Sunday, June 22, 2014

Scaling The Great Cyber Wall of China

It's widely known that the China has one of the most elaborate cyber censorship in the world.  The alleged purpose being to keep the seditious content away from Chinese.  For example anything to do with Tiananmen Square incidents of 1989 or about Falun Gong.  Simply put, China wants to control what its citizens get to see on the net.  Many countries including India does it to some extent and China is said to the most elaborate setup for this purpose.

One of my frustrations of China trips, besides food has the inability to access sites like NYTimes, FB or Blogger.  I first wrote about it in 2006, during my first visit to Beijing, China.  Since then the Internet as we know has grown beyond our collective imagination and continues to pervade more and more part of our life.  With such a spread, can China (or India for that matter)  really control Internet access?

In this trip, I found a way to scale the Great Cyber Wall of China.. at a cost.
China's (other countries) Internet filtering has created business opportunities for a few.  There are several VPN providers that help circumvent the Internet filtering.  I am using one called Express VPN that can route traffic via servers around the world.  I am now connected to LA, but can opt to connect other parts of the world as well.  In fact, ExpressVPN can also be asked to choose the most 'efficient' route as well.

It costs USD 12.95 per month and so far it has worked well for me.  The only challenge is when I am in a slow connectivity zone, I cannot connect to multiple VPN software.  I have not been able to connect to my office VPN and ExpressVPN at the sametime when connected via 'slow' network.  Otherwise, things are working well for me.

Also, ExpressVPN support has been excellent.  I used their email and online support twice and each time they came through well.  They were quick to respond and most importantly solved my problem at the first shot.

Besides avoiding the Internet filtering, some of my US colleagues are using the VPN software to access their Netflix and Hulu accounts which are country specific.

Net net, No wall is foolproof, be it the fence between India and Pakistan or the Great Cyber Wall of China.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Namma Chennai - Bookstore in Luz Corner

This roadside bookstore is as much a landmark of Mylapore like the Royar's Mess.  Both of them have been around for long time.  I visited this landmark bookstore today and saw the one man human computer catalog in action.. Read on..

One elderly gentlemen walks by the bookstore on a balmy Saturday afternoon and patiently scans through the mounds of books for several minutes.  Unable to find what he was looking for, turns to the lady running store and asks..
Electronic machine design book இருக்கம்மா?
அம்மா - +2க்கா? collegeஜுக்கா?
Old Man - +2க்கு
அம்மா - அந்த புக் இருக்காதே?
Old Man - இல்ல இல்ல - Electronic Machine Drawing
அம்மா - அப்படி சொல்லு

She calmly walks towards a pile of books and takes out the exact book this old man was looking for his grandson.  A used book exchange happens.  I don't know if there was any 'logic' to her pricing, but she seems to know exactly what she wants and seems to have some 'wiggle' for negotiation.  There must be several thousand books and she seems to have a complete mental catalog of them.

This roadside bookstore has been a permanent fixture of Mylapore Luz Corner for a long long time.  Some say for over 80 years.  I have seen it for quite sometime and used to wonder the how books are protected from the vagaries of Chennai weather.

Earlier, this bookstore used to be run by a frail looking old man but seems to have changed hands to this lady now.  As we get to talking to her, an assistant to this lady proudly shows a media clipping about the bookstore and the old man.  This lady, he says, has inherited the store from her father.  

The lady herself doesn't talk much.  She quickly evaluates the books I had taken to give her.  She looks through them and gives us a price and goes about sorting the books.  She sorted them into 5 piles and placed them in the different sections of labyrinth book mounds only she could navigate.  And yes, she has loaded about 30 odd titles to her mental catalog as well.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

A Comrades Medal.. after all

I came back to Chennai last night with heads down.. only to be garlanded with a Comrades Medal.

Last Sunday, the only thing in my mind was of reaching the finish line and the medal that comes shortly after that.  All through the long trek, spectators, amply sprinkled with Indian origin folks shouted loudly for you and they said a "medal is waiting for me with my name on it".  But I ended taking the rescue bus and there was no medal waiting for bus finishers.

But I come back home yesterday and there is a Comrades medal waiting for me.. Wonder how? Read on....

My Comrades odyssey started in 2012 with Balaji.  He managed to squeak past the Visa hurdle in India and stiff looking security officer in Dubai to get to Durban in time for the run.  We camped together and went through some 'interesting' homeless times.  Take a look photo taken by Sita before we headed out for the run.  Particularly the seeding; I was 'F' and Balaji was 'H'.
Though placed two 'seeds' behind me, Balaji was the one who finished with the medal and I stood there with camera.  Balaji offered the medal then but I refused saying I got to earn it.  He says 'The only reason I accepted your refusal was that I was sure you would win it very in the future.."

Two years later, Sadly things have not gone the way Balaji predicted or I wanted.  So, Balaji thoughtfully shipped his medal to me.  He says in his mail "I am sure you may not need the medal but certainly, the medal needs you; For it will be an inspiration for others to earn it."  

Balaji is right about the earning part; I certainly did not earn it but will keep it because what he goes on to say "I request you to accept this medal for you did finish in some manner, through me"

Balaji, I am touched beyond words by your gesture and the timing couldn't have been better.  It landed just a few hours before I did.

You have made lot of folks run in Chennai and now in Pondicherry.  You have made Auroville Marathon an integral part of Marathon India calendar.  I will not get my Green BIB at Comrades but sure is on course to get it from Auroville.

Thank you Balaji from the bottom of my heart....

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Comrades - How to get there (and tips for that all important visa..)

For starters, there are no nonstop flights from Chennai to Durban.  Durban itself is not well connected internationally outside Africa.  So, you are left with layover options and it is a question of one or two stops and perhaps the related sticker shocker.

As you would expect, the cheapest would be to take 2 stops.  One can fly South Afrian or Ethihad Airways and it would take you via MAA - BOM / AUH - JNB - DUR.   If you book early, this ticket would cost around INR 60K in economy.

I prefer one stop, so chose Emirates.  Also, what tipped hand in favor of Emirates was my status with them.  It flies MAA - DXB - DUR with minimal layover onward but compensated with a long layover on return.  I booked this non-refundable, non-anything ticket few months back and it costed little less than INR 70K in economy.

Wanting to escape of Durban at the earliest possible, I called Emirates to prepone my travel exactly by a day.  Emirates politely told me that I hold a 'cheap' ticket and and the only option was to book a new one way ticket back home in business class for around INR 150k.  Needless to say, I stuck around  Durban for one more day not enjoying the sun.

Besides the cost aspect, another consideration is emigration.  I prefer getting it out of the way Chennai and just do the transfer at Dubai.  I find it lot easier than having to do both the transfer and emigration at Mumbai or in Delhi.

But before all that, Indian runners will have to sort through the visa issue.  This human created barrier is quite onerous and couple of runners from Chennai had to cut to the wire before boarding the plane.  Here are a few tips them, that might ease the pain a tiny bit..

  1. SA visa paperwork is laborious, so give yourself sufficient time and start 3 months ahead.
  2. SA requires you to show 'enough' bank balance and I was told that magic 'enough' would be INR 5L.
  3. Get a letter from Comrades organizers.  They provide this is on request to all international runners.  I am told, this helps in strengthening your case for visa.