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Friday, October 21, 2011

the art of story telling

For the past few months I have been downloading old movies, old songs ; mostly 70s and 80s but also some from 60s, Tamil, English and Hindi. They are so different from the current fare you get.

But one thing that has hardly changed  over the past 50 years, if not for centuries, is the art of story telling, the 'katha kalatchebam'  way. The other day , looking for some carnatic music, I stumbled on 'nandanaar caritiram' by Sowmya on You tube. The clips were of 'Margazhi Mahotsavam, 2009' . When you download from you tube it takes a while to collect all the parts, and put it together for viewing leisurely on the TV screen.

The experience took me right back to my childhood, to a large old fashioned, house, in North Madras , Though, we stayed in a small portion , as kids we had all the open spaces for ourselves, and spent most of our time outdoors. The prominent part of the premises was a large hall, with a high ceiling, called "The Samajam ". While the main hall was cemented, a vast area extending up to the main gate, was covered with nice beach-sand where people could sit and listen to a 'kathai' or katcheri' .

This Samajam was the scene of many a of social activity, mainly, kathai, katcheri and kalyanam. As I remember katha kalatchebam was organized twice or thrice in a month and occasionally we had a katcheri , Villupattu or Vikatakatchey (a kind of stand-up comedy, done sitting down ;) ) and radha kalyanam was an annual event. The land lord I belive had bought the property in the beginning of the century. I admire his foresight. The 'samajam' , besides hosting Radha Kalyanam' 'Sita kalyanam ' and 'Ramar Pattabhishekam' , saw the 'kalyanams' of all four daughters of his and I don't know how many grand daughters.

We also had a 'Veda Class' , as we called it . Here's a photo of our Veda Class in the Samajam , circa 1967.

Coming back to Nandanar caritiram, nothing really has changed from the microphone less days to web camera times. The style of narration, style of singing, accompanying instruments, nothing at all seems to have changed since the first performance of the 'musical play' , in the times of Gopalkrishna Bharathi, the composer. Only the medium has changed. Seeing young people in Sowmya's team, one feels that there will always be a small group dedicated to this unique art of story telling.  Of course, there are changes in the external appearance. There is no one with a kudumi, and one of the singers even sports a nice french beard. Some of them may look like corporate executives, but when they sing, they are just the 'bhagavathars' of yesteryears. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

An Ongoing Affair with Tux

What is common among  Tux,  Penguins, Lizards, Fawns, Gibbons, Herons and Lynx ? They all represent some version  /distro of Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular.

The affair started sometime in circa 2000, when I first read about linux , probably in PCQuest. It was all very romantic for a computer buff; a student finds a commercial software too costly for him and he decides to write his own. He shoots of a mail into cyberspace asking for assistance and is overwhelmed by the number of netizens taken in by the idea. The day when another mail was sent around the world announcing the birth of a workable kernel is observed as Linux's B'day. Geeks of the world unite, and you have nothing to lose but the chain imposed by propriety software. Till today, software developers, graphics designers and technical writers  from all over the world are finding  some self- fulfilment in working for the Open Source Software . Software should be free as in  'Mukt' if not free as in  'Muft'.

I was then posted at Mhow. The idea so caught my fancy that, I had to try it out, at the earliest. As a first step, I visted the kajuri bazaar, the popular market for new and second hand books at Indore. It was not easy to find a book on Linux. After an hour or so of rummaging through some old stock, I found a book on installing and configuring Linux. The  book  came with two free CDs of Slackware Linux !

The book started with a Disclaimer in bold letters. The developers of the software promised full refund of any amount paid for purchase of the product but would not be responsible for any harm done to your hardware by following their instructions! Mind you those were the times a computer costed my four month's pay, and a hard disk costed at least a month's pay.So,  the first two days were spent in reading through 200 odd pages of technical writing. Then more time was spent in understanding the hardware, since if you don't know what was the model and make of the components in your system, you can't expect a dumb CD to figure it out.

The most scary thing was partitioning the hard disk. But armed with a Jonathan Saches book on Dos 2.0, (Idiot series and Dummy series books wouldn't touch such issues with a barge pole) I soon became an expert on manual partitioning  of a hard disk. I could say, "just do a fdisk, specify the starting cylinder and sector and ending cylinder and sector , make it bootable and save it !"

Since then every comp at my home or ofice has had atleast one dedicated partition for linux and most often a PC had three partitions for the tux, for different flavours of Linux, you see.

It was a great day when I had written the root image on one floppy and the kernel image on another floppy  and loaded a linux OS on my Pentium machine. Linux booting is always pretty, a series of informative, sometime funny messages scrolling up the screen before a nice little hash prompt is displayed for your next command. The better part was selecting and and installing apps using a primitive package tool.

JOE (Joe's Own Editor) was my favourite word processor. For someone who has seen vi editor Joe was 22nd century
app. Then there was the text based spread sheet called SC (Spreadsheet calculator), its GUI version was xspread  and xv was a great image viewer. All these were 'Wow' apps for me. In the linux world , either the app was named after its developer like Joe or it splashed the developers name like John Brodly's xv

Linux has X - Windows System to cater for GUI  apps. It was fairly easy to set up. All you had to do was a short research on monitors and display cards and it was done! , But what a range of Window managers 

2-3 days later, the internet was through. Oh, you just had to study how Point to Point Protocol (PPP) worked and had to write out a few configuration files using., ya you guessed it right, Joe (joe's own editor). It was followed by email client called elm and a great improvement on elm ie Pine (Pine Is Not Elm)

It was pure bliss when I had configured the network interfaces and the aliases. Typing  'd' (for dial) would connect me to the net in precisely 22 seconds (a dial up handshake sounded so sweet ) and typing 'dak' would fire up the fetchmail program      to display the incoming mails. (My firends using ms windows and yahoomail spent half an hour on retrieving mails, on a dial up connection.)

