In The Armchair

Fractured Nations in Sci Fi!

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on May 30, 2009

BlackManRichardMorgan Coincidentally, I read two science fiction books recently that featured a common theme: balkanized countries.  In Black Man by Richard Morgan, a religious backlash splits America into Jesusland and the Rim States.  In River of Gods by Ian McDonald, India is divided into several sub-nations: Bharat (the Hindi hearland), Bangla (West Bengal and Bangladesh), and a bunch of others.

RiverOfGodsScience fiction nowadays is characterized by very intelligent writers who weave together tens of science fiction ideas to create their worlds.  Perhaps the simpler ideas that characterized previous generations of sci fi writers don’t cut it anymore.  Perhaps the complexity is needed to grab the attention of readers who have way too many options.  As I’ve lamented before, this complexity often comes at a price: plot, storytelling suffer.  Charles Stross, for example, writes excellent prose but often doesn’t seem to care about his plot and ending.  Greg Egan’s novels, while tremendously entertaining, are sometimes just outpourings of ideas, having very little to do with storytelling.

The debate about whether India should be a single nation is very common; many people have expressed the idea that India isn’t really a nation.  In River of Gods, the nations that form are relatively geographically and linguistically homogeneous.  Ian McDonald is actually pretty well-informed about things in India, and his 2050 India is very convincing.  He seems to have taken some characteristics of the regions and made that the primary feature of the new nations.  Bengalis, for example, are known for their technical and engineering prowess.  The side by side mix of poverty and high technology mirrors the India of today.  A very interesting bit of speculative fiction on the future of India!

Ubuntu 9.04

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on May 26, 2009


It’s been almost a month since Ubuntu 9.04 has been released.  I perfer not to install OSs immediately because they’re likely to have all kinds of bugs, but it’s time to upgrade now.

My main reasons for upgrading are a bunch of small but persistent and annoying bugs in my 8.10 install: gnome application window contents get garbled while scrolling and need a refresh (e.g. minimize and maximize again) to work, sound crashes frequently and needs rebooting to be brought back, gnome-terminal’s select-to-copy-to-clipboard wasn’t working, I wanted hibernate to be much more stable, poor sound quality issues with skype, and some quirky window size behaviour (windows would edge onto other workspaces by themselves), synaptic’s broken search (existing packages wouldn’t show up in searches), logout crashing X,  etc.

I’m going to write about my upgrade/reinstall experiences here.  My laptop is a Lenovo T61 with 3 gigs of RAM, an nVidia Quadro NVS 140M and Intel Corporation PRO/Wireless 4965 AG network card.

Upgrade This didn’t work at all for me.  I first got a “Not all updates can be installed” message from update-manager, and when I tried to go ahead anyway, I got a peculiar “Could not calculate upgrade” message and the upgrader quit.  It may be because I have some non-standard repositories and packages (like KDE 3.5).

Installation Before installing, I used

dpkg --get-selections > packages.txt

to keep a record of all the packages I had in my previous install. I also copied


to an external drive so I’d remember the sources I got those packages from. During installation, a minor problem with manual partitioning: clicking “Forward” and then “Back” in the Ubuntu installer causes it to forget all partitioner settings.  It’s also very slow to set up mount points.  The next irritant was the message “There were no users or operating systems suitable for importing from”, even though there was an Ubuntu 8.10 which the installer did recognize. Next, I still think Ubuntu should warn about the special status of the first user (who has sudo privileges), so that people can choose an appropriate username.  (I prefer to call this account admin, and avoid using it on a regular basis.) Other than that, it was pretty simple, taking only a short while to install the basics. One very awesome thing about installing from the live CD is you can use the computer during installation.

Reusing home directories I reused my old home partition when installing.  I renamed my old home directories temporarily and created all my usual user accounts (making sure the userids didn’t change from my previous install).  Then I renamed all the accounts back to what they were originally.  Although the accounts weren’t imported during install, I could log into any of the accounts after this and it was as if they had been imported and I could pick up where I left off.  No problems so far.  Every app I tried has simply picked up where it left off on the 8.10 installation.  And that includes all the apps I installed under Wine.

Restoring Packages I tried to restore packages using

dpkg --set-selections <packages.txt

and then

apt-get dselect-upgrade

to get back all the packages I had on 8.10. This didn’t work very well. apt-get wanted to uninstall about 110 packages I wanted in addition to installing the 1400 or so packages I asked it to. Some of those 110 packages were things like compiz, which I definitely wanted. Luckily, it displayed the list of 110 packages and asked whether to proceed. I tried various things and finally kept a record of those 110 packages and proceeded. After that was done I asked it to install those 110 packages again. That worked.

Skype This time around, Skype isn’t part of the repositories.  However, the old package can be downloaded from the Skype website and installed. I haven’t yet tested the sound quality issues.

X Logging out of the current account doesn’t simply blank the screen as it did on 8.10.  You get back to the default login screen.  Update 1: The X system feels a little more stable and responsive than 8.10.

