Saturday, October 20, 2007

Why I Think Opera is the Best Browser Available

To me, Opera is the OS X of the browser world. Compared to its competitors, it is polished, fast, quick-loading, powerful, feature-rich, well-thought-out and manages to do all that without getting in your face.

Well-thought-out. That's the key.

I'm not going to go into detail. This isn't a technical or academic opinion. It's a very pedestrian opinion. Why do I like Opera? It comes down to a few features that I just fell in love with when I saw them.

Username and password completion

Opera frames username/password forms that it knows the information to in an unobtrusive brown-yellow colour. If you want to put in information that you know, go ahead and do it, it's not in your way. However, if you want Opera to fill it in for you, just press CTRL+ENTER, and Opera fills it in for you, and submits the form.

It's unobtrusive, it gives you the information you need to know via easy-to-understand visual cues that are not distracting, and it's much better than any other implementation I've seen in Safari when it comes to multiple known usernames and passwords.

In Safari, it auto-completes it for you while you type, akin to someone finishing your sentences for you. It's sweet, but not always fun.

Speed Dial

All that empty space when you press CTRL+T for a new tab. The first implementation of tabs, inherited from Firefox and now implemented in all browsers, focuses your text cursor on the URL bar, so you type in things from there. Shortcuts even, can be put in through there through Firefox and Safari add-ons. Well, the guys at Opera are way above their game by putting in this feature called Speed Dial.

It uses the empty space of a new tab to show you 9 boxes with window previews that you can click on to navigate to. Each box will contain a cached thumbnail of a version of the website you visited. If you want to see what's the latest on them, just click refresh, at this window, and Opera will give you the latest thumbnails by reloading the page.

9 large buttons (taking up a lot of screen real-estate that was formerly unused), so your mouse movement need not be very fine (as opposed to navigating to the correct button on your bookmarks bar). You can use your mouse and keyboard in excellent synchronization. Left hand for CTRL+T, with the right hand still on the mouse, move quickly to a button, click, you're there.

These 2 features alone make me like Opera. The fact that it loads webpages fast, has fun visual indicators while loading pages, launches fast, and has, in my opinion, the best user-interface of any application I've used in Ubuntu Linux (running KDE) so far are still secondary concerns.

I'm sure there's more, but nothing worth me writing about. The guys at Opera have their heads in the right place from my analysis of the application so far.

Personal Note

I use Opera at work, where I work on Ubuntu Feisty Fawn. At home I still use Safari, because Safari is still more widely supported than Opera, and Opera's user-interface still isn't up to Mac standards.

I generally stay away from Firefox. A lumbering beast of an application, it takes for ever to launch, it's memory footprint is huge and it's really become persona non grata in my browsing experience.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake": My Review

I just finished reading a book last night. My first in a long... very long time. I've been reading sleepy paperbacks in between all this, but never a book as an experience. But in the past weeks, I did it.

The book is Jhumpa Lahiri's, The Namesake. Popularized by a movie of the same name, with some Hollywood and Bollywood bigwigs involved. That's probably why I heard of it and bothered to get my paws on it. Alas. The Metatron from Dogma (1999) was right: it's not worth knowing anymore if they haven't made a movie on it.

The Story

Story goes of the Gangulis, from Calcutta, West Bengal, India. Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli travel to a far away land, America, to make a new life. Ashoke, the husband, has chosen to define himself by a train accident he nearly died in, in India, where he survived by the skin of his teeth, with nothing but a tattered copy of Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat", and a lifelong limp to show for it. Sick of his life in India, he travels across the world to make a new beginning.

After their arrival in America, having settled and made a life, Ashima has a child, who is to be named by her grandmother. Unfortunately, the letter her grandmother mails them is lost, and her grandmother becomes gravely ill and loses all her higher faculties. It becomes impossible for them to find out the name she chose for him.

In a spur of the moment, compelled, and against tradition, the Gangulis name their son themselves. Not having put much thought into it, having deferred good judgement to Ashima's grandmother, Ashoke pulls out the first name in his head. Gogol, after Nikolai Gogol, of whom Ashoke is a fan of a deeply spiritual nature, becomes the name of their son. What follows is Gogol Ganguli's uneventful American childhood, adolescence and adulthood, with but one unique characteristic: his name is Gogol.

He is unique among his friends, and as he eventually realizes, among people around the world, since Gogol was a surname turned first name. Not even in Russia, where Nikolai Gogol was from, was anyone named Gogol. And he resents it. Eventually changing his name, and inwardly, part of his own identity, he goes through turmoil in his personal life. Courting women from America-proper, and immigrant Bengalis not unlike himself, towards the end, he comes to realize the dreary and momentary nature of life itself.


My dislike first, of which there is only one. I'd like to leave off this book review on a good note, so bad news first, good news later.

I didn't like how Lahiri describes everybody from Calcutta as so educated! Gosh, Gogol is an accomplished architect, his friends and significant others are PhDs and professors and intellectuals. Is that really how Bengalis are in New York? Are there no philistines in Calcutta? Where are the grocer and restaurant Bengalis?

