iPhone Queues

The first queues I’ve seen in America appeared today. People sitting on sidewalks waiting patiently for AT&T stores to open up and start iPhone sales. I also noticed long complicated sheafs of paper (presumably contracts), several Macs and men in orange.

Check out PC Magazine’s Guide to iPhone alternatives here.Though I think an iPhone is still an iPhone!

Become a GMail Ninja

Here’s how to get the most out of your GMail account:

  1. If you are forced into using Outlook as I am, get Xobni! Xobni is a fantastic plug-in for outlook that adds the ‘conversation’ thread we all love about GMail to outlook. You also get fantastic e-mail analytics, a list of files exchanged (which I find extraordinarily useful), a really fast search option and it doesn’t take up too many system resources. Oh and I forgot to mention- its free!
  2. Use gAttach – this is probably the best way to integrate the GMail web interface with your browser and operating system. It will link all mail:to links to GMail instead of Outlook/Exchange for good. Wonderful, if you use GMail most times.
  3. Get GSpace to work for you. Make use of the extra gigabytes GMail has to store all kinds of documents.
  4. Use label colours on GMail, they’re great for productivity- especially the bright colours, which will alert you to any mail from the Boss that might arrive.
  5. Enable IMAP on your Gmail account and get instantly updated e-mail all across your e-mail client, the web and even your phone.
  6. If you are on thunderbird, use lightning. Its a great little extension for productivity and dates!
  7. If you haven’t already — turn on the experimental features for GMail. You’ll find them under settings. Some of them are wonderful- like the variations for the ‘starred’ icons and the ‘take a break’ tweak. I especially recommend ‘take a break’, the beauty of which you will appreciate when you’ve been in front of a computer for two hours at a row.
  8. If you use Firefox (and you should) get the Better GMail extension from the lovely folks at Lifehacker. It does a great job of putting GMail Greasemonkey User Scripts together. You can eliminate annoying stuff like spam counts and even get a rather nice skin for GMail.
  9. If GTD is your thing, get the GTD Inbox extension for Firefox and GMail. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it you’ll wonder how you did without it.
  10. This is not a GMail tip but get your own domain (its very cheap and you can sign up for it at Google CheckOut) and set it up with Google Apps. There’s nothing quite as nice as having GMail and establishing property rights at the same time! 😉


Washington Metro StationIts taken me almost ten days of travel on the Washington metro to realize that it is a public transportation system that actually uses peak-load pricing rather effectively. Traveling from Crystal City to Dupont Circle everyday at office hours (between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.)  in the morning, for example, costs $2.16. Coming back the same way not at office hours (sometime in the afternoon) costs $1.60.

The difference between prices seemed curious at first and I was baffled how someone would potentially calculate and plan their expenditure for the week on transportation if the prices changed so arbitrarily. For a while I even thought it was gas prices causing the price to go up till I discovered the lower price on a fine Thursday afternoon, only to feel stupid when I realized that these metro trains run on electricity not gas. That would be all too unreliable in India where electricity outages are an everyday phenomenon, not true here though.

Prices change depending on the time of the day you travel. Rush hour tickets are more expensive than taking an empty yellow line to Georgetown in the afternoon. Peak-load pricing is a great example of how economics uses incentives to better everyday existence. At office hours in the morning, a train on the metro line is a scarce commodity with a lot of people competing for space on it. Those who ‘really’ need to get to work on time pay the premium and access the metro, those who can wait- do, and get the benefit of lower price when the commodity is not so scarce and therefore not so fiercely competed for.

In some sense this is the market allocating a scarce resource efficiently through prices as the signaling system. Its also a great de-congestion method, providing a disincentive to travel on the metro on peak times- the higher costs mean that at least some people will look for alternate ways to travel- by road, bus or walk. I sometimes wonder why heavily congested roads in India aren’t just converted to toll roads with peak-load pricing. Electricity too is a commodity that responds well to the idea of peak-load pricing and actually encourages the conservation of electricity well.

In India peak-load pricing works beautifully for the Internet and Telecommunication- most Indians’ are familiar with free calls from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. schemes on cellular services and free night-time surfing from Internet Service Providers. Watching peak-load pricing work in a public transportation system that I use everyday is fascinating and makes me wonder why this powerful tool isn’t used more often in Indian infrastructure and public utility provision.

