Category: Life


Dear United States Citizenship and Immigration Services,

I came to the US in 2003. I earned my Ph.D. from one of the top university systems in the world. I’ve since worked at two startups. Aren’t these small businesses the engines that drive the US economy? Would you disagree that I have made meaningful contributions to the wealth, the economy and the intellectual property of this nation?

My wife is an artist. She earned her Master in Arts & Technology from one of the finest art schools in the world (and bore much of the financial burden of attending a private school). She has since created art that has been displayed and recognized all around the world. Would you disagree that she has made meaningful contributions to this society?

As law-abiding (non-permanent) residents, is it too much to expect that our families will visit us, once in a while?

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Ads that suck: Tax Masters

My wife often jokes that the ads here in the US are extremely complimentary — half of them entice you towards more and more (junk) food; the rest sell you medications that seem to create more problems than they solve. In honor of the remarkably consistent bad ads on television, I’m starting an “ads that suck” series. To kick-off the series, I present to you, the Tax Masters commercial:

Some observations:

  • If you have not filed your tax return for years, the IRS should be coming after you and auditing you! The IRS should relentlessly pursue you for your unpaid taxes.
  • I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who are hurting and are not able to pay their taxes for legitimate reasons. But the ad does not convey that at all. It almost sounds like “Hey, I’m going to tell you how you can get away from the IRS and not pay your taxes”
  • Everyone knows how targeted television advertising is. For instance, if you watch Comedy Central, you’ll see a lot of ads around dating websites, calling services for singles etc. I see the the TaxMasters ad on CNN all the time. Wonder what that says about CNN’s audience.
  • This ad sucks because it doesn’t really engage the audience, the value proposition is not clear to me at least and there is absolutely no creativity.
  • But I gotta hand it to TaxMasters — I was pleasantly surprised to discover their blog and their sense of humor.

More to come.

My experiences with Apple: A poem

Apple Inc.
Image via Wikipedia

I’m a Linux guy; Windows was never my thing honey
Apple seemed interesting, but required too much money

I have ideological problems with Apple too,
What with all the DRM and hardware lock-in they do.

But people are crazy about Apple, and I used to wonder why,
I had a dream: to own Apple products that I didn’t have to buy.

A few months back my wife gifted me an iPhone, bro!
And then at work I got the new Macbook Pro!!

Thus suddenly I was an Apple user,
Sure, some people called me a sore loser.

Allow me to share my early experiences,
Some accolades and some grievances.

I’ll try to keep a neutral tone,
Shall focus on the Mac and not the iPhone.

Integration, integration, integration!
The attention to detail gives a wonderful sensation.

User experience is the key,
Excellent design is for all to see.

They’ve taken care of the enterprises,
Exchange support, Google integration — no surprises.

It’s by far the best laptop I’ve ever used,
The hardware is slick, the software is smooth.

Image representing iTunes as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

But boy do I hate iTunes,
It’s so broken it should be called Looney Tunes.

Try connecting multiple iPhones to the same device,
Or plug your iPhone in another laptop (poor advice).

Sync is threatening, sounds like a bully.
“I shall sync or destroy”, that just sounds silly.

The Terminal app should aspire higher,
No 256-color support leaves much to desire.

Keyboard shortcuts are hard to find,
Change them? you must be out of your mind!

“Features” like “Spaces” are overrated,
More like awaited, belated and deflated.

I prefer iTerm over Terminal and Adium for chat,
Chrome over Safari, and this over that.

I’m certainly not blown away,
But a Mac is convenient, I have to say.

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easyJet blues

Image via Wikipedia

Over the past few years, the domestic airlines industry in the US has seen a steady decline. Faced with the recession, they have been devising ever new ways of squeezing money out of unsuspecting customers. There are a few exceptions (such as Southwest), but by far, flying is usually not a very pleasant experience for me.

Little did I know that European “budget” airlines are, in fact, even worse than their American counterparts. I recently had the misfortune of traveling on one such airline — easyJet. There was nothing easy about the experience, and if it is up to me, I will never ever travel on easyJet again.

First, let me provide some context. We were planning to do a break journey in Europe on our way to India. In the past, we have always carried two checked bags and one hand bag per person for India trips, for obvious reasons (such a long journey, may be once in a year — you just end up carrying a lot of stuff. Even more importantly, you end up bringing back a lot of things!). Unfortunately, just a few days before we were scheduled to fly, American Airlines decided to start charging a $50 fee for the second checked bag on flights to Europe/India. This actually was not that big of a problem, since we had one flight on easyJet and they already had similar restrictions in place.

