In The Armchair

Ugh! English Bloopers!

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on December 23, 2008

eats_shoots_leaves1I remember the excitement generated by Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves on the massacre of the English language in modern society.  Pedants across the world rejoiced and nodded their erudite heads approvingly.  I count myself among them. “That’ll show ’em,” we thought.  “About time someone owned their ignorant asses.”

Here’s my list of aggravations, observed quite independently of the book, that make me grit my teeth with irritation.  I guess I’ll keep adding to it over time.

Your instead of You’re Example: “Let me know where your going”.  Common on juvie forums across the internet.

Martha and I I imagine this is a peculiarity of American speech.  Reminded often that you say “Martha and I are going there” and not “Martha and me are going there,” Americans overcompensate and use “Martha and I” everywhere.  “He invited Martha and I for dinner.”  Urgghhttt!

She has came Common Indian howler.  Since things are in the past tense, the assumption is that everything in the sentence must be, too.  Result: “The doctor has came.”

“Of” overuse “We will provide as detailed of a coverage as we can,” the lady says.  I’ve heard this mostly from Americans.  I believe the correct usage is “As detailed a coverage”, and adding the extra “of” makes it sound grammatically incorrect — and silly.  Another example: “jump off of a building”, instead of “jump off a building”.   Wuh?

“Moot” misuse This is common in a lot of Indian sources. An example: “The moot question is, who is the culprit?”.  Moot means irrelevant or of no practical importance.  But reporter after reporter seems to use it with a meaning diametrically opposite.

Alot It’s a peculiar trend: a lot of people (mostly kids on forums) seem to think “a lot” is a single word.  “ALOT of people think so”, you might read somewhere.

I could care less The correct phrase is “I couldn’t care less”, but presumably several dumb pre-teens misheard it and continued using the incorrect version into adulthood. Here‘s some more info on this.

Beg the question Most people who use this phrase have absolutely no clue what it means. “Begging the question” means to use a circular argument. If you are trying to prove a statement but assume the statement itself at some point in the proof, THAT’s begging the question. It’s explained in detail on wikipedia. It has nothing to do with the natural question to ask in a given situation. “He witnessed the murder, which begs the question why he was there in the first place.” — that’s completely wrong.

Dialogues The word “dialogue” is popular in India, but not in its usual form.  It is used almost exclusively to refer to lines in movies.  It doesn’t represent an exchange between two parties, and it doesn’t refer to the totality of such an exchange.  A dialogue is simply a single line in a movie. “What a dialogue, yaar!”  “The dialogues were written by…” etc.  This doesn’t actually bother me that much; it is so widespread that I view it as an addition to Indian English rather than simply an incorrect use of the term.


Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on December 19, 2008

camouflage-haldeman1A few days ago, I finished reading the very interesting Camouflage by Joe Haldeman.  Haldeman is perhaps best known for his war book The Forever War, which I haven’t read yet, though I’ve read books it’s been compared to, like Starship Troopers by Heinlein and Old Man’s War by Joe Scalzi.  I enjoyed both those books in a simple-reading, uncerebral way.  These authors come up with very smart ideas, but the narration is decidedly uncerebral: the author simply explains all of what’s going on; the reader isn’t expected to think about things for himself.  Even the surprises and plot twists have this author-explains-everything-nicely-for-reader quality.  Isaac Asimov’s style, on the other hand, engages the reader’s thought centres more.  This is not to say Asimov wrote hard science fiction — far from it — but, given the specific parameters and axioms (however far-fetched) on which his universe rests, he tends to be a lot more analytical while using them to draw his conclusions.

