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(1) : After A Rainy Night: Finally changed my NewsBruiser timezone to Indian time so you can know that I'm writing this holed up in my room at 10:20 in the morning, drapes still drawn, Riven soundtrack keeping out my mom's conversation but not the construction outside. (Staying with NewsBruiser is arguably my contribution to keeping the self-hosted blogosphere from becoming a WordPress monoculture. Also, Leonard wrote it and it's Python.)

the festival poster, with photos of my father

I feel somewhat justified in staying in my cave because I spent five very enjoyable but full days hosting my pal Beth, and then nearly a full day at yesterday's Kannada fest (habba or hubba). The first week of November, here in Karnataka, is a week to celebrate the indigenous language. I went with my mom to this festival because they were, among other things, honoring my late father, a big proponent of Kannada. Have I mentioned I don't speak Kannada? Awkward.

a collage of photos of my dad, a computer lab, festival paraphernalia, and an attendee

They held the staged ceremony portion in a school in Bennur, a school my family's adopted. Pretty strange to see my and my sister's name on a plaque outside a schoolroom, to see hundreds of schoolkids seeing for the first time the strange bespectacled short-haired American woman after whom a bit of their daily landscape is named.

During these occasions I just go with the flow, doing what I'm told ("Take off your shoes here." "Take this banana and feed it to the cow." "Hand each of these kids one of these envelopes."), knowing that I'm the least qualified person there to stage-manage. The annoyance emerges only when multiple people don't think that way, and give me contradictory directions. I can follow consistent, mindless, and sometimes arbitrary directions very well; as evidence, I present my series of public school diplomas and the honors I achieved in same. Your hoops, I jump through them. Just don't move the hoops while I'm preparing to leap.

bright festive decor

A Karnatakan state legislator gave one of the many, many, many speeches. He spoke without notes, which meant his notes didn't get wet in the rain. Did I mention that the stage ceremony was outdoors and took place in mild-to-moderate rainfall? I thought of President William Henry Harrison, and feared the mic might short out. The legislator proclaimed the virtues of Kannada, pointing out that, unlike English, it's spelled the way it sounds. The different vowel sounds correspond to different letters! He specifically made reference to the absurd pronunciation of the English word "colonel." Fair point.

people still waited to see speeches and skits in the rain and after the sun set

Around six-thirty, I was sitting next to Mom in those plastic chairs on that outdoor stage as rain fell, cameras dormant and hundreds of people sitting in the audience or milling around. I was waiting to help her by passing out rewards to kids who had gotten 124/125 or better on a Kannada test. We weren't quite properly lit; I could tell, because we weren't completely blinded. The sun had just set. I could see the tracks the rain made in the air as it passed by the spotlights. And though I was irritated at all the delays and ritual and pushy self-appointed stage managers, I saw those silver streaks against the white light and the deep blue sky, and I thought of how beautiful it was, and calmed down some.

(8) : To Build A WiFire: Nandini advised me that video chat with her fiance makes it far more bearable to be away from him, so I decided to investigate the Google Chat videochat integration in Empathy so I could videochat with Leonard for free without having to install anything proprietary (read: Skype). It worked fine between my and Leonard's Ubuntu machines when we were in the same apartment in the States, but my Empathy froze up when I tried to initiate an audio or video chat from here in Mysore. That was just over wifi, though; it kinda worked when I plugged into an Ethernet cable. Kinda. (I hereby apologize to my former coworkers and the GNOME community for not actually making efforts at debugging this yet; I may poke at it soon.)

Over two days, my pal James A., a sysadmin who lives in Perth (Western Australia) and thus inhabits a time zone suddenly much more congenial to random conversation, spent at least 90 minutes on the other end of the notional line, helping me work out a few hitches and exchanging the most boring possible text and audio chat with me. "I can't hear you." "Oh, my mic was muted." That sort of thing, interrupted of course by talking about themes in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.*

From the middle of that: "OK, now your face is just a bunch of blocky squares." "Yeah, that's a natural consequence of aging. I learned that from moisturizer ads. If you don't use Oil of Olay then your face gets all pixelated."

From the end of one troubleshooting session:

Sumana: Well I think we've all learned a valuable lesson today
Sumana: and that lesson is, never make a friend who does not live in your postal code
Sumana: and never leave said district
James: or take them with you
Sumana: Yes!
Sumana: Katamari them on up

It was around then that, while out on an errand, I thought I'd buy a longer CAT-5 (Ethernet) cable, since the one I had wasn't long enough to snake to my room from the router. So I walked to the computer-stuff shop a few blocks away.

"I need to buy an Ethernet cable. Do you sell them?"


We clarified that we were talking about the same thing. I shoulda just said "CAT-5."

"What length do you want? One meter, five meters?"

"What do you have?"

"What length do you want?"

"Just tell me what you have. What's the longest cord you have?"

"We have all lengths, which do you want?"

I sighed, said I was bad with meters, and estimated I wanted about 30 meters' length. That's when he went into another room and got out the mega-spool of CAT-5 and the hand-held crimper.

Oh. If only I'd brought my crimper! I knew how to do this, once!

Rakesh spinning a coil of CAT-5 around his arm

Rakesh cut off some insulation, got the wires in order (asking me what I meant to do with the cable so as to check crossover vs. patch), cut off the extra wire length, pushed the wires into the connectors, and crimped them into place. Then he tested the cord with a handheld device and frowned, then cut off one of the ends and started again. After this had happened a few times, we commiserated about Rakesh's inadequate crimper, which wasn't forcing the wires all the way into the connector with a nice click. I ended up going home and coming back for it an hour later, after he'd switched crimpers. Cost: 365 rupees (50-rupee crimping fee plus 9 rupees a meter), or about USD8. Carrying a 35-meter coil of CAT-5, tied with a couple pieces of string, on my shoulder down a muddy Mysore lane made me feel an authentic part of the Indian tech scene.