Actually, I find easyJet’s baggage policy extremely strange. Here are some salient features (emphasis mine):

  • Every item of standard checked (‘hold’) baggage will incur a fee.
  • Payment of the fee provides you with an aggregate allowance of 20kg across all pieces of hold baggage which may only be increased by payment of excess weight charges.
  • Where checked-in hold baggage exceeds 20kgs in weight (subject to the above rule), each passenger will pay an excess baggage charge per kg.

Finally the fateful day arrived for our easyJet flight. At the check in counter, the gate agent weighed our “hold” bags (1 per person). Since we had been deliberately careful about packing, they were both less than 20kg each so did not pose a problem.

Next came the hand luggage. Now, in prior communication with easyJet, I had been told that easyJet did not impose any weight restrictions on the hand bags, as long as they fit in the overhead bins. To quote the website (emphasis mine):

Save where the limits set locally are more restrictive, passengers are permitted one standard piece of hand baggage to a volume limit of 55x40x20cm (including wheels and pockets) (“Standard Hand Baggage”). It must fit without force into the gauges provided at check-in or departure gates. No weight restriction applies within reasonable limits — i.e. a passenger must be able to place the piece of luggage safely in the overhead storage bins without assistance.

I have traveled extensively with the hand bags that we had and never ever had any problems with any airlines. I’m convinced that our gate agent was determined to give us grief, by the rude manner in which she dealt with us, her hostile attitude and body language. In any case, she asked us to show that our hand bags “fit without force” into the bin. Unfortunately our hand bags were shaped more like bags and less like suitcases (which is what the bin was designed for), so they did not fit comfortably, but they did fit.

I tried to explain the agent that we never had problems with the bags before, that they were empty on the top so looked bigger than they actually were. Furthermore, we were in transit to an international destination, and had no issues in the first leg of our flight (on American Airlines). But the gate agent was simply not ready to listen — it was almost as if she had made up her mind to spoil our morning.

Arguing with her was frustrating since it was not really a dialogue. I might as well have been talking to a wall. She would not listen to reason, or show any compassion. Worried that we might miss our flight, in a moment of panic, I decided to just pay whatever fee was required, and get on with it. Big mistake. As it turns out, easyJet not only charges for the number of checked bags, but after 20kg, there is a per-kg excess baggage charge, which needless to add, is exhorbitant. Long story short, we ended up paying a ridiculous fee for our hand luggage.

To add insult to injury, while waiting in the gate area for boarding to begin, I counted at least two dozen passengers whose hand bags were at least as big as ours, if not bigger. There were bags in all shapes and sizes, and several which could not have fit into the bins no matter what. I spoke again to the ground staff and they deferred saying that we had to discuss it with the airlines. It turns out discussing anything with easyJet is not easy either — they don’t have offices at most airports they serve, finding a phone number on their website was a challenge, the online customer support was basically just boiler plate responses.

It was an extremely frustrating and disappointing experience. I was extremely angry at that time and had thought I’d take this up with easyJet as soon as I got back. But just thinking of the time and energy it would take just to get to speak to some human at easyJet who would actually try to listen and understand our situation is disheartening. At least, I’ve learnt my lesson.

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Computer science is comprised of many many different areas such as theory, graphics, vision, AI, systems, databases to name a few. Naturally, one can not expect to master or even grasp the basics of all the different areas. But there is a difference between not getting a chance to learn all the different areas, and having studied but not understood the different areas.

Oh, the irony

The irony that I’m talking about is this. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate education, I was mostly a “systems and networking” person. Obviously I took classes in several other areas as well, and I think I learnt or retained something from most of these classes, with one exception. I took a database course in IIT, and then once again at UCSD, and both times I failed miserably to appreciate the subject.

At this point it would be easy to blame the faculty for not doing a good job, but I’m confident that the fault was no less my own. I remember sleeping through a lot of my database classes :(

Anyways, the point is that here I was, with a systems PhD, with zero background in databases and having pretty much zero appreciation for databases as an area, and where do I end up working at? A company that builds distributed database systems. I think its funny in a way. But the great thing is that I’m learning so much about databases now and appreciating the kind of engineering insight and effort that goes into building a performant, robust distributed database system.