Search Results: "garden"

5 November 2021

Jonathan Dowland: 25 things I would like to 3D print

Last year I started collecting ideas of things I would like to 3D print one day, on Twitter. Twitter is fundamentally ephemeral, so I'll collect it here instead. I got up to 14 items on Twitter, and now I'm up to 25. I don't own a 3D printer, but I have access to one at the work office. Perhaps this list is my subconcious trying to convince me to buy one. What am I missing? What else should I be thinking of printing? Let me know!
  1. Some kind of 45 leaning prong to dry bottles and flasks on
  2. A tea tray and coasters
  3. a replacement prop arm/foot for my computer keyboard (something like this but for the Lenovo Ultranav)
  4. some attempted representation of Borges Library of Babel, a la @jwz The Library of Babel, again
  5. an exploration of the geometry of Susanna Clarke s Piranesi
  6. further iterations of my castle
  7. Small tins to keep loose-leaf tea in
  8. Who am I kidding, bound to be a map from DOOM. E1M1 perhaps, or something more regular (MAP07? E2M8?) See also this amazing print of Quake 3: Arena's "Camping Grounds"
  9. replacement bits for kids toy sets, e.g. a bolt with long shank from Early Learning Centre Build It Deluxe Set, without all 4 of which you can't build much of anything
  10. A stand for a decorative Christmas bauble (kid's hand print on it) A roll of cellotape works pretty well in the mean time
  11. DIY bits-and-bobs sorter/storage (nuts and bolts etc)
  12. A space ship from Elite/Frontier. Probably a Cobra mk3 or maybe a Viper mk2. In a glow-in-the-dark PLA which i d overpaint with gunmetal except for the fuselage
  13. A watch stand/holder/storage thing Except it would look nicer in wood (And I m more inclined to get rid of all but one watch instead)
  14. Little tabbed 7 dividers for vinyl records, with A-Z cut into the tabs 12 ones might be a stretch (something like this)
  15. A low-profile custom trackpoint cover like the ones by SaotoTech (e.g.)
  16. A vinyl record. (Not sure that any 3D printer I would have access to would have the necessary resolution. I haven't done any research yet.)
  17. A free-standing inclined vinyl record display stand (e.g.)
  18. A "Settlers of Catan" set. I've got the travel edition which is great but it would be nicer to have a larger-sized set. There are some things I really like about the travel set that the full-size set lacks; so designing and printing a larger set myself could incorporate them. Also I don't feel inclined to buy the full-size set for 50 or so to end up with essentially the same game I already bought. No doubt I'd spent at least that much in PLA.
  19. Little kids trinkets. Pacman ghosts, that sort-of thing. Whatever my daughters come up with next.
  20. Lego storage/sorters.
  21. Some kind of lenticular picture. Perhaps a gift or Christmas card combined in one.
  22. A bracket to install a Gotek drive in my Amiga 500 (e.g.). I've managed without but the fit isn't great.
  23. An attempt at using the 3D printer for 2D drawing. I would never get the same kind of quality results you can get from a proper plotter, but still Take a look at some proper plotter art!
  24. Garden decorations. I like the idea of porous geometric shapes that you can plant mosses or ferns into, but also things which might be taken over and "used" by nature in ways I hadn't thought of.
  25. Floor plans / 3D plans of my house (including variations if I remodelled)

9 October 2021

Ritesh Raj Sarraf: Lotus to Lily

The Lotus story so far My very first experience with water flowering plants was pretty good. I learnt a good deal of things; from setting up the pond, germinating the lotus seeds, setting up the right soil, witnessing the growth of the lotus plant, fish eco-system to take care of the pond. Overall, a lot of things learnt. But I couldn t succeed in getting the Lotus flower. A lot many reasons. The granite container developed some leakage, which I had to fix by emptying it, which might have caused some shock to the lotus. But more than that, in my understanding, the reason for not being able to flower the lotus, was the amount of sunlight. From what I have learned, these plants need a minimum of 6-8 hrs of sunlight to really give you with the flowering result, whereas the setup of my pond was on the ground with hardly 3-4 hrs of sun. And that too, with all the plants growing, resulted in indirect sunlight.

Lotus to Lily For my new setup, I chose a large oval container. And this one, I placed on my terrace, carefully choosing a spot where it d get 6-8 hrs of very bright sun on usual days. Other than that, the rest of the setup is pretty similar to my previous setup in the garden. Guppies, Solar Water Fountain etc.
Initial lily pond setup
Initial lily pond setup
The good thing about the terrace is that the setup gets ample amount of sun. You can see that in the picture above, with the amount of algae that has been formed. Something that is vital for the plant s ecosystem. I must thank my wonderful neighbor who kindly shared a sapling from their lily plant. They already had had success with flowering the lily. So I had high hopes to see the day come when I d be happy to write down my experience in this blog post. Though, a lot of patience is needed. I got the lily some time in January this year. And it blossomed now, in October. So, here s me sharing my happiness here, in particular order of how I documented the process.
Monday morning greeted with a blossomed lily
Monday morning greeted with a blossomed lily
Lily Blossom Closeup
Lily Blossom Closeup
Beautiful water reflection
Beautiful water reflection

Dawn to Dusk The other thing that I learned in this whole lily episode is that the flower goes back to sleeping at dusk. And back to flowering again at dawn. There s so much to learn in the surrounding, only if you spare some time to the little things with mother nature.
Lily status at dusk
Lily status at dusk
Lily the next day
Lily the next day
Not sure how long this phenomenon is to last, but overall witnessing this whole process has been mesmerizing. This past week has been great.

20 September 2021

Andy Simpkins: COVID-19

Nearly 4 weeks after contracting COVID-19 I am finally able to return to work Yes I have had both Jabs (my 2nd dose was back in June), and this knocked me for six. I spent most of the time in bed, and only started to get up and about 10 days ago. I passed this on to both my wife and daughter (my wife has also been double jabbed), fortunately they didn t get it as bad as me and have been back at work / school for the last week. I also passed it on to a friend at the UK Debian BBQ, hosted once again by Sledge and Randombird, before I started showing symptoms. Fortunately (after a lot of PCR tests for attendees) it doesn t look like I passed it to anyone else I wouldn t wish this on anyone. I went on holiday back in August (still in England) thinking that having both jabs we would be fine. We stayed in self catering accommodation and we spent our time outside, we visited open air museums, walked around gardens etc, however we did eat out in relatively empty pubs and restaurants. And yes we did all have face masks on when we went indoors (although obviously we removed them whilst eating). I guess that is when I caught this, but have no idea exactly when or where. Even after vaccination, it is still possible to both catch and spread this virus. Fortunately having been vaccinated my resulting illness was (statistically) less bad than it would otherwise have been. I dread to think how bad I would have been if I had not already been vaccinated, I suspect that I would have ended up in ICU. I am still very tired, and have been told it may take many more weeks to get back to my former self. Other than being overweight, prior to this I have been in good health. If you are reading this and have NOT yet had a vaccine and one is available for you, please, please get it done.

30 August 2021

Andrew Cater: Oh, my goodness, where's the fantastic barbeque [OMGWTFBBQ 2021]

I'm guessing the last glasses will be through the dishwasher (again) and Pepper the dog can settle down without having to cope with so many people.For those who don't know - Steve and his wife Jo (Sledge and Randombird) hold a barbeque in their garden every August Bank Holiday weekend [UK Bank Holiday on the last Monday in August]. The barbeque is not small - it's the dominating feature in the suburban garden, brick built, with a dedication stone, lights, electricity. The garden is small, generally made smaller by forty or so Debian friends and allies standing and sitting around. People are talking, arguing, hugging people they've not seen for (literal) years and putting the world to rights. This is Debian central point - with large quantities of meat and salads, an amount of beer/alcohol and "Cambridge gin" and general goodwill. This year was more than usually atmospheric because for some of us it was the first time with a large group of people in a while. Side conversations abound: for me it was learning something about the high energy particle physics community, how to precision build helicopters, fly quadcopters and precision 3D print anything, the maths of Isy counting crochet stitches to sew together randomly sized squares ... and, of course, obligatory things like how random is random and what's good enough entropy. And a few sessions of the game of our leader.
This is also a place for stuff to get done: I was unashamedly using this to upgrade the storage in my laptop while there were sensible engineers around. A corner of the table, a RattusRattus and it was quickly sorted - then a discussion around the internals of Thinkpads as he took his apart. Then getting a full install - Gb Ethernet to the Debian mirror in the cupboard six feet away is faster bandwidth than a jumbo jet full of tapes. Then getting mail to work again - it's handy when the mailserver owner is next to you, having come in from the garden to help, and finally IRC. And not just me: "You need a GPG key signed - there's three DPLs here, there's a release manager - but you've just missed one of the DAMs." plus an in-depth GPG how-to session on the other side of the table.I was the luckiest one with the most comfortable bed in the house overnight but I couldn't stay for last night. Thanks once again to all involved but especially Steve and Jo who do this for the love of it, and the fun, and the community and the family. Oh, and thanks to Lenovo - not just for being a platinum sponsor of Debconf but also for providing the official laptop of this and most Debian occasions

5 July 2021

Jonathan Dowland: Photos and WhatsApp

I woke up this morning to a lovely little gallery of pictures of our children that my wife had sent me via WhatsApp. This has become the most common way we interact with family photos. We regularly send and receive photos to and from our families via WhatsApp, which re-compresses them for transit and temporary storage across their network. The original photos, wherever they are, will be in a very high quality (as you get on most modern cameras) and will be backed up in perfect fidelity to either Apple or Google s photo storage solutions. But all of that seems moot, when the most frequent way we engage with the pictures is via a method which compresses so aggressively that you can clearly see the artefacts, even thumbnailed on a phone screen. I still don t feel particularly happy with the solution in place for backing up the photos (or even: getting them off the phone). Both Apple and Google make it less than convenient to get them out of their respective walled gardens. I ve been evaluating the nextCloud app and a Nextcloud instance on my home NAS as a possible alternative.

29 June 2021

Ritesh Raj Sarraf: Plant Territorial Behavior

This blog post is about my observations of some of the plants in my home garden. While still a n00b on the subject, these notes are my observations and experiences over days, weeks and months. Thankfully, with the capability to take frequent pictures, it has been easy to do an assessment and generate a report of some of these amazing behaviors of plants, in an easy timeline order; all thanks to the EXIF data embedded. This has very helpfully allowed me to record my, otherwise minor observations, into great detail; and make some sense out of it by correlating the data over time. It is an emotional experience. You see, plants are amazing. When I sow a sapling, water it, feed it, watch it grow, prune it, medicate it, and what not; I build up affection towards it. Though, at the same time, to me it is a strict relationship, not too attached; as in it doesn t hurt to uproot a plant if there is a good reason. But still, I find some sort of association to it. With plants around, it feels I have a lot of lives around me. All prospering, communicating, sharing. And communicate they do. What is needed is just the right language to observe and absorb their signals and decipher what they are trying to say.