What also made me feel authentic was coming home to discover that construction workers a block down had accidentally cut a line while digging and my household had neither landline phone nor broadband. The next day, Mom called The Guy She Knows at the telco, who came down and fixed it. I tried to talk with him in my incredibly broken Kannada plus Internet-related nouns. Sample, translated for sense into English: "Yes, cell phone, 3G, AirTel, it is. Right now, wifi do." He told me that WiMax has successfully launched in Kerala and is coming to Mysore, which led me to ask excitedly, "Mysore WiMax ya-wa-ge?" or "Mysore WiMax when?" which sounds like I'm some sort of Wired-reading Conan the Barbarian. About 15 days from now, apparently.

His colleague didn't speak as much English, so when I mentioned that I lived in New York City, this got reiterated/translated as: "She lives in America. New York City. A very big city. There was a bomb. [hands sweep across each other, like buildings falling down]"

"Yes, that's where I live," I agreed quietly.

connectors next to CAT-5, shorn of insulationI got to see a minuscule slice of that city yesterday, when I videochatted with Leonard.** (For now it's soundless video + a plain telephone call for audio; more troubleshooting is in our future.) A less sweatshoppy laptop, some open protocols and FLOSS software, a friend's help, a bespoke Ethernet cable, innumerable components and stories and wires and decisions forming the infrastructure of the digital world, all so I could pretend to be a crab clacking my claws at my husband. Nandini was right.

* I mentioned that Stephenson is obsessed with how to best arrange for institutions to keep going past any one member's death, and James pointed out Uncle Enzo's career and his disdain for the Young Mafia. Also, when James mentioned that WordPress is written in PHP, which is really itself a CMS, I called WordPress "an unstable sedan chair atop a drunken Godzilla," which I don't stand by, but which is funny anyway. WordPress is more stable since I last had to work with it and I shouldn't be so hard on it, especially since they folded the great WordPress MU back into trunk. I am curious about Melody, though.

** "Just so you know, since I introduced you to Beth and Pat and Lucian, I expect a commission." "Oh, okay. Some kind of friendship commission?" "A blue-ribbon commission." Plus me listing off a bunch of names and him adding one more. What do these people have in common? Randall Munroe, Vienna Teng, Jonathan Coulton, Ken Liu, Charles Stross, Darcy Burner, Seth Schoen, Vernor Vinge, Ellen Ullman, Joel Spolsky, Eric Sink, Ryan North, Neal Stephenson, Paul Graham, John O'Neill, Naomi Novik, Kristofer Straub, Leonard Richardson, and arguably Jerry McNerney.

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: On Repeat: The album I currently have on repeat: the 8-bit tribute to Weezer.

Also: Josh Brockman, every time I listen to the last verse of Weird Al Yankovic's "Everything You Know is Wrong," I think of an email you wrote me in the mid-nineties.

(3) : I Nom, Yet I'm Aware Of The Ironic Ramifications Of My Nomming: Today's xkcd made me laugh aloud with glee. Thanks, Randall. (Especially funny if you've read Ted Chiang's sorrowful & lucid "Division By Zero".)

My three tasks for today:

  1. Call videographer for Nandini's wedding.
  2. Some moneychanging (not at a temple; reasonable precaution, no?).
  3. Edit some of the English from a wedding brochure Dad wrote, so we can use it at Nandini's wedding. (Each attendee of weddings Dad performed got a copy, listing the Sanskrit verses and explaining the ceremony in English. The prose needs proofreading & modernizing, because my dad had a tendency to use words like "oblations" and phrasings like "The groom ties an auspicious necklace, pre-blessed by the elders".)

Oh yay, Ed Felten as FTC CTO! Also congrats to Joan Walsh on her new book project and Stormy Peters on her new role at Mozilla.

Am eating comfort food recently, viz., non-Indian food. At the moment I'm snacking on a "Space Food Stick," peanut-butter flavor, I bought at the Air & Space Museum gift shop when Leonard & I were in Washington, D.C. in October. Earlier today: Clif Bar. Yesterday for dinner I went to Pearl, a Thai/Chinese/Indian/other restaurant (also on the menu: stroganoff). In some sense I simultaneously went to a chicken place (separate menu) that shares Pearl's waiters and dining space (and possibly cooks?); the waiter gave us menus from both restaurants, and the fries I ordered from King Chicken ended up on the same bill as the tom yum, wontons, etc. that I ordered from Pearl. I feel as though I partook of a thought experiment on identity, like the story about the replacement of the timbers of a boat. Well, better that than Dining Philosophers.

I discovered that Pearl exists last week, when Mom and I went to the Pizza Hut across the street. (What does it say about me that baby corn as a pizza topping no longer sounds weird?) Mom didn't want me to go to Pearl alone (non-Kannada-speaking tourist heading to an unfamiliar part of Mysore after dark, understandable) so we enlisted the twentysomething accountant from across the street. His mom is friends with my mom; they and another neighbor hang out a little every night, which depending on your temperament you either find a lovely or bone-chilling idea.

