Back to the Past

Late last evening, I was discussing with a dear friend about people/events in the past that one would like to experience and that gave me an idea for another of my interesting lists. Assuming ideal conditions, following are the representative sample of people and events that I would like to meet and experience. Lets start from the very beginning.

1. Let there be light: The universe microseconds after the big bang. How did it happen? Was it spectacular? The most brilliant fireworks beyond imagination?

2. Genesis: The earth when the first protein molecules were being formed. The very first “living” single cellular organisms.

3. Jurassic Park: This one spans millions of years. In this period, I would like to observe a T. Rex hunting and a Triceratop grazing(Although some scientist now claim that  they never existed.). I would want to see the unbelievable flora and fauna that existed. There would be species that we could not even imagine. Movie Jurassic Park was able to just give us a micro sneak peek into the amazing wonders that existed.

4. Eve: (140,000 years ago) Mitochondrial Eve (Matrilineal ancestor), the mother of all humanity. Richard Dawkins states that all of humanity can trace its evolution back through its Mitochondrial DNA back to this lady. What was she like? Was she beautiful? Graceful? Was she a loving mother? What was the mother of mankind like?

5. Adam: (60,000 – 90,000 years ago) Y-Chromosomal Adam (Patrilineal ancestor). Similar to the Eve, Adam is the Most Common Recent Ancestor of humanity. But Adam is separated from Eve by almost 50,000+ years. What was Adam like? Was he any different from his peers? Was he smarter? Was he stronger? What was his nature? Was he a good man? How did he spend his time? Did he contemplate about existence? How long was his life? Was he handsome (in the contemporary manner)? Did he have dreams that he wanted to realize? What made him so special?

6. The Inventors: How was wheel, pottery, fire, agriculture first came to being? Was it some “Thats weird!” moment?

7. Rise of Civilization: I would want to walk through the streets of the first cities of the Sumerian Civilization. walk through the fields of lower Nile and observe the life in the cities of the Harappan Civilization. I would also want to know why Harappan civilization just disappeared.

8. Wonders: I would want to see the amazing pyramids of Khufu and the mythical Tower of Babel in all their glory. I would want to take a nap in the Hanging Garden of Babylon. I would want to stroll through the aisles (if it had aisles) of the great library of Alexandria and absorb the knowledge in its treasure.

9. God and his Prophets: How was the progenitor of the three major Abrahamic Religion like? What made him special? What was Moses like? Was he really a prince? What made him a rebel? Did the miracles actually happen? If not, then why did the Pharoah let the Jews go? How did the Ark of Covenant really look like? I would want to see David slay Goliath. I would want to see the First Temple in all its glory. I would want to talk with Solomon and get a glimpse of his wisdom.

10. The Enlightened One: I would like to be with Siddhartha when he sees the old man, the diseased man, the corpse and the ascetic. What would I not give to know his thoughts! I would want to witness the moment when he achieved enlightenment under the Pipal tree. And obviously I would want to listen to his teachings.

11. Kurukshetra war: I would want to witness the Kurukshetra war, especially certain key moments like Krishna ‘s conversation with Arjuna, Slaying of Karna, Abhimanyu inside the Chakravyuha (How was the chakravyuha created). The list can go on and on. I would also want to know the real Krishna. What made him a God?

12. Wars: They say that history is all about wars. Battle of Kadesh, Battle of Troy (Seeing Helen would be a big bonus), The first recorded war which happened between Sumer and Elam near modern day southern Iraq (Near Basra), battle of Hydaspes river (Alexander vs Porus), the Aryan conquest of India.

13. Philosophers: I would want to be a witness to the trial of Socrates and be present during his execution, I would want to study under Plato with Aristotle. Legend has it that when Alexander came to meet Diogenes the Cynic (Who begged for a living and lived in a tub in the market), he asked if he wanted something from him, to which D replied “Yes, stand a little out of my sun”. Alexander then famously told the people accompanying him that if he were not Alexander he would be a Diogenes. It is amazing how great philosophers are the ones who make us the most uncomfortable. This tradition continues from Socrates to Jesus to Gandhi.

14. Son of God: I would want to lie down in the plains of Bethlehem and watch the rise of the Star of the East. I would want to see Yeshua when he was lying in the manger. I would want to listen to his sermon on the mount. Yeshua, in another parallel universe, could be just another Sadhu executed by the government. But there was something in him. He was not a king. He was not a conqueror. He was not a leader.  Despite his death, despite persecution, despite being condemned, his small bunch of followers remained steadfast in their faith. Even threat of death could not dissuade them. After 2000 years more than 1.5 billion people follow a poor 33 year old carpenter from a dusty little village of Nazareth. Was he God? What did he actually tell his followers for them to follow him even beyond his death? How did he manage to do this?

