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Oct. 19th, 2008 @ 08:00 pm Re-reading Books
 I generally, like most people, do not re-read books. For most books, reading a second time is kind of unexciting - like watching The Sixth Sense a second time or The Usual Suspects a third time. But there are books that I so thoroughly enjoyed reading that sometimes wish I had not read the book at all, or rather could forget most of the content soon after reading and read again. I've read Catch-22 thrice till now, once each in 2002, 2004, 2007 - allowing about enough time between the readings for me to forget and approximately feel the euphoria, thrill and dark melancholy again. Other books I've read more than once are 1984, Steppenwolf and Ender's Game.
Jul. 19th, 2008 @ 06:18 pm Leolo
I watched Leolo for the second time last week and was as impressed by it this time as I was the first time.  The movie has an aura of humor and fantasy that it preserves even through the dark nightmares and the decadent, gross acts of a ten year old growing in a family of psychotics. You might wince at the slightly embarrassing scenes and smile at the quirky characters and marvel at the serene narration and be disgusted by the grotesque deeds, but you will more than ever share Leolo’s desire to dream and narrate and observe his life. The movie that begins with the phrase “Because I dream, I am not” ends with an epitaph that seems to say ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you can dream what you need’.

You, My lady
Bold melancholy
Solitary cry piercing my flesh
Offering it to ennui
Haunting my nights when I no longer know
Which way my life should go
I have paid you back a hundredfold
With the embers of thought
I’m left with only the ashes
Of a shadow of the lie
That you yourself told me to hear
The white plenitude
Unlike the old interlude
But brunette, with fine ankles, and shrewd
Who pinched my pain with a pointed breas
In whom I believed
And who left me nothing
But the regret of having seen
Day rise over my solitude …

So I’ll go rest, my head between two words,
In the valley of the swallowed.

— Leolo’s narrative self.

Feb. 10th, 2008 @ 06:37 pm The Joke
The Joke by Milan Kundera:
Quite a nice read. The book is set, for the most part, in a communist Czech republic and tells the story of Ludvik, who is expelled from college and The Party for a silly practical joke. The book then follows how his life pans out in the aftermath of The Joke. It is narrated by four characters in different sections and this, somehow, instead of disturbing the flow of the book seems to sustain it. And is full of memorable passages, and some great analogies. A quick and easy book to read. Particularly memorable are the passages where a bitter and self-absorbed Ludvik analyzes the personification of his hatred, rancor and even love.
Jan. 17th, 2008 @ 12:21 pm Pictures
I've uploaded pictures from the trip to Ecuador along with most of my other pictures at www.raghumeka.com/pictures
Jan. 5th, 2008 @ 05:18 pm Ecuador travel bits
Sometime in October I decided to go on a climbing trip and started looking for places. After looking around for a while I zeroed in on Ecuador. Ecuador was a great choice as the Avenue of Volcanoes in Ecuador has quite a few high but accessible peaks and more importantly, was within my budget. After making all the necessary arrangements and buying climbing equipment (most used from ebay) I toured Ecuador for sixteen days from December 13-29. The whole excursion was a memorable experience with breathtaking scenery, exhilarating and daunting climbs and a short glimpse of a whole new cultural vista.  A major reason for the trip being what it was was the people I met - our guides Wilson and Hugo were excellent, and the other members of the group - Andy, Colleen, Eric, Ghee and Tengren - were all great fun. And there were the mountains, beautiful and humbling.

The tour began inauspiciously with a flight/weather problem that had me ending up in Guayaquil instead of Quito, where I had to stay overnight at the airport. The picturesque in-flight to Quito the next day partially made up for the miserable night however. Before coming here, I told myself that I'd try any exotic food that I can get, but when I saw Sopa de Lengua (soup made out of bull's tongue) on the menu (at the first Ecuadorian restaurant I went to), I couldn't.

The next day was the first day of the tour. After meeting up with the rest of the group - Andy and Colleen from Colorado, Tengren, Ghee from Chicago and Eric from Arizona and our guides Wilson and Hugo, we went around Otavalo market and Cuicocha crater lake. I was surprised to learn that Otavalo market is the third most visited place in Ecuador (with Quito and Galapagos being the first and second).