Devastation How in this world, when you are caring for your plants, can it transform:

From This
Healthy Mulberry Plant
Healthy Mulberry Plant
Healthy Mulberry Plant
Healthy Mulberry Plant
Healthy Bael Plant
Healthy Bael Plant

To This
Dead Mulberry Plant
Dead Mulberry Plant
Very Sick Bael Plant
Very Sick Bael Plant
With emotions involved, this can be an unpleasant experience. Bael is a dear plant to me. The plant as a whole has religious values (Shiva). As well, its fruits have lots of health benefits, especially for the intestines. Its leaves have a lot of medicinal properties. When I planted the Bael, there were a lot of emotions that went along. On the other hand, the Mulberry is something I put in with a lot of enthusiasm. Mulberries are now rare to find, especially in urban locations. For one, they have a very short shelf life; But more than that, the way lifestyles are heading towards, I was always worried if my children would ever have a day to see and taste these fruits. The mulberry that I planted, yielded twice; once very soon when I had planted and second, before it died. Infact, it died while during its second yield phase. It was quite saddening to see that happen. It made me wonder why it happened. I had been caring for the plants fairly well. Watering them timely, feeding them the right amount of nutrients. They were getting a good amount of sun. But still their health was deteriorating. And then the demise of the Mulberry. Many thoughts hit my mind. I consulted the claimed experts in the domain, the maali, the gardener. I got a very vague answer; there must be termites in the soil. It didn t make much sense to me. I mean if there are termites they d hit day one. They won t sleep for months and just wake up one fine day and start attacking the roots of particular plants; not all. I wasn t convinced with the termite theory; But still, give the expert the blind hand, I went with his word. When my mulberry was dead, I dug its roots. Looking for proof, to see if there were any termites, I uprooted it. But I couldn t find any trace of termites. And the plant next to it was perfectly healthy and blossoming. So I was convinced that it wasn t the termite but something else. But else what ? I still didn t have an answer to that.

Thinking The Corona pandemic had embraced and there was a lot to worry, and worry not any, if you change the perspective. With plants around in my home, and our close engagement with them, and the helplessness that I felt after seeking help from the experts, it was time again; to build up some knowledge on the subject. But how ? How do you go about a subject you have not much clue about ? A subject which has always been around in the surrounding but very seldom have I dedicated focused thought to it. To be honest, the initial thought of diving on the subject made me clueless. I had no idea where to begin with. But, so, as has been my past history, I chose to take it as a curiosity. I gathered some books, skimmed through a couple of pages. Majority of the books I got hold of were about DIYs and How to do Home Gardening types. It was a decent introduction to a novice but my topic of curiosity was different. Thankfully, with the Internet, and YouTube in particular, a lot of good stuff is available as documentary videos. While going through some, I came across a video which mentioned about carnivore plants. Like, for example, this one.
Carnivore Plant
Carnivore Plant
This got me thinking that there could be a possibility of something similar, that did the fate to my Mulberry plant. But who did it ? And how to dive further on this suspicion ? And most of all, if that thought of possibility was actually the reality. Or was I just hitting in the dark ?

Beginning To put some perspective, here s how it started. When we moved into our home, the gardener put in a couple of plants stock, as part of the property handover. Now, I don t exactly recollect the name of the plants that came in stock, neither English nor Hindi; But at my neighbor s place, the plant is still there. Here are some of the pictures of this beauty. But don t just go by the looks as looks can be deceiving
Dominating Plant
Dominating Plant
Dominating Plant
Dominating Plant
Dominating Plant
Dominating Plant
We hadn t put any serious thought about the plants we were offered by the gardener. After all, we never had ever thought of any mishap either.

Plants we planted Apart from what was offered by the builder/gardener as part of the property handover, in over the next 6 months of we moving in, I planted 3 tree type plants.
  1. Mulberry
  2. Bael
  3. Rudraksha
The Mulberry, as I have described so far, died a tragic death. Bael, on the other hand, fought hard. But very little did we know that the plant was struggling the fight. Our impression was that we must have been given a bad breed of the plant. Or maybe the termite theory had some truth. For the Rudraksha plant, the growth was slow. This was the very first time I had seen a Rudraksha plant, so I had no clue of what its growth rate could be, and what to expect out of it. I wasn t sure if the local climate suited the plant. A quick search showed no objections to the plant in the local climate, but that was it. So my theory has been to put in the plant, and observe. Here s what my Rudraksha plant looked like during the initial days/weeks of its settlement
Rudraksha Plant
Rudraksha Plant

The Hint Days passed and so on. Not much had progressed in gathering information. The plant s health was usual; deteriorating at a slow pace. On day, thinking of the documentaries I had been watching, it hit my mind about the plant behavior.
  • Plants can be Carnivores.
  • Plants can be Aggressive.
  • Plants can be Invaders.
  • Plants can be Territorial.
There are many plants where their aggression can be witnessed with bare human eyes. Like creepers. Some of them are good at spreading tentacles, grabbing onto other plants' stems and branches and spread above it. This was my hint from the documentaries. That s one of the many ways plants set their dominance. That is what hit my mind that if plants are aggressive on the out, underneath the soil, they should be having similar behavior. I mean, what we see as humans is just a part of the actual plant. More than half of the actual plant is usually underneath the soil, in most plants. So there s a high chance to get more information out, if you dig the soil and look the roots.

The Digging As I mentioned earlier, I do establish bindings, emotions and attachments. But not much usually comes in the way to curiosity. To dig further on the theory that the problem was elsewhere, with within the plants ecosystem, we needed to pick on another subject - the plant. And the plant we chose was the plant which was planted in the initial offering to us, when we moved into our home. It was the same plant breed which was neighboring all our newly planted trees: Rudraksha, Mulberry and Bael. If you look closely into the pictures above of these plants, you ll notice the stem of another plant, the Territorial Dominator, is close-by to these 3 plants. That s because the gardener put in a good number of them to get his action item complete. So we chose to dig and uproot one of those plant to start with. Now, while they may look gentle on the outside, with nice red colored tiny flowers, these plants were giants underneath. Their roots were huge. It took some sweat shredding to single-handedly remove them.
Dominating Plant Uprooted
Dominating Plant Uprooted
Dominating Plant Uprooted
Dominating Plant Uprooted
Dominating Plant Uprooted
Dominating Plant Uprooted
Dominating Plant Uprooted
Dominating Plant Uprooted

Today is brighter

Bael I ll let the pictures do the initial talking today.
Healthy Bael
Healthy Bael
Healthy Bael
Healthy Bael
Healthy Bael
Healthy Bael
Healthy Bael
Healthy Bael
Healthy Bael
Healthy Bael
The above ones are pictures of the same Bael plant, which had struggled to live, for almost 14 months. Back then, this plant was starved of its resources. It was dying a slow death out of starvation. After we uprooted the other dominant species, the Bael has recovered and has regained its charm. In the pictures above of the Bael plant, you can clearly mark out the difference in its stem. The dark colored one is from its months of struggle, while the bright green is from now where it is well nourished and regained its health.

Mulberry As for the Mulberry, I couldn t save it. But I later managed to get another one. But it turns out I didn t take good, full length pictures of the new mulberry when I planted. The only picture I have is this:
Second Mulberry Plant
Second Mulberry Plant
I recollect when I brought it home, it was around 1 - 1.5 feet in length. This is where I have it today: Majestically standing, 12 feet and counting
Second Mulberry Plant 7 feet tall
Second Mulberry Plant 7 feet tall

Rudraksha Then:
Rudraksha Plant
Rudraksha Plant
And now: I feel quite happy about
Rudraksha Plant
Rudraksha Plant
Rudraksha Plant
Rudraksha Plant
Rudraksha Plant
Rudraksha Plant
All these plants are on the very same soil with the very same care taker. What has changed is my experience and learning.

Plant Co-Existence Plant co-existence is a difficult topic. My knowledge on plants is very limited in general, and co-existence is something tricky, unexplored, at times invisible (when underneath the soil). So it is a difficult topic. So far, what I ve learnt is purely observations, experiences and hints from the documentaries. There surely are many many plants that co-exist very well. A good example is my Bael plant itself, which is healthily co-sharing its space with 2 other Croton plants. Same goes for the Rudraksha, which has a close-by neighbor in an Adenium and an Allamanda. The plant world is mesmerizing. How they behave, communicate and many many more signs. There s so much to observe, learn, explore and document. I hope to have more such observations and experiences to share