Quick Geek Tip

If you’ve ever run out of space on the critical C: drive on windows and tried everything including junk cleaners and still failed to create substantial space- do something simpler instead. Try editing your system environment variables- change where windows stores TEMP to a different partition that does have space, change where your paging file is stored and delete the folder that stores your drivers (on my computer this was swsetup) after you have backed them up. And there you have it-  see Giga bytes of space free on C: again.

New Pages

Lots of new stuff coming up:

The all new start-page is online @: http://varna.sr.googlepages.com/

A new tumblrlog for random stuff on the web is online @: http://varna.tumblr.com

The delicious bookmarks page (cleaned up) is online @: http://del.icio.us/varna

A new photojournal is online here @: http://varnavisuals.wordpress.com

I shall start publishing on these pretty soon. 😀

New Badges!

Just a quick update on the sidebar because it now has two interesting additions. The first is FreeRice, where you get to brush up on vocab and feed the hungry at the same time. I like the idea because it blends two deceptively simple yet useful ideas together uniquely. The second badge is for Xobni, which does amazing things for Outlook; it adds threaded in-context conversation organization (like GMail), an automatic planner and much more, its a must have if you use Outlook!

Bad Evenings and Worse Mornings!

Two days ago I was in Bangalore giving an interview. One of the many questions I was asked was about relocation , I was also asked if I liked my ‘hometown’ Chennai. I remember answering in the affirmative; sure Chennai has terribly hot climate and it could be a little boring at times, but on the whole its safe and has the sea and well I generally like it. After today I think I like Chennai much less.

This evening my mom and I went in search of the i-pill, of course had I been a little less ignorant I wouldn’t have tried despite the circumstances. So this is what we did; we called our regular medical store and were told the i-pill was unavailable, so we then enquired about Norlevo, Pill 72, Ovral G and several other varieties of the ‘morning-after’ pill and found they were unavailable too. About an hour later we had set out on a walk, enquired at six different medical stores and came to naught, so we unhappily drew the conclusion that the ‘morning after’ was simply unavailable.

This struck me as absurd, Chennai – touted as the ‘medical capital’ of India had no medicines of a particular variety?, that was not all nor the the scariest part. In attempt to fill the gap, qualified chemists kept trying to convince me that ‘Mifepristone‘ a MTP Pill available usually only on prescription was the same thing. The fact is, Mifepristone is used in conjunction with other abortive pills (an abortificant) to induce an abortion below five weeks of pregnancy and is positively dangerous if taken in the place of an emergency contraceptive pill, ‘Levonorgestrel’, on the other hand, is used as part of combination oral contraceptive pill and in high doses can be used to prevent pregnancy after unprotected intercourse. Unintended consequences in a situation of information asymmetry and really nasty plausible outcomes playing out.

Apparently sometime in 2006, Tamil Nadu’s state Directorate of Drug Control (DDC) decided to take all ‘pills’ of the ‘morning after’ variety of the shelves. The provocation? Apparently the Chennai-based ‘Responsible Parents Forum’ and ‘Satvika Samuga Sevakar Sangam’ felt that the drug induces abortion (and is not a contraceptive); therefore its sale without prescription is illegal, additionally the two protesting groups claimed that there was no public debate before it was included in the Schedule M of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act (DCA), 1940 which makes the drug available over the counter.

I’m not sure whether I should be shocked about how regressive people can be or stand in awe of the stupidity involved. To begin with ’emergency contraceptive pills’ are not the same thing as abortive pills, the text of any ‘morning after pill’ explains that they are ineffective once ‘implantation’ has taken place in the womb or in other words once fertilization has happened, which is why they are termed levonorgestrel-based ECs! Abortive pills on the other hand are designed to work after this fertilization has taken place, the methods then are very different.

Chemical analysis and indeed any minimum degree of bio-chemistry knowledge easily proves that any ‘morning after’ pill contains Levonorgestrel and not Mifepristone (which is what is being sold as replacement, GASP!) as suggested by the hair-brained protesters. What is interesting is that the TN DDC has the right to seize ‘drugs; of a particular kind only if they do not adhere to prescribed standards, or are mis-branded, adulterated or spurious, I really wonder which one of these conditions apply to the ‘mornign after’? As far as is known, in the case of emergency contraceptives such as the ‘morning after’ the dosage is 0.75 mg (recommended by the Drug Controller of India) and sold as a Schedule M drug under a ready licence!

