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© Rakhesh Sasidharan

The big question …

This big question with time travel is what sort of a music player is life.

Is life the sort of music player wherein once you start a playlist in shuffle mode the music player shuffles the tracks internally and you can go back and fro among tracks and the same pre-shuffled order is maintained (i.e. the playlist appears random, but it’s not really random because the randomness is introduced just at that starting moment; so if you were to build a time machine and go back in time you can’t really change anything because you follow that set path, everything is kind of pre-determined).

Or is life the sort of music player wherein once you start a playlist in shuffle mode the music player always chooses the next track to be played only when the current track reaches an end, and while you can go back to the previously played tracks (i.e. you can build a time machine and go back to past events) but once you go back to a previously played track, the next track in the list is a new randomly chosen track (i.e. once you go back in time you can change the future; things aren’t pre-determined, there is no set path).


Hello again!

Been a while since I blogged here. Nearly 3 months … phooey!

I’ve been lazy. Plus busy at work. And doing less following around with stuff as I used to do before … all that led to a lack of posts here. Hopefully I get to posting with more regularity again.

Logged in today after a long while and update WordPress to the latest version along with all its plugins.

The Disturbances of my Mind

I like classical music. Both Western and Indian. I also like Jazz and most instrumental music. I don’t know why I like them, nor do I understand much about the performances themselves, except that I like them. For instance I hear people talk about how such and such performance was great or how a certain artist added his/ her touch to a particular piece, but none of that usually makes sense to me. I just enjoy the music and some performers, but I have no real reason behind it. Nor do I have any drive to learn a musical instrument or create music etc – I am just an audience who likes to enjoy the performance, not a creator, probably not even much of a technical admirer.

I like learning languages. I know English, Hindi, Malayalam, and can understand Tamil. I spent 4 months in a beginner course of German (but had to give up for other reasons even though I was quite good at it and the instructor was impressed with my interest). Most people in the German class had joined coz they wanted to relocate to Germany. I too had that reason in mind, but it was a secondary reason – I was more into the class coz I liked learning a new language, and I was very influenced by the process of learning a new language or how it got me thinking differently. I want to learn Arabic. I don’t know of any classes near my place, plus time is a constraint I guess, but Arabic is something I definitely want to learn. Back to English, I like it a lot and I love reading and trying to write stuff in it. But I am not very creative. Once in a while I get a spark and I write some stuff – once in a few years I mean – but that’s about it. But I like the language as such, and I love reading to get a feel of how to use the language, and I try to use what I read in whatever little bit I write. And even though I am not very creative I do try and write stuff like this blog – which isn’t very creative, I know, but is nevertheless an outlet to write.

Similarly I love computer languages. I love C, C++, Perl, Bash, PowerShell. I also know Java, HTML, and CSS. I want to learn Python, Ruby, new stuff like node.js (JavaScript). I briefly programmed in LISP and Scheme in college and I think they are amazing languages and would like to learn more about them. When I think of these languages the feeling I have is of passion, of love. I don’t just think of them as tools or as a means to an end. I think of them as an end themselves. I really love these languages, I really love the time I spent learning and programming in them – those are some of my fondest memories. But again, I am not very creative. I am not good at coming up with smart algorithms, but if I am given an algorithm I am good at expressing it. I think I write beautiful code – at least that’s what I always felt compared to my classmates in college. They’d come up with smart algorithms and generally solve the problem way better I ever could, but there was no beauty to their code. My code, on the other hand, was beautiful and I was proud of whatever I had come up with. I looked neater, more elegant, and I always felt that was because I loved the language and looked to expressing what I want beautifully in that language. Sort of like how you’d use certain words that are better suited than other words, to express the same idea. Words matter. The language matters. But the underlying point is I am not creative. I may love the language, I may love the music, but I am not creative enough to come up with my own creations – and that has always hurt. Why am I not creative enough?

On to computers themselves. My biggest and sort of only passion. (I have other passions like reading about evolution, psychology, history, etc. but none of them come near my passion for computers). Again, I have no clue why I love computers so much. I don’t even do much with computers – at work I am a glorified helpdesk person though I know I am much more capable than that. Again, I see others who are doing more work than me – implementing stuff, designing solutions – but here I am. Most of these people don’t even love computers the way I do, I feel. To them computers are a means to an end – of implementing whatever they are doing, of getting paid – but not to me. I really love this stuff, and it really hurts me that I can’t spend as much time doing the stuff I want to do. For instance, I love the BSDs. (I am not much into Linux – they are fine, and I like Debian and Slackware – but I find Linux too superficial, too confused, too much about just doing things for some random reason. BSDs have more “soul” as far as I am concerned). I wish I were doing more stuff with BSDs. Maybe maintaining webservers, email servers, DNS servers etc with them. Not in isolation, but along with Windows – which too I love, and which I feel has really jumped in leaps and bounds since Server 2008. At a previous job I met someone who had implemented a Samba Active Directory environment using Fedora, with Windows XP clients. I wish I were doing that! The closest I have ever come to doing something like that was implementing a Samba Active Directory environment for my Dad’s office, using Debian Squeeze with Windows 7 clients. It was a good experience but I didn’t get to doing much. I learnt a lot of Samba and realized how cumbersome it was to do the simplest of things with it, but I also feel it probably felt cumbersome coz I never used it much. I mean, looking after my Dad’s office wasn’t really my full time work so I’d only do this now and then – which meant the workflow wasn’t ingrained into me and most of the time I’d forget how to do things when I needed to do it again. Plus there were issues which I couldn’t sort out the way I wanted to coz I wasn’t full time there. If it were my full time job I could have experimented with a test PC, got things right, then rolled it out to everyone. But I didn’t have that luxury there so it was a matter of me picking up things as I went along without much time to test or experiment. That was very lousy and eventually when someone else was going to take care of their IT stuff (coz his office had merged with another office) I was happy to let go.