20 June 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Magician's Nephew

Review: The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis
Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #6
Publisher: Collier Books
Copyright: 1955
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044230-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 186
The Magician's Nephew is the sixth book of the Chronicles of Narnia in the original publication order, but it's a prequel, set fifty years before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It's therefore put first in the new reading order. I have always loved world-building and continuities and, as a comics book reader (Marvel primarily), developed a deep enjoyment of filling in the pieces and reconstructing histories from later stories. It's no wonder that I love reading The Magician's Nephew after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The experience of fleshing out backstory with detail and specifics makes me happy. If that's also you, I recommend the order in which I'm reading these books. Reading this one first is defensible, though. One of the strongest arguments for doing so is that it's a much stronger, tighter, and better-told story than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and therefore might start the series off on a better foot for you. It stands alone well; you don't need to know any of the later events to enjoy this, although you will miss the significance of a few things like the lamp post and you don't get the full introduction to Aslan. The Magician's Nephew is the story of Polly Plummer, her new neighbor Digory Kirke, and his Uncle Andrew, who fancies himself a magician. At the start of the book, Digory's mother is bed-ridden and dying and Digory is miserable, which is the impetus for a friendship with Polly. The two decide to explore the crawl space of the row houses in which they live, seeing if they can get into the empty house past Digory's. They don't calculate the distances correctly and end up in Uncle Andrew's workroom, where Digory was forbidden to go. Uncle Andrew sees this as a golden opportunity to use them for an experiment in travel to other worlds. MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. The Magician's Nephew, like the best of the Narnia books, does not drag its feet getting started. It takes a mere 30 pages to introduce all of the characters, establish a friendship, introduce us to a villain, and get both of the kids into another world. When Lewis is at his best, he has an economy of storytelling and a grasp of pacing that I wish was more common. It's also stuffed to the brim with ideas, one of the best of which is the Wood Between the Worlds. Uncle Andrew has crafted pairs of magic rings, yellow and green, and tricks Polly into touching one of the yellow ones, causing her to vanish from our world. He then uses her plight to coerce Digory into going after her, carrying two green rings that he thinks will bring people back into our world, and not incidentally also observing that world and returning to tell Uncle Andrew what it's like. But the world is more complicated than he thinks it is, and the place where the children find themselves is an eerie and incredibly peaceful wood, full of grass and trees but apparently no other living thing, and sprinkled with pools of water. This was my first encounter with the idea of a world that connects other worlds, and it remains the most memorable one for me. I love everything about the Wood: the simplicity of it, the calm that seems in part to be a defense against intrusion, the hidden danger that one might lose one's way and confuse the ponds for each other, and even the way that it tends to make one lose track of why one is there or what one is trying to accomplish. That quiet forest filled with pools is still an image I use for infinite creativity and potential. It's quiet and nonthreatening, but not entirely inviting either; it's magnificently neutral, letting each person bring what they wish to it. One of the minor plot points of this book is that Uncle Andrew is wrong about the rings because he's wrong about the worlds. There aren't just two worlds; there are an infinite number, with the Wood as a nexus, and our reality is neither the center nor one of an important pair. The rings are directional, but relative to the Wood, not our world. The kids, who are forced to experiment and who have open minds, figure this out quickly, but Uncle Andrew never shifts his perspective. This isn't important to the story, but I've always thought it was a nice touch of world-building. Where this story is heading, of course, is the creation of Narnia and the beginning of all of the stories told in the rest of the series. But before that, the kids's first trip out of the Wood is to one of the best worlds of children's fantasy: Charn. If the Wood is my mental image of a world nexus, Charn will forever be my image of a dying world: black sky, swollen red sun, and endless abandoned and crumbling buildings as far as the eye can see, full of tired silences and eerie noises. And, of course, the hall of statues, with one of the most memorable descriptions of history and empire I've ever read (if you ignore the racialized description):
All of the faces they could see were certainly nice. Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to faces that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt you would have to mind your P's and Q's, if you ever met living people who looked like that. When they had gone a little farther, they found themselves among faces they didn't like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on, they looked crueller. Further on again, they were still cruel but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things.
The last statue is of a fierce, proud woman that Digory finds strikingly beautiful. (Lewis notes in an aside that Polly always said she never found anything specially beautiful about her. Here, as in The Silver Chair, the girl is the sensible one and things would have gone better if the boy had listened to her, a theme that I find immensely frustrating because Susan was the sensible one in the first two books of the series but then Lewis threw that away.) There is a bell in the middle of this hall, and the pillar that holds that bell has an inscription on it that I think every kid who grew up on Narnia knows by heart.
Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.
Polly has no intention of striking the bell, but Digory fights her and does it anyway, waking Jadis from where she sat as the final statue in the hall and setting off one of the greatest reimaginings of a villain in children's literature. Jadis will, of course, become the White Witch who holds Narnia in endless winter some thousand Narnian years later. But the White Witch was a mediocre villain at best, the sort of obvious and cruel villain common in short fairy tales where the author isn't interested in doing much characterization. She exists to be evil, do bad things, and be defeated. She has a few good moments in conflict with Aslan, but that's about it. Jadis in this book is another matter entirely: proud, brilliant, dangerous, and creative. The death of everything on Charn was Jadis's doing: an intentional spell, used to claim a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat by her sister in a civil war. (I find it fascinating that Lewis puts aside his normally sexist roles here.) Despite the best attempts of the kids to lose her both in Charn and in the Wood (which is inimical to her, in another nice bit of world-building), she manages to get back to England with them. The result is a remarkably good bit of villain characterization. Jadis is totally out of her element, used to a world-spanning empire run with magic and (from what hints we get) vaguely medieval technology. Her plan to take over their local country and eventually the world should be absurd and is played somewhat for laughs. Her magic, which is her great weapon, doesn't even work in England. But Jadis learns at a speed that the reader can watch. She's observant, she pays attention to things that don't fit her expectations, she changes plans, and she moves with predatory speed. Within a few hours in London she's stolen jewels and a horse and carriage, and the local police seem entirely overmatched. There's no way that one person without magic should be a real danger to England around the turn of the 20th century, but by the time the kids manage to pull her back into the Wood, you're not entirely sure England would have been safe. A chaotic confrontation, plus the ability of the rings to work their magic through transitive human contact, ends up with the kids, Uncle Andrew, Jadis, a taxicab driver and his horse all transported through the Wood to a new world. In this case, literally a new world: Narnia at the point of its creation. Here again, Lewis translates Christian myth, in this case the Genesis creation story, into a more vivid and in many ways more beautiful story than the original. Aslan singing the world into existence is an incredible image, as is the newly-created world so bursting with life that even things that normally could not grow will do so. (Which, of course, is why there is a lamp post burning in the middle of the western forest of Narnia for the Pevensie kids to find later.) I think my favorite part is the creation of the stars, but the whole sequence is great. There's also an insightful bit of human psychology. Uncle Andrew can't believe that a lion is singing, so he convinces himself that Aslan is not singing, and thus prevents himself from making any sense of the talking animals later.
Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.
As with a lot in Lewis, he probably meant this as a statement about faith, but it generalizes well beyond the religious context. What disappointed me about the creation story, though, is the animals. I didn't notice this as a kid, but this re-read has sensitized me to how Lewis consistently treats the talking animals as less than humans even though he celebrates them. That happens here too: the newly-created, newly-awakened animals are curious and excited but kind of dim. Some of this is an attempt to show that they're young and are just starting to learn, but it also seems to be an excuse for Aslan to set up a human king and queen over them instead of teaching them directly how to deal with the threat of Jadis who the children inadvertently introduced into the world. The other thing I dislike about The Magician's Nephew is that the climax is unnecessarily cruel. Once Digory realizes the properties of the newly-created world, he hopes to find a way to use that to heal his mother. Aslan points out that he is responsible for Jadis entering the world and instead sends him on a mission to obtain a fruit that, when planted, will ward Narnia against her for many years. The same fruit would heal his mother, and he has to choose Narnia over her. (It's a fairly explicit parallel to the Garden of Eden, except in this case Digory passes.) Aslan, in the end, gives Digory the fruit of the tree that grows, which is still sufficient to heal his mother, but this sequence made me angry when re-reading it. Aslan knew all along that what Digory is doing will let him heal his mother as well, but hides this from him to make it more of a test. It's cruel and mean; Aslan could have promised to heal Digory's mother and then seen if he would help Narnia without getting anything in return other than atoning for his error, but I suppose that was too transactional for Lewis's theology or something. Meh. But, despite that, the only reason why this is not the best Narnia book is because The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the only Narnia book that also nails the ending. The Magician's Nephew, up through Charn, Jadis's rampage through London, and the initial creation of Narnia, is fully as good, perhaps better. It sags a bit at the end, partly because it tries to hard to make the Narnian animals humorous and partly because of the unnecessary emotional torture of Digory. But this still holds up as the second-best Narnia book, and one I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading. If anything, Jadis and Charn are even better than I remembered. Followed by the last book of the series, the somewhat notorious The Last Battle. Rating: 9 out of 10

1 June 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Horse and His Boy

Review: The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis
Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #5
Publisher: Collier Books
Copyright: 1954
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044200-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 217
The Horse and His Boy was the fifth published book in the Chronicles of Narnia, but it takes place during the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in the midst of the golden age of Narnia. It's the only true side story of the series and it doesn't matter much where in sequence you read it, as long as it's after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and before The Last Battle (which would spoil its ending somewhat). MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. The Horse and His Boy is also the only book of the series that is not a portal fantasy. The Pevensie kids make an appearance, but as the ruling kings and queens of Narnia, and only as side characters. The protagonists are a boy named Shasta, a girl named Aravis, and horses named Bree and Hwin. Aravis is a Calormene, a native of the desert (and extremely Orientalist, but more on that later) kingdom to the south of Narnia and Archenland. Shasta starts the book as the theoretically adopted son but mostly slave of a Calormene fisherman. The Horse and His Boy is the story of their journey from Calormen north to Archenland and Narnia, just in time to defend Narnia and Archenland from an invasion. This story starts with a great hook. Shasta's owner is hosting a passing Tarkaan, a Calormene lord, and overhears a negotiation to sell Shasta to the Tarkaan as his slave (and, in the process, revealing that he rescued Shasta as an infant from a rowboat next to a dead man). Shasta starts talking to the Tarkaan's horse and is caught by surprise when the horse talks back. He is a Talking Horse from Narnia, kidnapped as a colt, and eager to return to Narnia and the North. He convinces Shasta to attempt to escape with him. This has so much promise. For once, we're offered a story where one of the talking animals of Narnia is at least a co-protagonist and has some agency in the story. Bree takes charge of Shasta, teaches him to ride (or, mostly, how to fall off a horse), and makes most of the early plans. Finally, a story that recognizes that Narnia stories don't have to revolve around the humans! Unfortunately, Bree is an obnoxious, arrogant character. I wanted to like him, but he makes it very hard. This gets even worse when Shasta is thrown together with Aravis, a noble Calormene girl who is escaping an arranged marriage on her own talking mare, Hwin. Bree is a warhorse, Hwin is a lady's riding mare, and Lewis apparently knows absolutely nothing about horses, because every part of Bree's sexist posturing and Hwin's passive meekness is awful and cringe-worthy. I am not a horse person, so will link to Judith Tarr's much more knowledgeable critique at Tor.com, but suffice it to say that mares are not meekly deferential or awed by stallions. If Bree had behaved that way with a real mare, he would have gotten the crap beaten out of him (which might have improved his attitude considerably). As is, we have to put up with rather a lot of Bree's posturing and Hwin (who I liked much better) barely gets a line and acts disturbingly like she was horribly abused. This makes me sad, because I like Bree's character arc. He's spent his whole life being special and different from those around him, and while he wants to escape this country and return home, he's also gotten used to being special. In Narnia, he will just be a normal talking horse. To get everything else he wants, he also has to let go of the idea that he's someone special. If Lewis had done more with this and made Bree a more sympathetic character, this could have been very effective. As written, it only gets a few passing mentions (mostly via Bree being weirdly obsessed with whether talking horses roll) and is therefore overshadowed by Shasta's chosen one story and Bree's own arrogant behavior. The horses aside, this is a passable adventure story with some well-done moments. The two kids and their horses end up in Tashbaan, the huge Calormene capital, where they stumble across the Narnians and Shasta is mistaken for one of their party. Radagast, the prince of Calormen, is proposing marriage to Susan, and the Narnians are in the process of realizing he doesn't plan to take no for an answer. Aravis, meanwhile, has to sneak out of the city via the Tisroc's gardens, which results in her hiding behind a couch as she hears Radagast's plans to invade Archenland and Narnia to take Susan as his bride by force. Once reunited, Shasta, Aravis, and the horses flee across the desert to bring warning to Archenland and then Narnia. Of all the Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy leans the hardest into the personal savior angle of Christianity. Parts of it, such as Shasta's ride over the pass into Narnia, have a strong "Footprints" feel to them. Most of the events of the book are arranged by Aslan, starting with Shasta's early life. Readers of the series will know this when a lion shows up early to herd the horses where they need to go, or when a cat keeps Shasta company in the desert and frightens away jackals. Shasta only understands near the end. I remember this being compelling stuff as a young Christian reader. This personal attention and life shaping from God is pure Christian wish fulfillment of the "God has a plan for your life" variety, even more so than Shasta turning out to be a lost prince. As an adult re-reader, I can see that Lewis is palming the theodicy card rather egregiously. It's great that Aslan was making everything turn out well in the end, but why did he have to scare the kids and horses half to death in the process? They were already eager to do what he wanted, but it's somehow inconceivable that Aslan would simply tell them what to do rather than manipulate them. There's no obvious in-story justification why he couldn't have made the experience much less terrifying. Or, for that matter, prevented Shasta from being kidnapped as an infant in the first place and solved the problem of Radagast in a more direct way. This sort of theology takes as an unexamined assumption that a deity must refuse to use his words and instead do everything in weirdly roundabout and mysterious ways, which makes even less sense in Narnia than in our world given how directly and straightforwardly Aslan has acted in previous books. It was also obvious to me on re-read how unfair Lewis's strict gender roles are to Aravis. She's an excellent rider from the start of the book and has practiced many of the things Shasta struggles to do, but Shasta is the boy and Aravis is the girl, so Aravis has to have girl adventures involving tittering princesses, luxurious baths, and eavesdropping behind couches, whereas Shasta has boy adventures like riding to warn the king or bringing word to Narnia. There's nothing very objectionable about Shasta as a character (unlike Bree), but he has such a generic character arc. The Horse and Her Girl with Aravis and Hwin as protagonists would have been a more interesting story, and would have helpfully complicated the whole Narnia and the North story motive. As for that storyline, wow the racism is strong in this one, starting with the degree that The Horse and His Boy is deeply concerned with people's skin color. Shasta is white, you see, clearly marking him as from the North because all the Calormenes are dark-skinned. (This makes even less sense in this fantasy world than in our world because it's strongly implied in The Magician's Nephew that all the humans in Calormen came from Narnia originally.) The Calormenes all talk like characters from bad translations of the Arabian Nights and are shown as cruel, corrupt slavers with a culture that's a Orientalist mishmash of Arab, Persian, and Chinese stereotypes. Everyone is required to say "may he live forever" after referencing the Tisroc, which is an obvious and crude parody of Islam. This stereotype fest culminates in the incredibly bizarre scene that Aravis overhears, in which the grand vizier literally grovels on the floor while Radagast kicks him and the Tisroc, Radagast's father, talks about how Narnia's freedom offends him and the barbarian kingdom would be more profitable and orderly when conquered. The one point to Lewis's credit is that Aravis is also Calormene, tells stories in the same style, and is still a protagonist and just as acceptable to Aslan as Shasta is. It's not enough to overcome the numerous problems with Lewis's lazy world-building, but it makes me wish even more that Aravis had gotten her own book and more meaningful scenes with Aslan. I had forgotten that Susan appears in this book, although that appearance doesn't add much to the general problem of Susan in Narnia except perhaps to hint at Lewis's later awful choices. She is shown considering marriage to the clearly villainous Radagast, and then only mentioned later with a weird note that she doesn't ride to war despite being the best archer of the four. I will say again that it's truly weird to see the Pevensie kids as (young) adults discussing marriage proposals, international politics, and border wars while remembering they all get dumped back into their previous lives as British schoolkids. This had to have had dramatic effects on their lives that Lewis never showed. (I know, the real answer is that Lewis is writing these books according to childhood imaginary adventure logic, where adventures don't have long-term consequences of that type.) I will also grumble once more at how weirdly ineffectual Narnians are until some human comes to tell them what to do. Calormen is obviously a threat; Susan just escaped from an attempted forced marriage. Archenland is both their southern line of defense and is an ally separated by a mountain pass in a country full of talking eagles, among other obvious messengers. And yet, it falls to Shasta to ride to give warning because he's the human protagonist of the story. Everyone else seems to be too busy with quirky domesticity or endless faux-medieval chivalric parties. The Horse and His Boy was one of my favorites when I was a kid, but reading as an adult I found it much harder to tolerate Bree or read past the blatant racial and cultural stereotyping. The bits with Aslan also felt less magical to me than they did as a kid because I was asking more questions about why Aslan had to do everything in such an opaque and perilous way. It's still not a bad adventure; Aravis is a great character, the bits in Tashbaan are at least memorable, and I still love the Hermit of the Southern March and want to know more about him. But I would rank it below the top tier of Narnia books, alongside Prince Caspian as a book with some great moments and some serious flaws. Followed in original publication order by The Magician's Nephew. Rating: 7 out of 10

