Author Archives: Umesh Unnikrishnan

Thinking about Africa

I rarely write anything about politics or my view of the world, but Arvind’s post “Africa: why it’s fucked up and what you can do” appealed too much to the armchair economist in me to keep quiet. Particularly interesting is this quote:

The main problem with Africa is petty dictators. Don’t take my word for it — a Ghanaian economist argues passionately for this view in this video. One phrase in particular is worth quoting — “Africa’s begging bowl leaks” referring to the futility of conventional foreign aid because of government corruption. He also explains how Africa’s traditional societies were free markets, even if not industrialized, and what Africa needs is more capitalism, not less.

Maybe the begging bowl is the problem. Africa needs to stop looking towards the West with a begging bowl and start looking towards the East with a photocopier instead. They need to open up their economies, encourage entrepreneurship and emulate what Asia has done over the past 50 years. After all, in countries like South Korea, China, India and Vietnam, economic liberalization has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and that has in turn led to political stability.

Also interesting:

Building my new PC – Step 2: Putting it all together

An avid follower of my blog (the only follower of my blog ?) reminded me the other day that I never completed my series on putting my PC together. I think the fact is that I’ve been too busy playing with it to write up my experience in assembling it!

Putting the PC together was a lot simpler than I expected. Granted, the last PC I put together was back in ’99 (or was it 2000?) when I put together a P3-500 for my parents so that they could browse the Internet, send me email and so that I could play Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 whenever I visited them. That was also my first time, so it took me a while to figure out how to screw the motherboard to the case, plug in the CPU etc.

This time, it was all a lot easier, partly because I had the Internet to look up anything I couldn’t figure out and because all the parts actually came with manuals! The only thing that stumped me was the fact that the video card only had a DVI out while my LCD monitor had only VGA input. In the excitement of wanting to see it all boot, I didn’t want to wait an extra day to get a DVI-to-VGA adapter, so I tried using my LCD TV as a monitor (via S-video). That didn’t work as expected and my motherboard didn’t have an on-board speaker, so I finally had to wait till I could find an adapter and used that to connect the rig up to the LCD and make sure it booted correctly. I also had a scary incident when the CPU made a crunch sound as I bolted it into the motherboard. My heart stopped for a second, but I was glad I didn’t damage anything in the process.

Assembling the PC

Soon enough, I had it up and booting:

Boot Screen

and in an hour or so, had Vista installed and running with Aero enabled. Check out the Processor, Hard Disk and Memory ratings in the Perf Rating tool:

Vista Performance Rating

CPU: 5.9 (the maximum – W00t!!)

Memory: 5.8 and Hard disk 5.4.

Sadly, the PC only get’s a 3.4 in the graphics department because of the sucky video card, but that’s another upgrade for another time.

Next time, I’ll talk about how I tried to install Ubuntu on this PC. I think that post will be called “How Ubuntu ruined my weekend (and why Linux is still not ready for the Desktop)”.

Building my new PC – Step 1: buying components

Ever since I got my DSLR and a couple of 4 gig CF cards a few months back, I’ve been shooting away to glory each weekend and contending with 100s of RAW images. My poor ‘kitchen laptop’ with a 40 gig hard drive and an outdated processor couldn’t take it anymore and was thinking of bailing on me when I decided that it’s about time to get a new PC.

A bit of history — I haven’t had a desktop at home since ’01 when I sold my aging P2-233 to an unsuspecting college junior. I got myself a ‘gaming’ laptop (an HP Pavilion ZT1260) the following year and it was a mixed experience. I loved the portability, but the video card on the laptop overheated after an hour or two of gaming and literally burned the motherboard in a year. It was still under warranty, so HP replaced it (sans all my data) for free, but the replacement lasted only another year or so before it suffered the same fate. So, I vowed never to get a gaming laptop ever again and got us a cheap Toshiba laptop that we used at home predominantly for browsing and email.

I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a media center/media server ever since I got my Tivo and Xbox, and figured I could use it for transcoding recorded tv shows to the iPod, streaming photo and music to the xbox and other misc uses.