Still, the point remains that I love these things and I wish I were more creative and/ or had more opportunities. I tack these together because sometimes I feel creativity is probably also related to opportunities. You have to put coal through fire (pressure) to get a diamond. Similarly maybe if I had enough opportunities (pressure) I might pick stuff up and get better and better at it and start being creative. It amazes me how some people are able to solve problems wonderfully in PowerShell, or implement superb solutions with the BSDs – just blows my mind! Compared to such people I am just a kid. My gripe isn’t that I am a kid, mind you – that’s OK, I am a kid because of the kind of opportunities presented to me which have only offered me limited growth – my gripe is that I wish I had more learning opportunities so I had a chance to grow, to do things, to learn, to develop myself, to just do stuff I love. Ideally I am doing a bit of server stuff – Windows, BSDs – plus dabbling a bit in coding. Not a full time programmer mind you, but someone who dabbles in it, and knows enough coding to quickly put together stuff and/ or tweak existing stuff. I do a bit of the latter now and then – especially in PowerShell at work – but my output (and the quality of output) has been dwindling because there aren’t enough opportunities and so I slowly forget what I know and because of this the output suffers. A year ago, for instance, most of my PowerShell scripts were much better written – with plenty of switches and some good coding – but over time, due to disuse, I forget most of it, so now when I am have to write some code I know it isn’t as excellent as my previous effort. If I had more opportunities I would be more in touch with the concepts – which I can easily pick up, after which it’s only a matter of retaining them by regular use – so opportunities are what I want. Plus a creative spark to make use of these opportunities and really do amazing stuff with the things I love.

This rant has been all over the place, I know. Off late I have been listening to too many podcasts on things I love – like the BSDs – and today I was listening to a podcast on Perl and that just overwhelmed me. I love Perl, and I still remember picking it up from Larry Wall’s book (and what an amazing book that was! he was someone with passion for languages and that showed itself in the book and Perl) and using it in one of our programming assignments. I was able to solve it way easily than my classmates coz Perl made it easy, and I just loved coding in Perl and writing stuff in it. The podcast brought back all those memories, along with all the regrets, so I finally quit listening to it midway … but by then my mind was already disturbed and I had to let it out somewhere, which is what this blog post is for. The Disturbances of my Mind. 

Crazy day!

Today has been a crazy day! For one I have been up till 2 AM today and yesterday morning because I am attending the Azure Iaas sessions and they run from 21:00 to 01:00 my time! I sleep by 02:00, then wake up around 06:45, and two days of doing that has taken a toll on my I think. Today after waking up I went back to bed and tried to sleep till around 09:00 but didn’t make much progress. So my head feels a bit woozy and I have been living on loads of coffee. :)

None of that matters too much really but today has been a crazy day. There’s so many things I want to do but I seem to keep getting distracted. My laptop went a bit crazy today (my fault, updating drivers! never do that when u have other stuff to do) and I am torn between playing with Azure or continuing my AD posts. Eventually I ended up playing a bit with Azure and am now on to the AD posts. I don’t want to lose steam of writing the AD posts, but at the same time I want to explore Azure too so it make sense to me and is fresh in the moment. Yesterday’s sessions were great, for instance, and I was helped by the fact that I had spent the morning reading about storage blobs and such and created a VM on Azure just for the heck of it. So in the evening, during the sessions, it made more sense to me and I could try and do stuff in the Azure portal as the speakers were explaining. The sessions too were superb! Except the last one, which was superb of course, but I couldn’t relate much to it as it was about Disaster Recovery (DR) and I haven’t used SCVMM (System Centre Virtual Machine Manager) which is what you use for DR and Azure. Moreover that session had a lot more demo bits and my Internet link isn’t that great so I get a very fuzzy demo which means I can barely make out what’s being shown!

