Hindus of North America). I was asked to write an article describing my experiences in the Army and this is what I came up with. It eventually ended up being a lot longer than I planned.

How I Joined the Army, Went to War, and Came Back

About 8 years ago, I raised my right hand and took the oath of allegiance. I swore to follow and obey the lawful orders of my superiors, and to protect the United States of America from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I enlisted in the Arizona Army National Guard on December 19th, 2000. I was 19-years old at the time. Many people have asked me about my motivation for doing so; this was two-fold. Firstly, there was the issue of college tuition. The Guard offered to pay (at the time) 75% of my college tuition if I fulfilled my contract, and kept good grades. Secondly, I was attracted to the discipline of the Army, and I wanted to be part of something larger than myself.

After formally enlisting in December, I went to Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina on the 26th of May, 2001. Basic Training is definitely something I look upon fondly (now), but at the time it was definitely a very difficult and trying experience. I was never the overtly physical type while growing up. Hence, the completely physical aspect of the Military was intimidating to me. I had also heard stories about the Drill Sergeants, how they were extremely strict and demanding, and continually in your face. Basic Training is a strenuous physical, mental, and emotional ordeal. For most people, it is the discipline and lack of freedom that is most difficult. The Drill Sergeants control every aspect of your day. You do everything according to a set time-table, and you learn the value of punctuality and discipline. To the uninitiated, seeing what a recruit experiences at the hands of a Drill Sergeant may seem frightening, or even cruel. Recruits have to sacrifice some of their individuality and personal freedoms, and this is terrifying to some people. What Basic Training teaches you (other than how to be a soldier) is how to be part of a team; to place the welfare and well-being of your brothers and sisters-in-arms (and by extension, the nation) above your own.

To be very frank, the strictness of Basic Training didn’t faze me. I went to an Indian School, growing up. I found many similarities between the school environment in an Indian school and the environment in Basic Training (excluding the weapons, explosive, and other bodily-harm-causing implements). Both environments have a strong focus on discipline and respect. In Basic Training, the Drill Sergeants are God. To do anything, you require their permission. You speak when spoken to. If you want to go to the bathroom, you raise your hand. If you speak out of turn, or do not do what you are told, you get punished. Does this sound familiar to any readers who have studied in an Indian School?

The day I graduated Basic Training was a very proud day for me. I had endured one of the toughest experiences of my life. I went from a scrawny 104-pound 19-year old to a 125-pound, US Army Soldier. I was confident, disciplined, and words like “Honor”, “Duty”, and “Loyalty” were more than just mere words to me; they actually meant something now.

Over the next few years, things weren’t all that exciting. I went to AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Fort Lee, Virginia in 2002 to qualify for my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), which was to be an “Automated Logistics and Supplies Specialist”. To be honest, I didn’t know what my job in the Army actually was when I enlisted. My conversation with my recruiter went something like this:

Recruiter: Well, so what do you do in College?
Me: I’m trying to get a degree in Computer Engineering.
Recruiter: Oh really? Well this has computers in it!
Me: Oh really? I’ll do that!

At the time, I was really naïve and perhaps should have put a little more thought into it, but in retrospect it’s interesting how that one little decision shaped the rest of my life. The description of my job isn’t that glamorous. I essentially maintain a supply chain so that the mechanics in the maintenance section can get the parts they need to fix the vehicles in our unit. To this end, I worked on an archaic piece of software that was written in the 80’s and subsequently updated over and over again. When I found out that this was what I was actually doing, I felt a little… deflated. But eventually I realized that I was an important part of the system, and my programming and computer engineering background eventually did help me excel at my job, especially when I got deployed.

The next few years in the Guard were pretty uneventful. I attended and performed my duties at drill one weekend every month, and two weeks in the summer for Annual Training. Of course, things changed after September 11th, 2001. Twice after that, I was almost deployed; once to Luke Air Force Base, and then to Iraq . Though I understood my obligations, I was extremely unnerved and frightened at the prospect of putting my college education on hold. Through an intricate series of events not of my design, I somehow fell through the cracks and managed not to get deployed. I was able to continue my college education and graduate in the spring of 2004. When I finally did have to go, I felt that I was ready.