When we got to Pearl, my chaperone suggested I order for both of us, since he'd never had Thai food before. I realized as we ate the tom yum that South Indian cooking doesn't really do standalone soups; my mom would see this and want to pair it with idli, or stir some rice in. Indeed, once I got home, my mom asked: what did you have?

"We had soup, battered and fried ladies' fingers, chili and potato, french fries, noodles, wontons -- those are like tempura, or pakoras -- I think that's it."

"OK, but did you have anything solid?"

"What?!" I came back from putting leftovers in the fridge (I'd ordered way too much) and came to her room to ensure I'd heard correctly. I had. She said soup was fine and all but had I had anything solid? Rice or bread?

"Mom, this is why South Indians get diabetes, because we think every meal has to have a lot of starch. I had plenty of solid food! [sigh] And I had noodles. Noodles are starch." I think she would have quieted at my ferocity nonetheless, but she nodded at the noodles. "OK."

Also at Pearl I saw a white guy with a non-Indian-Asian woman and frickin' went to their table to say hi just because I suddenly hoped they were American and wanted to hear an American voice. Jackpot! For context: I see on average four white people a week, excluding time I spend in museums and at other tourist attractions. In the rickshaw on the way to Pearl, I'd seen a white woman driving a van. I can't recall ever seeing someone white in a driver's seat here in India, and I immediately wanted to know her story. The white people I see are usually wearing some variant on local dress. These folks were wearing Western-style clothes! I may be imagining but I remember the guy wearing a black fleece like Scott Rosenberg's!

Oh, the thrill I felt when I heard the dude greet me with his Californian-accented "hi." I asked how their Kannada was coming along and he made some travesty of "illa" ("no" or "don't have") and I threw my head back and laughed. I guess I might count as a short-term expat?

dinner at Pearl While eating Thai soup and Chinese dishes and fries (nearly all of which my chaperone liked, yay), eating off china and drinking water from a glass instead of seeing my reflection in stainless steel thalis and tumblers, hearing random American pop, I felt consciously relaxed and at home. Then I cringed, cultural imperialist American, inflicting my homesickness on the native culture, wielding my money and insouciance like swords.

After dinner, we visited the Western-style supermarket downstairs and I got instant noodles, peanut butter, deodorant, and some magazines. Big selection, multiple cashiers, one of whom scanned barcodes to ring me up and gave me a computer-printout receipt. So normal-feeling that I didn't particularly feel happy or at peace; I just noticed, much later, how unremarkable everything had felt, how comfortable and myself I had felt.

I've spent enough time in my comfort zone today, writing this, reading Strange Horizons fiction. Time to get to those three TODOs.

: Request Repeat & Reamplification: In case you didn't see this when I posted it more than a year ago: please pull me aside and tell me if I'm making a fool of myself. It occurs to me today that I should make a related request: please pull me aside and tell me if you know that I have been praised or maligned or ill-used, and suspect I don't know it. For example, I'm not on Facebook or Google Reader, so if someone there has an interesting comment on a blog entry of mine, I won't see it unless you tell me. And if there is some forum where people are saying stupid things about my appearance, yes, I'd like to know. Perhaps a weird request but I figure it's better to have it out there, on record. I may rescind it if it results in a lot of useless heartache.

: Dining Philosophical Traveling Saleswoman: Today I saw a computer science pal in the course of going from house to house delivering invitations to my sister's wedding. He got it when I told him that I was living out Traveling Salesman plus additional game-theoretic constraints (appetite is finite and food offers are infinite or unknowably finite?).

(10) : Campus Communities And Looking Back: I think most of my readers attended colleges or universities, and either finished undergrad or dropped out more than five years ago. I'm wondering about the campus communities you participated in heavily -- organized activities and groups that took up a lot of your time and provided lots of your socializing. For example, I know Zack spent a lot of time working on the Columbia University marching band, my sister Nandini in student government and events/speakers coordination and international housing, Leonard in the computer science students' lounge and the Linux users' group, John Stange in the CS department sysadmin staff, Jed at the science fiction/fantasy club, and Danni and James at the university computer club. And I know people who lived in cooperative housing and were really into it, or were dedicated to the Quiz Bowl, or ballroom dancing or Christian groups.

How do you feel about those groups when you look back? Are you still in touch with friends you gained in those communities? Do you regret investing lots of time in an insulated clique? Do you feel grateful, as though you'd come home or found your peer group for the first time? Did it help or harm your studies?

I ask partly because I don't think I did anything like that. I had the chance to make lots of friends in my dorm freshman year, but instead I fell in love with the guy who lived in the room next door to me. So I was in a very time-consuming romantic relationship my first three years at Berkeley, and it cut off some friendship-formation and club-joining time. The campus organization where I spent the most time was the Open Computing Facility -- they made me staff because I couldn't help but help people -- but I didn't feel tech enough and had trouble remembering people's names. I did a little copyediting at the Daily Cal for a semester, I attended a few Heuristic Squelch meetings, and I hung out a little in the physics students' study hall, a bit at a friend's co-op. But none of those turned into a Third Place for me. I did end up with lots of socializing, enough to interfere with my studies for the first time in my life, but it was distributed differently.

I need to think more about how I feel about this, what I'm glad of and what I regret. I'm wondering what you think of your experience.