Even more absurd is this quotation from one of the women by name of Ajeetha (sigh!) who was at the forefront of the protests, she says: “the text is objectionable and promotes ‘free sex’. Words such as ‘..when one becomes careless, or things get out of control‘, It takes away responsibility from the act of sexual intercourse. And the branding (Mis-take) is also not so subtle insinuation that pre-marital sex is alright…”.

One of the biggest things to learn about patriarchy is that women themselves are the biggest perpetrators of it! Its been a long time since I have seen or heard of a more vivid example than this. Its fascinating how regressive laws can become in a country that is supposed to be swaggering down the road to development.

Consider capital punishment for rape, in India capital punishment is given in the ‘rarest of rare instances’ for the ‘most heinous of crimes’ which are often such crimes that render their victims in some sense ‘irreparable’. For a moment lets forget the argument that most people who have studied ‘law and economics’ draw – which suggests that at the margin the cost of committing rape+murder for a rapist becomes zero if capital punishment is announced for rapists thereby creating an incentive to additionally rape and kill their victims in fear of evidence coming out for a harsher punishment and so…

But consider this, is this the message we want to give out in society about our women? Ought rape to be a crime that makes no women live a normal life again? Ought we to attach such stigma to a woman who has been ‘raped’ to make her feel that the most ‘heinous and irrepairable’ damage has been done to her? Is chastity all there is to woman? Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying rape is OK, I’m asking if we really want to make women believe that their chastity being lost is something that should make them feel guilty life-long? But I digress.

One thing that is obvious is this, the SS Co. (which sounds dangerously RSS like) and the ‘Responsible Parents Forum’ probably consists of the most irresponsible bunch of people ever known- people who oppose freedom of choice, liberty in action and the access to technology all together. A formidable coalition of fools who believe that Chennai streets are better overrun with teenage mothers and scared teenage fathers, with dustbins littered with unwanted infants and people with closeted minds who will silently engage in marital rape while the law turns a blind eye and proclaims all is fine.

Never mind that Chennai has one of the highest incidence of AIDS in the country, never mind that domestic violence is spiralling in Tamil Nadu and never mind that the un-natural separation between growing girls and boys in this academic ‘temple’ of the south causes more and more roadblocks to conjugal bliss. After all who will ever find out?, we will keep sweeping it under the carpet as long the vermilion stays bright and the sacred threads sparkle along our broad backs!

The tragedy is that its been nearly two years since emergency contraception has been available freely in Chennai, and I am yet to hear of a protest! Tragically Chennai is the same place where the global campaign for microbicides (a form of contraception) began and is still head-quartered. What happened to science and reason or is it only prejudice that matters now?

My e-mail’s Gone Bonkers…

Yup. For some reason, Gmail refuses to accept my password and log me in. I doubt someone is trying to vandalize my account, given that no-one on Earth knows my password except me (not even a password manager!) and nothing appears to have been changed on my public profiles. Hopefully it shall set itself right in a couple of days- till then mail me at srvarnaatgmaildotcom. Does anyone know if Adsense, GoogleApps and Gmail migration is playing funny with Google accounts?

A Personal Assistant

I don’t know how most people feel about Personal Information Managers- I however find the overwhelming majority of software in that category rather unhelpful. This has nothing to do with poor application design or a lack of features.

Most times though I find file management and the like, such as actually using a task scheduler and so on– occupies a lot of time itself. Enter Sandy, if you live in your inbox most times, the way I do- then Sandy is perhaps the most evolved and useful PA to have. Sandy understands plain English and is dead simple to use.

Take a look at this example from Sandy’s website:

Remember reasonably priced used 2005 Vespa at http://scoot.example.com/for_sale/123 @scooter

    Basically, Sandy will set up an e-mail address for you, you send reminders as when you want to (or remember to) Sandy mails you back before the task is due. ‘@’ Scooter is a tag- you can add ‘@ weekly’ to set a weekly reminder, add ‘at [X] time’ to get Sandy to mail you your reminder for a task due at a specific time.

    If you need a To Do list on your computer I recommend you use Tudmo.