Here’s the config I came up with:

CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 quad-core processor, 2.40GHz. I figured I needed a multi-core processor to handle all the photo editing and video transcoding I planned to do. So, well, might as well get as many cores as I can afford 🙂 I didn’t manage to get the lower-powered G0 stepping though, just the older B3.

Motherboard: This was the most confusing part of my search. Unlike other components, there are literally hundreds of unique motherboards and there’s no real quantitative measure that I can filter my searches by. So, I had to go solely by price, reviews on tech forums and a couple of features (like size and number of DIMM slots) that I knew were important to me.

I needed something that could keep up with the quad-core while staying stable and cool. I wasn’t too keen on RAID support though I wanted SATA to serve up all the media I’m planning to host :). I thought I could get a full sized ATX mobo w/ built in Video, but proved pretty difficult. So, finally, I got the ABIT IP35-E, which had good reviews on NewEgg and had the works as far as features were concerned. This mobo has the double boot problem described in some forums, but it’s not a real bug, just an annoyance.

RAM: I figured that since memory prices drop over time, I’ll get just enough for my needs now and expand later as required. So, I got 2 gigs of dual channel DDR2 800 Mhz memory from Corsair – the highly rater Corsair 2GB TWIN2X2048-6400C4. I have two slots left on the mobo which will help in future expansion.

Hard Drive: Again, I wanted to get the best bang for the buck here since hdd prices and capacities are always moving in opposite directions. The best deal I got was on the Western Digital 400GB SATA 150 drive which was on sale on NewEgg at the time. It’s only 7200 RPM and 150MB/s, but I’ll probably be buying a hard drive every year to keep up with growing storage needs 🙂

Video Card: I wasn’t planning to use this PC for major gaming, since I already have an Xbox 360. I initially planned to get a mobo with on board video but since those were hard to come by with the features I wanted, I decided to get the cheapest general purpose video card with DirectX 9 and Vista Aero support. That turned out to be the MSI ATI RADEON X1550 with 128MB on board video memory, HDMI out and TV out. Not a bad card, and totally worth the 30 bucks I paid for it.

Case and Power Supply: These were easy. I didn’t need a fancy case since I wasn’t going to keep this PC in the living room. I needed a fairly powerful power supply, though because of the quad core processor, SATA drive(s) and my long term plans of getting a better video card. So, I picked up a Rosewill case for cheap and a rather basic Coolmax 450W Power Supply from newegg and respectively. Both of them have built in fans, so that should help keep the system cool, if not quiet.

So, I ordered all the components over the period of a week and played the waiting game for FedEx, UPS and others to get them to me.

PC Components

Once they were all here, I started putting them together. That story will be covered in a future post 🙂

Blue Angels

3rd time’s a charm I guess. I finally realized that the best place to watch the Blue Angels show is from the I-90 bridge when it’s closed. Not Genesee Park, not some random location in Mercer Island, but right there on the bridge. I took my parents to the show today inspite of the fact that I hated it the last two times I went and managed to get the best view of the show that I could have hoped for (without owning a boat or a prime piece of lakeside real-estate). We parked in some spot north of the Bridge, near Martin Luther King Way and walked down to the I-90 bridge just before it closed and managed to get a spectacular view of the show with the planes flying right over us a couple of times.

Here’s a pic I clicked, technically not of the Blue Angels, but of the Patriots Jet Team:

Blue Angels

Starting up with a DSLR


As I mentioned in an earlier post, Shamu destroyed my Fuji P&S and I had to capture all the beauty of the Bahamas on my lousy cameraphone. So, I decided to make the best of the situation and get my self a DSLR rather than another point-and-shoot. Armed with a $1k budget and some basic research, I settled on the Canon EOS 400D (aka Digital Rebel XTi) which is nearly unbeatable at that price range. My goal was to end up with a setup as close as possible to the Fuji S5100 I had, especially in terms on lens length -the Fuji had a 10x zoom: 37-370mm at 35mm eq. So, at first, I decided to forgo the kit lens and buy a used Tamron 28-200 f4.0-5.6 lens off eBay. I also managed to snag a 2 gig CF card from newegg, a 4 gig CF microdrive off of woot and a rather large camera case from Case Logic in preperation for our New York trip. 