In early 2005, I was told that I would be deploying to Iraq. Needless to say, my family wasn’t very thrilled. They were understandably scared and worried about my safety. Many of my friends asked me to figure out some way to get out of it (one of them kindly offered to break my legs, so I wouldn’t be able to go). If I had done what they had asked, I don’t think I would have been able to live with that decision. The truth of the matter is that no one wants to go to war. In fact, I vividly remember my Drill Sergeant talking about going to war. He once asked us to raise our hands if we wanted to go war. Of course, all of us raised our hands up. He said, “Really? Then all y’all are stupid! No one wants to go to war! No one wants to die! We go to war because it’s our duty!”. Trying to get out of going to Iraq seemed dishonorable to me. I would be turning my back on my comrades and I would be violating the oath I took when I enlisted. I understood, and knew that it would be a difficult and dangerous experience, but I decided to do it any way, because it was what I had to do. It was my duty.

I left Phoenix on the morning of the 30th of August, 2005. It was definitely one of the most heart-wrenching and saddest days of my life. I wasn’t sad for myself, but I was sad for my family and friends. I didn’t want them to worry about me and I even felt slightly guilty at the emotional turmoil I was putting them through. But even though they’d rather have me back home, they all understood why I was going and why I had to go. I spent three months in Ft. Lewis, Seattle where the whole unit underwent pre-mobilization training. We left for Kuwait on the 18th of November. We spent about two weeks there before we actually flew out to Baghdad, Iraq.

I realize that most people, when asked to make up a list of positive experiences, don’t put “war” on that list (unless you’re an arms dealer). My year in Iraq was definitely a stressful and difficult experience that fundamentally changed me in some ways. But in a gestalt sense it was a positive experience for me; in some way it has characterized and validated my service. Prior to my deployment, I often had the feeling that I was simply “going through the motions” of being a soldier. But there I was in Iraq, doing what I was trained to do, supporting my fellow soldiers, and getting the mission done.

For most people, politics and war are inextricably intertwined. War is, after all, an action which is the culmination of a series of events based on some sort of political policy. This really isn’t the case with soldiers (or any military person). Of course, this seems paradoxical, or even nonsensical. After all, we’re the ones who’re participating in the war, so shouldn’t we be aware of the politics of it as well? Not really. Politicians decide policy, and in the case of war policy, the military carries it out. I was well-aware of the hugely political overtones of the Iraq War. I was also well aware of the arguments for and against the war, and I had my own views on the matter. But when you’re lying awake in bed in the middle of the night, listening to incoming mortars exploding all around you, shaking your flimsy tin-can residence, politics becomes largely irrelevant. People often ask me about my political feelings about the war and I decline to answer. They often ask me my views because of my experience, but this is the very reason that I don’t answer. People assume that because of my experience, my views have an extra legitimacy to them because “I was there”. By extension, they also assume that my political views define the character of, or motivation for my service in Iraq. It is hard to explain how or why soldiers maintain this “wall” in their heads. It’s not an attempt at rationalization, rather it is necessary for us to function properly in a combat environment. Trying to decide whether throwing the grenade that is currently in your hand espouses and promotes a libertarian or neo-conservative political world-view, while bullets are flying at you from all directions, is probably detrimental to your combat effectiveness. Hence the need to completely render politics irrelevant. When people ask me why I went, and why I served there, I tell them that I did it because it was my duty; because I wanted to support my fellow soldiers and because I wanted to complete the mission. I owe no further explanation.

Like I had mentioned before, my experience in Iraq was definitely stressful. I missed my family and friends terribly. I realized the value of the simple things in life, like not being afraid of being hit by mortar (for instance), while lying in bed, watching South Park on TV. Finally, imagine spending a whole year with your baseline level of anxiety ratcheted up to about 10 times its normal level. When we first got there, I was startled by every incoming mortar, but I eventually got used to it. I was initially stationed at the Green Zone, and got to visit the major landmarks in the area, like the Crossed Sabers, Saddam’s Palace, and the Al-Rashid Hotel. However, our mission changed and I came back to join the rest of the unit at Camp Liberty, Baghdad.

Our unit’s mission in Iraq was varied. We would usually be transporting VIP’s, prisoners, or supplies to different places in and around Baghdad. My job mainly kept me on base (and my family was extremely relieved because of that). To be very honest, there were times that I wished I could go “outside the wire”, instead of stay on the base. It wasn’t because I was fatalistic or crazy, but I enjoyed the adrenaline rush and also felt like I was doing something more tangible. I was able to go out about 10 or 12 times during my tour in Iraq. If you ask me what it feels like to be in imminent danger, I can say that it’s definitely an odd feeling. While I realized that I was in extreme danger, I didn’t feel scared or frightened. Only extremely alert and focused, which I guess, is how you would want to feel in a combat environment.

