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Reflections of a new traveller

August 18, 2010

So I did my first (of many many) trips to East Lansing and back last weekend. I had N as company on the way over, which was fantastic, as it was the first time I was solo driving a 300+ mile route. Long worn travellers will probably scoff at this, but to put this in context, my next longest drive has been to Dayton and back, which is a 120M round trip.

Here are my essentials for a road trip:

1. A good music system: My car radio is just that – a radio (even though there are buttons marked CD and TAPE). There are 4 speakers, though at this point only two work (as far as i can tell), and it has 2 volume settings, low and very high. Not ideal.

2. Well planned stops: I just entered the address in the GPS and hit go. It was two hours into the drive that I started hankering for a Starbucks. Before realising that there are literally no Starbucks coffee shops between Bowling Green and East Lansing. (I did see a Timmy Horton’s though, of all things).

3. Good company: This is the most important aspect of a long drive. While going to E Lansing, we hit a thunderstorm for about 45 minutes and reduced visibility to about 20ft. But we were having such a great conversation, it wasnt really that big of a deal. On the way back, I was so bored that I tried doing a monologue to see how long I could keep it up. It turns out that I really don’t have as many interesting thoughts as I may have thought. Mental note to not do that again.

But my biggest problem with the trip was the uniform non-niceness of the roads. Seriously, while the roads are fantastic for going from point A to B (I could’ve done most of the trip without stopping once), they are very lacking in the seriously scenery department. Or maybe it was just the roads I decided to take. Anybody has any idea on how to find scenic routes to a destination?

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Summer again!

May 24, 2010
Hmm, again, its been a while. Leaves have fallen, whole rivers have changed courses since I last wrote a post in this blog (or any other blog, for that. I don’t want to give the impression that I have other. better blogs to write for. I just un”blog”ged for a while).
This is going to be a rather personal post. So all casual readers can skip this one. For the one remaining reader, a lot of rather interesting things have happened since I wrote last. In chronological order –
1. We won the Regional Case Competition in Pittsburgh sometime last year. beating Carnegie Mellon, among others. Ha! (We also went to Vegas for the finals, but didn’t win there).
2. N came for a month, We did a fabulous NY trip with P and S. (And she came again a few months later, when we went to NJ and I fell in love again. With her niece).
3. B came over to the US for P’s graduation, and we surprised her (S came over from Canada on a day when snow was falling, and neither man nor beast was about. It was the stuff of romantic blockbuster movies. Karan Johar would’ve loved it). It was also one of the more emotional moments of my US career.
4. I got a job at dunnhumby. If I could’ve written down my personal specifications for my dream job, it would’ve come quite close.
5. I bought a car (and passed my license test – with heroic difficulties, but that’s another story). I love my car.
6. Oh, and I graduated (with honors I think, but the university only awards a degree to the graduates, while going all french on the undergrads).
But for the last, and most important thing that has happened in my life over the last couple of years. N is finally coming here to do her MBA. The clouds are parting, and sunlight is shining through. Its been a while, and I can’t wait.
Touch wood.
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Calling Home Cheaply using VOIP

April 5, 2009

Calling home, or indeed making telephone calls, is one of the hidden expenses which frequently blights a grad students life. While AT&T, TMobile et al already charge a significant amount ($40 – $60, depending on your plan) on monthly charges, they charge exorbitant per minute rates if you ever decide to make calls in the daytime. My plan, for example charges $0.45 per minute, for daytime calls (6AM to 9PM).

The only alternative solution to this is to use services using Voice Over Internet Protocol. Now there are different ways of using VOIP services. Lets have a look at them. As a reference, I am going to cite call charges to India for comparison purposes.

1. Get a VOIP connection at one of the many VOIP providers. I personally use VoipRaider, but there are many others to choose from. You can get a list here. All these services ask you to signup and buy some credit, like a prepaid phone card. You can then download an application to your computer and make calls using it. Dont expect high levels of support, but the services are adequate. There can be a delay of 1 – 2 seconds at times, especially if you are calling during peak times, but is much less at night. Also, most of these sites allow you to make one trial call before buying the service. You can thus pick and choose.

