Beep.. whirr… to you too…

by sidin in ,


Pardon me for the delay. I swear I have been trying to write all day. If only my computer would not shut down every fifteen minutes. But I am sure it has a very good reason. Just a few minutes ago, for instance, it shut down a few nanoseconds after a sad, sober announcement. A pop-up window mentioned solemnly that "Machi there is a romba serious error in location E12333:34. Very sorry da." (After a brief sojourn in a Chennai netcafe my laptop has never been the same again.) My CD drive made a little whirring sound. And then there was complete silence. This is, of course, is not a common occurrence. Most days when I power up it makes 7 beeps on working days, 9 beeps on weekends (except second saturday which, everyone knows, is holiday) and 11 beeps on bank holidays and shuts down instantly. But this silent demise was not a good sign.

So the other day my laptop, in a fit of entrepreneurial alacrity, decided to start up and shut down all by itself. While initially I found this rather proactive of it, it got tedious after 45 minutes. I was infuriated and gingerly hurled the machine against a particularly roguish part of the wall, from whence it bounced off, landed on my beanbag, slalomed down rapidly, elegantly bounced on the marble floor and landed squarely on the little toe of my right foot. The CD drive gave one last whirr of triumph before falling silent.

I have a history with computers. The first time I saw one in my father's office I was fascinated. I was particularly impressed by the CAPS LOCK function and the floppy drive. My father sat next to me and taught me to how to use the mouse, type small letters and even how to use a wonderful little program to draw pictures. After a few minutes of incessant clicking and draggin I unveiled a rough, but imaginative profile of a double-humped camel to everyone in Mr. Vadukut's office. They all nodded their heads in approval and there was wide consensus that, for my age, I had drawn an excellent picture of a sunflower.

Boom! one-nothing to the computer.

My first own computing device was an Atari TV game. I must have spend weeks in front of the TV with my trusty Atari console by my side. Then after two months I finally got the video to work and played a lusty game of basketball against the computer losing by a respectable margin of 240 - 12. I never recovered from that entirely. This relentless inferiority to computing devices often went public with disastrous consequences. Video game arcades were the absolute worst self-esteeming usurping exercise. My friends were all whiz-kids who completed Super Mario and Space Invaders several times between lunch and tea. I was however pathetic at all of them. So much so once, amidst a particularly hideous game of "World Cup Footbal 1990" my team walked off the pitch and refused to come back till I let someone else take over.

Thankfully I was exposed to little by way of computing in school except for the stray class in BASIC or MSDOS. I was not too bad at that honestly and except once, when I overclocked the computer so much it burst into flames and took down the computer lab and an adjoining indoor stadium, nothing of note hppened. But this meant I was not even remotely prepared for what awaited me in engineering college. Engineering college was the absolute nadir of my stormy relations with computers, scientific calculators, and zippers, though here I wil talk only of the first one.

Now I was one who had deliberately decided to stay away from any degree courses that might remotely be related to computing, electronics or mathematics. Which left only courses like Metallurgy, Civil or Chemical engineering. Now besides UDCT, which I lost by a single mark, there were few chemical engineering seats of high quality. And, as anyone who has been around a large construction site may have noticed, civil engineering isn't. So metallurgy it was. I loved chemistry and was told by a learned uncle that metallurgy had a lot of chemistry. That turned out to be completely false and taught me to never ask my uncle, a bakery owner and part-time landscaping designer, for educational advice. The only chemistry in four years of engineering was the little bit I had with a buxom little assistant in Basic Chemistry Lab. Boy, she was quite an item and was absolutely wicked when engorossed in titration. (For the non-scientific titration is a chemical process and not, as you might think, wife telling husband "No darling, one today and the other tomorrow...")

But I digress. The point was in third year, to my considerable chagrin, I notice that we had something tucked away in our syllabus waiting to pounce out unawares. Computer Programming in Fortran and C. The effect this had on my morale was devestating. Metallurgy is otherwise a remarkably simple course to pass. You only had to turn up for class and the degree was yours. But Fortran and C changed everything. This meant we had to learn, remember and even be able to program. And suddenly all the Computer Science guys were looking at us and smirking.