Camouflage is firmly in the Heinlein-Scalzi mould, by which I mean the author spoonfeeds or handholds the reader to a great extent and doesn’t indulge in cerebral exchanges or polemics within the book.  Haldeman goes farther along that path than Heinlein or Scalzi.  There are some nice ideas in the book, but they’re described in an emotional monotone, devoid of the sense of wonder or excitement or inquiry that I usually expect from a sci-fi book.  The events have interesting implications, but the author (and the characters) don’t get sufficiently pumped up about them.  The result, for me, was a sense of dissatisfaction with the level of thought and emotion exhibited.  The events in the book are sci-fi, but have the narrative quality of magic spells: it’s hard to guess what the limits of the aliens’ capabilities are.  I certainly enjoyed the book, but I’d call it nice, not clever.

So what’s the book about?  Briefly, the story flows around the exploits of an alien shapeshifter through several decades (it lives practically indefinitely), up until the point where its ship is discovered by humans.  Along the way, it mentions how the alien comes to understand what it means to be human.  The book is suffused with interesting scenarios related to the alien’s alienness as well as its humanness, and also some technological marvels.  A quick, easy read.


Posted in India by Armchair Guy on December 19, 2008

Pakistan is in a state of complete denial about the Mumbai attacks, politically and socially.  A large number, maybe even a majority, of Pakistanis believe the Mumbai attacks were orchestrated by “Hindus”.  (Pakistani collective psychology often treats religious and racist collectives like “Hindus”, “Jews” and “black skinned people” as single organizations.)  This grotesque position has saturated the Pakistani press and airwaves until even Zardari, who a few days ago accepted Pakistan’s responsibility for the non-state actors, has retracted and again believes the terrorists were not of Pakistani origin.  Various middle eastern countries have started saying similar things.  Various Pakistanis, from the grassroots all the way up to Zardari, constantly demand proof that the attackers were Pakistani.  Yet, far from cooperating, the Pakistanis are doing everything within their power to hinder investigations: refusing to allow investigators to interview any suspects, refusing to take any meaningful action against terrorist organizations.  It is fairly obvious that all of this is a facade.

A lot has been said about convincing Pakistan to “move” against its terrorist installations.  But this is not something Pakistan is willing to do.  Terrorism and nukes are the only aces Pakistan holds.  Nukes play a deterrent role, but don’t actively get Pakistan anything.  Terrorism is Pakistan’s golden goose: a self-maintaining weapon that can be relied on when Pakistan needs it, and also the reason Pakistan gets billions of dollars from America. Without terrorism, there is no reason for any country other than China to engage with Pakistan.  (Pakistan’s position vis-a-vis India would be weakened to the point that even China may lose interest.) There is no chance that Pakistan will give up terrorism — unless the cost is too high.

Various solutions to the problem have been proposed.  Military solutions are not really meaningful, since there is too much potential for things going wrong.  I think the best solution is isolation.  The international community must take steps to hurt Pakistan financially and culturally, and hurt it badly enough that it needs to reconsider terrorism.  India must use its diplomatic sources to push for such steps.

India took one step in the right direction today by canceling a month-long cricket tour of Pakistan, a move which the PCB says will deprive it of about $25 million.  However, the Sri Lankans immediately agreed to tour Pakistan in place of India.  This move by Sri Lanka is tantamount to supporting Pakistan politically at this time.  India must lobby Sri Lanka to cancel the tour.  Instead, India and Sri Lanka could have a series: a move which will generate more revenue for SLC than it could hope to get from the Pakistan series.  And with the recently promised Indian support to the Sinhala government against the LTTE, it is clear that if Sri Lanka expects India to condemn its militants, Sri Lanka must reciprocate by snubbing regimes that support terrorism.  Countries like Australia have already declined to play in Pakistan.  For a subcontinental country, starving it of cricket is a very effective way of sending a signal.

Next, trade sanctions are essential.  In the current atmosphere of global financial gloom, this may be a hard thing to get other countries to do.  However, India must prevail on Western countries to walk the talk.  Lip service is soothing to the soul, but it doesn’t really help.  India would suffer as well if it imposed trade sanctions on Pakistan, as would other countries.  This is why it is important to share the burden: a large group of countries imposing trade sanctions on Pakistan would spread the cost to other countries and intensify the cost to Pakistan.  The USA has enormous influence in the middle east.  While the middle eastern countries may never impose sanctions on Pakistan, they could perhaps be persuaded not to come to Pakistan’s aid.  America could also be persuaded to reconsider its weapons sales to Pakistan.