If Bengalis really are that well off, well, wow! You guys are doing well! If not, this book tastes of nasty Bollywood'ness, where everyone's a romanticized bigshot. And, by the way, why are all the Bangladeshis in the book cab drivers and busboys? Actually... no, I think she hit the nail right on the head there. Can't gripe about it if it's true!


Now my likes. Thinking about the story, and putting it into words in writing this review, I now truly realize exactly how much I love this book. It touches upon many of my own sensitivities.

First of all, the book is about Bengalis. These guys are from Calcutta, West Bengal in India, but Bengalis will be Bengalis. We are essentially, and truly the same for good or for worse.

I loved the Bengali culture that was describe in romantic detail in this book. How Ashima never addresses her husband by name, but calls him by (roughly translated) "Are you listening to me?". How the intimacy between them is so rigorous and deep, that even they themselves are unaware of its reality. How Bengalis give their children two names, one for home and one for the world. How they have their compatriots over for dinners regularly on the weekends, with loud, boisterous Bengali ringing through the household while the children play or watch television on their own upstairs. Of foster-uncles and foster-aunts that become their family in a far away land. Of unwanted and bothersome visits to an inhospitable Calcutta every few years. Of Gogol's irritation at having a name he shares with nobody, of having to spell it out, or having to hear it mispronounced.

I loved it because I lived it. I am Gogol. I never changed my name, but I fell back to my Arabic name, something slightly more common in the sub-continent than my Bengali name, which I never quite liked.

But I've now found respect in my Bengali name, and in my parents, who lived the life of Ashima and Ashoke described in such intimate detail in this book. I especially realized what my mother went through in raising three children, on her own, in a faraway land. The story of Ashima in this book is a story of my mother.

Truly, mothers hold debts no mortal being can repay.

I'd give this book 5 stars out of 5. If I had stars to give.

The Amman Message

Wikipedia is a dangerous thing. Navigate to it to find out a quick fact, and before you know it, you're completely engrossed in a very large article on something completely unrelated. Like what happened to me yesterday.

Here's a link I found out yesterday, perhaps a year or so too late:

The Amman Message

From the Introduction:

It [The Amman Message] sought to declare what Islam is and what it is not, and what actions represent it and what actions do not. Its goal was to clarify to the modern world the true nature of Islam and the nature of true Islam.

A worthy goal indeed!

One of the things about Islam is that its largely decentralized. We don't have a pope, and we really don't have a central body regulating religious activities of Muslims around the world.

Typically, governments and private or non-profit organizations fill the void, of their own volition, to keep things organized, but it's not mandated. Despite all the hoo-haa about Islam being a polity, and it being the antithesis of secularism, and therefore, automatically incompatible with anything "civilized", at the root of it, it's all very personal... and yet impersonal.

A standing principle of the spiritual gnostics has been: nothing is personal in the universe, except your relationship with God.

And this perhaps has been Islam's bane in the modern world. People could pick up tattered, neglected old books, and where nationalism had previously failed to deliver, they hit where the heart is soft: faith. The despots told the people do this, and God will love you, and the people loved the despots.

And so perhaps things like the Amman Message are slowly arising. Standards bodies, that define terms, good practices, and fundamental concepts. Much like the IEEE standards or the RFC internet standards. These are the protocols, the concepts. Now implement them as you wish.

(I'm very sorry for the geek reference. I had to do it.)

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has an advantage I think that most of the other Muslim countries don't have.
  1. It's relatively unimportant, so there's not much Western meddling going on.
  2. It's king was educated in the West, but with deep roots in the Middle East.
  3. And the pox that is the United States's war on terror in Iraq has meant millenia's worth of handed down knowledge and wisdom, embodied in rare, skilled professionals in trades we no longer know about, like calligraphy and traditional Islamic scholarship, are making their way there to make a new life.
Last I heard, they were undergoing slow democratic reforms in Jordan. Here's to wishing them the best.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Is the Problem Technical or Managerial?

I was invited to a very distant relation's home for Iftari yesterday. Apart from a lovely traditional Iftari with chick peas, butter milk, dates, and fruit, I enjoyed pleasant company, and a family environment.

I met a fellow by the name of Mustafa, who was working in alternative energy in Bangladesh, particularly in biogas. It was heart-warming to hear people on the ground realizing what I read about on the internet so much. It's the common folk such as him who make the realities of solving our social problems a reality.

As usual, in our five-minute conversation, the topic veered toward the state of Bangladesh. Systemic corruption has crippled the country, and Mustafa suggested a sentiment shared by many Bengalis: all we needed was one good leader. Malaysia had Mahathir, Oman had Sultan Qaboos.

It's a common enough sentiment among the common folk, but that, of course, doesn't mean its necessarily true. Pakistan had General Musharraf, who, at the time, was welcomed almost unanimously. Power does corrupt, and politics will be politics.