At the time of writing this post, VoipRaider charges $0.048 per minute to make calls to India, and $0.054 to send an SMS.

2. If you have a mobile phone supporting WiFi, you can probably install fring, a free application which allows you to connect to voip servers, and make VOIP calls directly on your mobile phone bypassing the cellular network. All the VOIP services listed above (VoipRaider, VoipBuster, etc) have an SIP server, and you can login to them via fring. I use this myself, but I have noticed a slight additional delay when I call using VoipRaider through fring. For a list of phones which support the fring application, go here. Most WinMobile, Symbian 8/9 phones and iPhones are supported. For installing fring on the iPhone, use this link.

3. The final approach is to  use a service which require you to dial an access number through your cellular network. While this will not save you any money if you use this service over the daytime, it is cheaper to use at night to call internationally than the voip services list in the first step. For example. dial91, which is the service I use, charges $0.026 per minute to call India, as opposed $0.048 in VoipRaider. Also, call quality is significantly better, with barely any delays at all.

The best approach would be to use a combination of the above. I use fring to call during the daytime, and dial91 at night. To make a comparison, assuming an average rate of $0.035 per minute, it would cost me $16 per month to call home for 15 minutes every day. The same number of minutes on my AT&T connection would cost me $200.

I would like to add, that these are the options I know. If you know of any additional/better ones, please do comment. I would love to know. Oh, and finally, the above services are available in the US and Canada, in case somebody is interested.

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GreyHound: A Review

March 30, 2009

In my life, as an itinerant traveler, I am used to travelling in buses like no other I’ve been in khataara village buses, which are astoundingly sturdy, disguised “Vaal-vos”, trucks with intricate hand painted signs (once) and actual Volvos plying their trade in Karnataka.

I had to go visit my sister this weekend, and not having a car license, or any money, decided to travel Greyhound. I spent 28 hours travelling up and down, and had a wonderful time in State College (more on that later), but I think the journey warrants a guide to grad students looking to travel cheaply.

PLUSES:

– I was in 9 different buses in the course of my trip, and ALL of them were on time, in fact all of them were about 15 minutes early. While this was a necessity, considering I had to change so many buses, I was nevertheless very grateful.

– All the buses have a restroom. To those of you who are thinking, Pfui! I can hold it in, remember, the urge to use a restroom is inversely proportional to the accessibility of the restroom. In fact, I used it only once, for the sheer novelty of it, but had a restful journey knowing it was there.

– The stations are quite good. To anybody used to Indian bus stations, Greyhound stops will seem like an airport. Good restroom facilities, vending machines, and even restaurants in the major stops. My only crib were the highly uncomfortable metal chairs, whose only scoring point is that they make the bus seats look comfortable.

MINUSES

– Queues/Reservation Policy. This was the most irritating part of the journey, even more than making all the connections. Greyhound does not have a reservation policy, and seats are offered on a first come first served basis. Which means that I had to stand in queue for half an hour to an hour for each bus I took. I don’t understand why they can’t have a check in system, where passengers are allowed to check in one hour before the bus starts. It would save a lot of trouble.

– The three hour bus connections. Sure, I was going from Cincinnati to State College, and didn’t expect a direct bus, but did I HAVE to change 5 buses, at 12AM, 3AM and 5AM in the morning? Would it have been really that tough to have a direct bus from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh to State College?

– Cost: Let’s put it this way. Had I rented a car for 3 days, including fuel and insurance, I would have spent $20 more, and managed the journey in 14 hours, instead of 28 hours. Getting a license suddenly makes a lot more sense.

TIP:

If this is the first time you’re using Greyhound, buy your tickets online. And before you buy the ticket, sign up for the Road Rewards program, which is there right on the site. Advantages? You get a 10% discount on the first trip you make, and you can collect points for free tickets later. Mind you, after having traveled in a bus for 10+ hours, you might just decide to work harder, procrastinate less, and buy yourself a car.