And thus we reach the Year of our Lord. I know that I missed countless number of personalities and events that were perhaps more important than the events that I have written about. I will leave the events and personalities of the last two millennium for another post.

Astronomy and History are the two subjects that are perhaps opposite to each other in the feeling that they create in you. Astronomy makes you feel like a minuscule part of an infinite whole while history tells the story of Men and Women who changed the future. Astronomy tells us that humanity with all its grandeur is nothing when compared to the utter emptiness that surrounds us while history on the other hand tells us that a single individual can make a difference!

PS. I realized that writing even a blog needs awareness and understanding that far outstrips the breadth and depth of my knowledge. Any good writing requires countless hours of research and thinking. I know that I have tremendous scope for improvement.

365 days without Summer

The year without summer occurred in 1816 just after the Napoleonic wars. Severe low temperatures in Northern US, Canada, Northern Europe, China resulted in acute shortage of food, famine, large scale deaths and migration. Large torrential rains in Bengal caused widespread Cholera which spread as far as Moscow.

Causes : Two major factors were deemed to be responsible for the absence of summer. The first was a unusually low solar activity (Dalton Minimum) and April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. Mount Tambora eruption rated a 7 on VEI (Volcanic Eruption Index, 1 less than the maximum value of 8, which is 10 times bigger than the 7). The eruption was equivalent to an 800 Megaton explosion (16 times more powerful than Tsar Bomba – The largest Hydrogen bomb ever built, and 4000 times bigger than the largest thermonuclear device that India tested during Pokhran II – assuming a theoretical yield of 200kT). The eruption column reached a height of around 43 km into the stratosphere. Estimated 10-120 million tons of Sulphur was ejected into the atmosphere which predictably resulted in catastrophic changes in climate and the year without summer.

Summit Caldera of Mount Tambora - Caldera is the depression caused by the volcanic eruption

Result: Hundreds of thousands of people perished due to famine, diseases, food riots and subsequent migration. The butterfly effect seems to be working in full force too. Lack of horse feed possibly inspired inventor Karl Drais to invent the forerunners of modern bicycle (Velocipede) which eventually resulted in Harley Davidson.


One Mr Joseph Smith’s family moved to New York and probably led to founding of the Church of Later Day Saints or what we popularly know as Mormonism. Justus von Liebeg’s experiences of the famine probably inspired  him to introduce mineral fertilizers. No Justus, no Green revolution. Incessant rainfall forced Mary Shelley and John Polidori to stay indoors during their vacation and we got the Frankenstein and The Vampyre. Imagine if there were no Mount Tambora eruption there would not have been Twilight series and no teenage girls swooning over a glittering bloodsucker.

Maverick Meercat

As regular readers (?) of this blog would be aware, I tried using Lucid Lynx (Ubuntu 10.04) in May of this year ( When I saw the announcement about the release of the next version, I decided that this is the time to give Ubuntu another shot. So after downloading the Ubuntu desktop version, I set to work on making it work. This time I decided to try out the Wubi installer.

Wubi Installer
Wubi Installer

I could successfully install Ubuntu and boot into it. The UI looked polished and nice. Unlike the last time, the keyboard was detected and I could log in. That is when the problem started. It did not detect my inbuilt wifi device. Without which there was no internet. So I logged into windows and decided to download Linux drivers for my external Reliance datacard. After copying installation instruction for getting the device up and running from various forums onto a text file which I could open from Linux, I logged into MM again. Lo and Behold! The deb file that contained the device driver failed to install. Most likely the problem would be with the device driver but the error message said that the problem was with aptitude (If I remember the name of the installer correctly). Going back to the forum advices I tried out few things like dmesg, modprobe etc which predictably resulted in failure. After spending 2 hours on it, I lost interest and decided to attempt the good old virtual way.

Virtual Box

First I went with VirtualBox to try and make it run. And I got the following error. 🙁

Virtual Box Error

Forums suggests that the error goes away or the fix is coming in the next version of VirtualBox. Not having any more patience I decided to try out the VMWare way. Man! It was slow and I mean very very very slow. The whole machine seemed like it has locked up. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, I was able to log in but the experience was excruciating. Finally decided to let go of the experiment.

Ubuntu in VM


Ubuntu Installing


Ubuntu looks good

For the next version, I am going to try Kubuntu instead and probably install it clean on a machine as a sole OS. No funny virtual business just full Linux.