During the trip, I found the lens rather lacking especially in terms of build quality. After using it for 2 days, I started getting the infamous Error-99 that is common for 3rd party lenses when used with Canon cameras. So, after getting back from the trip, I decided to return the zoom lens and replace it with the Canon 50mm/f1.8 II, which is pretty much the best portrait lens you can get (other than the f/1.4 which costs 4 times as much). I also bought the 18-55mm kit lens, to cover some zoom range and I was pleasantly surprised by the image quality on the lens. I had read really bad reviews of the lens and didn’t have very high expectations, but coming from a point-and-shoot world, I suppose my bar for image quality was pretty low 🙂 It was also good to have, for the first time, an 18mm (28mm @ 35mm eq) lens which could take some pretty sweet wide-angled shots. I don’t think I had ever taken a photo wider than 35mm before, so it was neat to take relatively wide shots like this one:

Beat up old pick up

What was really cool, however, was the ability to take a series of exposure locked 18mm shots and stitch them together to get a panoramic view like this shot of the Columbia River Gorge:

Columbia River Gorge Panorama

You can see remnants of the vignetting in the shot above that is probably the reason experts pan this lens, but well, it does its job pretty well as far as I care, especially with shots like the one below.

Flowers by the road


A few days later, I gave in to high-zoom temptation again and decided to buy a new Tamron lens. After debating between the 18-250mm and the 28-300 mm, I decided to get the 28-300mm – mainly because it was cheaper. This lens is f3.5-6.3 – so though it’s a little slow on the long end, the f3.5 gives me the ability to shoot indoors at the wide end. The image quality is nothing to write home about, but with the 11x range, this lens will probably be my primary walkaround lens till I save up to get a higher end Canon IS or Sigma OS lens. The only thing I miss in this lens is macro mode, but I figure since that’s something the kit lens has, I’m covered there.

Some shots I took with this lens:

 Wasp landing on a flower

My favorite shot with this lens so far – surprisingly sharp at 300mm/f6.3.

I also took this lens out to a softball game that D’s coworkers’ were playing. This was my first attempt at sports photography and I learned a lot of don’t and don’ts. Here’re some shots that stood out:



Overall, I’ve taken 2500+ photos in the one month that I’ve had the camera – that sounds like a crazy figure, but it’s been a fun ride learning all about what the camera, lens and a bit of post-processing can do.

A mid-summer update

Once in a while I realize that I’ve been so behind on my blogging that I feel like I have to do a catch up post so that people who follow my blog (yes, that means all 15 of you) can know what’s happening in my life. Here’s what’s been happening in no particular order:

  • Work – Work has been chugging along fairly uneventfully for the past few months. Things look on track, no major fires etc. I was at a meeting the other day where Sid remarked “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a meeting with you. And that’s a good thing!”. That left me thinking the rest of the day about how a lot of our meetings are firedrills and all about crisis management. Maybe something Dilbert-esque like ‘ feel good and do nothing’ meetings are needed so that people feel better about attending meetings.


  • Travel – I’ve done surprising little travel since our Bahamas & Florida trips back in May. I thought summer will be all about driving around the state, hiking and stuff, but we’ve done pretty much none of that. D’s parents were here for a month and we took them on a trip to NYC and Niagara Falls which turned out to be incredibly tiring with us missing our flight back, driving 14 hours a day to get from NY to Buffalo and back and so on. The only local trip of significance we made was a drive down to Cle Elum and the Columbia River Gorge a couple of weekends back.


  • Biking – As hinted by my expanding waistline, I’ve done almost no biking this summer. I biked to work and back a couple of times and biked around trails in Issaquah another weekend, but other than that I’ve used the excuse of it being too hot or too cold or too rainy to avoid biking on most weekends. Hmm.. better get on that fast!


  • Photography – Now there’s something I’ve done a lot this summer. As a matter of fact, I wrote about my recent photographic adventures in this blog post before it became too long and I decided to move it to another post.


  • Around the web – I’ve become a huge fan of Google reader over the few months I’ve been using it. It helps scan through almost a 100 blogs a day in no time, both on my desktop and mobile phone. Some interesting finds I’ve made recently:

That’s pretty much the gist of what I’ve been upto so far this summer. My plans of heading down to the Olympic Peninsula are still up in the air and so are my plans for the labor day long weekend and (looking further out) Thanks giving.