Anyhoo, so there’s Azure and AD on one hand. And laptop troubles on the other. Added to that Xmarks on my browsers is playing up so my bookmarks aren’t being kept in sync and I am having to spend time manually syncing them. All of this is in the context of a sleepy brain. Oh, and I tried to use VPN to Private Internet Access on my new phone (so I could listen to Songza) and that doesn’t work coz my ISP is blocking UDP access to the Private Internet Access server names. TCP is working fine and streaming isn’t affected thankfully, but now I have this itch to update my OpenVPN config files for Private Internet Access with IP address versions and import that into the phone. Gotta do that but I don’t want to go off on a tangent with that now! Ideally I should be working on the AD post – which I did for a bit – but here I am writing a post about my crazy day. See, distractions all around! :)

Year Three:

Today marks 2 years since I booked the domain (, no longer active) where this blog began life. I began posting 10 days later, on 21st November 2012. But that was just an introductory post I think, as the current oldest post on this blog is from 2nd December 2012. When I changed blog URLs I moved that introductory post to the Changelog section. Coincidentally, this post you are reading now also marks the 200th post. :)

This blog has moved on from its original goal of blogging about Exchange to now blogging about movies, thoughts, and whatever techie thing I am currently working on. It began as a outlet I could (hopefully) use to explain things to others. But it has moved to being a personal notebook and bookmarks store – most of my posts are like notes to future self, posts I can refer to to refresh myself on something I may have forgotten or just look up some command or code snippet that I used to solve a particular task. Added to that most of my posts have links to other blogs and articles – links that do a much better job of explaining the concepts – so I can refer to these links too rather than search through my bookmarks. In that sense both the topics and style/ purpose of this blog has evolved from its beginnings. Not that I am complaining – I like where it’s heading to!

Anyways, just thought I must put up a post marking this day. And write a paragraph or two in case it helps anyone else who is on the fence regarding starting a blog. My suggestion would be to just get something started. It’s a good way for the world and yourself to know what you have been up to. Sure there’s tons of excellent blogs out there so it might seem like you have nothing new to add to the pool – and while you may be correct in thinking that, I’d say it’s still a good idea to put your thoughts too out there. Maybe your way of explaining will make better sense to people. Maybe in the process of blogging about what you are learning/ doing you will get a better understanding yourself. Who knows! Give it a shot, and then back off if you have to. This blog too for instance has many weeks when I barely post anything – because I am not doing anything or I am not in the mood to write – and then I think of shutting it down for good. But usually I hold off, and that works out well because when I am back to doing something or I am in the mood to write I have a place to put it down. And then on a day like today when I look back at the posts I made over the past two years I get a kick out of it – wow I have actually worked on and done a lot of things! Who knew!

I guess I Blog, therefore I Am and that’s one good reason to keep blogging. For yourself.

Down the rabbit hole

Ever had this feeling that when you want to do one particular thing, a whole lot of other things keep coming into the picture leading you to other distracting paths?

For about a week now I’ve been meaning to write some posts about my Active Directory workshop. In a typical me fashion, I thought I’d set up some VMs and stuff on my laptop. This being a different laptop to my usual one, I thought of using Hyper-V. And then I thought why not use differencing VHDs to save space. And then I thought why not use a Gen 2 VM. Which doesn’t work so I went on a tangent reading about UEFI’s boot process and writing a blog post on that. Then I went into making an answer file to use while installing, went into refreshing myself on the PowerShell cmdlets I can use to do the initial configuring of Server Core 2012, made a little script to take care of that for multiple servers, and so on …

Finally I got around to installing a member server yesterday. Thought this would be easy – I know all the steps from before, just that I have to use a Server 2012 GUI WIM instead of a Core WIM. But nope! Now the ReAgentC.exe command on my computer doesn’t work! It worked till about 3 days ago but has now suddenly stopped working – so irriting! Of course, I could skip the WinRE partition – not that I use it anyways! – or just use a Gen 1 VM, but that just isn’t me. I don’t like to give up or backtrack from a problem. Every one of these is a learning opportunity, because now I am reading about Component Based Servicing, the Windows Recovery Environment, and learning about new DISM cleanup options that I wasn’t even aware of. But the problem is one of balance. I can’t afford to lose myself too much in learning new things because I’ll soon lose sight of the original goal of making Active Directory related posts.

It’s exciting though! And this is what I like and dislike about embarking on a project like this (writing Active Directory related posts). I like stumbling upon new issues and learning new things and working through them; but I dislike having to be on guard so I don’t go too deep down the hole and lose sight of what I had set out to do.

Here’s a snapshot of where I am now:


It’s from WorkFlowy, a tool that I use to keep track of such stuff. I could write a blog post raving about it but I’ll just point you to this excellent review by Farhad Manjoo instead.

[Aside] Quote (from Chef)

In the movie “Chef” Jon Favreau is a chef who loves cooking and quits (or was he fired?) from his restaurant due to creative differences with the owner. His ex-wife suggests he start a food truck so he has creative freedom to cook the way he wants to and connect with his customers. Replace cooking/ food with computers and this is more or less the story of my life! Of course I haven’t resigned to follow my passion, but that’s the matter for another post …

Jon’s movie son joins him in the truck. And there’s this scene where he cooks something that’s slightly burnt. Jon tells him to throw it away but the son is like why not just serve it to the customers? They won’t know the difference, so no harm done. Jon replies with the following:

I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.