The next six months passed in trying out various flavours of linux. Bought a book on caldera Linux as well, It had a GUI installation and actually you could play tetris while installation was going on in the background. A  great find was linux on floppy or Mu-Linux. We used it in our lab to teach unix commands. The  developer of Mu-Linux, M Andreoli calls it a cardware; you are expected to send a post-card to him after installation. The entire functional OS fits in a floppy.

Then from Mhow we moved to the Kumaon hills; There was a two year period of lull or should I say "Null", leave alone internet , even a telephone connection was erratic at Pithoragarh.

Then in 2003 we moved to Coimbatore and my affair with tux resumed. This time it was Red Hat -6 followed by 7.1. By then X- windows system had come of age and even the text consoles in Linux started looking colourful. (True Linux lovers cannot live without a text console and the # prompt which lets you do anything from command line). For the first time , Linux ie Red Hat posed a serious competition to MS windows. It was around this time Red Hat itself started behaving windowish, whatwith enterprise edition and all. The hat later  became a 'Fedora' . By "windowish" I mean, getting too snotty, taking decisions on user's behalf on how you should use your comp,  laying down too many Do's and Don'ts, just as Microsoft Windows does.

It looked as if the growth of Linux had plateaued out and competition with windows on Microsoft's own terms meant losing the personality of free thinking geeks.

 A good Open Source Software lets the user, explore, discover, learn and enjoy the process of living with a system, being with a system. The system is user friendly for one to explore freely, customize the environment, and enjoy the whole process of learning even while  working. It also lets free sharing of code among developers to modify, customize and improve. In short, it was collaboration rather than competition, just caring and sharing and helping.

Quoting the Free Software Foundation's'What is Free Software,' the freedoms at the core of free software are defined as:

  • The freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others.  
  • The freedom to improve the program and release your improvements to the public, so that everyone benefits.
  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
Then came Ubuntu in 2004 and it  was indeed a game changer, in every way. Ubuntu is different from the commercial Linux offerings that preceded it because it doesn't divide its efforts between a high-quality commercial version and a free, 'community' version. The commercial and community teams collaborate to produce a single, high-quality release, which receives ongoing maintenance for a defined period. Both the release and ongoing updates are freely available to all users. 

It was also the time I moved to Murshidabad (North Bengal) leaving my family behind at Coimbatore. My son , Sid ,was still a MS Windows user, as direct X and action games were available only in the MS World.

Linux was still not good enough for serious work as support for hardware, formatting and printing was not good enough for desktop  users . It was only an exercise cycle and not a machine to take you places, but then an exercise cycle is what built your muscles.

I came across a nice article in PCQuest on MIgration from MS windows to linux. The article was aptly called seven steps to Software Samadhi.  It is still a viable howto , with some changes here and there, for attaining Software Nirwana.

 Sometime in 2006, I got hold of some Ubuntu CDs from Canonical , first ubuntu 5.10 and then 6.06 (those days you could ask for 5 or 10 copies of the software and it was shipped free of cost.  One big difference between Ubuntu and other distros is that It is single CD installation and once you connect to the internet you have a whole universe of software appliactions, in well organized repositories. Infact the repositories are called 'universe' and 'multiverse'

You just have to type "apt-get intall 'this' or apt-get install 'that' and there you are. Within a month of installing ubuntu I realized  my own software nirvana.  I could say bye-bye to Microsoft and the blue screen of death.
What is nirvana if you can't share your joy with everybody ? I started distributing the CDs I had got from canonical and also burnt additional copies for friends. I sent a  CD of PCLOS by snail mail to Sid. Within an hour of receiving it his PC was up and running on Linux complete with all bells and whistles. he was thrilled, "Appa , Amarok rocks !, the best music player I have seen !" he was hooked and there was no going back. It was only the question of which distro to use.  He is  partial to KDE (K desktop Environment) , he says, because it has oodles of apps, which is true .
 But I suspect it was more so as he shares his birthday with  Matthias Ettrich, the founder of KDE.  Today, he is a Linux Guru  in the Indian Navy.

The kind of customization linux permits is phenominal and we used to exchange screenshots of our PCs through email.

Now I am content with Ubuntu, upgrading just once in two years to the LTS (Long term Support)  version, while Sid keeps experimenting with different flavours. 

Of Course, still there are some important apps, for which there are no linux version available. Till lately,  We had dinosaur like organizations like BSNL which insisted that only IE be used for checking broadband data usage.  Then you have apps like Nokia PC suite which does not have a linux version. And there is just one great application MS Access which does not have an equivelent LInux counterpart as yet. 

For all these, we still have one small partition for MS Windows , the ' just in case ' option. Wine (Window Emulator) takes care of many apps developed for windows platform, it has some limitations Recently I tried Virtual Box. This is one great option for running any number or any type of virtual machine all under a host OS , in my case Ubuntu Linux. I sign off with one screen shot of nokia running in a VM, under ubunt 10.04. Lucid Lynx.

It all sounds like a lot of tech-talk, but to me it is all , to use one of the untranslatable urdu words just 'jazbaat' (may be loosely translated as 'feeling towards anything or any person).

I convey my heartfelt thanks to Linus Torwalds, the founder of Linux, Richard Stallman, The founder of Free Software Foundation, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu Project, and millions of programmers, designers, technical writers and Translators from all over the world, for whom Open Source Software is a religion, in the true spirit of Ubuntu.