Tuesday, August 27, 2013

1Q84 - The Complete Trilogy - Haruki Murakami - my thoughts

  • This is my first Murakami book. 
  • The story revolves around two characters Aomame and Tengo Kwana
  • Aomame is a  Instructor at a sports club and has a dark side to her life
  • Tengo Kwana works as a maths teacher at a Cram School and aspires to be a writer
  • The story slowly gains pace and i found the narration to be quite gripping
  • I wondered at times what made Murakami think of a story like this
  • As the story progresses, the reader realizes that the lives of the two characters are closely interwined and what the two set out to do are in its own way quite dangerous
  • I found the pace to be slacking a bit towards the end, when the reader can anticipate the end
  • I also felt that some of the narration was a bit redundant, as when it comes to describing the character 'Ushikawa'
  • The story could also have been better edited for the above mentioned reason
  • But i believe the above should not stop anyone from reading the book
  • it is brilliant and i haven't read anything like this before
  • Highly recommended
  • A suggestion: If you can read it in e-book format, it is better because at 1200 plus pages, it is not just a literal heavy weight
  • Read May/June 2013 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Road Trip and Guidelines on Agile Estimating and Planning

While reading the book Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn,  i came across a chapter on Dozen guidelines for Agile estimating and planning. The book  and guidelines reminded me of a road trip that myself and two friends undertook from Delhi to Leh and back, in 2011.

What follows is an account of what we planned to do and what we ended up doing actually and more importantly, how our preparation followed the guidelines of agile estimating and planning, albeit unknowingly.

What was planned
Trip Duration was 9 days. Plan was to travel from Delhi to Manali to Leh, via Keylong and Sarchu. Spend time in Leh, see Pangong Tso lake, visit khardung la , one of the highest motorable passes in the world and few monasteries around Leh. Return route was Leh-Kargil-Srinagar-Pathankot - Delhi. The attached map shows the route planned ( courtesy google maps)

Day 0 - Arrive in Delhi - Hire cab
Day 1 - drive via manali rohtang pass  (rohtang means pile of corpses) and at Night - Rest in Keylong

Day 2 - Drive Past Sarchu and take rest in plains - if possible reach leh
Day 3 - See around Leh
Day 4 - See around Leh
Day 5 - See around Leh
Day 6 - See around Leh
Day 7 - Start return trip back to Delhi
Day 8 - Drive to Delhi
Day 9 - Reach Delhi and catch evening flight back home

What was considered in planning. Planning started as soon as we were forced to abort a similar trip in 2010
  • Timing was key. Depending on snow fall, the Manali  Leh Road opens anytime from May-June. It may also get closed in case of heavy snow fall. When open, priority is always given to Army Vehicles.
  • If we took the trip too early, we risked not completing the trip due to snow blocked roads. If we did the trip in August, the snow capped mountains will have less snow and the view will not be that great.
  • Be in good physical condition. The terrain and altitude can be demanding. so regular exercise was part of the preparation 
  • Experiences from an aborted trip in 2010 when we couldn't proceed beyond Keylong.
  • Bad roads and unpredictable weather leading to traffic jams
  • High altitude sickness (HAS): Altitude sickness is a serious health concern. If not attended to in time, it could turn out to be fatal. (HAS and preparation against it deserves a separate post)
  • Time delays caused by stopping to Photograph on the way as accommodated.

What Actually Happened

Day 0 - Arrive in Delhi - Hire a cab - Start driving at early hours of day 1

What caused the road block
Day 1 - Afternoon - Reached Manali Skipped lunch to  drive beyond Manali. But Traffic Jam caused by bad road stopped us. We waited in queue as we thought, would get through - but couldn't - As it was too late to return to manali, we decided to stay in a tent and have food at a roadside dhabha.

Day 2 -   Traffic was still blocked at day 2 morning. We decided to come back to Manali and take  rest. 2 of the 3 show signs of food poisoning.