I think there was a bit more to the actual dialogue but this is all I could find to copy-paste easily from the Internet. What I loved about this quote is how he knows he hasn’t been a good father, a good husband, maybe even a good person due to his single minded passion for cooking but he isn’t apologetic about it. He knows he hasn’t been good, but that’s how he is, and on this one thing that he is indeed good at he want’s to give his very best and share his pleasure with his customers and son. I found the dialogue and the feeling behind it very powerful, especially coz I feel the same way a lot of times. I am a lousy father and husband coz I am more focused on computers and gadgets than a family life, but like Jon’s character I take my work with computers and gadgets very seriously and try to do my best with it. It’s something I am proud of (or try to be proud of at least).

[Aside] Quote (on God)

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

– Albert Einstein, from “The World as I See It”

Came across the above in a book I am reading (“Ganesha on the Dashboard” by V. Raghunathan & M.A. Eswaran). The book attributes this quote to Bertrand Russell, but the Internet attributes this to Albert Einsten. I’ll go with the Internet.

Reading this quote blew my mind. That’s exactly the argument I too have about God! Each time my wife or parents insist I visit a temple or pray that’s exactly what I go through in my mind. The God I can conceive of does not punish me for my “mistakes” nor is capable of rewarding me for “good deeds” or “prayers”. A “God” who does all these is simply not a God for me. Such an entity might be a demigod or some other force, but definitely not God.

God (or Tao or the force or whatever) made us and everything around us. If we behave a certain way the onus of those decisions are on us. God gave us a brain and thought processes. Right and Wrong are relative and while there are many things that are Wrong for everyone, it is up to each one of us to discover and feel this for ourselves. Simply classifying something as Wrong and/ or not doing Wrong deeds even though we may not agree, but going along with it just coz God said so, is not the right way to do it in my opinion.

All that aside, the last line of the quote is another thing that resonates so well with me. The world is something. WE are something. There’s a beauty in it all, a mystery. The journey is the thing, not the destination. Putting up a God and chasing after what He/ She says isn’t the end goal for me; the end goal is the discovery. Of discovering the world around me and also the world within me. The “growing” I do – of my values, frames of reference, what I find to be right and wrong – that is the important thing.

Of course Einstein conveys all this much better than I do an in fewer words! Amazing!

Whizzing through airport security checks

Pleased with something today. Thought I’d blog about it.

Everything I know I learnt from the movies. One fine example of that is my approach with airport security checks thanks to the movie “Up In the Air“. An excellent movie (based on a novel of the same name and with an excellent score), it has George Clooney and Vera Farmiga as globe trotting business people, and it has great scenes on how they whiz past security by being prepared and efficient about it. I adapted those techniques in my life and now I too whiz past.

For starters I got a nice little hand bag where I put everything I need during travel. That bag has my spare glasses, headphones, music player, phones, wallets, books – everything! I think most people do this already but where I go a step ahead is that I empty everything most people usually carry in their pockets too into this bag. So once I am in the airport my phone is in this bag, any keys and loose change, my wallet, watch – everything! The only thing on me is my clothing. Further, if it’s a casual trip I either skip the trouser belt or I use a pyjama drawstring as the belt – since this is made of cloth it won’t trigger the sensors, nor do I have to remove and scan separately. If it’s a business trip then I put my belt in the handbag and only wear it once I am done with check-in and security.

Ever since I began doing this I can clear security checks easily. Not only do I have the hassle of taking everything out of my pockets and putting in the tray for security (and then put all these back when done!) I can also walk past the rest of the crowd as they slowly empty pockets or wait for a free tray. It’s amazing when you get to do that while all the others are just hanging in there!

Oh, and I never carry my laptop in the handbag. Some airports ask you to turn on the laptop and show – waste of time! So laptop’s in the main luggage, only tablets & Kindle are in handbag.

Hope this helps.

New gadgets

The Internet is full of people praising the new iPhone 6 Plus and how it’s larger size is great and how they are much more productive with it. I am tempted to buy it, and my wife has very sweetly offered to gift me one as she knows I love iPhones (thank you Sari!) – but I am holding off so far.

Couple of reasons really:

1) I am happy with the iPhone 5S. It’s barely 8 months old with me and I feel bad giving it up just because a new device is around the corner. A silly notion probably – these are just devices after all – but I love them and I feel heartless leaving behind the 5S so soon.

2) The iPhone 5S is still performing well. I haven’t moved to iOS 8 yet (due to lack of space for an OTA update) and maybe the upgrade will slow things, but as of now I am happy with it. Mind you, I was in a similar state with the 4S too when I switched to the 5S last year, but then I had used the 4S for two years and the 5S had many newer features. After switching the 5S I realised what I had been with the 4S and how slow the latter is, so keeping that in mind I wouldn’t give too much importance to the current point.

