May 2, 2017

Travel tips - Medan, Lake Toba, Berastagi, Mt. Gundaling

Spent the long May day holiday weekend in Medan & surrounding areas. Here are some tips for travelers.

Warning!


I traveled solo and during such trips I generally rough it out. I take public transport, never join package tours and generally explore without any pre-set plans or agendas or tick off lists. Other than some basic precautions I also generally don't tend to be paranoid, whether it is about eating local street food or going into quiet streets etc. I generally find the journey is as much the destination, as the saying goes. I mention this, because if you are a "typical" traveler you may find my ways & suggestions completely useless! Read on, you have been warned!

Medan Airport, city


1. Medan airport is the only one in Indonesia to have railway line to city.  I did not use that since my hotel provided free transport. If you are taking a taxi, try out the "scenic" route - not the highway to town. Not that the highway is a real expressway, but the narrow streets of rural Medan through which the shorter (distance-wise) route passes to reach the city center is interesting. You will also get a preview of the sort of traffic you can expect all over Medan and everywhere.

2. Speaking of traffic, it is just amazing the amount of traffic you will come across, not just in Medan but even during drives to Lake Toba and other places. You might think everyone owns a Toyota Kijang or Avanza 7-9 seaters unless they are going around in becaks and mini buses. Normal sedans and mini cars that clog the streets of India are almost rare. Almost every street is packed with cars, at all times, even well into the night. Same goes for the "highways" which are actually normal roads. But then this is Indonesia's third largest city and Sumatra's biggest.

3. You will come across so many friendly, polite and helpful locals that you will never be angry or upset even when you (inevitably) run into touts, brokers, fixers and others who are there to mislead you and scam you. Just take it in your stride, move on! That's my motto. More specific instances in posts below.

4. The city itself is not really a tourist destination so better to stay in your final destination (Lake Toba or wherever). But as in any South East Asian city, there are massive malls (visited the Centerpoint which is worth a visit) and a museum or two which I did not bother visiting. BTW the Centerpoint mall solved the problem of finding the hammer when you have the nail ready! (see picture)
Hammer & Nail


5. For Indians: There is a nice South Indian temple (Mariamman Koil) since Medan has a small Tamil speaking community. In fact, Tamil connection to Sumatra go very far back. The Karo Hill tribes have sub-sects that use typical Indian caste / community names! I ran into one guy with surname of "Brahmana" and he even proudly told me that is a "upper caste" in India! Practically every Indonesian you run into will fondly speak of Bollywood. In fact many local language songs that you hear played on buses and elsewhere will sound familiar - because the tunes have been lifted from old as well as new Hindi songs. This goodwill rubs off and you will always be treated well.

6. Popular local transport options are "becak" - side carriages attached to Honda 100cc motorbikes. Or mini buses. State run public transport is practically non existent. Mini bus fares are supposedly fixed, at least for locals. I see them usually handing out 2 or 3,000 Rp after the journey.  But if you ask for the price (at the end of journey, not while you board) you will invariably be quoted higher though it never exceeds 5,000Rp. So just pay, don't complain!. Becaks are a different proposition, you have to fix fare in advance and bargain a bit. They start from Rp.10,000. Many roads in Medan are one-way so it is a bit confusing to figure out where you need to alight or board. But the effort is worth it. There are of course, air conditioned taxis (BlueBird etc). But I am not here to talk about the luxury options!

6. For non alcoholic local food try out the Merdeka Food court near the Aston Hotel - a row of fast food and other restaurants and the Ayam Penyet Ria chain serves good food. The boys serving there are super polite and nice. Yet another nice place to try out is the "The Coffee Crowd" - one outlet (at least) at the Brastagi supermarket. They place nice Malay style Kueh (sweets made of rice or other starch, stuffed with coconut etc) on the table and you can eat whatever and just pay for what you eat. The coffee too was superb - not the "local" style or Starbucks style but a cross that is pretty good. It is also popular with locals.

Mariamman Koil
Mariamman Koil

Trip to Lake Toba

 

I took a bus and yes it is possible if you are ready to be patient and adventurous. First get to a bus terminus known as "Amplas". This is just a run down shed with zero facilities and even rural Indian bus stations should look like Changi airport once you see this!