Day 3 we headed to Rucu Pichincha an active volcano standing at  4700m.  The normal route up the mountain is supposed to be an easy hike good for acclimatization with a vertical gain of about 3000 feet. We took the ridge route which involved rock climbing with some segments probably 5.7-5.8 and quite a bit of exposure, rappelling and climbing down in volcanic gravel. As this was the highest I've been to - till then - and I had not done any rock climbing before, I was quite exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel after hiking for about 10 hours. And I had a terrible headache to attend to.

Day 4 was a tour of Quito. Quito is a unique and fascinating city. The whole city wraps around the slopes of an active volcano and is surrounded by many others that can be seen from various points in the city on a clear day. The old town is particularly remarkable as a center of culture and history in Ecuador. Strangely, I also got to see the president of Ecuador waving to the crowds from his presidential palace - which got our lead guide quite excited (he, like most Ecuadorians, is a strong supporter of Rafael Correa). However, the city is quite unsafe at night - even in the tourist district - with walking on the streets after 10 strongly discouraged.

Having spent the past few days relaxing and acclimatizing we were now set to embark on our main climbs - Cayambe, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. We set out to Cayambe refuge in two FWD's early in the morning and after a long and alluring drive got to the refuge at dusk. We spent the rest of the day relaxing to further acclimatize. In the night we were rewarded with a spectacular sky lit by a bright moon and a thunderstorm far away in the distance. In the dark we could see the summit of Antisana every now and then when a lightning struck. Even though I took a tripod with me, I couldn't get good pictures of this remarkable sight as my camera had a maximum exposure of 30 seconds.

Day 6 we set out to practice our alpine climbing skills on the glacier near by as I took my first steps on a glacier. The dinner that night was particularly exquisite with humita - a corn dish - being served for dessert.

Day 7 was the day to climb Cayambe (5790m). We started at 1 am and after about 2 hours of trekking through sludge and rock got to the glacier. Most of the climb was not technical but was extremely tiring due to the snow the day before - a step forward was invariably followed by a half step back. For the most part I didn't have the energy to take pictures when the clouds cleared up and we got some breathtaking views of the valley below. Our guide Hugo was a great help, especially with his lies about how close to the summit we were. It was disheartening to see other members of the group turning back and other teams going down having already reached the summit when we were a couple of hours from the summit. The climb got tougher and steeper as we neared the summit and the last 20-30 meters of near vertical section I bear-crawled my way through. Due to several factors only me and Eric made it to the top in our group. This was the highest I had been till then and considering how much I had exerted myself to get there, it felt like heaven to have a brief pause at the top.  I was tired as I've never been before by the time we got down at around 12 PM. Fortunately, by this time I was well acclimatized and didn't have any headache. We set out to Hacienda Guachala - a laid back country inn in the Cayambe province.

Day 8 we set out from Hacienda Guachala to Hacienda Cienega - a four hundred year old mansion from the Spanish colonial times that works as a hotel now.

Day 9 we drove from Cienega to Cotopaxi refuge. Cotopaxi (5897m) is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and the second highest peak of Ecuador with a large crater at the summit. The Cotopaxi national park was beautiful with "small" volcanoes everywhere. In the evening the clouds cleared up and we could see the summit of Cotopaxi from the refuge. The weather stayed clear for the rest of the day and the conditions seemed perfect for climbing with sun shining - a rare sight during my stay so far.