3) I like the small size of the 5S. Sure a bigger device has it’s conveniences and maybe I will love the 6 Plus once I begin using it, but why change if I am already happy? I was one of those people who preferred the smaller size of the iPhones. And I appreciated the fact that iPhone 5 only added an addition row of icons while keeping the width same.

4) I like to skip Apple’s first iteration devices. Like the first iPhone, first iPod Touch, first iPad, and am pretty sure the first Apple Watch. I feel (and this was mentioned by John Gruber I think) that the first iterations are where Apple releases it with some features missing or not optimised and by the second iteration they fix all that. Anyone who’s used the first iPhones and iPads will attest to it too – how they had many limitations and how the second versions were way better.

As a corollary to this I skip the odd iPhone releases too as that’s why Apple makes new changes. Examples: iPhone 4 (Retina and other changes such as the body and internals), iPhone 5 (size and other changes), iPhone 6 (size and a whole lot of software changes). The S versions of all these improved upon the previous version. So I always associate the S with “subtle”. To me they are subtle improvements of their predecessors. That’s one more reason why I would prefer waiting for the iPhone 6S Plus (what a mouthful! I think Apple might just make the Plus the main device by then depending on sales).

5) For the money spent on the new iPhone – which I have no real craving for – I can buy a Nexus 6 when it’s released. Or the new Sony Xperia Z3 or the soon-to-be-released HTC M8 variant with the better camera. This way I get to use an Android phone too for a while. Hopefully the Nexus 6 is also cheaper than the other two. I have an eye on Nokia Windows phones too but the good ones are very pricey – same level as the iPhones and high end Android, and while that’s justified I find it unreasonable considering those phones don’t have much market share or apps. Microsoft should reduce the price so more people adopt it for that reason at least.

Speaking of Windows though I placed an order for a new device today. A tablet laptop called Cain by an Indian manufacturer called Notion Ink. This is one of those convertible devices and the price seems reasonable (a bit on the higher side though). I love Windows 8 but haven’t used it as a tablet yet so this would be a good opportunity to do so. Moreover being a convertible I can use this as a laptop too when I am travelling. No need to carry my usual laptop along. (Me thinks in the future laptops will be what people use instead of Desktops nowadays. The device they use at home and maybe longer travel. Tablets and convertibles will be used for travelling and on the go. And Desktops would be for advanced people who want to upgrade the hardware or custom specs etc. Plus a second hand market where the Desktops can be upgraded or faulty parts replaced and resold. Of course this is probably the near future. Much later Desktops will be obsolete as Laptops too become upgradeable and/ or cheap so that no one cares about upgrading or repairing).

The Cain uses Intel Bay Trail SoCs which supposedly combine the performance of Haswell and such with mobile device features. The Cain also comes with one USB 3.0 slot and a microSD slot. Since it only has 32GB free space I ordered a small 64GB USB 3.0 flash drive as well as a 64GB microSD card to beef up the storage. Useful for storing movies when travelling.

I ordered all these today so am excitedly looking forward to them now! This is the period when you order a new toy and keep refreshing your tracking page to see if they have shipped it and where the heck it has reached. This is followed by a few weeks/ months when you are always playing with this new toy and constantly gushing over it. And that is followed by a phase when you finally get used to it and it becomes a part of your life like everything else. :)

Update: There are some reasons why I might buy the iPhone 6 Plus. Maybe in Jan.

1) I use the iPhone 4S as my travel phone and with the latest iOS 8 update the phone sucks. Sometimes the keyboard is slow, sometimes Safari slows and hangs, the phone in general feels so lethargic. I’ve got angry at it numerous times this past month as I am traveling and use it exclusively, and I hate having to do that. Apple should have just left this device at iOS 6. Heck, I should have just left this device at iOS 6 jail broken, which is what I was at before upgrading to iOS 7 last year. Upgrading was a bad idea! iOS 6 plus custom themes were giving me a near identical look anyways; the only reason I upgraded was because many apps started asking for iOS 7 as a minimum requirement (as they are now with iOS 8).

2) If I buy a 6 Plus I will be going for the 64GB version and that’s useful. When I bought the 5S I was cheap and went with the 16GB version (in fairness the larger versions weren’t available in Oman either). A 16GB version has limitations in that I can’t keep too many songs on the phone, I have to constantly keep copying away photos and videos, I can’t keep too many apps around, and so on.

3) It’s unlikely I will be buying an Android device. They are great, but I use many iPhone specific apps such as Fantastical (and the iPhone reminders), Prismatic, Byword, Litely, etc so I don’t want to go through that hassle.

One advantage the iPhone 4S has is it’s micro SIM. Much easier to get a micro SIM (or chop a regular SIM to micro) when travelling. Nano SIMs are harder to come by.

Context is everything …

Some of my colleagues call me “Mr. Fix It” while the users I support call me a magician. That’s because I am good at fixing problems and getting to the root of an issue. I tend to immerse myself in the problem I am solving and easily pick up whatever techniques and knowledge that might aid in troubleshooting. I think this is because I have a problem solving mind and I enjoy finding out why things don’t work the way they are supposed to. My mind likes to understand how things work and fit together. Not all things mind you so I wouldn’t really call myself a geek, just things to do with computers. The weirder the problem is, the happier I am to take a stab at it! And my day is made if solving a problem also involves me picking up new stuff I didn’t know so far.