Mini buses go to Amplas from various points in the city and most will have Amplas as destination boards on their windshield so it is easy to spot. Charge about 5000Rp. for the trip from city. I took one of them.
Just remember - the mini buses don't drop you right in front of the bus terminus - rather the main street from where you have to walk about 200m to your left to find it. Becak drivers will feign ignorance if you ask for directions and offer to bring you there. Just ask anyone else. Unless you are happy to pay the poor guy.

Buses going to Parapat  (the town from where you take ferry across Lake Toba) are the usual normal size ones, not mini buses. They are not air-conditioned. I was asked to pay Rp. 40,000 though I suspect a local would pay less. Anyway that's only S$4 for a distance of 160+km and a five hour ride, so I am not complaining. The ride is fairly long on the bus which tends to get crowded in some sections of the route. Thankfully it had no music. But you do have people smoking all over the bus even with windows shut.


Trick is to figure out where to alight since Parapat has several stops and ferry terminals. Best is you download offline Google maps and mark off spots in advance to minimise trouble. I didn't bother and anyway my battery was down. I was fortunate to be guided by two very friendly young girls (who it turned out, were going for some Church related charity work). I asked the conductor and he plus two or three other guys in the bus all pointed to various places en route as the spot to alight for the ferry! But the girls (using few English words but mostly sign language) asked me to wait for them since they were also taking same ferry.  I guess the other places are private terminals where you get fleeced or worse. Or may be they are genuine alternative boarding points, you never know.

The moral of the story is, be skeptical, alert and ask whoever you think is not in the "tourist trade". That practically eliminates 99.99% of folks you run into in Parapat and Toba. Go with your instincts and be prepared to ignore unsolicited advise with a polite smile.

Anyway the ferry itself is the best way to spend Rp.8,000 (not even S$1) in your life. The journey to Tomok (a terminal across the lake, in the Samosir island) takes about an hour and you can sit on the deck and click away to glory! The weather is nice and cool too. You can also ride to Tuk Tuk another spot on the same island a bit further away. That's where many of the hotels and accommodation is. I am not sure if the same ferry goes there or you need to take a different one, so please check in advance. To me it didn't matter.

Aboard the ferry!

In Tomok a local tour guide in a motorbike magically appeared to be waiting for us to alight (arranged by the girls thru SMS perhaps) and offered to bring me around for Rp.100k. He declared himself to be a Catholic as if that would magically erase all my concerns about being scammed. Since I was short of time I agreed and within about 90 minutes he brought me to a few places riding pillion - the King's tomb, Batak houses, a couple of photo-opp spots etc. It was drizzling throughout. These are standard tourist spots so you can check them out on the net.
Batak house

One of my fellow travelers in the ferry back to Parapat was a broker. He chatted me up, claimed to be working for a tour agency and told me all buses to Medan stop after 6pm and my only choice is to take a car (Rp. 550k as a special favor) or stay overnight (he passed me the card of a hotel).  Here again, I let my instinct guide me and quickly alighted from the ferry and walked to the main street.


The ferry had dropped me off at a different spot on the Parapat side where buses don't halt. Luckily I asked someone and he suggested I take a mini bus. I did and this brought me there, another 20 minute ride away on the narrow streets of the lakeside city.

It was late in the evening (7.30pm+) and the spot where this mini bus dropped me was actually a shop (one of those Rumah Makans or restaurants) not a proper bus stop. But that's how things work here. I got a bit suspicious and walked away. I asked a roadside fruit seller and it turned out he too is a broker. Instead of guiding me to the terminus, he asked me to wait right there and said he will stop one for me! By then I had run out of any options. But then he did deliver! A few minutes later one mini bus (which you'd never have guessed in a thousand years as the one you need) was waved to a stop and I boarded. My fruit seller never expected any money  (I could see him telling something to the driver, presumably has a small cut) but I anyway tipped him. So not all brokers are bad. Just have to let them earn their living as long as you are not getting ripped off there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The ride back cost me same - Rp.40k

The return journey also took about 6 hours and the entire route (160+ kms) was about as busy as a city street in peak hour, even well past midnight! Even to overtake a slow tanker or truck, the mini bus had to patiently wait for several kilometers since the road is two lane and the constant flow of traffic from the other side makes overtaking almost impossible. The usual smoking crowd was there too and added to this was the most horrendous music you can imagine, at super high volumes! But then this is where the kindness and friendliness of the locals come to your rescue too. Guided by a fellow passenger, the mini bus dropped me right in front of my hotel with a considerable de-tour even though it was well past 1am! Had he dropped me at Amplas I would had much tougher time getting back to the Hotel.