Day 10 we set out to climb Cotopaxi (5897m) at around 1am in horrible weather. There were winds at 20-30 mph blowing snow everywhere and it was real cold. Within a couple of hours three members of our group decided to turn back and many other teams made the same decision. Our lead tour guide Wilson wanted us to turn back too, but Hugo wanted to continue for another hour or so to see if the weather would let up. It felt like one of those stupid decisions you see on television that never end up too well, but three of us decided to continue - with Tengren and me in one rope team and Andy behind us. Fortunately, after sometime the weather kind of let up and the winds subsided.
          As we got closer to the summit it became ridiculously steep with the last 500 meters being 45-60 grade slopes. I was scared a lot over a particular section that was very steep and where just to tease us, I guess, the clouds cleared out for us to get a view of the valley below. We were walking parallel to the mountain on a dome like structure with the summit not yet in sight and the edge 20-30 feet away. You know that behind that edge just a little away is probably not that big a fall - may be 200-300 feet - with the glacier below this dome. But you could not see the glacier behind the edge from the point I was standing at. All you could see was the dirt at the base which is at least 400-500 meters below and your eyes can really deceive your mind. You are left imagining a 500 meter fall a mere 20 feet away standing on a glacier sloping at more than 45 degrees. I tentatively asked our guide if I could pause for a second and take a picture and the answer was a strict no. You have to keep moving till you get away from this section. Finally, after about an hour, we slowly made it out of the section.
         I was really exhausted at this point and the segment close to the summit which was sloped at roughly 75 degrees really took the heart out of me. I started out climbing properly - use the ice axe, dig in your crampons and lift yourself up. After about ten meters I was on all fours crawling my way up ... and the last 2-3 meters the guide pretty much had to drag me up with the rope. Three of us - Andy, Tengren and me - made it to the summit. And, as if to ridicule us, now that we were out of the scary section and on the summit it got very cloudy so that we could barely see ten feet ahead of us and we couldn't see the crater on top. At this point I was very tired and when we started climbing down my legs began to buckle. For the steep sections at the top, me and Tengren resorted to "ass-sliding" with the ice axe dug in deep, even though this is in general strongly not recommended. Again, our guide Hugo was fantastic and his lies had only gotten bigger this time.
        I think only four out of all the people (excluding the guides) set out to climb that day made it to the top. We left for Cienega after lunch.

Day 11 we set out to Chimborazo from Cienega. Chimborazo is an inactive volcano and is the highest peak of Ecuador. The summit of Chimborazo is also the farthest spot from the center of Earth (even though there are many higher peaks, Chimborazo is just one degree south of the equator). Along the way we got a great full frontal view of Chimborazo. It seemed monstrous in its size. We also got to see a few Vecuña on the way to the refuge. The sky stayed pretty much clear for the entire night and it was a full moon day. It was beautiful to see the moon rise from behind the mountain. I was glad I carried a tripod.

Day 12 we idled around for most of the day and went up to the second refuge in the evening. The weather had been very clear the previous days and to me it seemed as these would be the best conditions there would be. But our guide cautioned us that if the snow melts it would be dangerous to climb as there'll be an increased risk of rock fall and avalanche. On the way to the second refuge we went past a memorial for Alexander von Humboldt who made a failed attempt to climb Chimborazo and made the first observations of altitude sickness here. There were other plaques and stones of a more grave nature - these were in memory of people who had died climbing Chimborazo.

Day 13 we set out earlier than usual at 12am as this was going to be a longer climb. At this point I was confident enough that I expected myself to climb at least till the Ventemilla summit. We had climbed for about two-three hours over some steep and slippery rock sections when our guide Hugo said that we might have to turn back as the rock was too loose. The rock did seem loose on the way up but it did not seem that bad. After a while the three guides said we have to turn back because there is too much of a risk. We were mighty disappointed and to a certain extent pissed too. But what can you do? We slowly descended back, packed our gear and left for Baños. We were pretty pissed as we thought we shouldn't have been on that route to begin with. But as one of our guides said, from where they got to the day before, the conditions didn't seem too bad on the route we took. I really wished we had an extra summit day (among all agencies that offered a similar trip, I think Mountain Madness was the only one that had an extra summit day for Chimborazo, but it was 2000$ more).
         So we ended up in Baños earlier than we expected and after getting some rest, Eric and me ended up on zona de bares. After a while all of us ended up at the Leprechaun bar and pretty much got wasted. The shot in the picture is called Bob Marley (the colors are the colors of the Jamaican flag).

Day 14 we went out to see some waterfalls, took an exciting cable car ride, and I caught a trout in an artificial trout pond, meant for people like us who can't catch fish in a normal lake. In the evening we ate some Cuy - Guinea pig.