Now, in the context of my work life this is a very useful skill to have. I think it gives me an edge over my colleagues because I am like a hungry warrior. They might be stronger and bulkier than me (read: know more stuff than me because of experience) but they are not as hungry nor do they live for fixing stuff. As long as things work, they are happy to let it be. They don’t go about poking beneath it or ask questions to understand why things are so. Nor do they lose themselves in a problem and chase it down to its end. These are advantages I have over most people I have worked with, and I am happy about that.

But take these skills out of this context and they backfire. When my wife tells about a problem for instance, my mind goes on a tangent thinking how to fix the problem. I ask questions to try and understand the problem. I offer solutions – maybe crazy ones – to try and solve the problem. And if she gets put off by the questions or doesn’t like the solutions, I just move on because as far as I am concerned there’s nothing more for me to do. My mind lacks the emotional element that empathizes with her. It doesn’t understand that sometimes asking more questions isn’t the correct response to the situation. It is not willing to just listen to the problem without thinking of ways to solve it. And if the problem is something which I can’t find a solution for immediately – most “life problems” are that way – then my mind ends up ruminating over it as is my nature. That doesn’t work well for such problems; so rather than get bogged down it, a more practical part of my mind kicks in and tells me not to ruminate like this. That’s easier said than done, so over time I have developed a shield to such situations – if the problem’s fixable, I offer suggestions; if it’s not, or the other person doesn’t seem interested, I just don’t care about it. Which again doesn’t work out well in this context because now I give an impression of someone who doesn’t care! Not only am I a jerk now who can’t empathize and keeps asking questions, I am also someone who actively doesn’t care and blocks himself from the situation.

Context is everything!

These same skills and strategy however work well when it comes to work colleagues and users. When a colleague calls me up to talk about some work problem they don’t really want empathy or for me to care much. They want someone who listens and offers practical suggestions. They want someone who can offer a different point of view to the problem. They want zero emotional investment from you, just a listening box.

Had the above illumination when I was driving to work today, so thought I’d put it down before I forget …

Nostalgia – FreeBSD

Stumbled upon this via The Wayback Machine last week.


Sigh. Rakhesh Sasidharan – FreeBSD administrator. Good ol’ days! :)

Sadly this front page and one or two others are all that The Wayback Machine archived of this site. And I don’t have a backup of the site either as I clumsily lost it (I have a habit of being excellent at taking backups but also somehow managing to delete/ misplace those backups just when I need them).

The site was a wiki running DokuWiki atop Nginx and FreeBSD from a desktop PC at home. DNS was via TinyDNS and some script that would update the A records whenever my ADSL dynamic IP would change. I had three FreeBSD machines at home, they were called Asterix, Obelix, and Dogmatix. Apart from this wiki the machines also hosted an IMAP server (Courier IMAP, I think) for my emails and Postfix for sending emails. It had some more bits and pieces but I don’t recollect them now. The wiki itself was mostly about FreeBSD administration. I love (loved?) FreeBSD – I have always been more partial to the *BSD Operating Systems than Linux, maybe because they felt like an underdog but also because these OSes felt more coherent than the hotchpotch that is Linux.

Anyways, all those are days of the past now … but it was a good trip down memory lane to see that wiki pop up when I least expected it!

Here’s a photo of Asterix, Obelix, and Dogmatix at my parents’ house:


It’s sad that I don’t even have a good picture of them! Here’s a photo of the three machines after I moved out of my parents’ house:


In both pics Asterix, Obelix, and Dogmatix are the two black Compaq and one white IBM machines. The fourth machine was a regular Windows XP desktop.

The second pic’s from Dec 2007. I think these three machines stayed on for one more year; sometime between 2008 and 2009 I decided to stop spending so much time at home on FreeBSD and shut them down.

After that I had a FreeBSD VPS and also some FreeBSD VMs at home, but I didn’t do as much with them as I did with the three physical machines.

On following your passion …

Read an article yesterday which talked about how the usual slogan of “following your passion” is bad advice. I skimmed through the article on my phone so I don’t have a link to post here, but do a Google/ Twitter for this phrase followed by “bad advice” and you’ll find many hits. I think this video by Cal Newport is what the author was referring to.

Anyhoo, this is a topic that is of interest to me. I work as an IT Manager/ System Administrator and the sole reason I am in this field is because I am following my passion. I love spending time with computers, so back in my teens when it came to choosing a track for college I went ahead with Computer Science. In retrospect Computer Science was a bad choice because what I was really interested in was Information Technology and generally fiddling with computer – but I was stubborn and didn’t ask anyone before making a decision (nor were there anyone to advice me either!) so I ended up in Computer Science. After that I started working and got into the role of a System Administrator, which is where I wanted to be in anyways.