30 May 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Silver Chair

Review: The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis
Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #4
Publisher: Collier
Copyright: 1953
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044250-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 217
The Silver Chair is a sequel to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia in original publication order. (For more about publication order, see the introduction to my review of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) Apart from a few references to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the start, it stands sufficiently on its own that you could read it without reading the other books, although I have no idea why you'd want to. We have finally arrived at my least favorite of the Narnia books and the one that I sometimes skipped during re-reads. (One of my objections to the new publication order is that it puts The Silver Chair and The Last Battle back-to-back, and I don't think you should do that to yourself as a reader.) I was hoping that there would be previously unnoticed depth to this book that would redeem it as an adult reader. Sadly, no; with one very notable exception, it's just not very good. MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. The Silver Chair opens on the grounds of the awful school to which Eustace's parents sent him: Experiment House. That means it opens (and closes) with a more extended version of Lewis's rant about schools. I won't get into this in detail since it's mostly a framing device, but Lewis is remarkably vicious and petty. His snide contempt for putting girls and boys in the same school did not age well, nor did his emphasis at the end of the book that the incompetent head of the school is a woman. I also raised an eyebrow at holding up ordinary British schools as a model of preventing bullying. Thankfully, as Lewis says at the start, this is not a school story. This is prelude to Jill meeting Eustace and the two of them escaping the bullies via a magical door into Narnia. Unfortunately, that's the second place The Silver Chair gets off on the wrong foot. Jill and Eustace end up in what the reader of the series will recognize as Aslan's country and almost walk off the vast cliff at the end of the world, last seen from the bottom in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace freaks out, Jill (who has a much better head for heights) goes intentionally close to the cliff in a momentary impulse of arrogance before realizing how high it is, Eustace tries to pull her back, and somehow Eustace falls over the edge. I do not have a good head for heights, and I wonder how much of it is due to this memorable scene. I certainly blame Lewis for my belief that pulling someone else back from the edge of a cliff can result in you being pushed off, something that on adult reflection makes very little sense but which is seared into my lizard brain. But worse, this sets the tone for the rest of the story: everything is constantly going wrong because Eustace and Jill either have normal human failings that are disproportionately punished or don't successfully follow esoteric and unreasonably opaque instructions from Aslan. Eustace is safe, of course; Aslan blows him to Narnia and then gives Jill instructions before sending her afterwards. (I suspect the whole business with the cliff was an authorial cheat to set up Jill's interaction with Aslan without Eustace there to explain anything.) She and Eustace have been summoned to Narnia to find the lost Prince, and she has to memorize four Signs that will lead her on the right path. Gah, the Signs. If you were the sort of kid that I was, you immediately went back and re-read the Signs several times to memorize them like Jill was told to. The rest of this book was then an exercise in anxious frustration. First, Eustace is an ass to Jill and refuses to even listen to the first Sign. They kind of follow the second but only with heavy foreshadowing that Jill isn't memorizing the Signs every day like she's supposed to. They mostly botch the third and have to backtrack to follow it. Meanwhile, the narrator is constantly reminding you that the kids (and Jill in particular) are screwing up their instructions. On re-reading, it's clear they're not doing that poorly given how obscure the Signs are, but the ominous foreshadowing is enough to leave a reader a nervous wreck. Worse, Eustace and Jill are just miserable to each other through the whole book. They constantly bicker and snipe, Eustace doesn't want to listen to her and blames her for everything, and the hard traveling makes it all worse. Lewis does know how to tell a satisfying redemption arc; one of the things I have always liked about Edmund's story is that he learns his lesson and becomes my favorite character in the subsequent stories. But, sadly, Eustace's redemption arc is another matter. He's totally different here than he was at the start of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (to the degree that if he didn't have the same name in both books, I wouldn't recognize him as the same person), but rather than a better person he seems to have become a different sort of ass. There's no sign here of the humility and appreciation for friendship that he supposedly learned from his time as a dragon. On top of that, the story isn't very interesting. Rilian, the lost Prince, is a damp squib who talks in the irritating archaic accent that Lewis insists on using for all Narnian royalty. His story feels like Lewis lifted it from medieval Arthurian literature; most of it could be dropped into a collection of stories of knights of the Round Table without seeming out of place. When you have a country full of talking animals and weirdly fascinating bits of theology, it's disappointing to get a garden-variety story about an evil enchantress in which everyone is noble and tragic and extremely stupid. Thankfully, The Silver Chair has one important redeeming quality: Puddleglum. Puddleglum is a Marsh-wiggle, a bipedal amphibious sort who lives alone in the northern marshes. He's recruited by the owls to help the kids with their mission when they fail to get King Caspian's help after blowing the first Sign. Puddleglum is an absolute delight: endlessly pessimistic, certain the worst possible thing will happen at any moment, but also weirdly cheerful about it. I love Eeyore characters in general, but Puddleglum is even better because he gives the kids' endless bickering exactly the respect that it deserves.
"But we all need to be very careful about our tempers, seeing all the hard times we shall have to go through together. Won't do to quarrel, you know. At any rate, don't begin it too soon. I know these expeditions usually end that way; knifing one another, I shouldn't wonder, before all's done. But the longer we can keep off it "
It's even more obvious on re-reading that Puddleglum is the only effective member of the party. Jill has only a couple of moments where she gets the three of them past some obstacle. Eustace is completely useless; I can't remember a single helpful thing he does in the entire book. Puddleglum and his pessimistic determination, on the other hand, is right about nearly everything at each step. And he's the one who takes decisive action to break the Lady of the Green Kirtle's spell near the end. I was expecting a bit of sexism and (mostly in upcoming books) racism when re-reading these books as an adult given when they were written and who Lewis was, but what has caught me by surprise is the colonialism. Lewis is weirdly insistent on importing humans from England to fill all the important roles in stories, even stories that are entirely about Narnians. I know this is the inherent weakness of portal fantasy, but it bothers me how little Lewis believes in Narnians solving their own problems. The Silver Chair makes this blatantly obvious: if Aslan had just told Puddleglum the same information he told Jill and sent a Badger or a Beaver or a Mouse along with him, all the evidence in the book says the whole affair would have been sorted out with much less fuss and anxiety. Jill and Eustace are far more of a hindrance than a help, which makes for frustrating reading when they're supposedly the protagonists. The best part of this book is the underground bits, once they finally get through the first three Signs and stumble into the Lady's kingdom far below the surface. Rilian is a great disappointment, but the fight against the Lady's mind-altering magic leads to one of the great quotes of the series, on par with Reepicheep's speech in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."
This is Puddleglum, of course. And yes, I know that this is apologetics and Lewis is talking about Christianity and making the case for faith without proof, but put that aside for the moment, because this is still powerful life philosophy. It's a cynic's litany against cynicism. It's a pessimist's defense of hope. Suppose we have only dreamed all those things like justice and fairness and equality, community and consensus and collaboration, universal basic income and effective environmentalism. The dreary magic of the realists and the pragmatists say that such things are baby's games, silly fantasies. But you can still choose to live like you believe in them. In Alasdair Gray's reworking of a line from Dennis Lee, "work as if you live in the early days of a better nation." That's one moment that I'll always remember from this book. The other is after they kill the Lady of the Green Kirtle and her magic starts to fade, they have to escape from the underground caverns while surrounded by the Earthmen who served her and who they believe are hostile. It's a tense moment that turns into a delightful celebration when they realize that the Earthmen were just as much prisoners as the Prince was. They were forced from a far deeper land below, full of living metals and salamanders who speak from rivers of fire. It's the one moment in this book that I thought captured the magical strangeness of Narnia, that sense that there are wonderful things just out of sight that don't follow the normal patterns of medieval-ish fantasy. Other than a few great lines from Puddleglum and some moments in Aslan's country, the first 60% of this book is a loss and remarkably frustrating to read. The last 40% isn't bad, although I wish Rilian had any discernible character other than generic Arthurian knight. I don't know what Eustace is doing in this book at all other than providing a way for Jill to get into Narnia, and I wish Lewis had realized Puddleglum could be the protagonist. But as frustrating as The Silver Chair can be, I am still glad I re-read it. Puddleglum is one of the truly memorable characters of children's literature, and it's a shame he's buried in a weak mid-series book. Followed, in the original publication order, by The Horse and His Boy. Rating: 6 out of 10