I didn’t truly realize the importance of my MOS until my tour in Iraq. Since our unit’s mission consisted a lot of convoying, the maintenance team was extremely busy ensuring that the vehicles were in a fully mission-capable state. A vehicle that breaks down outside the wire is extremely vulnerable, and so we had a huge responsibility to ensure that this never happened. My job, as mentioned before, was to ensure that the maintenance team had access to the repair parts they required. Most people in my position simply use the software provided. However the software being archaic, and having been written a few short weeks before the invention of the wheel (I am being sarcastic, of course) was not very user friendly or intuitive. Tasks that should be simple took forever to complete. The interface was obtuse, and the designers had made some seriously brain-dead decisions. Reporting was even more tedious. Most other units there would painstakingly write up a report every morning manually and send it up to the TOC (Tactical Operations and Command). Not content with this state of affairs, I resolved to completely streamline our operations. I essentially wrote my own programs that automated a lot of the data entry and reporting. Tasks that normally took hours now took only a matter of seconds to complete. In addition, I was able to send out extremely accurate reports because I figured out how to interface with the Army software’s database. I never once in my life thought that I would be putting my degree to use in Iraq. I never created any of these enhancements in the expectation of some sort of reward. My driving force was to ensure that I did everything humanly possible to guarantee the safety of my friends and the success of their mission outside the wire. Towards the end of the tour, I was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for my efforts.

Due to the nature of my job, and the fact that I mostly stayed on base, I wasn’t able to interact very much with the Iraqi people, or catch that much of a glimpse into their lives outside the base. In my experience though, most of the Iraqi people I did meet were extremely friendly and hospitable, with a sincere desire to see their country succeed. This is not to say that all Iraqis liked us. More than once I saw people on the street make obscene gestures at the convoys as we drove by. That, and the IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) clued us into the fact that we weren’t universally liked. A lot of Iraqis actually worked on base and ran shops that sold different kinds of merchandise and also a whole lot of bootlegged DVD’s (one of the first Iraqis I met was a kid on the street who wanted to sell me DVD’s). They would arrive at the base in the morning and leave in the evening. They were required to have escorts at all times as well, and this was how I was able to meet a lot of them. The lower enlisted (I was specialist at the time and hadn’t been promoted to Sergeant yet) had to perform extra duty, and one of these was “escort duty” where you had to escort Iraqis or TCN’s (Third-Country Nationals) around the base. I can recall my first time performing escort duty as especially poignant. The person I had to escort was a 12-year old boy who helped the garbage truck collect garbage around the base. He spoke excellent English and I asked him why he didn’t go to school. He told me that his father had been killed when insurgents blew up a mosque he was praying at. Since he was the oldest member of the family, he had to quit school and earn money.

The year passed by quickly (although at the time it seemed to drag on forever). Soon, the unit that would replace us arrived on base and we quickly started training them. We had gone from counting-down months to counting-down days. Finally, the day of our departure arrived. We flew out of Iraq at the beginning of November. We stayed in Kuwait for two days before flying out to the United States. As the plane left the tarmac, everyone on the aircraft started cheering; we were glad to be finally leaving the Middle East.

The day I finally landed in Phoenix, Arizona was one of the happiest days of my life. My friends were there to greet me and I was relieved and ecstatic that I was finally back home. Getting back to civilian life took some work. My friends told me that I was a little more subdued, and quiet. My family complained that I wasn’t that social and didn’t want to talk. The truth was that I really didn’t feel like talking about anything, really. Sudden noises would startle me, and make me think of an incoming mortar attack. As the months went by, I finally got used to being a civilian again. For the most part, I was my old self, but with a host of new memories.

As I write this, I have less than a year left in the military. My ETS date (time of separation) is December 18th, 2009. When I am discharged, I will have served 9 years in the United States Army National Guard. I have decided not to re-enlist, even though I know that I will miss the Guard terribly. Even though there were difficult moments I had to deal with, I know I will miss the camaraderie and the discipline. I have decided to focus completely on my civilian career, and I feel that 9 years is a decently long stint in the Guard. Even though I will be out of the military in a year, it will forever be a part of me, and will also be something that defines me as a person. Joining the military was one of the most pivotal decisions of my life, and it has turned out to be a rich, rewarding, and wonderful experience all the way. It has helped me grow more as an individual, and has built up my confidence. It has taught me the meaning of the words Loyalty, Honor, Duty, and Courage. Even though I may not wear the uniform in a year, in my heart I know that I will always be a Soldier of the United States Army.