Practically every house in Tuk Tuk is a boarding house, guest house with a "Ada Kamar" sign unless it is a laundry shop or eating place or some such tourist related facility. I saw several foreign tourists walking around presumably staying there for days.

Samosir has a slight European touch to it, primarily because of the prominent Church spire that you can see from the ferry and because it is not (yet) overrun with ugly constructions. Most houses look clean, neatly built and freshly painted. Streets were spotless too unlike Berastagi/Gundaling. The sheer cliffs that form the backdrop of the island with huge waterfalls and thick forests are a great sight to see. I am pretty sure there's lot to trek, see and relax. Pity I had to rush back. Next time I would rather stay here and not Medan.

So the entire trip cost me less than Rp.150k or about S$15!

Berastagi & Mt. Gundaling

 

Next day I took a bus to Berastagi a hill town that is base camp for visiting two famous volcanoes - Mt. Sinabung and Sibayak.
The first one is still spewing lava so trekking has been banned. The other one, I was told, is a 20-30 minute ride from Berastagi to the base and is an hour + trek up.

If you are going there, get dropped off at a spot known as "Tugu" which is easy to spot since there is a huge statue in the middle of a circle in the road.  (see picture). Again, I was dropped off at the wrong spot by the bus driver from Medan and with the help of a super friendly local guy that spoke excellent English, a rare bit of luck, I took another mini bus to the right spot - Tugu. This local even offered his phone number to call in case I get into any trouble. Amazing. I declined since I don't have local SIM and calling overseas on roaming would be the biggest corporate, legalised rip-off that puts all other mini rip-offs by these poor folks trying to feed their families to shame. I am not complaining again because to be fair to the bus guy, he did ask me something in Bahasa (about where I am heading, perhaps) but since I didn't understand and couldn't anyway reply, it is not his fault.

Tugu
The mini bus to Berastagi departs from another spot in Medan - known as Padang Bulan abbrv as P.Bulan in the mini bus sign boards. Again, this no terminus as such, just a spot on the road where buses going up start from. I was lucky to ask my mini bus driver at the 'right' time - he had just passed that spot and I simply had to walk back 100m or so. The bus departed almost immediately and it was a 2 hour ride (Rp.15k).

Anyway, from Tugu, you can take a hike, ride horse or take another mini bus (Rp.3000, which I took. The same bus returns in a loop back to Tugu) to the top of the little hill known as Gundaling. Frankly this is not a great place to visit and resembles Madikeri in India - overcrowded, strewn with litter, lots of ugly construction, souvenir shops and so son. The saving grace is the weather, given the altitude. The place was overflowing with local tourists from Medan who come in cars, motorbikes etc with their families simply to enjoy the weather, take selfies and picnic. You simply can't find a 10sqft spot that is free!

From top of this hill, on a clear day you can see both volcanoes but then it was drizzling and cloudy that day.

Back at Tugu, there is a Tourist Information office of sorts right at the junction of the roads that heads off to Gundaling. I spoke to a guy there and he offered me some friendly advise. Instead of going up to Gundaling, I could have gone in another direction to the base of Mt. Sibayak. That's about 5-6km away. But going up needs a guide & it was too late in the day. There is a warning sign posted in the walls of the office listing about a dozen names of western tourists that disappeared without trace or turned up dead going all alone!.

Warning!!!
He even added ominously that there are two more names, recent additions to the casualty list they haven't updated! The sunrise from the top of Sibayak is supposedly great and the view across to the bright flow of the other live volcano - Sinabung is also good I was told.

That's for another day. I just took the same overcrowded smoky, blaring loud bus back to Medan. Because it was the long holiday weekend, about a dozen guys (and even one lady) were riding on the roof of the bus! Cost - Rp.10k. guess I was given a discount because by then I was acting more local, paying only at the end and not asking how much.

Total cost of trip - Rp.40k!









Feb 6, 2016

Pakeezah - a (belated) review

I have enjoyed the songs of this movie - Pakeezah - over the years. Since my interest is more towards film music and I have very little patience for sitting through 2 or even 3 hours of movies, I never watched the movie. I did buy a "Video-CD" of the movie in Singapore back in late 90s DVDs were much rarer but tapes out of fashion. But that too was used to watch the songs, skipping the movie itself, thanks to the menu system.