(3) : The "Cordial" Part Of "You Are Cordially Invited": Today my uncle, aunt, and cousin drove around Bangalore with me to hand-deliver invitations to my sister's upcoming wedding. The usual ritual: we arrive and take off our shoes and come inside and sit down, we make small talk, I present the invitation to the oldest available person (I think) along with some sanctified dry rice and some gifts (sari + standardized fabric pieces for making pants, blouse, or shirt), and -- if the recipient is a woman -- kumkum powder for her to apply to her forehead. If the recipient is especially old, I kneel before him/her and s/he blesses me. More small talk. The host offers something to eat, then coffee or tea, then Bournvita/Horlicks/Boost/milk, and we negotiate down to water, or claim inability to ingest even an atom. A little more small talk, then a woman gives my aunt & me some turmeric and kumkum to apply to our foreheads, gives us some ritual gift (usually a chewable leaf, some fruit or a coconut, and a tiny denomination of money), and we the visitors get up, put our shoes on, and leave.

Avoiding substantial food intake at every visit requires finesse and outright lies, both of which my aunt spins easily. "We JUST ate lunch!" "Oh, I can't have sweets at all, the doctor says." "She's still unwell from the airplane trip from America and can only eat soups." Of course all the hosts know you might be lying, and thus one ends up turning down already-poured glasses of juice and multi-food snack platters. Such an arms race. You know those job ads that say applicants must be able to lift 50 pounds unassisted? Per day, wedding invitation delivery personnel should be able to eat 50 meals unassisted.

I have memorized the Kannada phrase "dhaivittu nun ukka-ge mudhave bunnee," or "please come to my sister's wedding." I have nearly said "please come to my wedding" and "please come to my sister's wedding now" (I usually heard "bunnee" with "eega" attached, when I was a kid, because my parents were saying "come here right now!").

My uncle, aunt, and cousin are great -- loving but not smothering, and patient with my questions without making me feel dumb. I learned today that kumkum powder is just turmeric with added colouring, and that "sanjay," pronounced almost the same as the similarly spelt guy's name "Sanjay," means "evening." The latter came up when my aunt, speaking Kannada, mentioned to someone that I'd arrived on an evening train, and I thought, "why is she talking about my cousin Sanjay? He wasn't with me..."

Today we passed by a shop called Cake of the Day, which I internally sang to the tune of Moxy Früvous's "Kick in the Ass." Also I made use of hand sanitizer, a phrase that I sing like "Smooth Operator" or "Smoke on the Water."

Also seen today: a cafe's sign inveigled us to "enhance your glam quotient," and an AirTel ad stapled to a tree said "IMPATIENCE IS THE NEW LIFE."

Allergies suck. However, my nose-blowing amused a child at one home, because my nose-blowing sounds all trumpety, and I waved my arm in front of my face like an elephant's trunk. If tech management doesn't work out, I may have a career in children's parties. Later I (think I) impressed a sixteen-year-old boy by singing along to the Green Day he was playing on his Nokia N97. He looked very earnestly at me as he then played his Linkin Park and Eminem. (In case you were wondering, Linkin Park sounds even less distinctive on a cell phone's speakers.) But he doesn't like Coldplay! He's clear on that! He, my cousin and I played music for each other on our cell phones as, in the next room, the adults watched the hit singing competition show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Singing Superstar. ("Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa" is the Indian equivalent of "Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do.")

"My sister didn't start off liking Green Day," he said.

"Oh, she'd get along well with my husband," I said. "He doesn't really like Green Day either. I think he sort of makes fun of me for liking it."


[pause] "Because he's pretentious. [then several sentences of backpedaling, rock/pop distinctions] I respect his opinion! though it is wrong."

Sort of failed at role modeling there. I played him the They Might Be Giants "New York City" in a giant cultural imperialism move.

On another trip, I duly impressed a sysadmin/network engineer with Leonard's credentials; he half-joked that now he must come to the wedding to meet him. We also joked about how verbose Java is. "I don't mind the length of Java code, it's the breadth," he said, stretching his arms apart, as though scrolling through a 200-character-wide line of Java were like catching an improbable trout. I returned: "You know that IDE they have to use? Eclipse? They call it that because Java code is so huge it blocks out the sun."

So, Leonard, when you arrive for Nandini's wedding, you may have to answer questions about your work for Canonical and defend your musical honor. Honour, if you localize. Localise. Hmm, I guess all my international travel blogging is documenting my internationalisation; I'm transliterating my encodings, discovering jarring UI paradigm differences. "You would think that internationalization and localization would be opposed goals, but no, they're aligned."

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(5) : Eldritch Arithmetic: A thirteen-year-old, even a fairly well-traveled one who can make entertaining conversation, was born in 1997. And she might very reasonably say, "What's Star Trek?" or not object terribly hard if someone prefaces a Pravda/Izvestiya joke by briefly describing what the Soviet Union was.

(1) : Four Short Story Recommendations: One thing I do while I should be hanging out with my mom, or sleeping, or writing, is read short science fiction and fantasy stories online. A few recommendations to close some tabs:

Jo Walton's "Relentlessly Mundane", 23 October 2000 in Strange Horizons. Just right in the way that Walton always does, realistic and inevitable and surprising all at once.

Jane hated going to Tharsia's apartment. It was hung about with tapestries and jangling crystal windchimes and a string of little silver unicorns, and it reminded her of Porphylia and everything she wanted to forget. If Tharsia had been able to get it right it wouldn't have been so irritating; it was just that little silver unicorns look so tacky when you've been used to the deep voices of real unicorns and great silver statues that speak and smile. Jane's own apartment was modern and spartan. Her mother approved of how clean it was but kept giving her houseplants and ornaments to, as she put it, "personalise the place." "You always look as if you're going to move out at any minute," she said. Jane threw them away. She didn't want personalised; she wanted functional and clean, in case she moved out at any minute. Eventually her mother gave up, as she had long since given up complaining about the huge belt-pouch Jane always kept on, and Jane's lack of a boyfriend since Mark, and her working out too much. Jane's apartment stayed bare and devoid of personality. The room she liked best was the shower, brightly lit and white-tiled with copious amounts of hot water flowing whenever Jane wanted it. She had missed showers most of all, in Porphylia.

