Saturday, August 25, 2007

Where I am and what I've been up to

This is not the next semi philosophical or literary tour-de-force piece I was looking for, but it is what I've been up to. I guess I have come to accept that I will never have the time nor inclination to produce a blog that is either extremely good reading or widely read, so I'll settle for it functioning as a diary (an unfortunately public one) that keeps track of my state of mind and life at various points.

To that end, what follows below is what is new in my life. It's basically an extract from an email I sent my family, edited for the public domain. Unpolished and strewn with boring rants, it is nevertheless an update. Here it is:

Here's the longer email I had promised.

I have now (partially) settled in to my new place. It is, as I have mentioned before, further away from the office, taking about 40 minutes walking. The route I usually take runs through a somewhat residential area, and is a nice quiet walk. Whether it will remain so after school starts and the undergrads are back is to be seen :) .

There's still some furniture I have to buy - a couple more shelves, perhaps. I inherited a couple of bookshelves (and some lamps) from the previous tenants, and what I have now fits them snugly, but considering that I am likely to accumulate more, I'd best plan ahead. A chair - of the wheeling, swiveling, height changing AND tilting variety, WITH armrests - an office chair, in short - is probably my top priority.

My roommates are Shivakumar *****, who is in the same Physics PhD batch here in Penn State as me, and Nitin ****, who is in Industrial Engineering. To my great fortune, both of them are quite comfortable with cooking - in fact, Nitin actually enjoys cooking; his dream is to open an Indian restaurant here in the States. We have a dishwasher, but a lot of Indian dishes require a bit more effort in scrubbing and cleaning the utensils, so I chip in by washing the dishes, and helping out with the cooking if I'm home on time. Nitin's away for a few days right now, so it's just me and Shiva, who I am happy to report is also a pretty good cook. Yes, Appa, I'll see if I can pick up something from them.

We've been doing a bit of shopping at Walmart and the local Goodwill store - luckily on the first day I went there, Goodwill (which is within walking distance) was having a 50% off sale. We picked up an excellent dining table for $20 - it has two extra segments that can be easily slotted in to increase the length to seat I think 8 comfortably. Shiva doesn't have a car right now - a friend totaled his while they were in Canada - but using a friend's car we shipped the disassembled table home. Reassembling it was not quite as easy - it doesn't quite have the feel of a mass-produced item, and lining up all the various screw holes at the same time wasn't easy. I'm still not sure I got it perfectly right, but it's functional and hasn't given us any trouble, though I did ruin my cheap screwdriver set in the process. I recently bought myself a more 'fundu' set - a 10 bit screwdriver with six of the bits actually stored inside the screwdriver. This was occasioned by the purchase of my desk.

I went to the university salvage store (walking all the way from the office in the cold, relentless rain) to pick out a desk, and found one quickly enough, and at a great price - just $25. I bought it and arranged with Artur for him to help me shift it the next day. Artur borrowed Josh's truck, and this part went smoothly enough. Our apartment is on the ground floor, and we have a sliding window that opens on to the lawn, so getting it in was not a problem. Once it was in the living room, Artur left, and I decided to have preliminary go at shifting it into my room. After turning it on its side and dragging it to the corridor, I suddenly realised that the door to my room was a bit small. Keeping in mind that the length (not the width or height, but still) of the desk is of the order of 5 feet, you can see that this presented a bit of a problem. In retrospect, with two (or three) people and a lot of ingenuity in manoeuvring, perhaps it could have been brought in in one piece; as it was, I was considering getting the window panes removed so that I could get it in that way. I made a quick trip to Walmart where I bought my marvelous screwdriver, and then went to the department where we were greeting the new PhD students with a free pizza lunch. The new batch has about 10 Americans, 2 or 3 South East Asians (Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan), 10 Chinese and 2 Indians. One of them - Murali - is joining the AMO (Atomic, Molecular and Optical) Physics division, and the other - Sreejith - who is actually an engineering graduate - is planning to join one of the gravity groups. They're from IIT Roorkee and IIT Madras, and in fact both are Malayalis. We (the current batches) said hi and gorged ourselves on not terribly good pizza. Afterwards I went home and decided to take on the desk.

The only set of screws (square headed, as opposed to cross or flat) I could see were on the bottom and seemed to affix the legs (the desk is wooden, with the legs and various parts of the drawers being metal), but I couldn't believe that it was that simple. I was right. After removing them, I found out that the legs were also attached on top, by screws whose heads were below the table top. Which meant I had to take that off too. So I removed the drawers, and then worked out the 12 screws inside the drawer compartments, and then tried the 3 screws in the central portion. But then the last screw defied me. It was up against an edge, so I couldn't grip the screwdriver comfortably to get at it. I tried various things, including Shiva's power tool (screws and unscrews, but can destroy your bits if you aren't careful), but it didn't work. If I didn't get it out, I wouldn't be able to take the top off, and thus wouldn't be able to get the legs off. So then I thought - I may not be able to turn the screw, but given that it's the last one, I can turn the table top instead. So I heaved the desk back on to its feet, and then started to rotate the top. My original plan had been to rotate the top all the way off the screw, but I soon realised that that was unnecessary - a 90 degree turn gave me access to the screw tops. But if I took the legs off what would keep the table standing? So I improvised supports using boxes and books, and took the legs off. Then I temporarily secured the top, slid the desk into my room, and then reversed most of the steps until it was finally reassembled, and clean, and miraculously standing inside my room. If I've made it sound epic, it's because it was - I did all of this singlehandedly. Which probably explains why my back is still giving me twinges.