Browsing through various blogs and websites, the first of which I stumbled across by accident kindled an interest in the movie. This movie is unique in one respect at least in that it took 14 years to film. I kept reading more and more about the filming, the marital troubles of its Producer/Director Kamal Amrohi and leading lady Meena Kumari and various other gossip. All of this forced me to search for the old VCD and watch it. The quality was atrocious, this being a VCD with low resolution but I still was able to enjoy the film, doing a mental interpolation of how the various scenes would have looked with a better recording and in the big screen. (I have decided to buy the DVD and watch it again since watching it at a movie theater will never probably happen). And I have to admit, my Urdu is quite weak so I probably missed some of the poetic dialogues which add to the mystique and cult status the film has come to enjoy.

Apart from these factors yet another difficulty will have to be faced by anyone reviewing this movie - how to stay aloof from all the legends that circulate about the filming, the personalities, the huge cost, the tragic death of Meena Kumari and so on. While they are part of the mystique, they should ideally not bias a review. I will try to do that.

Bollywood films have often been criticised for adhering to fixed 'masala' themes that repeat film after film. You know the grind - brothers separated at birth, reunited by a 'family song', oppressive mother in law/landlord/Seth/Lala, unfilial son and so on. A few do manage to stay clear of this morass and attain status of classics, or even cult classics. Sure Pakeezah is one such film, regardless of what this (or any other) reviewer thinks about it. That is a fact. Question is what is in there that justifies it?

One can split the problem in to pieces and analyze each one in isolation. The screenplay, music, acting (or absence thereof), editing, picturisation or cinematography and so on. Obviously a film and its magic is more than a sum of its parts. Many films have bombed at the box office even if quite a few of these components were of the highest quality. Some do even if almost all of them were great. In fact, Pakeezah nearly failed, landing perhaps 20 years too late to an audience that had moved on. It appears to have been rescued primarily due to the tragic death of Meena Kumari.

Nevertheless, awards including Oscars are given for specific roles even though they may or may not have made a film successful or popular on the whole. From this perspective let us look at each of the pieces that make up this film

Screenplay

I am mentioning this first as this appears to be the weakest link. Yes, the story of a 'tawaif' (prostitute) leaving behind her past and settling down to normal married life after many trials and tribulations has enough emotive appeal. But screenplay is not just a big picture theme. It is also the way the story moves and reaches a "logical" end. Here we use the term logic quite carefully, since you have to suspend lot of credulity and rationale for any movie and even more so for a Bollywood movie!

While one coincidence can be excused, the story has one too many. The main character, Sahibjaan finding the hero (Raaj Kumar) twice by serendipity is somewhat difficult to digest. There are other scenes or twists that are strange to say the least. The final scene where the girl's aunt cum guardian tells her dying father (he's just been shot) he will be accepted by her as one only if he gets her married! Salim the hero who dared to defy his family over the marriage promptly agreeing to another (presumably arranged) one, and rubbing salt in the wounds of his lover Sahibjaan by inviting her to dance at his own wedding is another silly turn I just couldn't appreciate. After all, if the guy is sensitive and sensible enough to marry a courtesan, he should also know the sort of pressure and ridicule she is facing from a patriarchal and conservative society that forced her to walk out of the marriage. We also don't know what happened to that poor bride who is now left adrift for no fault of hers! Unless of course, we are to believe he married both, allowed under Islamic law.

Mind you, we are not judging the film by the usual masala standards here.

I would perhaps give a 5/10 for the quality of the story.

Dialogues

This is one of the main reasons for the cult status of the film. Raaj Kumar's reputation for his Urdu diction and "dialogue delivery", Kamal Amrohi's dialogues that are more like poetry than formal prose or even conversational Hindi have made many one liners and entire paragraphs popular even to this day. My favorite is not the usually cited "your feet will get dirty, don't step down" but the loaded "Aap kis kis ka naam poochenge" response of Sahibjaan when Salim asks her who is the guy that's trying to harass her. Though just six words, it is so difficult to effectively translate to English, even using lots more, a testimony to the power of Hindi/Urdu in conveying complex ideas with few words, as well as Kamal Amrohi's talent for dialogue writing.

There the poor ex-prostitute appears resigned to face more of such harassment in the hands of the town's male folk and the futility of explaining the past to her husband. Eventually this reaches a breaking point and she runs away from the wedding refusing to say "I do" but screaming "No".