She walked briskly up the three flights. Tharsia's apartment would irritate her, but she could deal with the irritation. At least walking up the stairs would be exercise, partly making up for the fact she'd missed her fencing lesson to come here today. She'd make the time up. She knocked. The bell, she knew from experience, rang a ghastly madrigal, a tinny parody of the tunes the minstrels used to play in the Great Hall. She couldn't understand how Tharsia could be content with this. Well, she wasn't content, of course.

"Hwang's Billion Brilliant Daughters", by Alice Sola Kim, November 2010 issue of Lightspeed. Haunting and sweet. Found via Julia Rios -- thanks, Julia!

When Hwang finds a time that he likes, he tries to stay awake. The longest he has ever stayed awake is three days....

Whenever Hwang goes to sleep, he jumps forward in time. This is a problem. This is not a problem that is going to solve itself....

And now two that I read aloud to my mother. "Little Brother™" by Bruce Holland Rogers, 30 October 2000 in Strange Horizons.

But then, while Mommy went to the kitchen to cook breakfast, Peter tried to show Little Brother™ how to build a very tall tower out of blocks. Little Brother™ wasn't interested in seeing a really tall tower. Every time Peter had a few blocks stacked up, Little Brother™ swatted the tower with his hand and laughed. Peter laughed, too, for the first time, and the second. But then he said, "Now watch this time. I'm going to make it really big."

But Little Brother™ didn't watch. The tower was only a few blocks tall when he knocked it down.

"No!" Peter said. He grabbed hold of Little Brother™'s arm. "Don't!"

Little Brother™'s face wrinkled. He was getting ready to cry.

Short but cutting.

And Cat Rambo's "Magnificent Pigs", 27 November 2006, in Strange Horizons.

Three years later, on a rainy September afternoon, my parents died in a car accident and I returned home to the farm to take care of Jilly. A few townfolk felt I shouldn't be allowed to raise her by myself, but when I hit twenty-one a year later, that magic number at which you apparently become an adult, they stopped fussing.

The insurance settlement provided enough to live on. It wasn't a lot, but I supplemented it by raising pigs and apples in the way my parents always had and taking them to Indianapolis. There the pigs were purchased by a plant that makes organic bacon, pork, and sausage, and the apples by a cider mill. I didn't mind the farm work. I'd get up in the morning, take care of things, and find myself a few hours in the afternoon to work in my barn-stall studio.

The Rambo story made me sniffle as I read it to Mom, and after the ending, Mom asked me to write a fan email to Rambo telling her how moving it was.
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: Mom Tells Me There's Also A Taco Bell in Bangalore!: I miss Mexican food. I miss Leonard, but he and I talk a couple times a day. I miss having my nasal passages free and open nearly all the time (I thought I was just allergic to cat hair, but evidently I haven't accounted for coconut tree pollen or the caste system or whatever allergen is bothering me here), but loratadine and cetirizine help. I miss pockets, but some of my dad's white drawstring pants fit me and they have pockets. I wear them with some of my chudidhar tunics.

So right now I'm especially missing Mexican food. There's none in Mysore that we've found. Domino's sells a "Mexican wrap" that's basically a chapati wrapped around paneer, bell pepper, and tomato. No beans, no salsa, nearly none of the Mexican masala of spices. The next time I visit Bangalore, I may embarrass myself at the Chili's.

(2) : Frontier: The other night I was hanging out with S. I had met her a few months ago, on my last trip to Mysore, when she and her mom and grandma came over to visit my mom. She's lived in the UK and is mature enough to make interesting conversation, and evidently she thinks I'm interesting too, and doesn't mind that I am ancient. I can also ask her questions about stuff I should really already know, like when I asked her to give me the gist on how the British turned the East India Company into the Raj:

Me: So I was wondering if you could help me out by explaining what's the deal with the British --

S.: Which one? They have a lot.

Me: That's true. They are a multi-deal people.

I end up accidentally educating S. just because I talk all highfalutin all the time.* Like when I brought her some Clif Bars, and she thanked me, and I said I had like twenty at my place and was running into decreasing marginal utility, and then explained what that was. Or at dinner, when I said I would pause my eating to give my stomach time to signal when it was full, because the sensation of fullness is a lagging indicator. More explaining! I am like Bill Nye the Social Science Guy. (I also explained to her who Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, and Richard Feynman are/were. Who am I.)

At one point, I told S. about how my mom is protective, just as hers is ("Who is that guy sending you that Facebook request?! How does he know you?" "Mom, I don't even know him, I've already trashed it!"). For example, when I got the call from Rakesh saying the Ethernet cable was ready, Mom heard me saying "sure, I'll be there by six, thanks!" and was like WHO WAS THAT. I joked to S., "maybe she thought I'd joined a cult or gotten a boyfriend." And S. said, "you can't have a boyfriend, you're married!"

She seemed completely serious. And she is fairly smart for thirteen, and well-travelled, and her mom is cool. So I said "well..." and told her that isn't necessarily the case, with the basic explanation "some people do this, and it can get complicated, but as long as everyone's ok with it and no one's hiding anything, it can work out." I mentioned the word "polyamory," which led me to talk about word roots, how "television" also has roots from both Greek and Latin, and some people get bothered by that.