Day 15 we set out to Quito. We hadn't gotten much of an opportunity to see the night life in Quito as it is pretty scary and also because at the beginning we had to save ourselves for the climbs. All of us had dinner at some odd, but good, Tapas place. As it was pretty late already and I had to be at the airport by about 5 am it was more prudent for me to stay up all night. So Andy and me stayed up all night going around the tourist section of Quito and by the time I got to the airport at around 5 am I was pretty inebriated to say the least and I hadn't slept at all. Not surprisingly, I got pulled aside for secondary checks three times and astonishingly a couple of times for X-Ray (in case you have seen Maria full of Grace - I had to fill up the same form a couple of times).

I had a fascinating two weeks in Ecuador and climbing was great fun - more exciting than I had expected it to be. I'm reasonably certain that I'll go climbing in South America again. On our drive from Cienega to Chimborazo national park we drove for a short while on the Pan-American highway and the short drive was incomparable to anything I've seen before with a view of mountains in all four directions. I hope that someday I can drive down the Pan-American highway.

At the summit of Cayambe.
Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve, Chimborazo refuge; clockwise from left - Andy, Colleen, Eric, Wilson, Hugo, Ghee, Tengren.
Cuy - Guinea PigBob Marley shot
Cuy/Guinea pig; A flaming shot known as Bob Marley.
Dec. 7th, 2007 @ 10:54 pm The GBG
I've just finished reading The Glass Bead Game, something I've wanted to read for a long time. Like many of Hesse's works The GBG is at times mystical, at times mythical, at times laborious, but mostly just beautiful.
Nov. 25th, 2007 @ 07:13 pm Another
I just finished reading The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. It has some quite nice stuff like the "Reformed Distributed Republic". You can read about it in the wikipedia article (it is not important for the plot if you are worried about it). Here's a passage that begs to be formulated as a math problem ...
    "the pods were programmed to hang in space in a hexagonal pattern ... enough wrestling with the wind and a pod's battery would run down. Then it would swim over and nuzzle its neighbor. The two would mate in midair, like dragonflies, and the weaker would take power from the stronger. The system included larger aerostats called nurse drones that would cruise around dumping large amounts of power into randomly selected pods all over the grid, which would then distribute it to their neighbors ..."

This reminds me of the work on information networks, particularly the work dealing with, the aptly named, 'gossip algorithms'. 
Nov. 6th, 2007 @ 11:12 am Cognitive dissonance
I think everyone suffers from it. In fact, I believe that you spend most of your 'thinking time' doing nothing but rationalizing. Apparently even monkeys and small children exhibit the same behavior. Interesting. On a related note, here's a nice post about cognitive dissonance by Scott Adams.
Oct. 24th, 2007 @ 10:23 am Random links
Yesterday's Nytimes science edition was on sleep. A couple of the articles were interesting, others were quite ordinary. A blog that I frequently read and sometimes like is this. Arguably some of the posts border on true bullishness, but some of them are pretty interesting - for example, see the post about the supposed connection between fires and global warming. To keep myself out of a mess, I have to say that unlike TRF (at least, this is what I perceive), I do believe that global warming is real. But I strongly disagree with the recent playing up of the consequences (especially by media and a few notable people). This for me, borders on propaganda, and any form of propaganda should be banished. You might be tempted to justify some propaganda by saying that it is necessary to counter some strongly rooted misconceptions and bring about some much warranted regulations - but it's a slippery slope - once you justify some propaganda by saying it is for the good, any propaganda can be. 
Oct. 20th, 2007 @ 10:49 pm Me, Myself and I
Just finished reading The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk. It's a beautiful book with an amazing structure that along with being a core element of the style of the book, also reflects the essence of it's content. The main narrative of the book interspersed with short stories, prose and ramblings of a virtual alter-ego of the protagonist (or more accurately, whose virtual alter-ego our protagonist is ...) that reflect the storyline, if in a distorted way, creates a unique effect. This is best illustrated, perhaps ironically, by the column Mysterious Paintings. In a parodying and self-referential, if you will, twist this specific interlude seems to be commenting on this layered structure of the book, while itself being one of the layers. This is a haunting book, that starts with our protagonist's quest for his beloved, and follows his journey through a looking-glass into a world of mysterious words, letters, faces of letters, and a quest for him, his other-self and the eye. After all, it is not finding that is essential but keeping on the path, not the answer but the quest for answer, for which the question is just a pretext.