What makes the dialogues even more effective in this movie is the fact that there aren't that many. Unlike lengthy lectures, teary sermons and fifteen minute death bed speeches that are usually featured in Indian movies, it is the pauses and silence that are used by the director with great effect. For instance, when Sahibjaan who was pretending memory loss finally confesses to her beau Salim, not only is the key t-word drowned in music, there are no further words. The scene simply dissolves into the song sequence - Chalo dildhar chalo.

Have to give 9/10.

Songs and Music

As I mentioned earlier I have enjoyed these songs for years, initially just for the sweet voice of Lata Mangeshkar and the excellent music of Ghulam Mohammad and subsequently taking the trouble of listening carefully to the lyrics, finding meaning for the odd tough Urdu word whose meaning escapes non native speakers and experts. It is one thing to produce one or two hits and quite another level of accomplishment to produce six or seven of them, each one likely to stand the test of time and remain popular for ages. Forty years have not dulled their magic, another hundred is not likely to.

The music has a 50s feel, though shot through the 60s and released in the early 70s. That is actually good because Hindi film music has only seen decline from the mid-60s with noise and poor imitations of western pop and other genre substituting for good soft melody and gracious tunes often based on Indian classical music. Ghulam Mohammed manages to capture the elaborate complexity of a western style orchestra, for the most part using simple Indian instruments like Sarangi, tabla, even claps.

What impressed me most about the songs was the fact that most of them stayed true to the main story line and carried deep meanings and conveyed deep messages, yet remaining so sweet you could simply forget everything and just listen to them, not even understanding one word. Though almost all were rendered by Lata Mangeshkar with Rafi-saheb playing a minor role in the only duet, they don't sound repetitive or boring. Far from it.

If the first song "Inhi logon ne" neatly transfers the blame for a prostitute's societal status to its male members who are often her customers, the best of the lot (IMHO) "Mausam hai"  powerfully conveys the woman's desire for true companionship, not the sort she is paid for each night but a different one that she can cherish as hers. The poor logic of her longing for a gentleman she's never even seen once gets washed away in the beautiful words and dulcet tune and background music, and her own strong desire to be 'normal'.  This is the night she is waiting for, the "shab-e-intezar' (night of waiting, longing) that she hopes will be become brief (mukhtassar) as the earlier song Chalte Chalte so beautifully conveys.

Having said that, I really could not fathom the meaning of the climax song. Not the words, but the real meaning, I mean. The taunting tone of the song where Meena Kumar says "want to see wounded hearts" is odd considering she is the one that rejected the wedding. But then that takes away nothing from the music director or Lataji.


10/10. Nothing else will do justice.

Acting

In any great movie, it is not just the main actors that have to do a good job, pretty much everyone has to be good. Even a minor role played by an indifferent actor can spoil the show. On the contrary a good actor, even in a minor role, can dominate the scene and capture the hearts of the viewer. In Pakeezah, it can be safely said most if not all have done a decent job.

Meena Kumari  has been cleverly under exposed by the director, for a variety of reasons as we learn from reports - her illness, her reputed inability to dance, huge age difference caused by the long hiatus (that shows up clearly in many scenes) etc. You see a lot of shots from the rear, distant ones, veiled ones etc. Yet whenever she does appear with her face facing the audience, she does a great job, clearly and convincingly expressing the inner turmoil and the contrived smiling face of the courtesan.

The other actors, for a movie of this length, get even less screen time. Primarily because of the long dance sequences, songs and the camera's focus on the wider landscape with close-ups showing just the eyes on many occasions (like those Sergio Leone movies). Yet they perform creditably. That is not surprising given their reputation. Ashok Kumar, Raaj Kumar are actors known for their versatility and competence. Nadira is an actress of no ordinary merit (Shree 420). Despite the 6 year age gap with Meena Kumari, Veena who plays her aunt looks great in addition to doing a good job.

Although the script offers enormous scope for what one may term "over acting" thankfully none of the actors can be held guilty of that, with the possible exception of  Sapru who plays the old family patriarch Hakeem saheb.

Perhaps 8/10?

Direction

Kamal Amrohi wears several hats. He wrote the story, the screen play and dialogues, produced the film and also directed it. Given this fact, it is very hard to assess his role as a Director. After all where does one role start and the other ends when you control so many of them? Reminds me of the classic conversation between the Vicar and Jason Rudd (played by Rock Hudson) in the movie "Mirror Crack'd". Producer is the one that gets the ulcer because the Director over spends! Furthermore, when you have a person of the calibre of Josef Wirsching behind the camera, it becomes even harder to assign the appropriate credit (or debit as accountants would say) to the right role.  The magic one experiences in any particular scene is a good mix of all of these, even ignoring the actors involved. The producer that wants the best, regardless of cost, the perfectionist Director that makes the cameraman sweat for the right angle and distance, the cinematographer that has a knack of filling the scene with a painting instead of just a movie frame. You see a bit of all in Pakeezah.