It hasn’t been easy though being in this field. For one, I am over-qualified for it (doh!). For another, I haven’t been able to get the kind of work that interests me. I spent a lot of my undergrad days and the years after that working on Linux – setting up mail servers, web servers, blogs, tinkering with general back-end System Administration stuff – but due to bad luck or poor choices the work I do for a living is more of user support and working with client OSes and software. I keep trying to move on to the other side but it never happens – not for lack of trying from my side though, it just doesn’t click even though I am quite good at what I do.

This has been demotivating obviously. And many a times I’ve been lost and unsure on what to do next. What can I do – within the limitations of where I am, family commitments etc – to get more work that’s interesting to me and makes better use of my skills.

Somewhere along the line I read Wil Wheaton’s book “Just a Geek”. He was asking similar questions about his state of life in the book and he remembered a speech by Patrick Stewart on passion and how maybe he didn’t have enough of it. The gist of Patrick Stewart’s speech was that if you want to follow your passion you have to love it a lot – so much so more than all the hate and negativity that will come against you in the pursuit of that passion. Following a passion is a struggle, something to consciously keep in mind as you constantly badger through all the obstacles. Wil realized that he didn’t have that much love towards acting (his passion). Sure he loved acting, but he tired of sacrificing his time with the family for this passion and wasn’t willing to humiliate himself any more with pointless auditions. He realized that he loved acting but it had come to be that he no longer loved it more than all the other stuff working against it, and that he was now done turning down other things he was equally good at (and loved too) but which he had been turning down so far in pursuit of acting. This realization was a turning point in his career.

I loved that section of the book because it resonated so much with my state of mind. And it got me thinking that perhaps I should stop focusing so much on getting server level work and instead start enjoying the kind of work I am otherwise getting and which I am good at. This has been a good strategy in that while I haven’t managed to completely ignore my pursuit of server related work, I have managed to keep it under control or at least recover from bouts of demotivation when things don’t click. I guess I don’t love it enough – or in my case, I guess I don’t have the luxury of loving it enough to leave everything else behind after it!

A side effect of not trying so hard has been that I also get more time to enjoy other things. Previously once I got home from work, I’d mostly be on the laptop trying something out. Or I’d sleep early and wake up early so I can study Exchange 2010 and fiddle with my virtual machines! But now that I don’t do any more of that, I have more free time to spend with my daughter, read a book, listen to some music, or watch TV. And these are a lot less stressing than constantly trying to break through the invisible barrier.

And then I read the article I was referring to at the beginning of this post. That made a lot of sense too. What the author says is that following a passion is not as easy as realizing you have a passion for it and then everything will miraculously fall into place for it. You have to put a lot of effort into it and have to be prepared to keep at it for as long as it’s necessary. Also, every task has a learning curve and you may currently be doing something that seems difficult or boring and not meant for you – but that’s only because you are still mastering it; once you overcome that curve and get to grips with the task, it might very well turn out to be your passion. In short – don’t blindly discard everything else in pursuit of your passion, keep an open mind at trying other things and developing those if they seem to work out better! (Note: I am paraphrasing all of this from memory, so I could be way off base from what the author said. The above is how I understood the article anyways and what I took from it).

This made a lot sense and it related to what I had read in Wil Wheaton’s book. I realized that during all the time I have been trying to move on to server level work I have been getting better and better at handling users and supporting their demands, at working with client side OSes and software, and generally in terms of managing the IT tasks of an office. My server interest hasn’t been wasted either as I better understand how both sides fit and so am more aware of how the software my users use work, resulting in me being better able to troubleshoot them or work around issues as needed. But at the end of the day – after about 11 years of working as an IT Manager/ System Administrator – this is what I have mastered and this is what I am great at, so it’s time to stop wishing for something else and just focus on working harder at what I am good at and try and do an even better job than what I already am!

So that’s that!

On comparative advantage and doing things yourself

Today I got the answer to a question that had bothered me many times.

The question was this: I work as a System Administrator and encounter plenty of users who are clueless about computers and don’t seem to want to learn anything about it. I understand the cluelessness but I don’t understand their disinterest in learning. Because the way I see it computers are a tool aiding them in their tasks and isn’t it better they know their tools and at least a basic understanding of how it works, it’s problems, quick fixes and workarounds? Of course the fact that they are not bothered to pick this up is what gives me a livelihood and so I shouldn’t complain, but still…

The logical answer I used to give myself was the economic theory of comparative advantage. In a given amount of time these users are more productive doing their actual work rather than fixing or learning computers, and so it makes sense for them to be illiterate about these tools. They are better off using that time to learn their field and leave it to engineers like myself to understand and fix computers. Somehow that answer didn’t feel right though.