I hated the Computer Science guys. They called themselves the CompScis (pronounced Komskees) and were often seen using computers and engaged in incomprehensible conversation. And within this group was an even more bewildering group called the Coimbscis. They were not just Compscis, but also were all from Coimbatore. I was frendly with many of them, but often they fell into long tirades I could never comprehend. For example a joke would go like this:

"So there is this guy... blah blah blah... Silicon Graphics... Device drivers... blah blah... and... (pause for punchline)

"...he finds that his RAM had actually overflowed 4.3 million schnitzelblimps!!!"

Everyone would burst out laughing with cries of "sooper" "ayyo" and "too much da machi..." I would laugh along whole heartedly as well but mostly at my own ignorance. So when JKR walked into class for our first Fortran lecture I was fairly tense.

But JKR was even more tense. JKR is the sort of prof who really knows his stuff well but cant speak to an audience if his life depended on it. Which meant JKR would completely go to bits in front of a classroom. First his palms would shiver, then his whole arm and before long his torso and limbs would have decided that it was better for everyone if they went their separate ways and saw other people. Once JKR walked into class and began a session on nested fruity loops when suddenly he stopped mid-sentence and started to slowly, yet with steady determination, topple to one side. Thankfully for him LKT was seated at the front bench that eventful day.
LKT was a monument of a man. He was huge and built like a tank. And he was scary. For example:

LKT: Hey guys lets go for lunch da
Me: Yup. I am damn hungry. I could eat a horse.
LKT: Ah then you must have it cooked in a cashew gravy with a roomali rotis. You don't get good horse nowadays though.
Me: Gulp. Correct.

LKT jumped from his seat, walked through his table and swept the wilting JKR in his arms and off his feet. JKR was out of service for a week or so. LKT was teased a bit for a few days till he picked up a classmate and flung him over the compound wall to Dindigul, a place near Pondicherry.

I still cannot fathom why we were asked to do some of he things we did. For example we were asked to write a program that made prime numbers appear in the form of a symmetrical triangle. (Man even now I can never find out why we did that...) In another instant I sat in the computer facility for 47 hours straight, 3 of which awake, trying to write a program that took 2 numbers as input and gave the lowest prime number between them as a result. When JKT walked over to my terminal I was absolutely sure my code was excellent. He entered 4, 28. The code replied with surprising confidence: “glix@”. There was a minute of silence after which JKT confirmed that glix@ was not a prime number and I had to redo the exercise.

Business school was much better though. The extent of computational complexity was limited to making Excel spreadsheets do insane things. Now let me tell you something about spreadsheets. Spreadsheets, with some practice, can do some pretty amazing things. Besides a host of mathematical and statistical functions, spreadsheets can also graph, approximate, manage data, and in one memorable incident, finished a game of solitaire in a mere 34 seconds.

I used spreadsheets for a variety of uses and, in Marketing 2, with a lot of graphs in upto 3 colours, proved that the national demand for motorcars in India in 2008 would be 4.82 cars. (This does not include imports and, you must admit, is much more accurate than glix@)

After two years of using a little excel and a lot of “Web History Sweeper” I came out with a diploma and destiny full of powerpoint. But honestly Powerpoint is an amazing piece of work and makes even the most stupid statements like “Diversification often leads to dilution of equity and shareholder benefit-evaluation mental paradigms” seem like profound observations. Apparently you can also make graphs in Powerpoint, but I think that is a baseless rumour.

(A complete chapter will be dedicated to powerpoint soon...)

So there. Computing and the author have never got along quite well. We keep making jibes at each other every few days. If you are a technology-challenged person like me there is one gospel truth you need to know. This is the bloody crux of this post. Even if you dont take anything else away from this post, remember this: All computers...

WAIT... NO!!... Dammit... Beep Beep Beep. Whirr.

(p.s. Expect a startling revelation about career moves soon...)