"What kind of people would get bothered by that?" S. asked in confusion. I think I said "pedants like me, basically." Maybe I should point her to the canonical shirt.

I did a way better job succinctly talking about poly than I did describing Star Trek (S.: "What is that? Is it like Star Wars?") and explaining its importance. "You know, the Enterprise? Kirk and Picard? To boldly go where no one has gone before? Live long and prosper?" and then talking about the dates of the series, and how Star Wars is fantasy and Star Trek is scifi, and Archer's speech about the final frontier. But come on, poly is just about relationships, Star Trek is important!

* Example: when I was talking with Nandini a few months back about family visa troubles, some version of the following dialogue ensued:

Me: You know the saying: capital flows across borders but labor doesn't.

N.: That's not a saying.

Me: Come on, sure it is! You've heard it before. People say it.

N.: Yeah, in, like, econ classes. You don't just say that in conversations with your friends.

Me: Maybe not you and your friends --

N.: People don't go around on the street saying it.

Me: Well, people don't go around on the street saying "righty tighty, lefty loosey," but it's a saying! It's a saying applicable to certain situations and discussions.

I do not recall how this ended, but she probably said I was weird. I am, but that was not in dispute.

(2) : Interior Drama: Mom just showed me some kitchen stuff -- nice cookware, that sort of thing -- that she would like to give to Leonard & me, if we want it. I said we'd decide when Leonard gets here and sort of fled upstairs. I know it's fairly rude not to say "thank you, that looks great!" but I just immediately felt exhausted and needed to get out of there. It's so deflating I have to push myself to think about it enough to write it out.


I'm sure there's more but that gives you a first approximation of why my stomach twists and my esophagus is closed up. It's all stuff I want to work through, and it doesn't usually hit me this hard. I guess it was my lowered psychological immunity (loneliness, homesickness) plus the combo punch that got me. I'll be better after I've done a little more writing and gone to the railway museum.

(1) : Winning Every Staring Contest: It's traditional in my family to put photos of our dead ancestors on the wall, in the living room or similar common areas.

When Nandini and I arrived at the house in July after my dad died, we saw that Mom had a recent photo of Dad framed and sitting on a chair in the living room. Her first words to us were "Now he is in a photo frame," before she burst into tears and we hugged her for a while.

It was weird having him in a chair, as people came by to talk and visit. I looked at his face and he was smiling as though he was just about to say something, but he never did. I was disoriented that he wasn't jumping into the conversation at all. Later the photo got hung on the wall, and the distance ... made it make more sense.

While I was away, in August or September, Mom had a painter do a photorealistic portrait of Dad based on that photo. It's about four feet tall. It hangs on the wall of the stairs' landing, between downstairs and upstairs, visible from the living room and the dining table and the kitchen. Every time I go up or down those stairs, there it is, inches from me. I am not used to huge pictures of a man's head, except just above or below political slogans. Maybe I should come up with one to superimpose on Dad. We shall do our utmost to implement the goals of the 32nd Party Congress. Or: TRANSLITERATE! in sort of a Dalek font, if such a thing exists.

: More Pop Culture, Less Family Angst In This One: It's 90s Dayz around here. Yesterday I rocked out to Smashmouth's "Walkin' On The Sun" after finishing the edits on the translations of Nandini's Sanskrit wedding chants. I used to do those kinds of edits for my dad, back in the 90s, but now I get to use gEdit on my Linux laptop instead of Notepad or Word on Windows 3.1 on that 386.

Also I reminisced with Leonard about "Data's Day," the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where you get to see the big non-food replicators, and a kid in the background is getting a teddy bear. Data advises Worf on what to get a human couple as a wedding gift. Oh those wacky humans! You can make up a Bechdel-esque test that proxies Trek series' quality pretty well, asking whether two non-humans talk about something other than humans at least once an episode.

Today I looked at some quotes from the TNG series finale, to get a quote right, and noticed/remembered how meta Q is when he's harshing on the USS Enterprise, the writers, and the audience.

Q: Seven years ago, I said we'd be watching you, and we have been - hoping that your ape-like race would demonstrate some growth, give some indication that your minds had room for expansion. But what have we seen instead? You, worrying about Commander Riker's career. Listening to Counselor Troi's pedantic psychobabble. Indulging Data in his witless exploration of humanity.

Captain Picard: We've journeyed to countless new worlds. We've contacted new species. We have expanded our understanding of the universe.

Q: In your own paltry, limited way. You have no idea how far you still have to go. But instead of using the last seven years to change and to grow, you have squandered them.

It hurts because it's true.

And then just now, an X-Files vid reminded me of all those Friday nights sitting in front of the TV with my sister, prepping for debate tournaments the next day, learning that you can wear a suit and tie like all the rest of the grownups and still feel utterly alone, alienated. The Apartment with UFOs. (Oh, and Kate Monday : Dana Scully :: George Frankly : Fox Mulder.)

Edited to add: Yes, Kate Beaton, I can believe it. (cf. her last line)

(1) : Mysore Railway Museum: ticket booth and some exhibits Yesterday, my mother and I visited Mysore's railway museum. It's open 9:30am-6:30pm, Tuesday through Sunday (don't believe the hours listed elsewhere on the web). Admission was ten rupees each, I believe, with an additional 25-rupee fee for bringing a still camera. Unlike, say, the New York City or London transit museums, it's outdoors.