When a house with mortgage is better than a house without one

You are in the market to buy a new house. You have 10L ready cash with you and the current interest rate is 8% (Assume same rate for both lending and borrowing).

You have two options: two exactly identical houses

1. Without a mortgage, priced at 10L.
2. With a mortgage that involves interest at 5%. (The mortgage was taken at the time of low interest rate. The present value of the payments to bank comes to 10L i.e. you can make the asset mortgage free by paying the bank 10L. The mortgage is assumable. Which means that you can assume the mortgage that is in the name of the current owner.)

In this scenario it is profitable to buy the house that has mortgage. Assume the mortgage and invest the 10L at 8%. If you take the first option, you own an asset worth 10L while in the second case you own (?) an asset worth 10L plus you get interest income of (8-5 = ) 3%.

What are the flaws in this argument?

The market is efficient. The arbitrage opportunity that this situation presents will result in increase in price of the house with the mortgage to balance out the riskless profit opportunity.

Edited: As mentioned by Amit, other factors like mortgage market being less liquid and high transaction cost involved may also have an effect.

Must have tools

A short list of software tools that can make your life really easy and productive.

1. Everything : A search tool that crawls all the files on your machine (Really fast) and enables you to search by file name. Compared to other desktop search tools like Google Desktop and Copernicus, Everything is blazingly fast with the drawback that you cannot search for content. Just the file name.

2. Microsoft OneNote : Comes as part of Microsoft Office. Very useful to take short notes and general collection of bits and pieces. The screenshot ability (Do a Windows key + S and you can select the part of screen that you want to copy) and the export to pdf ability comes in very handy.

3. TrueCrypt : Encryption tool that comes in very handy when you want to keep some stuff secret from prying eyes. Open Source and reliable. Very Fast. For the really paranoid, you can use combo of AES, TwoFish and Serpent with a hidden volume.


4. Notepad++ : An awesome alternative to the good ol’ Notepad. Has multitab editor, syntax highlighting, ability to view hex data and is very fast. Open Source.


5. Chrome : Need I explain?

6. Microsoft Visual C# 2010 Express Edition : Free Visual Studio edition from Microsoft. C# is a very capable alternative to Java, plus the Visual Studio IDE makes developing custom programs for day to day usage a breeze.

7. Google Picasa : Non intrusive image viewer. Lightweight and fully functional.

8. Microsoft Security Essentials : A free antivirus from Microsoft. Minimalist UI and pretty good protection.

9. GIMP : Open Source alternative to Photoshop. Unless you are a hardcore photographer who needs cutting edge image processing software, GIMP will serve all your petty needs.

Gimp! Its Gimp, not Chimp!

10. Oracle VM VirtualBox : A virtualization software that can be used to host another operating system from your host OS. Download Ubuntu/Kubuntu here or Order CD here. Crank up that Virtual Machine and enjoy the world of Linux. Very good if you want to access a compromised site and does not want it to infect your machine. (*Cough* College Site *Cough*).

11. Stellarium : Since we are not going to the stars any time soon, Stellarium provides a very awesome alternative to explore the skies. Zoom in to Europa and wonder what lies in the depths of its ice covered oceans or for the more conventional explorers, check out the Saturn’s rings. Experts can check out its catalog of 600,000 stars. Alternatives to Stellarium include NASA’s World Wind and Celestia.

Stellarium - Zeus and his family
Stellarium - Why so Saturnine?

12. MediaCoder : We have all been there. We have a nice WMV movie and we cant put it  in our iPods and iPhones. No worries, MediaCoder has the solution to all your media conversion troubles. MediaCoder’s Open Source status is questionable so you do face certain irritating things when you start using the software but overall it is worth the trouble. FFmpeg project is also useful with all its open source codecs.

13. VLC : No discussion on must have tools is complete without mentioning VLC. One stop media player with a little known ability to convert media files, though this ability is not very mature yet.

14. WireShark : Open Source network packet analyzer. Not much use to a lay person except scaring your innocent friends by claiming that you can read all their network messages. 😀

WireShark - JAWS!

15. 7-Zip : No need to be irritated by WinZip or WinRAR. Use this Open Source alternative instead.

16. Mathematica : If you have couple of thousand dollars lying around the house (Actually a little more than that) then Mathematica is a must have software. It is a very very ultra powerful mathematical simulation software for engineering and scientific simulations. Open Source alternative includes GNU Octave. Just don’t expect awesomeness in it.

Octave - Yep, thats a Sine Curve
Mathematica and Chrome

Edited: An anonymous commenter mentioned that Mathematica Home Edition for personal use is available for $295 and has all the features of the full blown version. Thank you.