Today, at my in-laws home, I volunteered to fix a broken door. Houses in Kerala often have a door frame with a mosquito net on it. This allows residents to keep the main door open and this door frame closed – letting air etc flow from out to into the house, but keep mosquitoes out. In my in-laws case, however, the net had come out and they were waiting for the net people to come and fix it. I too never bothered with it until a few minutes ago, when perhaps due to having just finished the excellent “Superman Earth One” and so feeling intellectually stimulated and hence enthusiastic to try things out, I had a look at the frame to see what was wrong. Turns out it was simple. The net is held into the frame by a rubber padding and that had come out due to the dog thrashing against the net; all I needed to do was put the net in place and push the rubber back in. Not an easy task – due to the heat and the blood sucking mosquitoes outside! – but not too difficult either. So I spent about 15-20 mins fixing it and now I am pleased about a job well done.

Doing this however made me realise why the comparative advantage explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me. Yes, in the time I fixed this net I could have learnt some PowerShell or read the latest features of Windows Server 2012 R2 – and that would probably be a better use of my time as well – but the thing is doing something else (like fixing this net) too helps me in a different, unmeasured way. I know more about the door now, I have a sense of accomplishment, and I think more importantly doing a physical activity switched my brain from a bookish mode to a physical mode and so gives me a different perspective on other things too. Probably it won’t in this case, but maybe if I had some problem in my head such a change of context could have spurred my brain to take a break from it and tackle it differently. And that’s why I didn’t like the comparative advantage theory. It doesn’t take into account all the unmeasured factors and so the explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me.

In the case of my office, if the users took some time to learn their computers better perhaps that would lead to a better understanding of the system and its limitations for them. Perhaps this might lead to them being able to better explain to IT what they need. Perhaps they will appreciate computers more and in turn be more productive. And perhaps they will stop treating computers (and by extension technology) as some new fangled thing that they don’t understand and which only alienates them from work and others. Perhaps…

I am reminded at this point by the Chautauqua in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. The author mentions similar points though much more eloquently. We need to expand our reasoning systems to include technology. We don’t, and that’s why it feels alien to us. Replace technology with whatever one is doing. It applies to work such as fixing doors, motorcycle maintenance, computers, cooking, cleaning, and so on.

Wet Shaving

Today I want to write about shaving.

The past few days I have been experimenting with “wet shaving”, which is the traditional form of shaving where you use a shaving brush and razor. I was inspired to try it by an article I read some time ago, coupled with boredom and a general dissatisfaction with my current shaving methods.

I used to hate shaving. For many reasons. One, I felt like I was being cheated by Gillette and others into using expensive razors with low blade life that I had to change frequently and weren’t giving me a good experience. Two, the process of shaving itself was so boring and mechanical. No involvement to it, you just shave shave shave and are done with it. This leads to a lackadaisical attitude while shaving with the result that most of the time my shaves weren’t perfect. Three, a combination of the previous two points – I wasn’t happy with the quality of the shave. It wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be, and usually within half a day of the shave I’d find plenty of rough patches on my face.

I experimented with alternatives of course. Tried disposable razors for a while – that took care of my first issue (expensive blades that need regular changing) but the quality of the shave wasn’t any better, and worse disposable razors tend to be less accommodating and so there’s more chances of nicks and cuts on your face. Still, I used to alternate between disposable razors and regular ones just to spice up things.

I also tried electric razors for a while but they weren’t much fun. Took ages to get a decent shave and then too it wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be. Electric razors are useful for trimming and styling but I never got used to them for regular shaving.

Now on to traditional shaving. I don’t have any of the “good” equipment mentioned in the article coz I live in Oman and you don’t have that many options here. I wonder if anyone here even does traditional shaving – maybe just the low class people who can’t afford disposable razors either! That’s the impression I get from the limited (and cheap) razors available here.

This limited variety is fine I think. I managed to get a short razor – short in the sense the handle is short unlike lost other razors I have seen. And I got some random shaving brush and also shaving cream and blades by a SuperMax (no particular reason for choosing this brand, I had seen their disposable razors before so it wasn’t unknown to me). All this doesn’t really matter though, I think, because the big thing about traditional shaving is the experience. Unlike all other shaving techniques where it’s just a mechanical task you complete as soon as possible, traditional shaving is more involved and (to me) is sort of like a meditation. You are “in the moment” of shaving. Your mind is focused on the task and your thoughts are concentrated on what you are doing. With each stroke you pay attention and that lends the meditation feeling I was referring to.

I spend about 10-15 minutes shaving this way. And usually put on some relaxing music in the background. The net effect is some time to myself where all I do is spend quality time with myself and my face, pampering the face for a good shave and enriching the mind with calm and peace. It’s not like I spend this time thinking much. Rather it’s the absence of thoughts and the state of just thinking nothing but the shaving is what I am referring to. A zen state of mind.

I just finished reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance” the other day and a lot of what the author talks about makes sense in this case too. Life nowadays is about a subject and an object. It’s about us doing something just for the sake of it – in a mechanical way – without really being in the moment with it, without being one with it, and that’s why life seems so hollow nowadays and we feel things like technology are alienating us and degrading the quality of life. That resonates in the case of shaving too in this case. Previously I used to shave mechanically, but now I am in it. And that gives great peace of mind. To be in that state when shaving I have to start with peace of mind, so the influence of the shaving extends to before the event too.