I loved riding the toy train, working knobs and levers and wheels, and clambering in and out of the cars and engines. Near each car or engine stood a small "My Story" placard, told in the first person from the item's perspective. "I was born..." "I was christened..." Who wouldn't love getting to hang out in the "snobbish inspection car"? (It's not actually that special, just benches and a dressing room.)

And then there's the Austin.

old blue car retrofitted with rail wheels

Its story:

History of Austin car, transcribed below

(Transcribed below, and translated into punctuated and correctly spelled English)

Austin Rail Motor Car
My Story
I am an AUSTIN CAR. Whenever I watch the speeding vehicles on the road in front of the RAIL MUSEUM I always remember my days. I was born in ENGLAND in 1925 and brought to INDIA where I served several owners till I became unserviceable. A kind-hearted railway man bought me at an auction and resurrected me from the scrap by providing rail wheels. This metamorphosis from a car to a rail motor made me a SUPER STAR carrying officers on inspection on the railway track. Still I can carry.

I hope that car gets the occasional chance to prove it can still carry.

We talked with a pair of British visitors. They found it more enjoyable to wait a few hours for their train at the museum than at the nearby railroad station. I thanked them for giving us the railroads. They laughed and accepted my thanks.

Hand signal lamp, used by guard in olden daysI don't actually know nearly enough about the history of the Indian railways, so I bought a couple of books at the gift shop. From page 6 of 150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways by K.R. Vaidyanathan:

Contracts for the construction of the 64-kilometer section from Howrah to Pundooh had also been awarded to local contractors, and by the end of 1853, the line was practically ready... Its opening was delayed by two unfortunate events. The ship which was bringing prototypes of the first railway coaches sank at Sandheads and replacements had to be built in Calcutta by two coach-building firms. Another ship carrying locomotives for the Railway from Britain proceeded to Australia by mistake instead of Calcutta. They were diverted back to Calcutta from Australia and finally arrived there in 1854.

Next time I have to report a two-week slip in a project schedule I'm going to have to bite my tongue to keep from saying "could be worse..."

A few documents, old phones, and the Mysore Maharani's private "saloon" car sat indoors. But everything else was out in the open, next to grass and vines and trees. Sometimes very close.

tree nestled against railcar

A lovely hour and a half, out on a nice day, frolicking among the staid old iron and the young green. This coalbin's sat out so long that plants have begun to sprout.

plants sprouting in coalbin

: Strings: Because of this book recommendation request, I spent a few hours yesterday going back and categorizing my old blog posts that mention my book-reading (and sometimes web recommendations). My word, I have been neurotic and insecure at times. But at least I read a bunch of books, though fewer than I'd like. I went backwards from March 2009, when I created the category, and now I'm on July 2002, which means I'm about 80% done. (In two weeks it'll be my ten-year blog anniversary.) Sometimes there's good stuff in there.

I ended up saying that it somehow embodied [Zack] for me, his amusing and cutting application of systematic logic to a huge pile of domain knowledge in areas I barely know, such as magic and speculative fiction. I think most of my friends do this sort of thing, which is why they're my friends.

I miss hanging out with my Bay Area friends, like Zack and Sarah. From her blog, seven years ago:

So I've often felt sort of unsuccessfully girly -- I'm amused by makeup and whatnot but don't really know how to do it right. My roommate showed me how to "blow out" my hair last night (basically blowdrying your hair in a fancy way that is supposed to make it look good). It's like those dreams where you discover a new room in your house, except this house is made of sugar and spice and everything that helps me internalize my oppression.

Also yesterday, while Mom was talking with her neighbor in our living room, I was listening (I can understand their Kannada well enough thanks to context, the MSG of communication) and twiddling the cord on the microfiber drawstring bag I keep my phone in, as is my habit. And I looked across the coffee table and noticed that Mom was absent-mindedly playing with a loop of string, too! Another moment of connection, of wondering how shallow or deep my present's roots sink into the past. Another knot.

(1) : Speculative Filk & Short Fiction: As with The Autograph Man, I have a couple book titles that now fall into melodies in my head.

Billy Joel's "Great Wall of China":

We coulda gone all the way
to The Left Hand of Darkness
if you'd read a little Ursula K. Le Guin

They Might Be Giants' "Mink Car":

I had sex in a Glasshouse
sex in a Glasshouse
written by Charlie Stross
[pronounced "Strouse" causa rhymi]

Thanks for recommending Glasshouse, Danni and (IIRC) James. I'm a few chapters into it now, so, just past the second sex scene (hence the filk). So far this is the most enjoyable Stross I've read, with neat ideas and a compelling POV character and mystery, up there with the clever "Down on the Farm". I never got into Accelerando, the other Laundry story of his I read didn't hook me (yet another creepy-funny take on Santa Claus), and The Family Trade felt dumbed-down. I find The Family Trade's origin story more interesting, and C.C. Finlay's July 2010 Futurismic story "Your Life Sentence" is a better woman-on-the-run story.

Speaking of that, some short online pieces I've liked recently:

"Private Detective Molly" by A. B. Goelman, 4 June 2007, Strange Horizons. I'm a sucker for hard-talking detectives, and talking robots.

I grab my trench coat and fedora from the closet before looking around the room.

That's when I see my new boss. Four feet of trouble. Brunette variety.

"Death and Suffrage" by Dale Bailey, from the 2007 anthology The Living Dead. "The dead had voted, all right, and not just in Chicago." Not a postapocalyptic zombie story; instead, politics and a compelling droning dreary nightmare feel. Like The West Wing meets World War Z.