11 April 2021

Vishal Gupta: Sikkim 101 for Backpackers

Host to Kanchenjunga, the world s third-highest mountain peak and the endangered Red Panda, Sikkim is a state in northeastern India. Nestled between Nepal, Tibet (China), Bhutan and West Bengal (India), the state offers a smorgasbord of cultures and cuisines. That said, it s hardly surprising that the old spice route meanders through western Sikkim, connecting Lhasa with the ports of Bengal. Although the latter could also be attributed to cardamom (kali elaichi), a perennial herb native to Sikkim, which the state is the second-largest producer of, globally. Lastly, having been to and lived in India, all my life, I can confidently say Sikkim is one of the cleanest & safest regions in India, making it ideal for first-time backpackers.

Brief History
  • 17th century: The Kingdom of Sikkim is founded by the Namgyal dynasty and ruled by Buddhist priest-kings known as the Chogyal.
  • 1890: Sikkim becomes a princely state of British India.
  • 1947: Sikkim continues its protectorate status with the Union of India, post-Indian-independence.
  • 1973: Anti-royalist riots take place in front of the Chogyal's palace, by Nepalis seeking greater representation.
  • 1975: Referendum leads to the deposition of the monarchy and Sikkim joins India as its 22nd state.
Languages
  • Official: English, Nepali, Sikkimese/Bhotia and Lepcha
  • Though Hindi and Nepali share the same script (Devanagari), they are not mutually intelligible. Yet, most people in Sikkim can understand and speak Hindi.
Ethnicity
  • Nepalis: Migrated in large numbers (from Nepal) and soon became the dominant community
  • Bhutias: People of Tibetan origin. Major inhabitants in Northern Sikkim.
  • Lepchas: Original inhabitants of Sikkim

Food
  • Tibetan/Nepali dishes (mostly consumed during winter)
    • Thukpa: Noodle soup, rich in spices and vegetables. Usually contains some form of meat. Common variations: Thenthuk and Gyathuk
    • Momos: Steamed or fried dumplings, usually with a meat filling.
    • Saadheko: Spicy marinated chicken salad.
    • Gundruk Soup: A soup made from Gundruk, a fermented leafy green vegetable.
    • Sinki : A fermented radish tap-root product, traditionally consumed as a base for soup and as a pickle. Eerily similar to Kimchi.
  • While pork and beef are pretty common, finding vegetarian dishes is equally easy.
  • Staple: Dal-Bhat with Subzi. Rice is a lot more common than wheat (rice) possibly due to greater carb content and proximity to West Bengal, India s largest producer of Rice.
  • Good places to eat in Gangtok
    • Hamro Bhansa Ghar, Nimtho (Nepali)
    • Taste of Tibet
    • Dragon Wok (Chinese & Japanese)

Buddhism in Sikkim
  • Bayul Demojong (Sikkim), is the most sacred Land in the Himalayas as per the belief of the Northern Buddhists and various religious texts.
  • Sikkim was blessed by Guru Padmasambhava, the great Buddhist saint who visited Sikkim in the 8th century and consecrated the land.
  • However, Buddhism is said to have reached Sikkim only in the 17th century with the arrival of three Tibetan monks viz. Rigdzin Goedki Demthruchen, Mon Kathok Sonam Gyaltshen & Rigdzin Legden Je at Yuksom. Together, they established a Buddhist monastery.
  • In 1642 they crowned Phuntsog Namgyal as the first monarch of Sikkim and gave him the title of Chogyal, or Dharma Raja.
  • The faith became popular through its royal patronage and soon many villages had their own monastery.
  • Today Sikkim has over 200 monasteries.

Major monasteries
  • Rumtek Monastery, 20Km from Gangtok
  • Lingdum/Ranka Monastery, 17Km from Gangtok
  • Phodong Monastery, 28Km from Gangtok
  • Ralang Monastery, 10Km from Ravangla
  • Tsuklakhang Monastery, Royal Palace, Gangtok
  • Enchey Monastery, Gangtok
  • Tashiding Monastery, 35Km from Ravangla


Reaching Sikkim
  • Gangtok, being the capital, is easiest to reach amongst other regions, by public transport and shared cabs.
  • By Air:
    • Pakyong (PYG) :
      • Nearest airport from Gangtok (about 1 hour away)
      • Tabletop airport
      • Reserved cabs cost around INR 1200.
      • As of Apr 2021, the only flights to PYG are from IGI (Delhi) and CCU (Kolkata).
    • Bagdogra (IXB) :
      • About 20 minutes from Siliguri and 4 hours from Gangtok.
      • Larger airport with flights to most major Indian cities.
      • Reserved cabs cost about INR 3000. Shared cabs cost about INR 350.
  • By Train:
    • New Jalpaiguri (NJP) :
      • About 20 minutes from Siliguri and 4 hours from Gangtok.
      • Reserved cabs cost about INR 3000. Shared cabs from INR 350.
  • By Road:
    • NH10 connects Siliguri to Gangtok
    • If you can t find buses plying to Gangtok directly, reach Siliguri and then take a cab to Gangtok.
  • Sikkim Nationalised Transport Div. also runs hourly buses between Siliguri and Gangtok and daily buses on other common routes. They re cheaper than shared cabs.
  • Wizzride also operates shared cabs between Siliguri/Bagdogra/NJP, Gangtok and Darjeeling. They cost about the same as shared cabs but pack in half as many people in luxury cars (Innova, Xylo, etc.) and are hence more comfortable.

Gangtok
  • Time needed: 1D/1N
  • Places to visit:
    • Hanuman Tok
    • Ganesh Tok
    • Tashi View Point [6,800ft]
    • MG Marg
    • Sikkim Zoo
    • Gangtok Ropeway
    • Enchey Monastery
    • Tsuklakhang Palace & Monastery
  • Hostels: Tagalong Backpackers (would strongly recommend), Zostel Gangtok
  • Places to chill: Travel Cafe, Caf Live & Loud and Gangtok Groove
  • Places to shop: Lal Market and MG Marg

Getting Around
  • Taxis operate on a reserved or shared basis. In case of the latter, you can pool with other commuters your taxis will pick up and drop en-route.
  • Naturally shared taxis only operate on popular routes. The easiest way to get around Gangtok is to catch a shared cab from MG Marg.
  • Reserved taxis for Gangtok sightseeing cost around INR 1000-1500, depending upon the spots you d like to see
  • Key taxi/bus stands :
    • Deorali stand: For Darjeeling, Siliguri, Kalimpong
    • Vajra stand: For North & East Sikkim (Tsomgo Lake & Nathula)
    • Rumtek taxi: For Ravangla, Pelling, Namchi, Geyzing, Jorethang and Singtam.
Exploring Gangtok on an MTB

North Sikkim
  • The easiest & most economical way to explore North Sikkim is the 3D/2N package offered by shared-cab drivers.
  • This includes food, permits, cab rides and accommodation (1N in Lachen and 1N in Lachung)
  • The accommodation on both nights are at homestays with bare necessities, so keep your hopes low.
  • In the spirit of sustainable tourism, you ll be asked to discard single-use plastic bottles, so please carry a bottle that you can refill along the way.
  • Zero Point and Gurdongmer Lake are snow-capped throughout the year
3D/2N Shared-cab Package Itinerary
  • Day 1
    • Gangtok (10am) - Chungthang - Lachung (stay)
  • Day 2
    • Pre-lunch : Lachung (6am) - Yumthang Valley [12,139ft] - Zero Point - Lachung [15,300ft]
    • Post-lunch : Lachung - Chungthang - Lachen (stay)
  • Day 3
    • Pre-lunch : Lachen (5am) - Kala Patthar - Gurdongmer Lake [16,910ft] - Lachen
    • Post-lunch : Lachen - Chungthang - Gangtok (7pm)
  • This itinerary is idealistic and depends on the level of snowfall.
  • Some drivers might switch up Day 2 and 3 itineraries by visiting Lachen and then Lachung, depending upon the weather.
  • Areas beyond Lachen & Lachung are heavily militarized since the Indo-China border is only a few miles away.

East Sikkim

Zuluk and Silk Route
  • Time needed: 2D/1N
  • Zuluk [9,400ft] is a small hamlet with an excellent view of the eastern Himalayan range including the Kanchenjunga.
  • Was once a transit point to the historic Silk Route from Tibet (Lhasa) to India (West Bengal).
  • The drive from Gangtok to Zuluk takes at least four hours. Hence, it makes sense to spend the night at a homestay and space out your trip to Zuluk

Tsomgo Lake and Nathula
  • Time Needed : 1D
  • A Protected Area Permit is required to visit these places, due to their proximity to the Chinese border
  • Tsomgo/Chhangu Lake [12,313ft]
    • Glacial lake, 40 km from Gangtok.
    • Remains frozen during the winter season.
    • You can also ride on the back of a Yak for INR 300
  • Baba Mandir
    • An old temple dedicated to Baba Harbhajan Singh, a Sepoy in the 23rd Regiment, who died in 1962 near the Nathu La during Indo China war.
  • Nathula Pass [14,450ft]
    • Located on the Indo-Tibetan border crossing of the Old Silk Route, it is one of the three open trading posts between India and China.
    • Plays a key role in the Sino-Indian Trade and also serves as an official Border Personnel Meeting(BPM) Point.
    • May get cordoned off by the Indian Army in event of heavy snowfall or for other security reasons.


West Sikkim
  • Time needed: 3N/1N
  • Hostels at Pelling : Mochilerro Ostillo

Itinerary

Day 1: Gangtok - Ravangla - Pelling
  • Leave Gangtok early, for Ravangla through the Temi Tea Estate route.
  • Spend some time at the tea garden and then visit Buddha Park at Ravangla
  • Head to Pelling from Ravangla

Day 2: Pelling sightseeing
  • Hire a cab and visit Skywalk, Pemayangtse Monastery, Rabdentse Ruins, Kecheopalri Lake, Kanchenjunga Falls.

Day 3: Pelling - Gangtok/Siliguri
  • Wake up early to catch a glimpse of Kanchenjunga at the Pelling Helipad around sunrise
  • Head back to Gangtok on a shared-cab
  • You could take a bus/taxi back to Siliguri if Pelling is your last stop.