This is the right time to tighten the screws.  A few more months, and the window of opportunity will pass us by.  The only question is, will the Congress government be able to do it?  Or will their sympathies lie with Pakistan?

Ubuntu 8.10: Love and Hate

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on December 10, 2008

ubuntu-logo-810I decided to quit being obsolete and upgraded from Ubuntu 7.10 to 8.10.  8.10, aka Intrepid Ibex, is not a long term support version and most reviews I read said it didn’t really make waves over 8.04, but then I was upgrading from 7.10, Gutsy Gibbon.  I expected it to make waves for me!  Indeed there were a lot of extremely useful things Intrepid does better than Gutsy.  Frustratingly, it also breaks a lot of things that were already good in Gutsy.  Here’s a kind of review with some details under various headings.  My installation is on a Lenovo T61 with an nvidia 140m card.

Things I’ve Dealt With So Far

Installation. The first thing I tried was to upgrade from Gutsy to Hardy (i.e. 8.04), planning a further upgrade to Intrepid.  BIG MISTAKE.  The upgrade took 3 hours (I do have a lot of packages), did a hotch-potch job, didn’t update the boot manager GRUB, and broke X completely (nvidia 140m wasn’t recognized after reboot, installing proprietary drivers didn’t help either).  At this point I gave up on upgrading since I was only interested in Intrepid Ibex anyway.  I installed Intrepid from a CD, the install was trivially simple but with a couple of scary moments:

  1. Selecting manual partitioning, the install GUI makes it look like everything will be wiped from the disk (based on the before and after pictures).  It doesn’t actually do this, but I was very nervous clicking “Forward”.
  2. In the partitioner, while editing a partition the dialog should tell you which partition you are actually editing.
  3. As usual, it doesn’t mention that the first user has a special status (Administrator but not root) on the install.  I’d rather not have sudo privileges for my usual login; I call this user “admin”.  The installer should warn about this.
  4. It asked me whether I wanted to import previous accounts, but didn’t display any information on what it would actually do!  I was planning to use a home directory with a lot of info already in it and didn’t want to take any risks, so I had to skip this and set up other accounts manually (even though maybe Intrepid could’ve done this automatically).

GRUB. Intrepid seemed to recognize all the other operating systems on my computer properly and put them into GRUB.

Bootup. Bootup is fast.  One common problem before was routine disk checking (fdisk).  This can really slow down bootup at times when you are in a hurry, you want to postpone and move on.  Intrepid does two nice things: first, it shows the disk check progress in the splash screen rather than the console, and it allows you to press Esc to postpone it to next time.

Network Manager. This program always gives me trouble, and this time was no different.  It doesn’t always come up on the non-admin accounts; sometimes I have to manually invoke nm-applet.

Nvidia Proprietary Driver. As soon as you login you get the option of installing the proprietary Nvidia graphics driver which provides 3D acceleration.  This is a pretty useful driver.  But the driver installer had an annoying glitch: I kept clicking on “activate” and it would bring up a dialog of some sort that disappeared immediately, and do nothing.  On the 5th or 6th try it suddenly worked and activated the proprietary driver.  No more trouble after that.

Fonts. Operating system fonts look even more awesome than before all round.  UNTIL you install the Nvidia proprietary driver, after which they’re ok but not that awesome.  Firefox fonts, on the other hand, are a different story.