Day 3 - Start at 3.30 Am to cross Rohtang pass. We manage to cross the blocked road. But our innova was gashed by a heavy vehicle that slipped. In the process,  Innova loses LHS rear view mirror and suffers damage. The LHS front door couldn't be opened from outside. Crossing the breached road gave us some jittery moments as a mistake in driving the vehicle could lead to a disconnected clutch. Due to the skills of the person who was driving, we crossed this place safely.  We stopped for lunch along the way and decided to drive as long as the lights would allow and ended up staying in Sarchu for the night .
Our damaged vehicle
A word about Sarchu. Sarchu- altitude is 4290 metres. Though the travel guides suggest that people take an over night break at Sarchu, i wouldn't advise it as HAS is never far off. It was cold, we were tired and food went cold in the time it travelled from the plate to our mouth. Two of the team of three were completely down and couldnt sleep well.

Day 4 - Morning while trying to have breakfast (we didn't feel like eating anything), checked at the tent for the nearest army hospital. We visited the hospital that was a few thousand metres away. The doctor checked us and  two of the three put on oxygen. Fortunately for us, the oxygen levels improved and with some suggestion and advice along with free medication,  doctor  says the team is fit to drive. Tells us that we will be okay once we reach Leh and asks us to consult a doctor there.
Sarchu - Road condition 
    The reason why  i mentioned about improving oxygen levels is that for a fellow traveller, who was riding a motorcycle, oxygen levels didnt improve even after being on orxgen. He was advised to reach lower altitudes as soon as possible, lest it could turn out fatal.

Day 8: Drass - it was freezing and we stopped over for a cup of tea
Day 5 - Afternoon Reach  Leh . Team still unwell. As suggested by the army doctor, we decide to acclimatize by taking complete rest  for the day.  Consult with a doctor in the evening and he told us that the food poisoning aggravated the HAS as the bacteria that caused the food poisoning consumed some of the already depleted oxygen.

Day 6 - See around Leh - Visited Thiksey and Hemis Monasteries.

Day 7 - Start drive back to Delhi. Visit Alchi Monastery on the way. Overnight stop at Kargil

Day 8 -  Early morning start from Kargil. Route back was Kargil- Drass - Srinagar-Pathankot and Delhi.

Day 9 - Almost non stop drive for 36 hours - reach Delhi just in time to catch evening flight back home

Lessons Learnt
  • It was a physically demanding and tiring journey, but mentally very fulfilling. In physically demanding trips, if people are not set in the right frame of mind, it will only make the trip more difficult and intolerable...So the team composition becomes very important - Lesson learned from 2010 trip
  • The roads demanded complete focus on driving and drivers always had to be at their best.
    Demanding Roads
  • Don't skip food at any point. Whenever wherever possible, have a heavy breakfast. Fat in the form of butter is fine as the body needs it a lot.
  • Don't stay at Sarchu overnight - The altitude makes things bad and complicates it for people who are not very fit.
  • Keep drinking lot of water when in Leh. Water mixed with electrol is better. Dehydration is a serious problem
  • Our plan was too aggressive and we should plan for a 15 day trip and not a 9 day trip to cover in detail all that we planned.
  • Don't drive when tired and avoid night driving as much as possible
  • The picturesque views along the way were worth the trip and more. What is captured through photos is only miniscule part of it and doesn't do justice to the place.
  • When body suffers from low haemoglobin levels, it impairs the ability to absorb oxygen. While this is okay at plains, it is not at all okay at higher altitudes. One of the ways to improve haemoglobin levels is regular exercise.
  • The Army hospitals are equipped with the best of infrastructure and open only when the roads are open ( may to september/october).  
  • The roads are maintained by Border Road Organization (BRO) who man the roads round the clock. We owe the successful completion of the trip to the Indian Army and BRO.