Apple: Blurring the Line Between Hackers and Hipsters

Yesterday, while wrestling with my Windows XP machine to make it do dual-monitor display properly (I can’t get it to set my LCD as primary display), I ended up hosing the registry completely. It took me about two more hours to fix the system and get it back to where it was. During this whole ordeal, there were long periods of waiting when drivers were installing or when chkdsk was running. I took this time to surf the web and ended up landing on a digital copy of In the Beginning was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson. While skimming through the book (I have read the book before; I own the hard copy), I realized a few things. The book is definitely outdated; it was written before Mac OS X came out. However, a lot of points were still valid. I was mainly struck by the changing character of the Mac, and also in some sense, the changing character of (some) hackers:

Hackers like to hack. This is not a bad thing. In fact, “hack” originally did not mean “break into goverment/financial systems and do bad things”, and a “hacker” was not an unsavoury individual who did the aforementioned “bad things”. A “hack” originally meant “an elegant and clever solution to a problem” (although, it paradoxically also means “crude and ugly solution to a problem”), and a “hacker” is a person who comes up with such solutions. Most programmers call themselves “hackers”. The media term “hacker” is actually described by the term “cracker”. Hackers are constantly tinkering with things. Usually they are trying to make things better, but more often than not, they end up breaking it. However, in the process they learn very valuable lessons about how not to break something, and then immediately find another way to break it again. In all seriousness though, what we learn are the limits of the system, and how the system works. Hackers don’t like unknowns and black boxes. They want to know what makes things tick.

My dad got me my first computer in 1990. I didn’t do much on it at first other than play games. I actually started writing code in 1992, and I haven’t stopped. I’ve been hacking around since then, and in the process I’ve learnt a lot of many cool things. Over the years I’ve experimented with various OSes and programming langauges, and in the process broken and hosed many computers. But each time I learnt something valuable from them… mostly. One of the cooler things (I didn’t learn anything from this really, it was just a bug) I did was writing a self-replicating Perl script that kinda ran wild on ASU’s Solaris server. There were so many scripts running around that it brought the server to a crawl. I eventually figured out what was happening and managed to kill all the processes. Anyway, my point is that people like me like to tinker around. We don’t mind if we break stuff while doing it, because we’ll figure out a way to fix it. It’s the “figuring out” part that makes us happy. So what does all of this have to do with Apple, Hipsters, and Hackers? Well, in Neal Stephenson’s book he describes two kinds of people: Eloi and Morlocks. An Eloi is your average internet user; they view computers as appliances and tools and nothing more. A Morlock, on the other hand, is your average hacker. The computer is definitely a tool, but it is a tool that can be used to create other tools. The workings of a computer are usually a mystery to an Eloi, but not so for the Morlock. Before Mac OS X, most users of Macs were of the Eloi variety. The Mac was a beautiful and stylish magic-box that did wonderful things. The inner workings were a mystery. You couldn’t easily get inside and tinker with it, but that wasn’t really an issue because Eloi don’t care about things like that. Morlocks gravitated more towards the PC world. Sure, PC’s were clunky and definitely not as stylish as a Mac. Plus, a lot of them ran Windows which many Mac fans claimed was a clunky and cheap copy of the Mac OS (in truth, everyone basically copied Xerox PARC). However, they could be opened up and tinkered with. At this point in time, there was also this thing called Linux, which was an interesting piece of software (at the time). Linux is basically just an operating system. What most people mean when they say they “run Linux”, is that they run a distribution of Linux. A distribution consists of the kernel (Linux), in addition to a bunch of userland tools (programs that actually let you do something). The cool thing about Linux was that it was free. You could go download it and install it on your computer and it would run. What was even more interesting was that it was made by volunteers. People actually took the time to sit down and write code to improve and enhance the operating system. Running Linux in those days was a chore. Most distributions came with a GUI (X with a window manager), but sometimes things didn’t work quite right if you had an obscure monitor and video card. Getting things to work meant going to the command-line and writing strange, arcane incantations and if the Gods were pleased, your hardware might work. But that didn’t bother the hackers, because it was fun trying to get things to work. In addition there was also a certain elitism about it. Running a Linux box meant that you had the time, patience, and above all, intelligence required to go through the mental contortions required to get a working system. But intellectual elitism is nothing new for hackers since all hackers have a bit (ok, a lot) of hubris.