After that I re-organised the room, and took the long overdue step of throwing away the reams of papers and documents I had collected in two years. I also organised most of my coin collection. The US Mint is currently putting out Statehood quarters - every state is honoured with a 25 cents coin that commemorates the year it joined the Union. They started issuing them in 1999, and every year 5 are released. 43 are already out, and I've been collecting them. Complicating the matter is the fact that there are actually two mints, and the coins are accordingly marked 'P' or 'D'. This makes for a hundred coins to be collected. With the help of Anjuchechi and Eduardo and some of my friends, I've been filling in the gaps in my collection. Now thanks to Anjuchechi and Eduardo I have a better idea of where I stand - they sent me a special coin album meant for the Statehood quarters, already labelled and with two spots for each state. Some of my older coins have gotten a bit dirty or even tarnished, so I may hunt for replacements once the set is complete. And since each slot is just slightly smaller than the coins, they can fit snugly in their spots, but sometimes t's hard getting them in - or getting them to stay there, so I've resorted to using little tape loops on their backs to keep them in place. But that's hardly noticeable, and so the collection looks quite impressive against the dark blue background of the album. Thank you, Anjuchechi and Eduardo.

My room is now by and large complete - the shelves (and perhaps a small bookshelf on top of the desk, if I can find one) and chair should take it further, and then I may decide to do some interior decorating. But for the most part I'm satisfied. As soon as the chair comes in, I'll steal someone's digital camera and send you some pics. Speaking of which, are there any more of baby Daniel? (Daniel is my latest nephew, born to my oldest sister, Anuchechi, on August 2, 2007.)

My friend (and classmate) Artur had been in a bit of a stew - he's Estonian, and Estonia has a national service requirement. Normally this is during your undergrad period, but since he did his degree in the UK, he got it postponed. This year though it came back to haunt him. If he had had to go, he would have been away for about 9 months, but somehow he was able to defer it again - even if only by a year. I think we may have a 'Welcome back' party soon.

Contact: I've gotten myself a SkypeIn number with a free voice mail account. The number is 1-814-***-****, so if you ever need to call me while you're away from the computer and don't have access to Skype, that's the number you want. (This being in the public domain I had to remove the numbers, but ask nicely and I'll tell you. :) )

However, sometimes I'm away from the computer and need to be reached, or to reach someone, so I have finally gotten myself a cell phone. It's a prepaid "Pay as you Go" plan with AT&T/Cingular. It costs 10 cents a minute and has a Daily Access Fee of $1 - that is, on days that I use my phone, I have to pay an additional one dollar. Obviously I would like to avoid using my phone as much as possible, so that number (1-814-***-****) is only for emergency contact/last minute instructions, and the phone will be off when I'm at home or in the office (1-814-***-****). The main reason I got it now, after all this time, is the 40 minute walk from home to the office (and even longer to my friends' places) - I'd hate to get there and then be told that I'd forgotten something.

There's not much else to report. My new check card arrived around the same time that I was starting to shift, so that caused some confusion when the old one stopped working. My laptop - oh, well, that's a long story, and I really don't want to get into it right now; the short version is:

My laptop's built-in speakers stopped working.
I took it to Best Buy which is where I had bought. My warranty had expired, and they didn't know what was wrong, so they sent it out to have it looked at. I paid $85.
They said something was wrong with my motherboard's audio controller, and that I would need a new motherboard at a cost of $700+. I thought about this and said no, since if I plugged in my headphones they worked fine, so all I would need to do is plug in some external speakers.
I had trouble getting through and telling them no, but eventually told one of the Customer Service people, who for some reason were unable to relay it to the relevant parties. Luckily the default policy was that if no response was got, they would send it back.
I called up and asked if my laptop was back, they said that it was on its way.
A few days later I tried calling up again, several times, to find out if it was back. All the Geek Squad people were busy helping customers in the store, and I was asked to leave my name and number. I did so, but no one got back to me. I did it again, and this time the Customer Service person assured me that someone would get back to me, but no one did. I only had two questions - was my laptop back, and if not, when would it be? But no one called.
I got frustrated and decided to be one of the customers who was being helped in the store. I went, and long story short, finally got my (as far as anyone knew) unrepaired laptop back. Unexpectedly though, the speakers have started to work again. They're still a little unreliable, so I am getting those external speakers, but it was an unexpected plus.

Okay, that wasn't really a short version, but it was very frustrating, which I guess shows. The desk incident at least had a sense of accomplishment and of difficulties overcome; this was more of a just "I'm glad it's over and I hope it never happens again, and as far as I can I will never interact with this company again."

I'm currently free duty-wise, at least until the term starts, so I'm just chipping away at the review paper and various books. I've kind of run out of Physics courses to take, so I'll probably get all 9 credits from an independent study course. The prof I want to work with is out of town (again) so I've emailed him. Failing that I may take some Math department courses, or independent study with another prof. (The prof I wanted agreed to take me on for 9 credits. He's also taken Artur on. Coincidentally, it appears that he (the prof) may also live at the same Apartments that I do - though I'm reasonably sure it's not in the same building. :))

What news from everyone else?