I  think we followed certain Guidelines for Planning, when i look back at the trip now after two years.
  • Like Agile Projects, we were time boxed. We had set out to achieve certain objectives ( drive by road from Delhi to Leh and back to Delhi) and to see places in and around Leh, but were constrained by the fact that we had 9 days to achieve this objective.
  • The whole group understood the objectives of the trip, the perils involved  and was involved in decision making, though primary responsibility for certain activities fell with one person.
  • Planning happened at different levels ; at the highest level it was the road trip and it was gradually broken down with the lowest being the immediate destination on hand.
  • The distance to be travelled and the total time needed were never mixed
  • Uncertainty in our plan was accepted and expressed using range. time taken to reach a place was always expressed x hours plus or minus y hours and never x hours. depending on the actual time made, subsequent targets were accordingly modified.
  • Planning happened on the ground and kept changing often.
  • Lessons learnt on the ground were continuously incorporated into subsequent planning
  • What could be achieved in a day was kept realistic and not over ambitious - other than the drive to reach delhi because we had to be at work next day .
  • What we could see/accomplish was continuously prioritized - we dropped Pangong Tso and Khardungla as the group wasn't physically upto the demands and were worried about HAS.
  • Planning happened based on actual numbers and also on our experience from 2010 trip.
  • We did leave some slack in the planning, but that slack was consumed by the delay in crossing Rohtang pass

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Vaclav Smil - A Polymath

The other day, while traveling in a plane, the journey was a bit turbulent for a couple of minutes. I was thinking of  the number of factors that need to come together in the right manner for a successful air travel, not to forget the plane itself that is an engineering marvel of metal and electronics. 

The day after that, on my facebook page, i read a comment about a person whose books Bill Gates is racing to read. I read the linked article  and here are a few points/quotes that stood out of my reading the article. For a non-fiction buff like me, his books only mean more addition to my already piling up To-Read List.

Vaclav Smil, a canadian Professor Emeritus, who taught in the department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba until 2011, can rightly be described as an interdisciplinary scholar/ Polymath.

His educational background is quite interesting- to quote Smil "I’m the product of the classical, old-fashioned European education that is broad-based. You want to get your degree in the world, you have to study all sorts of things. I studied what the Germans call the Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences. Everything from biology to geology. How the clouds are formed, how the animals live, and what makes the rocks. So I know about nature. Period."

About his reading -- "I’ve read about 80 books a year for the past 50 years. I come from cultural breeding. I don’t have a cellphone. When you spend all your time checking your cellphone messages, or updating your Facebook (of course I don’t have a Facebook page) then you don’t have any time for reading."
Note: His book count will hit 34 in December, and he’s published hundreds of academic papers. He is 69 years old.

On his book "Harvesting the Biosphere" - Harvesting the biosphere is still the most fundamental human activity. Without that, everybody’s dead, really. We could do quite well without microchips, or the business site of Atlantic Monthly, the gated communities, Guccis, and high growth GDP. But we cannot do without harvesting the crops and cutting down the wood. No human civilization could ever sever our dependence on photosynthesis.

On the most important invention in the past 150 years -- "If you ask “what has been the most important invention of the past 100, 150 years?” it’s been the synthesis of ammonia. If we could not synthesize ammonia by taking nitrogen from the air, hydrogen from natural gas and pressing them together in the Haber-Bosch cycle… if we could not do this to make nitrogen fertilizers, we could not grow enough food for about 40% of people. So you are talking about something like three billion people. In existential terms, that is the most important invention."

On why a link to Boeing’s homepage on his homepage ?
"Because I like planes. As a guy who thinks about systems, this is one of the ultimate systems things. You have to have perfect materials, you have to have aluminum and steel, you have to have a prime mover—the beautiful engine. I wrote a whole book about the prime movers of globalization, about jet engines and about diesel engines. To fly them, you have to have these electronic controls, and you have to check the weather, and you need satellites and communication. It’s amazing. It’s a super system. Plus, you have to have the airport with the runways built from heavy concrete. It’s a beautiful system."

Link to Vaclav Smil's HomePage
Link to Vaclav Smil's Amazon Page