Darjeeling
  • In my opinion, Darjeeling is lovely for a two-day detour on your way back to Bagdogra/Siliguri and not any longer (unless you re a Bengali couple on a honeymoon)
  • Once a part of Sikkim, Darjeeling was ceded to the East India Company after a series of wars, with Sikkim briefly receiving a grant from EIC for gifting Darjeeling to the latter
  • Post-independence, Darjeeling was merged with the state of West Bengal.

Itinerary

Day 1 :
  • Take a cab from Gangtok to Darjeeling (shared-cabs cost INR 300 per seat)
  • Reach Darjeeling by noon and check in to your Hostel. I stayed at Hideout.
  • Spend the evening visiting either a monastery (or the Batasia Loop), Nehru Road and Mall Road.
  • Grab dinner at Glenary whilst listening to live music.

Day 2:
  • Wake up early to catch the sunrise and a glimpse of Kanchenjunga at Tiger Hill. Since Tiger Hill is 10km from Darjeeling and requires a permit, book your taxi in advance.
  • Alternatively, if you don t want to get up at 4am or shell out INR1500 on the cab to Tiger Hill, walk to the Kanchenjunga View Point down Mall Road
  • Next, queue up outside Keventers for breakfast with a view in a century-old cafe
  • Get a cab at Gandhi Road and visit a tea garden (Happy Valley is the closest) and the Ropeway. I was lucky to meet 6 other backpackers at my hostel and we ended up pooling the cab at INR 200 per person, with INR 1400 being on the expensive side, but you could bargain.
  • Get lunch, buy some tea at Golden Tips, pack your bags and hop on a shared-cab back to Siliguri. It took us about 4hrs to reach Siliguri, with an hour to spare before my train.
  • If you ve still got time on your hands, then check out the Peace Pagoda and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (Toy Train). At INR 1500, I found the latter to be too expensive and skipped it.


Tips and hacks
  • Download offline maps, especially when you re exploring Northern Sikkim.
  • Food and booze are the cheapest in Gangtok. Stash up before heading to other regions.
  • Keep your Aadhar/Passport handy since you need permits to travel to North & East Sikkim.
  • In rural areas and some cafes, you may get to try Rhododendron Wine, made from Rhododendron arboreum a.k.a Gurans. Its production is a little hush-hush since the flower is considered holy and is also the National Flower of Nepal.
  • If you don t want to invest in a new jacket, boots or a pair of gloves, you can always rent them at nominal rates from your hotel or little stores around tourist sites.
  • Check the weather of a region before heading there. Low visibility and precipitation can quite literally dampen your experience.
  • Keep your itinerary flexible to accommodate for rest and impromptu plans.
  • Shops and restaurants close by 8pm in Sikkim and Darjeeling. Plan for the same.

Carry
  • a couple of extra pairs of socks (woollen, if possible)
  • a pair of slippers to wear indoors
  • a reusable water bottle
  • an umbrella
  • a power bank
  • a couple of tablets of Diamox. Helps deal with altitude sickness
  • extra clothes and wet bags since you may not get a chance to wash/dry your clothes
  • a few passport size photographs

Shared-cab hacks
  • Intercity rides can be exhausting. If you can afford it, pay for an additional seat.
  • Call shotgun on the drives beyond Lachen and Lachung. The views are breathtaking.
  • Return cabs tend to be cheaper (WB cabs travelling from SK and vice-versa)

Cost
  • My median daily expenditure (back when I went to Sikkim in early March 2021) was INR 1350.
  • This includes stay (bunk bed), food, wine and transit (shared cabs)
  • In my defence, I splurged on food, wine and extra seats in shared cabs, but if you re on a budget, you could easily get by on INR 1 - 1.2k per day.
  • For a 9-day trip, I ended up shelling out nearly INR 15k, including 2AC trains to & from Kolkata
  • Note : Summer (March to May) and Autumn (October to December) are peak seasons, and thereby more expensive to travel around.

Souvenirs and things you should buy

Buddhist souvenirs :
  • Colourful Prayer Flags (great for tying on bikes or behind car windshields)
  • Miniature Prayer/Mani Wheels
  • Lucky Charms, Pendants and Key Chains
  • Cham Dance masks and robes
  • Singing Bowls
  • Common symbols: Om mani padme hum, Ashtamangala, Zodiac signs

Handicrafts & Handlooms
  • Tibetan Yak Wool shawls, scarfs and carpets
  • Sikkimese Ceramic cups
  • Thangka Paintings

Edibles
  • Darjeeling Tea (usually brewed and not boiled)
  • Wine (Arucha Peach & Rhododendron)
  • Dalle Khursani (Chilli) Paste and Pickle

Header Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY

22 February 2021

John Goerzen: Recovering Our Lost Free Will Online: Tools and Techniques That Are Available Now

As I ve been thinking and writing about privacy and decentralization lately, I had a conversation with a colleague this week, and he commented about how loss of privacy is related to loss of agency: that is, loss of our ability to make our own choices, pursue our own interests, and be master of our own attention. In terms of telecommunications, we have never really been free, though in terms of Internet and its predecessors, there have been times where we had a lot more choice. Many are too young to remember this, and for others, that era is a distant memory. The irony is that our present moment is one of enormous consolidation of power, and yet also one of a proliferation of technologies that let us wrest back some of that power. In this post, I hope to enlighten or remind us of some of the choices we have lost and also talk about the ways in which we can choose to regain them, already, right now. I will talk about the possibilities, the big dreams that are possible now, and then go into more detail about the solutions. The Problems & Possibilities The limitations of online We make the assumption that we must be online to exchange data. This is reinforced by many modern protocols; Twitter clients, for instance, don t tend to let you make posts by relaying them through disconnected devices. What would it be like if you could fully participate in global communities without a constant Internet connection? If you could share photos with your friends, read the news, read your email, etc. even if you don t have a connection at present? Even if the device you use to do that never has a connection, but can route messages via other devices that do? Would it surprise you to learn that this was once the case? Back in the days of UUCP, much email and Usenet news a global discussion forum that didn t require an Internet connection was relayed via occasional calls over phone lines. This technology remains with us, and has even improved. Sadly, many modern protocols make no effort in this regard. Some email clients will let you compose messages offline to send when you get online later, but the assumption always is that you will be connected to an IP network again soon. NNCP, on the other hand, lets you relay messages over TCP, a radio, a satellite, or a USB stick. Email and Usenet, since they were designed in an era where store-and-forward was valued, can actually still be used in an entirely offline fashion (without ever touching an IP-based network). All it takes is for someone to care to make it happen. You can even still do it over UUCP if you like. The physical and data link layers Many of us just accept that we communicate in a few ways: Wifi for short distances, and then cable modems or DSL for our local Internet connection, and then many people are fuzzy about what happens after that. Or, alternatively, we have 4G phones that are the local Internet connection, and the same fuzzy things happen after. Think about this for a moment. Which of these do you control in any way? Sometimes just wifi, sometimes maybe you have choices of local Internet providers. After that, your traffic is handled by enormous infrastructure companies. There is choice here. People in ham radio have been communicating digitally over long distances without the support of the traditional Internet for decades, but the technology to do this is now more accessible to anyone. Long-distance radio has had tremendous innovation in the last decade; cheap radios can now communicate over several miles/km without any other infrastructure at all. We all carry around radios (Wifi and Bluetooth) in our pockets that don t have to be used as mere access points to the Internet or as drivers of headphones, but can also form their own networks directly (Briar). Meshtastic is an example; it s an instant messenger that can form a mesh over many miles/km and requires no IP infrastructure at all. Briar is similar. XBee radios form a mesh in hardware, allowing peers to reach each other (also over many miles/km) with a serial or framed protocol. Loss of peer-to-peer Back in the late 90s, I worked at a university. I had a 386 on my desk for a workstation not a powerful computer even then. But I put the boa webserver on it and could just serve pages on the Internet. I didn t have to get permission. Didn t have to pay a hosting provider. I could just DO it. And of course that is because the university had no firewall and no NAT. Every PC at the university was a full participant on the Internet as much as the servers at Microsoft or DEC. All I needed was a DNS entry. I could run my own SMTP server if I wanted, run a web or Gopher server, and that was that. There are many reasons why this changed. Nowadays most residential ISPs will block SMTP for their customers, and if they didn t, others would; large email providers have decided not to federate with IPs in residential address spaces. Most people have difficulty even getting a static IP address in the first place. Many are behind firewalls, NATs, or both, meaning that incoming connections of any kind are problematic. Do you see what that means? It has weakened the whole point of the Internet being a network of peers. While IP still acts that way, as a practical matter, there are clients that are prevented from being servers by administrative policy they have no control over. Imagine if you, a person with an Internet connection to your laptop or phone, could just decide to host a website, or a forum on it. For moderate levels of load, they are certainly capable of this. The only thing in the way is the network management policies you can t control. Elaborate technologies exist to try to bridge this divide, and some, like Tor or cjdns, can work quite well. More on this below. Expense of running something popular Related to the loss of peer-to-peer infrastructure is the very high cost of hosting something popular. Do you want to share videos with lots of people? That almost certainly is going to require expensive equipment and bandwidth. There is a reason that there are only a small handful of popular video streaming sites online. It requires a ton of money to host videos at scale. What if it didn t? What if you could achieve economies of scale so much that you, an individual, could compete with the likes of YouTube? You wouldn t necessarily have to run ads to support the service. You wouldn t have to have billions of dollars or billions of viewers just to make it work. This technology exists right now. Of course many of you are aware of how Bittorrent leverages the swarm for files. But projects like IPFS, Dat, and Peertube have taken this many steps further to integrate it into a global ecosystem. And, at least in the case of Peertube, this is a thing that works right now in any browser already! Application-level walled gardens I was recently startled at how much excitement there was when Github introduced dark mode . Yes, Github now offers two colors on its interface. Already back in the 80s and 90s, many DOS programs had more options than that. Git is a decentralized protocol, but Github has managed to make it centralized. Email is a decentralized protocol pick your own provider, and they all communicate but Facebook and Twitter aren t. You can t just pick your provider for Facebook. It s Facebook or nothing. There is a profit motive in locking others out; these networks want to keep you using their platforms because their real customers are advertisers, and they want to keep showing you ads. Is it possible to have a world where you get to pick your own app for sharing photos, and it works even if your parents use a different one? Yes, yes it is. Mastodon and the Fediverse are fantastic examples for social media. Pixelfed is specifically designed for photos, Mastodon for short-form communication, there s Pleroma for more long-form communication, and they all work together. You can use Mastodon to read Pleroma content or look at Pixelfed photos, and there are many (free) providers of each. Freedom from manipulation I recently wrote about the dangers of the attention economy, so I won t go into a lot of detail here. Fundamentally, you are not the customer of Facebook or Google; advertisers are. They optimize their site to keep you on it as much as possible so that they can show you as many ads as possible which makes them as much money as possible. Ads, of course, are fundamentally seeking to manipulate your behavior ( buy this product ). By lowering the cost of running services, we can give a huge boost to hobbyists and nonprofits that want to do so without an ultimate profit motive. For-profit companies benefit also, with a dramatically reduced cost structure that frees them to pursue their mission instead of so many ads. Freedom from snooping (privacy and anonymity) These days, it s not just government snooping that people think about. It s data stolen by malware, spies at corporations (whether human or algorithmic), and even things like basic privacy of one s own security footage. Here the picture is improving; encryption in transit, at least at a basic level, has become much more common with TLS being a standard these days. Sadly, end-to-end encryption (E2EE) is not nearly as much, perhaps because corporations have a profit motive to have access to your plaintext and metadata. Closely related to privacy is anonymity: that is, being able to do things in an anonymous fashion. The two are not necessarily equal: you could send an encrypted message but reveal who the correspondents are, as with email; or, you could send a plaintext message over a Tor exit node that hides who the correspondents are. It is sometimes difficult to achieve both. Nevertheless, numerous answers exist here that tackle one or both problems, from the Signal messenger to Tor. Solutions That Exist Today Let s dive in to some of the things that exist today. One concept you ll see in many of these is integrated encryption with public keys used for addressing. In other words, your public key is akin to an IP address (and in some cases, is literally your IP address.) Data link and networking technologies (some including P2P) P2P Infrastructure While some of the technologies above, such as cjdns, explicitly facitilitate peer-to-peer communication, there are some other application-level technologies to look at. Instant Messengers and Chat I won t go into a lot of detail here since I recently wrote a roundup of secure mesh messengers and also a followup article about Signal and some hidden drawbacks of P2P. Please refer to those articles for some interesting things that are happening in this space. Matrix is a distributed IM platform similar in concept to Slack or IRC, but globally distributed in a mesh. It supports optional E2EE. Social Media I wrote recently about how to join the Fediverse, which covered joining Mastodon, a federeated, decentralized social network. Mastodon is the largest of these, with several million users, and is something of a much nicer version of Twitter. Mastodon is also part of what is known as the Fediverse , which are applications that are loosely joined together by their support of the ActivityPub protocol. Other popular Fediverse applications include Pixelfed (similar to Instagram) and Peertube for sharing video. Peertube is particularly interesting in that it supports Webtorrent for efficiently distributing popular videos. Webtorrent is akin to Bittorrent running efficiently inside your browser. Concluding Remarks Part of my goal with this is encouraging people to dream big, to ask questions like: What could you do if offline were easy? What is possible if you have freedom in the physical and data link layers? Dream big. We re so used to thinking that it s quite difficult for two devices on the Internet to talk to each other. What would be possible if this were actually quite easy? The assumption that costs rise dramatically as popularity increases is also baked into our thought processes. What if that weren t the case could you take on Youtube from your garage? Would lowering barriers to entry lower the ad economy and let nonprofits have more equal footing with large corporations? We have so many walled gardens, from Github to Facebook, that we almost forget it doesn t have to be that way. So having asked these questions, my secondary point is to suggest that these aren t pie-in-the-sky notions. These possibilites are with us right now. You ll notice from this list that virtually every one of these technologies is ad-free at its heart (though some would be capable of serving ads). They give you back your attention. Many preserve privacy, anonymity, or both. Many dramatically improve your freedom of association and communication. Technologies like IPFS and Bittorrent ease the burden of running something popular. Some are quite easy to use (Mastodon or Peertube) while others are much more complex (libp2p or the lower-level mesh network systems). Clearly there is still room for improvement in many areas. But my fundamental point is this: good technology is here, right now. Technical people can vote with their feet and wallets and start using it. Early adopters will help guide the way for the next set of improvements. Join us!