Producer Amrohi has obviously given a free hand to the Director Amrohi. The lavish sets capture the luxuriously decadent lifestyles of Lucknow Muslim elite which should be quite familiar to the Producer/Director being one himself.

Coming back to the direction, I find it hard to justify the cult status simply on this count. There are a few 'touches' like the golden caged bird, Kite, snake and so on that convey complex symbolism and meanings. There is also the clever use of the train's whistle that constantly remind us (and Sahibjaan) of her fleeting encounter and the promise it holds.

As with the dialogues and acting, even the direction is, for the most part, understated and subtle. Even the sole fighting scene is devoid of the usual dishum dishum of Hindi movies. Not even once is Meena Kumari shown in bed with or in the arms of a 'customer' despite her profession made obvious. (The river barge scene too is tastefully done with Meena Kumari sitting on the other end of the bed).

The climax was disappointing though. Apart from various things I have highlighted earlier, it just felt too 'filmi' or 'Bollywoodish' for a movie that stays several notches higher in most other respects.  The entire story line collapses for want of logic. Everyone has a sudden change of heart. Meena Kumari agrees to the wedding, her aunt (who, as cited earlier, spirited her away overnight to avoid handing her over to Ashok Kumar) seeks out Sahabuddin and informs him in public about his daughter, when nothing much has changed. Having more or less acted as a pimp for her niece for years, she suddently wants to see her married. The grand old patriarch Hakim who plays the of harsh Uncle, too becomes a dove. The song itself and the bizarre blood soaked dance finale adds to the effect. The only one other than the hero, who maintains his character throughout the film is Ashok Kumar who never disowned his daughter and in fact spent years searching for her. But then again, I am mixing up the story with Direction..can't be helped in this film.

Have to give 6/10


Overall

Like I said earlier, it hardly matters, since the cult classic status of this film is secure and I myself would probably watch it again and again for various reasons. Somehow the various ingredients and circumstances, some tragic, come together as if by magic to create even bigger magic, leaving us with an end product that would stand the test of time.





May 4, 2014

Chromebook - some complaints too!

It is not all praise and praise, I have a few rants about my new Chromebook too!


  1. How come when I sign out it still seems to remember my mail login etc. once I sign in again? After all we enable two step verification for a reason. So once I sign out of GMAIL it should ask for 2 step again and not remember the login which is based on one step verification.
  2. BTW it would be nice if the Chromebook login itself is controlled by the two step process.
  3. It doesn't seem to let us decide when to shut down and when to just go to sleep and appears to decide on its own. Even pressing the Shutdown button merely puts it to sleep, ready to wake up at moment's notice. But at times it does a proper shutdown and takes a while longer to wake up. I worry about the impact on battery life of this 'feature'
  4. Being a cheap device, the keyboard sucks big time, but I guess I have no reason to complain. 
  5. Where are the delete, PgUp and PgDn keys? Miss them a lot!


That's all for now folks!

May 3, 2014

First look - Chromebook Acer C720

I finally made the plunge! Got myself Acer C720 chrome book which is based on Intel Haswell CPU and 11.6" screen. It cost me little over S$200 BNIB since there are many sets that come bundled with broadband deals available for sale in the market.

Just who is it for? Well, it appears I am the kind of user it is really made for. Why?

Content consumer or generator?


This is the key question. If you are just a consumer, that is, browse web sites, watch movies and dabble with Twitter and Facebook, play games, perhaps any tablet would do. But if you type a lot of stuff - blogs, email messages, forum posts, documents and sheets in the cloud and so on, then a keyboard based system becomes practically necessary. A tablet would not do.

Of course, you can get yourself a tablet with one of those bluetooth keyboards, but then they cost a bomb. For instance, a mid range Samsung tablet with a keyboard would set you back about $600. That's three times the price I paid for this!


Ready to live in the cloud?


The point is, I have been doing precisely that for years now, long before Google even thought of Chromebooks, long before there was even Chrome.