The economics of texting

One thing I never understood about the way mobile operators work is why texting (aka SMS) is so freaking expensive. I figure its something like what the drug dealer ‘Nick’ in New York Magazine’s recent feature on profit making said about maximizing profit:

Sell to many users in small quantities. “It’s like taking a pound of coffee and selling one grain at a time,” says Nick. “If you sell by scoops, you’ll make a couple thousand dollars, but if you break it down into quarter grams and work for a few days, you’ll make tens of thousands.” Most top dealers don’t actually do this, and lazily sell in bulk, as Nick did.

Sure, 10c a message doesn’t sound like a lot, but what do you get in return? A mind blowing 160 bytes of data transferred! So, that works out to…

(1048576/160 * $0.10) = $655.36 per MB of data tranferred by SMS!

Even if you have some sort of a package that lets you send, say, a 1000 messages for $10 a month (i.e. $0.01 per message), it still works out to $65.54 per MB of data transferred.

So, how does this compare with other forms of data transfer?

  • Home Internet: Ok, so this may not be the fairest comparison – since we’re comparing against a fixed line with a sunk initial cost (for laying down fiber/cable), but I thought I’d make the comparison anyway. Most internet providers don’t have any fixed upload/download limits (atleast in the US), thought they’re often rumored to send nastigrams to users who transfer large amounts of data – like 200-500 GB per month. So, lets be conservative and assume that the download limit on a regular Comcast 6-12 Mbps line is 100 GB (or ~100000 MB) per month. For this privilage, I pay $45 per mo. with no discounts. So, that works out to…

($45/100000) = $0.00045 per MB of data transferred by Cable Internet

That’s right – around a million times cheaper than SMS! Dropping the bandwidth cap to 10 GB or even 1 GB changes the order of magnitude, but it’s still thousands of times cheaper.

  • Mobile Internet: So, I have the el-cheapo GPRS/EDGE mobile Internet plan from t-mobile that I pay $5.99/mo for. The contract doesn’t state any caps other than a 1 MB file download limit –  so, let’s assume that you get 100 MB/mo on this plan. This works out to…

($5.99/100) = $0.06 per MB of data transferred by GPRS/EDGE.


  • Mobile Voice: Voice rates vary a lot, but I figured I’ll use the common $40/mo for 1000 mins T-Mobile plan for the comparison, since it doesn’t include unlimited nights or weekends. Wikipedia tells me that GSM transmits at 12.2 kbps with the GSM-EFR codec. 1000 minutes at 12.2 kbps is (60 * 12.2/8 = ) 87.26 MB. For $40, that’s

($40/87.26) = $0.46 per MB of (audio) data transferred by GSM.

So, the underlying medium used by texting is still waay cheaper than SMS by a factor of a 1000. And I thought SMS just used the unused bandwidth in GSM networks.

No wonder there’s an abundance of free texting websites like .

Talking Robots and Diagnostics

I had an interesting incident with the Roomba today. It hadn’t done much cleaning during its scheduled cleaning times this week, so I made it do a run today morning. After a while, it (he?) just stalled and started beeping. I tried emptying its (his) dirtbag, cleaned its (his) brushes etc and tried again. No luck – he just sat there beeping in peculiar tone – an ‘Uh-oh’ followed by 2 short beeps as if he was trying to tell me something.

So, I couldn’t find the manual, so I look it up on the Internet and found this link:

which had this explanation:

Roomba Says: “Uh-oh” plus 2 beeps

What It Means: The robot’s side brush is stalled

What You Should Do:

• Pick up your robot and turn it over*
• Check to see if something is wrapped around the side brush
• Remove the side brush with a screw driver and check for string or hair wrapped under it
• Replace the side brush, place Roomba in the center of the room and press Clean to resume cleaning

Which I followed and had the Rooba out and cleaning in 3 minutes!

Now wasn’t that simple? A simple unambiguous error message and simple instructions on how to fix it. No ‘Error Code 0x8000c2fe’. No 3 page long KB article to peruse and comprehend. No support calls or costs. Sigh… if only…