3 October 2020

Ritesh Raj Sarraf: First Telescope

Curiosity I guess this would be common to most of us. While I grew up, right from the childhood itself, the sky was always an intriguing view. The Stars, the Moon, the Eclipses; were all fascinating. As a child, in my region, religion and culture; the mythology also built up stories around it. Lunar Eclipses have a story of its own. During Solar Eclipses, parents still insist that we do not go out. And to be done with the food eating before/after the eclipse. Then there s the Hindu Astrology part, which claims its own theories and drags in mythology along. For example, you ll still find the Hindu Astrology making recommendations to follow certain practices with the planets, to get auspicious personal results. As far as I know, other religions too have similar beliefs about the planets. As a child, we are told the Moon to be addressed as an Uncle ( ). There s also a rhyme around it, that many of us must have heard. And if you look at our god, Lord Mahadev, he s got a crescent on his head
Lord Mahadev
Lord Mahadev

Reality Fast-forward to today, as I grew, so did some of my understanding. It is fascinating how mankind has achieved so much understanding of our surrounding. You could go through the documentaries on Mars Exploration, for example; to see how the rovers are providing invaluable data. As a mere individual, there s a limit to what one can achieve. But the questions flow in free.
  • Is there life beyond us
  • What s out there in the sky
  • Why is all this the way it is

Hobby The very first step, for me, for every such curiosity, has been to do the ground work, with the resources I have. To study on the subject. I have done this all my life. For example, I started into the Software domain as: A curiosity => A Hobby => A profession Same was the case with some of the other hobbies, equally difficult as Astronomy, that I developed a liking for. Just did the ground work, studied on those topics and then applied the knowledge to further improve it and build up some experience. And star gazing came in no different. As a complete noob, had to start with the A B C on the subject of Astronomy. Familiarize myself with the usual terms. As so on PS: Do keep in mind that not all hobbies have a successful end. For example, I always craved to be good with graphic designing, image processing and the likes, where I ve always failed. Never was able to keep myself motivated enough. Similar was my experience when trying to learn playing a musical instrument. Just didn t work out for me, then. There s also a phase in it, where you fail and then learn from the failures and proceed further, and then eventually succeed. But we all like to talk about the successes. :-)

Astronomy So far, my impression has been that this topic/domain will not suit most of the people. While the initial attraction may be strong, given the complexity and perseverance that Astronomy requires, most people would lose interest in it very soon. Then there s the realization factor. If one goes with an expectation to get quick results, they may get disappointed. It isn t like a point and shoot device that d give you results on the spot. There s also the expectation side of things. If you are a person more accustomed to taking pretty selfies, which always come right because the phone manufacturer does heavy processing on the images to ensure that you get to see the pretty fake self, for the most of the times; then star gazing with telescopes could be a frustrating experience altogether. What you get to see in the images on the internet will be very different than what you d be able to see with your eyes and your basic telescope. There s also the cost aspect. The more powerful (and expensive) your telescope, the better your view. And all things aside, it still may get you lose interest, after you ve done all the ground work and spent a good chunk of money on it. Simply because the object you are gazing at is more a still image, which can quickly get boring for many. On the other hand, if none of the things obstruct, then the domain of Astronomy can be quite fascinating. It is a continuous learning domain (reminds me of CI in our software field these days). It is just the beginning for us here, and we hope to have a lasting experience in it.

The Internet I have been indebted to the internet right from the beginning. The internet is what helped me be able to achieve all I wanted. It is one field with no boundaries. If there is a will, there is a way; and often times, the internet is the way.
  • I learnt computers over the internet.
  • Learnt more about gardening and plants over the internet
  • Learnt more about fish care-taking over the internet
And many many more things. Some of the communities over the internet are a great way to participation. They bridge the age gap, the regional gap and many more. For my Astronomy need, I was glad to see so many active communities, with great participants, on the internet.

Telescope While there are multiple options to start star gazing, I chose to start with a telescope. But as someone completely new to this domain, there was a long way to go. And to add to that, the real life: work + family I spent a good 12+ months reading up on the different types of telescopes, what they are, their differences, their costs, their practical availability etc. The good thing is that the market has offerings for everything. From a very basic binocular to a fully automatic Maksutov-Cassegrain scope. It all would depend on your budget.

Automatic vs Manual To make it easy for the users, the market has multiple options in the offering. One could opt-in for a cheap, basic and manually operated telescope; which would require the user to do a lot of ground study. On the other hand, users also have the option of automatic telescopes which do the hard work of locating and tracking the planetary objects. Either option aside, the end result of how much you ll be able to observe the sky, still depends on many many more factors: Enthusiasm over time, Light Pollution, Clear Skies, Timing etc. PS: The planetary objects move at a steady pace. Objects you lock into your view now will be gone out of the FOV in just a matter of minutes.

My Telescope After spending so much of the time reading up on types of telescopes, my conclusion was that a scope with high aperture and focal length was the way to go forward. This made me shorten the list to Dobsonians. But the Dobsonians aren t a very cheap telescope, whether manual or automatic. My final decision made me acquire a 6" Dobsonian Telescope. It is a Newtonian Reflecting Telescope with a 1200mm focal length and 150mm diameter. Another thing about this subject is that most of the stuff you do in Astronomy; right from the telescope selection, to installation, to star gazing; most of it is DIY, so your mileage may vary with the end result and experience. For me, installation wasn t very difficult. I was able to assemble the base Dobsonian mount and the scope in around 2 hours. But the installation manual, I had been provided with, was very brief. I ended up with one module in the mount wrongly fit, which I was able to fix later, with the help of online forums.
Dobsonian Mount
Dobsonian Mount
In this image you can see that the side facing out, where the handle will go, is wrong. If fit this way, the handle will not withstand any weight at all.
Correct Panel Side
Correct Panel Side
The right fix of the handle base board. In this image, the handle is on the other side that I m holding. Because the initial fit put in some damage to the engineered wood, I fixed it up by sealing with some adhesive. With that, this is what my final telescope looks like.
Final Telescope
Final Telescope

Clear Skies While the telescope was ready, the skies were not. For almost next 10 days, we had no clear skies at all. All I could do was wait. Wait so much that I had forgotten to check on the skies. Luckily, my wife noticed clear skies this week for a single day. Clear enough that we could try out our telescope for the very first time.
Me posing for a shot
Me posing for a shot

Telescope As I said earlier, in my opinion, it takes a lot of patience and perseverance on this subject. And most of the things here are DIY. To start with, we targeted the Moon. Because it is easy. I pointed the scope to the moon, then looked into the finder scope to center it, and then looked through the eyepiece. And blank. Nothing out there. Turns out, the finder scope and the viewer s angle weren t aligned. This is common and the first DIY step, when you plan to use your telescope for viewing. Since our first attempt was unplanned and just random because we luckily spotted that the skies were clear, we weren t prepared for this. Lucky enough, mapping the difference in the alignment, in the head, is not very difficult. After a couple of minutes, I could make out the point in the finder scope, where the object if projected, would show proper in the viewer. With that done, it was just mesmerizing to see the Moon, in a bit more detail, than what I ve seen all these years of my life.
Moon
Moon
Moon
Moon
Moon
Moon
Moon
Moon
The images are not exactly what we saw with our eyes. The view was much more vivid than these pictures. But as a first timer, I really wanted to capture this first moment of a closer view of the Moon. In the whole process; that of ground work studying about telescopes, installation of the telescope, astronomy basics and many other things; the most difficult part in this entire journey, was to point my phone to the viewing eyepiece, to get a shot of the object. This requirement just introduced me to astrophotography. And then, Dobsonians aren t the best model for astrophotography, to what I ve learnt so far. Hopefully, I ll find my ways to do some DIY astrophotography with the tools I have. Or extend my arsenal over time. But overall, we ve been very pleased with the subject of Astronomy. It is a different feel altogether and we re glad to have forayed into it.