Firefox. Intrepid installed Firefox 3.0.4. Works as expected, nothing new here, except a couple of weird things:

  1. Fonts in Firefox are awfully ugly.  (The rendered fonts, not the ones on the menubar etc.)  Maybe this is because all the websites want to use Microsoft fonts, I don’t know.  I fixed it by going to Edit -> Preferences -> Content -> Advanced and unchecking “Allow web pages to choose their own fonts…”.
  2. While trying to get fonts in Firefox to work, I moved my .mozilla folder to .mozilla.old and then back.  Somehow Firefox went and deleted everything in those folders, including bookmarks, customizations and history for 4 profiles.  I have to start with a blank slate now.  I’m probably to blame as well, but Firefox shouldn’t just delete everything without asking.
  3. Firefox hangs occasionally while exiting.  When it does this, it forgets all tabs that were open.  This is really problematic. Intrepid has X.Org 7.4.

  1. The big deal with X.Org 7.4 is its hotplug support, of which I am already an extremely grateful beneficiary: I can now dock and undock my computer from the Lenovo mini-dock.  AWESOME!  Before, the only solution was to restart the X server after docking or undocking (using Ctrl-Alt-Backspace).  The freedom to move about with my laptop is so liberating I feel like I lost 5 lbs and have improved lung capacity.
  2. But on the downside, the new server is glitchy. Once I’ve logged in to any account, I can’t log out.  Logging out simply blanks the screen.  Even Ctrl-Alt-Backspace doesn’t seem to restart the X server.  Sometimes I get a weird message saying my video card isn’t recognized.  Sometimes I’m just dropped to the console, without a shell.  All I can do at that stage is Ctrl-Alt-Del to reboot.  If I try to switch users instead of logging out, I sometimes don’t get a taskbar or panel after switching.
  3. Intrepid changes the keycodes for X, creating a whole host of problems for software relying on the keycodes.  One of the affected programs is DosBox, which no longer recognizes the arrow keys correctly.  (Fortunately the fix for DosBox is simple: insert the lines

    into a file called .dosboxrc in the home directory and restart dosbox.)

xmodmap. I used xmodmap to switch Caps Lock and Ctrl to help avoid RSI.  Previously Ubuntu recognized this switch as soon as I put a .Xmodmap file in my home directory.  It’s stopped doing this, but it’s fairly simply to get Ubuntu to do this every time my session starts up.  Supposedly the X keycode reassignment also creates problems with xmodmap, but I don’t use keycodes so I’m ok so far.

User Management. Some glitches in the GUI tool:

  1. Say you’re trying to add a new user whose home directory already exists, from a previous installation.  It won’t let you do it!  The error message is that the home directory already exists.  There should be a follow up action: create user anyway, or no, thanks.
  2. Say you’re trying to add someone to a group.  The user manager gives you a list of users you can add to the group but only displays the full name of the users (not their usernames).  So if two people have the same name, it’s impossible to tell who you’re adding to the group!

Konqueror. This was the most unkindest cut of all.  I loved Konqueror 3. Even though I don’t use Kubuntu, I still used Konqueror as my main file browser; I think it’s much more functional than Nautilus. But Intrepid has Konqueror 4.1.2, a horrifically amputated version of the heroic Konqueror 3 which could do almost anything.  Now:

  1. There is no Create Folder item in the right-click menu.
  2. There is no folder tree view (I think).  Folders can’t be expanded by default (the little (+/-) beside the icon is missing) — although after some digging I could enable it via Settings -> Configure Konqueror -> Views and checking Expandable Folders.  But I have to do this every time I start Konqueror.  There doesn’t seem to be a way to save this setting.
  3. When viewing an image, it doesn’t show icons for the next and previous picture in the folder.  Clicking the “Previous” button after viewing an image takes you back, but it forgets where in the directory hierarchy you were — so you have to click a series of (+) symbols to re-open your directory.  So Konqueror can no longer be used as an image viewer.

Why did they do this to Konqueror?  They should rename it Konquered.  Update: after some intensive google searching, I found out how to install KDE 3 under Intrepid.  It seems a little quirky, but it does have a version of Konqueror I can live with.