Hibernate This still works out-of-the-box, but it seems the same as in 8.10: garbled screens and loud beeps before the session is restored.  Slow.  But it does work.

Suspend Suspend works beautifully.  I’m not sure how much power is consumed in suspend mode, and I’m still pretty apprehensive about putting a suspended laptop in a backpack for worry that it’ll overheat.  But my laptop suspends and resumes without a hitch in about 5 seconds.

Garbled Apps This one is important to me: 9.10 seems to have none of the scrolling-garbles-screen problems that were rife in 8.10.

Sound So far sound seems better than in 8.10.  It appears to crash less frequently.  But I did experience one sound crash that needed a reboot, so the problems are not gone.  Ah, I yearn for the good old 7.10 days!

I found a fix of sorts for this problem in this thread; it seems to work in my configuration.  The idea is to first close all applications that are using sound (discovered with “lsof | grep pcm”) and then restart sound using “sudo /etc/init.d/alsa-utils restart”.

Overview/Conclusion So far, my 9.04 installation is practically a clone of my previous 8.10 installation.  There’s very little here that feels new.  Even the much-vaunted “polish” just boils down to a glossier login screen background and a bit of mouse movement tweaking.  Everything seems to work as expected.  Whether the annoyances I had are now fixed, I’m not sure: those bugs weren’t always easy to reproduce. A few days in now; 9.04 does feel somewhat more stable and polished than 8.10.

Indian Elections: A Disappointing Lack of Information

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on May 20, 2009


One disappointing characteristic of the incredible Indian electoral process is the lack of information on the results.  What makes people vote for or against a particular candidate?  What are the major issues people care about?  What matters to people in various parts of the country?  Do parliamentarians have high approval ratings among their own constituents?  Are people voting for policies or parties?  Do people like the party they voted for, or just dislike all the others?  Such information is simply never gathered.  This non-gathering of information has been going on for ages.

In countries like the USA, a lot of such information comes from the media.  Unfortunately, the media isn’t quite doing its job in India.  Over the years, we’ve seen what amounts to idle speculation in the media about these things.  Journalists say something based on their limited contact with the public or their prejudices, and make predictions.  Then all the journalists get proven wrong when the elections actually happen, shake their heads, say things are hard to predict, and again make equally bad predictions the next year.

What are the reasons for this lack of information?  I can think of multiple possible reasons, though I have no idea which of these are the real ones.

First, resources.  You need money and trained manpower.  I imagine money flows freely for the Indian media; it certainly doesn’t seem like they are facing a funds crunch.  Trained manpower would be more of a problem.  They need people who know how to ask questions in a neutral, non-leading fashion.  I think it’s  mostly a manpower problem: it’s hard to muster the massive resources required when the channels are already in a frenzy and stretched to their limits during election season.  And if they do get the required manpower, it would have to be on a temporary basis, which implies a massive recruitment exercise for temps at the beginning of each election season.

Second, audience interest.  In politically participatory countries like the USA, television audiences have an appetite for analyses based on such data.  It is well-known that political participation is low in India, even though a very large number of people vote. So maybe there isn’t much incentive for the news channels to gather such data.  However, I’d think it’s part of the media’s responsibility to educate audiences and bring about greater involvement in the political debates.

Third, journalistic standards are disappointingly low in India.  Newspapers often can’t be bothered to perform even basic proofreading, let alone verifying the facts or collecting evidence.  A general attitude of apathy among our journalists may also be to blame.

Finally, does it make sense to blame it all on the media?  Perhaps such things should be part of the Election Commission’s responsibilities, with guaranteed independent funding.

Widespread Celebration of Islamic Festivals?

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on May 20, 2009

Vikram asked an interesting question: people of all religions in India seem to celebrate Hindu festivals like Diwali and Holi, and Christian festivals like Christmas.  Why then don’t people generally celebrate Muslim festivals like Eid? The article had some great theories in the comments.  Here are some interesting points that I agree with, I just wanted to note them down:

  1. Muslim festivals are not as commercial as Christian and Hindu festivals, which induce shopping seasons.  So there’s a lot more marketing for Hindu and Christian festivals.
  2. Muslim festivals lack the element of outward show (which festivals such as Diwali, Holi, Christmas have), which makes it harder to “celebrate” them.
  3. Indians study in Christian missionary schools a lot, so Christian festivals have become familiar.
  4. Hindus are mindful of historical injustices committed against them by Muslims.
  5. Why not ask the same question about Buddhist (and Sikh, though I think they’re a little more mainstream) festivals?
  6. (In a post by a Muslim) A form of exclusivity applies; Muslims are interested in celebrating their festivals only with those who believe in Allah the creator and Mohammed as a prophet.
  7. We interact mostly in school, college, the workplace; there are very few Muslim women in those arenas, so it’s harder to learn about Muslim festivals.