19 November 2017

Louis-Philippe V ronneau: DebConf Videoteam sprint report - day 0

First day of the videoteam autumn sprint! Well, I say first day, but in reality it's more day 0. Even though most of us have arrived in Cambridge already, we are still missing a few people. Last year we decided to sprint in Paris because most of our video gear is stocked there. This year, we instead chose to sprint a few days before the Cambridge Mini-Debconf to help record the conference afterwards. Since some of us arrived very late and the ones who did arrive early are still mostly jet lagged (that includes me), I'll use this post to introduce the space we'll be working from this week and our general plan for the sprint. House Party After some deliberations, we decided to rent a house for a week in Cambridge: finding a work space to accommodate us and all our gear proved difficult and we decided mixing accommodation and work would be a good idea. I've only been here for a few hours, but I have to say I'm pretty impressed by the airbnb we got. Last time I checked (it seems every time I do, some new room magically appears), I counted 5 bedrooms, 6 beds, 5 toilets and 3 shower rooms. Heck, there's even a solarium and a training room with weights and a punching bag on the first floor. Having a whole house to ourselves also means we have access to a functional kitchen. I'd really like to cook at least a few meals during the week. There's also a cat! Picture of a black cat I took from Wikipedia. It was too dark outside to use mine It's not the house's cat per say, but it's been hanging out around the house for most of the day and makes cute faces trying to convince us to let it come inside. Nice try cat. Nice try. Here are some glamour professional photos of what the place looks like on a perfect summer day, just for the kick of it: The view from the garden The Kitchen One of the multiple bedrooms Of course, reality has trouble matching all the post-processing filters. Plan for the week Now on a more serious note; apart from enjoying the beautiful city of Cambridge, here's what the team plans to do this week: tumbleweed Stefano wants to continue refactoring our ansible setup. A lot of things have been added in the last year, but some of it are hacks we should remove and implement correctly. highvoltage Jonathan won't be able to come to Cambridge, but plans to work remotely, mainly on our desktop/xfce session implementation. Another pile of hacks waiting to be cleaned! ivodd Ivo has been working a lot of the pre-ansible part of our installation and plans to continue working on that. At the moment, creating an installation USB key is pretty complicated and he wants to make that simpler. olasd Nicolas completely reimplemented our streaming setup for DC17 and wants to continue working on that. More specifically, he wants to write scripts to automatically setup and teardown - via API calls - the distributed streaming network we now use. Finding a way to push TLS certificates to those mirrors, adding a live stream viewer on video.debconf.org and adding a viewer to our archive are also things he wants to look at. pollo For my part, I plan to catch up with all the commits in our ansible repository I missed since last year's sprint and work on documentation. It would be very nice if we could have a static website describing our work so that others (at mini-debconfs for examples) could replicate it easily. If I have time, I'll also try to document all the ansible roles we have written. Stay tuned for more daily reports!

27 August 2017

Andrew Cater: BBQ Cambridge 2017 - post 4

Room full of people with laptops and an amount of chatting going on. Annoyingly, I can't get the thing I want to work but there's a whole load of other folk deep into dealing with all sorts.

The garden is also full but I'm guessing everyone is under the gazebos - it's now hot and sunny, unusual for a British holiday weekend.

Andrew Cater: BBQ Cambridge 2017 - post 3

One set of gazebos put up: kilos of mushrooms eaten, bacon, mushrooms and all the trimmings barbequed and consumed by the hordes. Now laptops are sprouting in the garden under the gazebos as the temperature is soaring,

Some folk are quiet in the house under fans typing and cooling off.

Masses of washing up is being done - as ever, it's how many people you can fit into a kitchen.

Now it will all go quiet for a bit as everyone lets the breakfast go down :)

Superb hospitality - we're _SO_ lucky to have Steve and Jo do this so readily.

Andrew Cater: BBQ Cambridge 2017 - post 2

We were all up until about 0100 :) House full of folk talking about all sorts, a game of Mao. Garden full of people clustered round the barbeque or sitting chatting - I had a long chat about Debian, what it means and how it's often an easier world to deal with and move in than the world of work, office politics or whatever - being here is being at home.

Arguments in the kitchen over how far coffee "just happens" with the magic bean to cup machine, some folk are in the garden preparing for breakfast at noon.

I missed the significance of this week's date - the 26th anniversary of Linus' original announcement of Linux in 1991 fell on Friday. Probably the first user of Linux who installed it from scratch was Lars Wirzenius - who was here yesterday.

Debian's 24th birthday was just about ten days ago on 16th August, making it the second oldest distribution and I reckon I've been using it for twenty one of those years - I wouldn't change it for the world.

25 August 2017

Steve McIntyre: Let's BBQ again, like we did last summer!

It's that time again! Another year, another OMGWTFBBQ! We're expecting 50 or so Debian folks at our place in Cambridge this weekend, ready to natter, geek, socialise and generally have a good time. Let's hope the weather stays nice, but if not we have gazebo technology... :-) Many thanks to a number of awesome companies and people near and far who are sponsoring the important refreshments for the weekend: I've even been working on the garden this week to improve it ready for the event. If you'd like to come and haven't already told us, please add yourself to the wiki page!

16 August 2017

Simon McVittie: DebConf 17: Flatpak and Debian

The indoor garden at Coll ge de Maisonneuve, the DebConf 17 venue
Decorative photo of the indoor garden
I'm currently at DebConf 17 in Montr al, back at DebConf for the first time in 10 years (last time was DebConf 7 in Edinburgh). It's great to put names to faces and meet more of my co-developers in person! On Monday I gave a talk entitled A Debian maintainer's guide to Flatpak , aiming to introduce Debian developers to Flatpak, and show how Flatpak and Debian (and Debian derivatives like SteamOS) can help each other. It seems to have been quite well received, with people generally positive about the idea of using Flatpak to deliver backports and faster-moving leaf packages (games!) onto the stable base platform that Debian is so good at providing. A video of the talk is available from the Debian Meetings Archive. I've also put up my slides in the DebConf git-annex repository, with some small edits to link to more source code: A Debian maintainer's guide to Flatpak. Source code for the slides is also available from Collabora's git server. The next step is to take my proof-of-concept for building Flatpak runtimes and apps from Debian and SteamOS packages, flatdeb, get it a bit more production-ready, and perhaps start publishing some sample runtimes from a cron job on a Debian or Collabora server. (By the way, if you downloaded that source right after my talk, please update - I've now pushed some late changes that were necessary to fix the 3D drivers for my OpenArena demo.) I don't think Debian will be going quite as far as Endless any time soon: as Cosimo outlined in the talk right before mine, they deploy their Debian derivative as an immutable base OS with libOSTree, with all the user-installable modules above that coming from Flatpak. That model is certainly an interesting thing to think about for Debian derivatives, though: at Collabora we work on a lot of appliance-like embedded Debian derivatives, with a lot of flexibility during development but very limited state on deployed systems, and Endless' approach seems a perfect fit for those situations. [Edited 2017-08-16 to fix the link for the slides, and add links for the video]

4 July 2017

John Goerzen: Time, Frozen

We re expecting a baby any time now. The last few days have had an odd quality of expectation: any time, our family will grow. It makes time seem to freeze, to stand still. We have Jacob, about to start fifth grade and middle school. But here he is, still a sweet and affectionate kid as ever. He loves to care for cats and seeks them out often. He still keeps an eye out for the stuffed butterfly he s had since he was an infant, and will sometimes carry it and a favorite blanket around the house. He will also many days prepare the Yellow House News on his computer, with headlines about his day and some comics pasted in before disappearing to play with Legos for awhile. And Oliver, who will walk up to Laura and give baby a hug many times throughout the day and sneak up to me, try to touch my arm, and say doink before running off before I can doink him back. It was Oliver that had asked for a baby sister for Christmas before he knew he d be getting one! In the past week, we ve had out the garden hose a couple of times. Both boys will enjoy sending mud down our slide, or getting out the water slide to play with, or just playing in mud. The rings of dirt in the bathtub testify to the fun that they had. One evening, I built a fire, we made brats and hot dogs, and then Laura and I sat visiting and watching their water antics for an hour after, laughter and cackles of delight filling the air, and cats resting on our laps. These moments, or countless others like Oliver s baseball games, flying the boys to a festival in Winfield, or their cuddles at bedtime, warm the heart. I remember their younger days too, with fond memories of taking them camping or building a computer with them. Sometimes a part of me wants to just keep soaking in things just as they are; being a parent means both taking pride in children s accomplishments as they grow up, and sometimes also missing the quiet little voice that can be immensely excited by a caterpillar. And yet, all four of us are so excited and eager to welcome a new life into our home. We are ready. I can t wait to hold the baby, or to lay her to sleep, to see her loving and excited older brothers. We hope for a smooth birth, for mom and baby. Here is the crib, ready, complete with a mobile with a cute bear (and even a plane). I can t wait until there is a little person here to enjoy it.

5 June 2017

John Goerzen: Flying with my brothers

Picture one Sunday morning. Three guys are seemingly-randomly walking into a Mennonite church in rural Nebraska. One with long hair and well-maintained clothes from the 70s. Another dressed well enough to be preaching. And the third simply dressed to be comfortable, with short hair showing evidence of having worn a headset for a couple of hours that morning. This was the scene as we made a spur-of-the-moment visit to that church which resulted in quite some surprise all around, since my brother knew a number of people there. For instance:
Pastor: Peter! What are you doing here? Peter: [jokingly] Is that how you greet visitors here?
And then, of course, Peter would say, Well, we were flying home from South Dakota and figured we d stop in at Beatrice for fuel. And drop in on you. Followed by some surprise that we would stop at their little airport (which is quite a nice one). This all happened because it was windy. This is the fun adventure of aviation. Sometimes you plan to go to Texas, but the weather there is terrible, so you discover a 100-year-old landmark in Indiana instead. Or sometimes, like a couple of weeks ago, we planned to fly straight home but spent a few hours exploring rural Nebraska. The three of us flew to Sioux Falls, SD, in a little Cessna to visit my uncle and aunt up there. On our flight up, we stopped at the little airport in Seward, NE. It was complete with this unique elevated deck. In my imagination, this is used for people to drink beer while watching the planes land. IMG_20170512_113323 In South Dakota, we had a weekend full of card and board games, horseshoes, and Crokinole with my uncle and aunt, who are always fun to visit. We had many memories of visits up there as children and the pleasant enjoyment of the fact that we didn t need an 8-hour drive to get there. We flew back with a huge bag of large rhubarb from their garden (that too is something of a tradition!) It was a fun weekend to spend with my brothers first time we d been able to do this in a long while. And it marked the 11th state I ve flown into, and over 17,000 miles of flying.

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