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, you pay for what you get. As I said before, tickets are way cheaper than airline tickets (around 7 times cheaper in my case), and in case you don’t want to drive, and don’t mind the hassle of standing in line multiple times, Greyhound is a good choice. But the best thing going for it is (at least by my experience) is their punctuality. They get you there, on time, and the staff is generally helpful. As long as you don’t mind sitting next to strangers for extended periods of time, and take care of your belongings, it’s not a bad way to travel. A definite B.

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Harry Potter and the Gaping Plot Holes

March 25, 2009

So I was sick and delirious a couple of weeks back. It was the flu, but sitting (or lying down) alone at home rather exacerbates the situation. Next time I’m sick, I think I will go to Disney Land (or take a couple of Advils and watch Top Gear, it comes to the same thing).

So anyway, you know how you read comfort books while you’re sick, and I was reading the Harry Potter books again, specifically the fourth one, the goblet of fire.  And reading retrospectively, with a view of knowing what has happened before and next, two plot points stuck out.

1. How dense did Dumbledore have to be to not realize that Moody was faking it?

D: (drinking his fifth firewhiskey) Lets sing the Firewiggle song Alastor!
“Boars in the mountain! Tra-la-la-la”

M: (on his fourth, gulping) “The dark lord wins through… ding-adong-along”

(Blue flash of light. End of story)

2. Why did Moody have to do the incredibly long and dangerous process of getting Harry through the Triwizard championship when all he had to do was to get harry to touch a portkey?

M: Harry! Come here, I got something to show you.

H: Yes Professor (bounding in).

M: Here check this out. It’s a dark thingamajig (taking curious looking object from pocket).

(Harry touches it, OMG it’s a portkey! He flies to Voldemort, who kills him on the spot, and laughing insanely, goes about his business, foremost being to find a good plastic surgeon)

Other plot holes in the series (I was sick for a while, and I read really fast)

1. Considering that they used the time turned to save an animal (Buckbeak the hippogriff), would be have been too much to do the same to save Sirius and Dumbledore? (Especially as there were in the ministry when Sirius died).

2.  Its funny how, while Harry and Ron almost get thrown out of college for driving the car to school, nobody notices 5 children flying through the air to London

3. What the big deal with Voldemort? I mean, sure he has some 20 (at most) death eaters with him. Couldn’t the good guys, with some help, killed them all of? (At the very least, they could have asked the army to bomb Malfoy Manor.)

Anyway, as I said I was sick. Then I had exams. Then I got the exam results. I am thinking this getting an education shindig while forsaking a chance to make decent money is highly overrated. I want my money back.

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Day in a grad student’s life

March 3, 2009

0630:  Wake up. No seriously. Wake up! Groggily look around. Make Coffee? No. Brush teeth. Wear clothes. Look outside. Wear more clothes. Get out. Light a cigarette? Throat constricted. Need water. No.

0700: Get to college. Unlock doors for the labs. Signin. Sit in a chair, slack jawed, staring vacantly outside, as system fights to cope with lack of sleep.People start trickling in.

0800: Make some coffee. Check mail. Handle support calls. Wonder why people mess up their password so many times, Is it a disease? Should look into it. Take a couple of breaks.

1200: People start having lunch. Wonder (again) if it would be a good idea to pack lunch next time.

1330:  Shift over. Stomach growling in hunger. Go to Gold Star Chili. Eat.

1400: Go to the graduate students lounge. Fellow students rabidly discussing ways and means to complete todays assignments. Ignore them. Lie down on the couch. Get some sleep.

1405: Said fellow students ask for opinion on discussion re: assignment. Explain in choice terms. Everybody silenced. Try to go back to sleep.

1410: Can’t go back to sleep.

1415: Friend comes in, asks if I want to go for lunch again. Agree.

1515: After a profitable discussion on merits and demerits of burger chains in the US over a wholesome lunch , get back to college.

1600: Sit for accounting class. Try to take in whats been said. Stomach full. Feel sleepy.

1700: Halfway through accounting class, make mental note (again) to try and study the subject in free time.