"Talisman" by Tracina Jackson-Adams, 19 August 2002, Strange Horizons. Is this urban fantasy, except rural? Horses, a family feud, dark ceremonies in the wood. I don't usually like fantasy, or fiction about horses, but Jackson-Adams got me with high stakes, slow-burn reveals, and believable emotion and characters.

"How to Make Friends in Seventh Grade" by Nick Poniatowski, 21 June 2010, Strange Horizons. "I wasn't mad at you for losing the rocket. I was mad at you for being such a nerd. I'm not your friend, and I never was." Hurts so good. One character's wish fulfillment, but not the POV character's.

I'm halfway through the great Machine of Death anthology (free to download). The Camille Alexa and J. Jack Unrau, David Malki!, and Jeffrey C. Wells stories especially stick with me.

It was a good salesman voice, keen and enthusiastic, and it bore shockingly little resemblance to the one he'd been using his entire workaday life up until that day about two months ago, the day Simon now liked to call "Torn Apart And Devoured By Lions Day."

"Hokkaido Green" by by Aidan Doyle, 1 November 2010, Strange Horizons. Bittersweet fantasy about emotions and trafeoffs.

A brown bear entered the clearing. It walked upright and carried an old-fashioned miner's lantern filled with fireflies. It waddled towards the pool, looking less like a predator than like an elderly sumo wrestler tottering uncertainly towards a bout with a reigning champion.

In the comments, I welcome your thoughts on the linked stories, or additional filk on spec-fic titles.

Filed under:

: Backscatter, Backlash, Blowback: Security expert Bruce Schneier has a nearly complete roundup regarding the superlatively counterproductive new restrictions on US commercial air travel.

If you recently flew on a commercial airline in the United States, you can document your choice and compare notes.

Via cofax: Jason Bell, a biochemist who researches susceptibility to cancer -- specifically breast cancer -- reviews the existing documentation on the cancer risks of going through or operating the backscatter machines. It is not good. I keep having these flashes of history in my head.

Even more alarming is that because the radiation energy is the same for all adults, children or infants, the relative absorbed dose is twice as high for small children and infants because they have a smaller body mass (both total and tissue specific) to distribute the dose. Alarmingly, the radiation dose to an infant's testes and skeleton is 60-fold higher than the absorbed dose to an adult brain!...

It just repeats over and over again. Shoe-fitting fluoroscopes, arguably Thalidomide and DDT, now this. When you introduce a new force or procedure, it's not just going to affect one standard 5ft10 white man once. It's going to happen over and over again, to humans of all sexes and ages and backgrounds, and to the interdependent ecologies we're in, and it will disproportionately affect the vulnerable new.

Essentially, it appears that an X-ray beam is rastered across the body, which highlights the importance of one of the specific concerns raised by the UCSF scientists... what happens if the machine fails, or gets stuck, during a raster. How much radiation would a person's eye, hand, testicle, stomach, etc., be exposed to during such a failure. What is the failure rate of these machines? What is the failure rate in an operational environment? Who services the machine? What is the decay rate of the filter? What is the decay rate of the shielding material? What is the variability in the power of the X-ray source during the manufacturing process?...

The entire medical technology field has the lessons of the Therac-25 burned into its brain, but I bet the TSA's vendor pool doesn't.

A TSO [TSA worker] could be exposed to as much as 86-1408 mrem per year ... which is between 86%-1410% of the safe exposure of 100 mrem. At the high end, if for example a TSO is standing at the entrance of the scanner when it is running at maximum capacity, then that officer could hit their radiation exposure limit in as few as 20 working days (assuming an 8 hour shift). ... they really should be wearing radiation badges...

This is the asbestos of the coming decade (in terms of how perversely valuable the word "mesothelioma" is). Especially if the TSA will not provide dosimeters nor allow their workers to wear their own.

You know how the US government invaded Iraq to prevent further terrorism, and provoked the growth of local Al Qaeda cells? Now it's replicating that triumph by firing high-energy particles indiscriminately into innocent travelers' bodies, turning a little of each body into sleeper cells.

(1) : Longbows & Longboxes: Read some Amar Chitra Katha comic books today.

Filed under:

(7) : Charity: Today my mom again made me some churrimurri -- a light snack mix of puffed rice, freshly grated carrot, diced onion, masala, etc., etc. It's delicious. As we ate she said it reminded her of my dad, and told me --

My dad grew up very poor. His dad made five rupees a month as an electrician (this is in the 1930s and 1940s). Every day the churrimurri guy went by with his cart and gave everyone in his family a serving. He never asked them for money. They gave him a rupee a month. And every night, the restaurant near them gave them some leftover soup.

When my dad was 20, in engineering college, staying in a free room by the grace of someone's charity, he knew seven families who would give him some dinner, so he had a set schedule to visit each of them on different nights of the week. Five of them just gave him a helping of whatever the family was having. Two gave him food that had gone off, stuff they wouldn't eat.

One day he was leaving one of those latter houses. His stomach seized up. He vomited. He dragged himself to his room and lay down. He couldn't get up.

He didn't eat for three days.

A friend of his came by on the third day and knocked. Dad was too weak to get up and open the door, so his friend got a pole so he could go around to the open window and poke the pole through to open the door. He got Dad a meal, and gave him his voucher for a month's worth of meals at his dorm...

I looked at my churrimurri, suddenly ill.

I will be writing more about how hard my mom and dad worked to get out of poverty, to get the financial power to help people and pay forward the generosity they'd received. Right now I just feel ill with unearned privilege.

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