But there is truth behind it. I wouldn't fully agree with "just one person" being sufficient. One person need not be the be-all and end-all; I think South Asians are too quick through the door into hero-worship, and just as fast to put a bullet in him. But the spirit behind the sentiment is the same as mine: the problem is, and always has been, leadership.

This belief was vindicated by the newspaper headlines just today. In Bangladesh, power load shedding has decreased from a 1,200 megawatt nationwide energy deficit, to a 200 megawatt deficit. The solution? Good management.

27 power plants last year generated 2,800 megawatts of energy, against a demand of (approximately) 4,000 megawatts. Those same 27 plants today, with the exception of one additional 70 megawatt plant that was installed earlier this year, are generating 4,100 megawatts of power, reducing the national shortfall of energy to a mere 100 to 200 megawatts.

The problem wasn't technical. The gas and oil was there to be burned, the transducers were there. It was managerial.

Solutions involved staggering holidays in industrial zones, stricter controls on bill collection, decentralized decision-making. With that, they fixed a problem that had threatened the economic development, the sacrosanct goal of any developing nation, of a 150 million people.

Like the Bengali saying goes: obhab na; shobhab. It's not poverty. It's attitude.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Twenty20 Cricket: My Thoughts

Cricket was never really my forte; Bangladesh never had a team while I was young, and the India-Pakistan animosity/competition never really trickled down to me, and so cricket was never in my mental map of "things to note."

I learnt as much about the technicalities and mechanics of the game in the World Cup earlier this year as I had learned in all my time watching the Sharjah Cup on television on lazy Friday afternoons in Abu Dhabi.

But I'm still a (potential) customer to the ICC. So my opinion ought to count for something, I hope!

In short: I quite like the game. I have a penchant for structure, skill, and sophistication, and cricket has all three in truckloads. I quite especially relish the commentary, especially if someone intelligent is doing the talking, like John Wright (such a nice guy!), Ian Chappell, or Tony Greig (very opinionated!). I love their insight into the game, and really, it's folks like these that stand testament to the elegance of the game.

But I think it's the faux bourgeoisie that irk me. I think they're trying to put up barriers for casually interested folk like me to take an interest in the game.

The current Twenty20 World Cup has provoked a lot of ire from players and commentators alike. Players are saying they don't like the format, because it doesn't give them enough time to think, and devise action strategies. Commentators, though they won't say it, strongly suggest shortening the game cheapens it. Other commentators are suggesting (again, very subtle-like) that Twenty20 is somehow inferior, because it seems to level the playing field between teams of highly differing skill levels.

Perhaps it was the (deserved) surprise win of Zimbabwe over Australia in the South Africa Twenty20 that has turned heads, or the fact that they feel they're being robbed, since what they believed only them and a limited circle of enlightened gnostics enjoyed is being usurped by the fickle adoration of the unwashed masses.

I don't know what it is, but I don't like that attitude!

Let's call a spade a spade. Cricket is a sport, and honestly, I'm not willing to spend five days watching a game before I know its outcome (the bona-fide format of Test cricket). It's not because I have an attention span deficit, but because it's simply not the amount of time I'm willing to devote to it.

I'm a wage slave, not unlike most folk out there. I simply don't have the emotional and mental manna at the end of a 45-hour work week to offer the sport, or almost any other activity, some of which are far more important than sport. And let's face it, for a sport to survive you need spectators.

The players should suck it up, I'm afraid. Soccer players do much more in much shorter time than cricketers do, and despite the deceptive simplicity of soccer, a lot of strategy goes into it, as much on-the-spot, thinking-on-your-feet sort of stuff as preparation. The spontaneity gives it beauty, and sometimes produces strokes of genius.

And if Twenty20 levels the playing field a bit more, so be it! I've yet to hear of a match that a team was about to win, but lost because of the format of the game. Australia lost to Zimbabwe earlier this year, because Zimbabwe played better cricket. Upsets are fun, and honestly, Australia's domination in the sphere of cricket for the past 7 or so years is probably the strongest argument not to care about the game. It's almost become a no-brainer as to who'll win the World Cup, or who the best team is, since Australia hasn't lost a single World Cup game in three World Cups! That's no fun!

The commentators will lament the Cricket of Old. I can see how it must have been fun, I really can. Old men spending five days in the sun, their women and children sipping tea and playing in the grass while other people (the colonials, perhaps?) cooked, cleaned and tilled the earth. I really don't share their nostalgia.

I like cricket. I like the fact that every spot in the cricket ground has a name, every stroke of the bat has a name, every technique of throwing the ball and each speed of throwing it has a name. Typical English bureaucratic thinking, and quite sophisticated at the end of the day. I just don't like the arrogance senior aficionados of the sport in the media seem to have for it.

Let it go, let Twenty20 grow, because the fans are the future of the sport, and we want something we can enjoy, and something we don't have to dedicate significant portions of our time on Earth to experience.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)