All my mails, contacts and documents have been on the cloud with mails going back to year 2000! I switched to Yahoo from laptop based Outlook back in 05 and uploaded all my mails to the cloud. When GMAIL came along, I switched again, this time transferring my mails over.  Along with that calendar, contacts, documents etc. Recently I surprised my customer showing him the first mail he ever sent, over 10 years ago! Very few that used traditional mail on hard disks can do so, having lost a few along the way to disk crashes and other disasters.

So I can switch laptops in a few minutes, not leave anything behind in the old one and ready to do so with the new one anytime as well.

So when I switched to Chromebook, I practically lost nothing. I don't use Excel for anything other than customer work where it is compulsory because of certain add-ins that don't work with Google Docs. I stopped using Word except for very big user document prepared again, at customer request.

That only leaves a few programs that I do use on my regular laptop (which I have not thrown away yet) - Skype (again used only when overseas), IE (again used only for work), Remote Desktop and VPN stuff (I am told some work on Chromebooks, have not tried them out yet).

Microsoft is helping Chrome!


Since M$ makes a lot of money on Office and wants to keep doing that, it is forced to offer its solution on the web, hoping users would stay in Office and not switch to Google Docs. This means the Office suite is available on the web, and you can use it with Chromebook!

What now?


I think this is a revolution and is here to stay. A few developments can force the pace and make it even better.


  1. Corporate apps like the ones by Oracle, SAP etc., need to be Chrome and HTML 5 compatible, not require IE
  2. Simple spreadsheet add-ins that are increasingly used by practically every business software should support cloud based systems like Office, Google Docs
  3. Ability to integrate with Corporate in house cloud based storage, facilities for backup etc. to take care of security concerns


If these are taken care of you will find most companies can take away 99% of their staff's costly laptops and give them $300 chromebooks that will do a far better job, with lot more security

PS


BTW this blog post was done on my Chromebook, would have been impossible to do on a tablet! Actually I have sold / given away my tablets and am not going to buy one again unless Google stops selling Chromebooks!




Death of smartphone super profits?

I recently purchased a Xiaomi (RedMi) smartphone. I had to get one in a hurry after losing a high end smart phone and this was on sale. The so called sale price in Singapore was actually much higher than regular price charged in other places, but this is usually the case with many tech products for inexplicable reasons. Despite this, I paid only $200 for the phone with a spare battery, without any contract.

The feature set of the phone manages to find the precise sweet spot between what's usually considered luxurious and bare necessity. The screen size, 4.7" dual sim facility, screen quality, replaceable battery, Micro SD slot, Gorilla glass, you name it  - all the features that a typical buyer would deem important are there. A few they would not dream to find in a phone at this price are also thrown in - a reasonably fast processor, nice UI, responsive OS, decent build quality, clean design etc.

You can actually buy a decent point and shoot camera and a good MP3 player and perhaps even a Amazon Kindle along with a HongMi and still have money left for a few good dinners instead of splurging on a high end S5 or Z2.

That brings us to a question. Who in right mind would pay $900 for a Sony Z2 when such phones become more common? Obviously the comparison is unfair as Z2 is very high end. But then the price is almost 5 times! Same goes for Apple IPhone 5, Samsung S5 and LG's top end models - all of them seem to offer a bit more for a lot more $.

Is this the end of era of super profit in the smart phone business? Once carrier subsidies are withdrawn and phone companies forced to compete on price and features not obscured by such subsidies, I think the game will be over. In fact in such countries (India for example), it is very hard to sell a $1,000 phone except to very few. Even in countries with higher affordability like Singapore, without subsidies, very few will upgrade every year and go for the top end models. They may settle for much less frequent upgrade cycles and lower end phones.

Today we find many companies quitting the PC laptop business and increasingly, the LCD TV business too. Perhaps smartphone too would join the list soon.






Apr 19, 2014

Book review: Incurable Romantic (Lalgudi Jayaraman)

Came across this book while waiting for my flight at Chennai airport. Managed to finish it in a day or so, skipping only very few pages that were somewhat 'technical'. Biographer: Lakshmi Devnath Publisher: Harper Collins. Here is the link to the book.

Disclaimer: I have not read too many biographies and it is somewhat too early to write my own ;-) I am no expert in this art of book review. Nor am I well versed in technical aspects of Carnatic (or for that matter any other) music. I do listen to and enjoy music of various genres.

Salient features

The book makes very interesting reading, almost like a novel. The author manages to combine the right mix of personal anecdotes and musical aspects of this great musician's career. Given the intense personality clashes and ego that always go with creative talent, there is enough of gossip and interesting stories too.