Hibernate. This is one of the two changes I’m excited about, one of the reasons why I wouldn’t consider going back to an earlier version of Ubuntu.  It appears as if Hibernate actually works out of the box on the Lenovo T61.  I’m not sure whether it worked on Ubuntu 8.04, but this is a feature I’ve been craving for at least 3 years.  There are problems with hibernate:

  1. It is extremely slow (takes much longer than rebooting)
  2. When it comes back, it first garbles the screen and beeps loudly (twice), which means I better not bring the laptop out of hibernation during a meeting.
  3. It doesn’t feel like real hibernate — I get the feeling it’s loading a bunch of libraries which it wouldn’t have to do if restoring the computer state.  It feels like it hibernates individual running applications.
  4. When it comes back it forgets about my multiple desktop placement and dumps all my apps onto one desktop (another reason I say this isn’t real hibernate).  This is related to problematic interactions between Compiz’s workspace switcher configuration and Metacity’s.

I also haven’t played with it enough to know whether it’s otherwise stable, but no problems so far.

Update-manager. Can’t run update-manager from a root console anymore.

Skype. This very important application is barely usable anymore.  It may have something to do with the use of the new Pulseaudio audio server.  The person at the other side hears me barely or not at all, often with an echo.  Skype used to work fine with 7.10.  OTOH, I can now video-conference with Skype!

Printing. I can’t seem to print in landscape mode any more.  I’ve encountered this problem so far with evince and Adobe Acrobat Reader 8.  The application’s “landscape” option shows up properly in the print preview.  But when I actually try to print it prints wide without rotating, with the result that only the leftmost 2/3 or so of the page is visible on paper.  This is almost a dealbreaker; there were no such problems with 7.10.

Sound. This is one of the more troublesome parts of Intrepid.  I think it has something to do with the introduction of PulseAudio as a sound… server?  I know very little about how sound works under Ubuntu,  but whatever it is, it keeps crashing repeatedly.  At least once a day.  There is no sound after the crash, with various applications complaining that they can’t initialize sound.  The only way to fix it if I do need sound seems to be to reboot.  Skype sound quality also seems affected, though I’m not yet sure Ubuntu’s sound is to blame.

Untested Features I’m Excited About

USB Boot Disk. Nifty new feature; you can write your installation to a USB drive and boot off it on any other computer, thus taking your entire setup with you whereever you go.

The History of Indian Cricket

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on December 6, 2008


I’ve been reading this trio of books on Indian cricket.  Or maybe I should say the Indian history of cricket.  I’m reading somewhat haphazardly, but I have to say that the character of cricket in India is fascinating.  I’ll update the blog with a separate entry for some of these books when I am done reading, but here’s a brief description of each.

Men in White by Mukul Kesavan is Kesavan’s collection of personal impressions about cricket.  It’s not historical.  For me this book wasn’t so much brilliant or informative as a roadmap.  There are various interesting things mentioned, but too much of it is either familiar and well-known or esoteric and specific to Kesavan’s interests.  However, the book did mention things which I wasn’t quite aware of, and recommended Ramachandra Guha’s history.

The Magic of Indian Cricket by Mihir Bose is not a history of cricket in India.  This book is truly magical.  I find it hard to classify it; it jumps all over the place and touches upon topics as diverse as the origin of the English passion for sport, the British hatred for the Hindu, the mutiny of 1857, Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in the exclusion of South Africa from the Commonwealth, Greek social norms concerning the olympics and why the Indian media love to hate Sunil Gavaskar.  Every paragraph is an excursion into something interesting an novel.  Cricket is woven into this throughout, but the book isn’t exactly about cricket.  I’ve walked on the Calcutta Maidan many, many times, but only after reading this book do I realize its sheer eminence in the colonial, political, religious and sporting history of India.

A Corner of a Foreign Field by Ramachandra Guha is the most erudite chronicle in this trio.  It’s a true history, but thankfully not as dry as some of Guha’s other books, such as his book on Verrier Elwin.  I’m not very far into it, but it’s a fascinating look into the development of cricket in India, starting with the Parsees who wanted to play on the Maidan in Bombay.