1800: End of Accounting. Start of SAP class. Sit in lab. Check football scores. Very excited about ManUtd’s performance. Exchange grins with other United fan in class. Make fun of Arsenal fan.

1930: Break. Explain to American friend about the big cow/elephant traffic problem back home, and how the govt is trying to make new cow and elephant lanes to ease traffic. Friend seems reasonably convinced.

2130: End of class. Go home.

2200: Make dinner. Wonder if it would be a good idea not to make biriyani for once and cook vegetables instead. Drop idea. Too much work.

2300: Finish making dinner. Eat.

2330: Do assigments. Crib.

0230: Write long mail. Sleep.

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Likes and Dislikes

February 16, 2009

This blog was initially started to comment on the various facets of my journey to the US. And while I clearly have been slacking on that job, I did think of a list of likes and don’t likes, which I have developed over my time here. The list tends to be mostly gastronomic in nature, but then, I love good food.

LIKES:
People: People here are nice. There are really no other words for it. Even when they are saying no, they sound like they’re doing it only because its the the only thing possible at that time. And on the start of a bad Monday (are there really any others?) a cheery Hello! can make all the difference.

Traffic Rules: Cars stop for pedestrians, even when said said pedestrian is 10 meters away from the crossing, turning around, trying to light a cigarette because of the bloody wind. Words aren’t enough.

Education System: I am in the MSIS program, which for noninitiates means computers with smatterings of business. Well, I have this guy in my program who did his undergrad studies in music. He was trying to play the trombone, and apparently did it quite successfully. Why did he join the MSIS program? Because he thought it sounded interesting.

Chili: Fast Food Nation they may be, but you can have only so many bland burgers(see below, cons). or fries, or nachos. After a while, you want to run when you see cheese. Except for chili. This concoction, which consists of frying beef in a hot broth, while adding spices(hence the name), and serving it with fried onions, beans and some shredded cheese, hot sauce, and a side of crackers, is awesomely tasty, and filling. For reference, think mutton ghughni, without the potatoes.

Online Shopping: I know this is available in India, but it’s so much more prevalent here, that the retail merchants take it more seriously. Everything is available online, and due to reduced overheads, prices are cheaper too. The best option? Go the Best Buy, select the item you want, buy it on your iPhone (you get the lower rate), wait 5 minutes and pick it up from the counter. Which brings me to…

The iPhone: If somebody were to research the last ten years of my life, and make a list of things I want(ed) in my phone/pda/everywhere, they would have come up with the iPhone. Why is it a pro in the US? Due to the awesome mobile data network. Sure, people complain about it here, but people here are used to having 20mbps internet connections. I call my 256kbps at home a broadband connection. Give me a break. Oh. also. always on email, push calendar, an amazing app program, Google Maps, the brilliant form factor, the kickass battery life….

Discount Shopping: Thanksgiving, Christmas, the day after Christmas, New Years, the day after New Years, Valentines day… retail marts here need an excuse for a discount. And what discounts!

DISLIKES:
Coffee: Well technically, the coffee here doesn’t really suck. You have tons of options, and while they are expensive, they aren’t bad. But none of them, and I mean, none of them, taste like filter coffee.

Burgers: This has been my biggest disappointment since coming to the US. While I didnt run to the nearest McDonalds the moment my feet touched American ground, and start wolfing burgers, it was on my things to do list. I have since been to aforesaid McDonalds, KFCs. and other places I’ve forgotten names of, and they all make the blandest burgers. In the history of bland burgers. Back home, you could feed one of these burgers to people whose doctors have recommended them a bland diet (glucon-d and dal), except that the fat content is huge, but thats an occupational risk.

Fries: See above.

Alone-ity: This goes just for me. I really like this place. It has interesting people, opportunities, places to hang out, places to eat, place to do both, but I would still rather eat chilly beef in Besant Fast Foods rather than chili in Skyline Chilis. Or eat chinese in Beach Palms than in King Wok. Or go to a bar in LB Road rather than one in Ludlow. I miss home.

Oh, and subways in the US taste like Subways in India. Only, due to the lack of competition, infinitely tastier.