Nothing is 'overdone' - the artists' lineage, details of his training, personal life, career progress, contributions as a composer, senior artist and 'guru', musicologist are all covered in just the right amount of details.

The language is easy to read, despite liberal use of many Tamil language words and phrases. There is a glossary but I did not need one, so if you don't know the language your view may be different.

There is also a audio CD that accompanies the book with snippets of Lalgudi's violin wizardry.

Feedback

The author has done a great job, but IMHO there is always scope for improvement.

The family tree could have shown names of a few women members of the family (spouses) who have clearly played important roles in the musical journey of the Lalgudi clan.

Few more anecdotes, opinions and snippets from musicians that have known him personally and are fortunately with us still would have also helped.


Mar 22, 2014

Gastronomical meanderings - March 2014

Singapore has always been a great place for foodies and if there is one thing that has gotten better over the last few years, it is the food scene. Lots of new bars and restaurants are opening up at every corner even in the so-called HDB heartlands and remote suburbs. Many are 'authentic' these days i.e., run by native chefs from country of cuisine and many even have waiters from Europe to add that authentic touch. Reason - the average meal tickets are a lot higher making it meaningful to employ them. People - locals, tourists or expats are more willing to spend on a good lunch or dinner. I remember the early 90s when a 10 cent increase in coffee shop prices for Kopi sparked big discussions and a fifty cent price increase in hawker food was resented heavily. Today many don't seem to care as they plonk down a 50 dollar bill for a normal meal in a not so fancy restaurant. Even in a distant mall like Star Vista, you can see students happily enjoying meals that easily cost two weeks of a typical working office lady's lunch barely a couple of decades ago.

Let me quickly share my comments and thoughts on a few restaurants I have visited this month FWIW.

Serendipity is defined as 'pleasant surprise' - something you run into or find when you are looking for something else. Taking a wrong bus led me to Portsdown road and when the bus did a loop and started turning back I got off and walked into Pietrasanta - Italian. It was lunch so I had a quick Pecorino salad and Ravioli (spinach). Salad was good, and pasta was excellent - recipe used butter which gave it an interesting aroma of ghee which is often used in Indian cooking. The mini pizza served free as starters were also quite tasty, encouraging you to order one for the next meal.

It was a return trip to Pietrasanta, this time for dinner, that led me to Chuckswagon as Pietrasanata was closed for renovation! So serendipity visits again. It was really a pity that in a restaurant with a very interesting menu, a great location away from the maddening crowd, good ambience and one of the friendliest bunch of young staff I have seen in Singapore, I could not enjoy a main course. I had ordered Bruschetta to go with my beer and a Salmon steak for the main. But the friendly waiter told me I am ordering too much and helped me cancel the main since the bread was too late to cancel. The portion sizes are huge! The bruschetta was four large slices of bread generously topped with chopped tomatoes and olive oil. It was a meal by itself, as I was alone. I ended up breaking a bottle of sauce as I was leaving. I have to make it up for all this by spending a lot more next time around!

As I mentioned earlier, now many Singapore restaurants make enough to afford European chefs and even waiters. One such place was in Cross St - China Square Central. I will not name this place as the food was not great. It goes to show every Italian cannot make great Italian food just as every Indian cannot spin a good Prata. Authenticity can draw initial patronage but repeat customers requires great food. Tried some Chianti, my usual Bruschetta for starters and grilled Cod for the main, but it was so-so and too salty. I generally also don't like restaurants that dump the main course on your table literally seconds after you order for it, even as you are enjoying your drink or starter. I have to learn to hold off on the order perhaps.

Holland Village as you all know, has lots of interesting food choices and my usual haunt is the Al-Hamra Lebanese joint. It was vegetarian this time around, with Hummus / Pita combo plus a salad Tabbouleh which uses cracked wheat (Bulghur?). The bread as well as hummus was quite tasty and decent portion size.

I also had dinner at the HOUSE in Dempsey Hill with a friend. They have an interesting diverse menu and a great location nestled among the wooded and green Dempsey area that makes you feel you are in Bali or someplace like that. A pork dish called Asian Sliders, presented with white bun that tastes like the 'pau' sold with red bean and other fillers in Singapore, plus carrot fries was more than enough that night thanks to calories provided by the beer - again a rarely seen Aussie one whose name I forget. The main course was quite nice.

Looking forward to sharing more in future! Thanks for viewing.