Mac Sales ChartOk, so where am I going with this again? Seriously, I have a point. Things changed when Mac OS X came out; it had a command line. The command line is very important to us hackers because it lets us look “under the hood” of the GUI. True hackers always go to the command line to do serious work. The command line is a place where a pithy one-liner can replace a series of windows and buttons. To the uninitiated, the command line is a scary place where confusing and dangerous things happen. Just like a magic spell, you had to write obscure words and symbols to the computer, in the correct sequence. If you were lucky, the computer would derisively spit out an error. If you weren’t you probably broke your computer. If you were really lucky, the computer accepted your commands and did what you told it to do. The point of the commandline is that you get God-like power (mostly; to truly be God you had to be root). While this power enables you to be extremely efficient, it also enables you to do destructive things equally efficiently. The GUI shields you from the hard edges of the underlying OS. The cryptic command line is replaced by friendly windows and buttons. When the Mac OS got a commandline in Mac OS X, hacker types were suddenly interested in it. You now got the legendary stability and the “it just works” attributes of a Mac OS with the power of a commandline, and that too, a UNIX commandline (OS X’s kernel is essentially based on BSD, which is a direct descendant of the original UNIX). Which brings me to the main point. What I’ve noticed over the last few years, especially after graduating from college, is that even though I love to hack around and test the limits of a system, most times I simply want a system to work. I want to spend less time fixing the system, and more time fixing my own code. I have also noticed that I’m not the only one with these sentiments. Many of my fellow nerd and hacker friends own Macs and develop on them now. I considered getting a Mac as well, but it was a little over budget for me and I couldn’t justify the cost at the time. Macs provide a very good mix of power and stability, and that is extremely attractive to a developer. You can still hack around on the Mac (and you could probably break it), but most of the time you know it’s something you did that broke the system, than just a quirk with the system. In my personal opinion, I think Apple’s decision to include the command line in OS X was brilliant (their other good move was moving over to the ubiquitous x86 architecture). In fact, if you look over the sales chart (courtesy systemshootouts.org) of the Mac from 1997 to 2008, you can see how their sales remained more or less constant from ’97 to ’02, after which it really started taking off. OS X was released in 2001.

In the old days, Mac users were a tight-knit, elitist bunch who sneered at their less-fortunate Windows-using cousins. Most times, it was with good reason. The Mac OS was stable and polished, while Windows was a clunky GUI bolted on top of a command line. To be fair to Microsoft though, Apple didn’t have to put up with exotic hardware since they had complete control over it. The demographic that Macs attracted was mostly the artistic or hipster bunch. In recent years, the demographic has increased to include some people who also liked the supposed “coolness” of the Mac. If you owned a Mac, you were different. You were part of a “cool”, “hip”, and “artistic” minority. Apple played this up, marketing the Mac as not only a stable alternative to a PC, but a cooler alternative too. Today you have more people than ever using Macs. From a sorority chick who uses it because “OMG it’s like so pretty!” to a programmer who likes it because “OMG d00d it’s lyk teh UNIX!!11!” Apple has successfully bridged the gap between two extremes. In future years, I think Apple will continue to grow stronger, and the sales of Macs will continue to rise, providing a viable, proprietary alternative to Windows. I’m not an Apple fanboi; I like FreeBSD (perhaps why I have a soft spot for OS X) and Linux more, but I think Apple deserves respect for making an excellent OS that’s friendly to hackers and hipsters alike.

India’s Greatness

“India is Great” and “Avoid AIDS”. This is what the lorry in front of me proclaimed. “Horn Please, OK?” it also said.The lorry driver is sure that India’s greatness has everything to do with avoiding AIDS and sounding the horn at appropriate times.

Hulk Hogan towers over me on a billboard, advertising a Sari.

A serene cow and a beggar walk into the road. The beggar holds up his hand and traffic obediently stops while he crosses. Who needs traffic lights? The cow chews her cud and looks at the vehicles with her large, wet eyes before finally deciding to move on.

I love this place. I really do. Life is everywhere. Everything is Alive.

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