Posted in India by Armchair Guy on December 4, 2008

india_mumbai-012It’s  been several days since the Mumbai attacks of 26th November.  Like most Indians, I followed the news as it developed, and I slowly realized it was bigger and worse than it first appeared.  Seemingly a long time later, it was over.  But not before media all around the world speculated freely about various things: who did it, why they did it, why India couldn’t prevent it, what it would mean for the future, whether this could happen to other countries.

One reaction in American media was to fearmonger ridiculously, with emphasis on words like “nuclear”, “war”, “tensions” and “damage” in various permutations.  Examples: 1, 2, 3.  The idea seems to be to saturate airwaves with these words until people start believing a nuclear war is imminent.  But a few days later, American leaders are actively encouraging military action by India: 1.  A good deal of surreally-out-of-touch reporting: 1.

In press everywhere, a common reaction seems to be to talk of the incompetence of Indian authorities (some of it seems valid): 1, 2, 3.  There are many articles dealing with why these attacks were difficult to prevent: 1, 2.  Then there is Pakistani-style coverage: 1.  There is the occasional call to Pakistan and the Muslim world to stamp out the problematic elements in their midst: 1.  A great deal of naive anthropomorphic analysis of Pakistan’s motives is seen: 1.

Finally, most disturbingly, we have our internal saboteurs, people who want to see “Pakistan’s side”, by which they mean some kind of idealized rose-tinted version that ignores all realities: here.  While it is fine to wish for peace, I think that road has been tried with Pakistan.  It doesn’t work with them.  This kind of reporting has an extremely strong straw man characteristic: for example, the claim that everybody who wants action is clamouring for war and should therefore be opposed.  Far from it; no one wants war.  All that’s being done is to put firm pressure on Pakistan to dismantle its terrorist agencies.  From the high priestess of omniscience-conceit, Arundhati Roy, another queenly declamation here.  Roy, who imagines she is an expert on everything under the sun, had an immediate reaction to the attacks: pour vitriol on India  and pretend she sees something “deep” that no one else can.  Fortunately, her ignorance is obvious in this case.  It is a maze of weird claims and faulty logic that would be laughable if it weren’t for the timing.

Lately, bloggers and think-tanks have started thinking about how to counter Pakistan’s tactics.  The Pakistani polity is broken into factions, but all of them cultivate the terrorist faction.  The tactical pattern is quite clear:

  1. Provide cozy homes for terror organizations and individuals where they can plot and train without interference, sometimes by relabeling them as “charities”
  2. Maintain unofficial ties with terrorist factions so that any involvement can be denied loudly on international fora
  3. Demand concrete proof (evidence is never enough) of planning and activities without providing any access whatsoever to suspects
  4. Go on a publicity blitz saying all the things Western countries want to hear whenever a crisis arises

A solution to the Pakistan problem is mooted on the Indian National Interest blog: 1.  It is interesting but hard to see how to execute.

Solutions to the terror situation seem hard to come by.  India is itself divided, with the Congress willing to stoop to any level (including completely sacrificing national security) to appease its vote banks.  The Congress also strengthens the hand of terror by encouraging illegal immigration from Bangladesh.  The contender BJP would possibly take a principled stand on terror, but it lacks credibility internationally because of its association with organizations that have no respect for the law.  It is hard to imagine a Western government that would want to work with the BJP if it didn’t have to, and even the people, it seems, are scared of what a BJP government would mean for religious stability.

The currently proposed solution, to set up a “federal” agency, is not only a knee-jerk reaction, it will probably make things worse.  The tendency to create a new bureaucratic organ for every crisis must be stemmed.  The important thing is to improve existing infrastructure with a zero-tolerance policy towards incompetence.

What happens next will be interesting to observe.  My own impression is that not much will happen.  In recent history the Congress has had only one ideology: stay in power.  Protecting the country from terrorists is only important to the Congress as long as public outrage makes it essential.  After that, the memory of the attacks will fade, and so will any determination from the Congress.