The 2001 Northern Grid Failure: When old technologies became new again!

The Indian twitter is rife with news about the a power grid failure in Northern India that plunged seven states into darkness at 1 am.  6-7 hrs later there is some hope that authorities may fix something.  They say this is the worst such power failure since 2001.  I have a story to tell from that one.

We started on the afternoon of 1st January from Chandigarh and reached Ambala ( my father was posted there and we had to attend a new year party ( which is also the Raising day of the Army Medical Corps). On arriving we learnt there was no electricity. However soon, we realized not just our neighbourhood but the entire cantonment had no electricity. Yet the Army being the Army, the party was organized using heavy duty diesel guzzling gensets.

The power didn’t return even the next morning.  A call with grandparents in Chandigarh confirmed that even they had no power supply that night. This seemed serious. We started driving towards Delhi and reached by afternoon. The power supply to  our hosts house, being in the heart of central Delhi, had just been restored that morning, but we learnt that most of North India had been in darkness for between 20-24 hrs already and no concrete information to a solution seemed in immediate sight. The only source of instant news then was Television  ( which most couldn’t watch) and newspapers would come in only the next day. Few people had cellular phones as incoming calls were charged.

We had to catch a train to Jodhpur later that night ( Jan 2nd) from Delhi Cantonment ( a suburban station southwest of the city. By word of mouth we were told that most trains were cancelled or delayed. Calling the railway inquiry in such times of chaos is anyway not advisable. So, late evening, when we left for the Delhi Cantt. station, we realized that indeed the rest of the city, outside the Inner VIP circle was still dark. It gets dark by 6 pm at that time of the year.

The Delhi Cantt station was like a horror movie set. A few men wearing shawls that covered them completely to only reveal their eyes, carrying lanterns so that people could see things. The display boards rendered non functional. One generator set was powering the station master’s room and the PA system.  By now we were quite convinced that our much planned Rajasthan odyssey would be pushed back by a few days. Then the unexpected happened.

Trains to and from North India were indeed by and large cancelled with one exception. The Delhi Jaipur Ahmedabad Section ( also known as North Western Railway) was still not an electrified line then ( perhaps even now). They still used Diesel locomotives. Hence our train was on schedule.  As we waited,  about 10 minutes past the scheduled time, we indeed saw the headlight of a train pulling into the station. The darkness made it hard to spot coaches. We got in somewhere and then found our way to our coach. Guess what, the train indeed left. ( Later we learnt that Diesel Locos were used to haul many trains all over the train that were stuck in various parts of North India!)

Next morning by the time we reached Jodhpur, the power gods had relented.


Artificial Intelligence May Only Take Us So Far: The Abject Failure of Google Translator

I like to experiment with language services (Hindi versions) of Google Products. Granted that I don’t need to do this, since everyone I communicate with over email is perhaps as much or more fluent in English than in Hindi. So call it inverse snobbery, too much free time or whatever you please.  The tale that follows reveals that my endeavors are not that fruitless after all.

A friend, to whom I often write emails in Hindi, decided to go one up on me. He replied to me in Bengali.  I decided out of curiosity to enter the text in Google translator and asked for a Hindi translation. The fun began.

‘হর্স ‘( ‘Harsh’), my name written in Bengali script was translated by Google as ‘घोड़ा’ the Hindi word for ‘Horse’.  By no means, the letters making up my name in Bengali combine to mean “Horse.”  Puzzled, I decided to ask Google for a Bengali – English translation and it had indeed translated হর্স  as Horse. Then I realized that Bengali doesn’t have a hard “a” sound and instead uses “au” and instead of a hard “sh” often pronounces it as “s”. So “Harsh” can sound like Horse. And then Horse in Hindi is घोड़ा (the word for the animal) and hence the output by Google. This reveals two major flaws in Google Translator.

First, that Google is really ‘fooling’ users when it offers translation from any source language to many other target languages. For instance in this case the translation was really being made from Bengali to English and then to Hindi. Similarly I checked Bengali to Spanish, the same word was translated as Caballo – the Spanish word for the animal horse. Perhaps Bengali to Spanish being mediated via English is still understandable but Bengali to Hindi via English is a very inefficient way of translating. It is almost like translating between Arabic and Urdu via English. More importantly the service conveys the impression that it directly translates from the source language to the target language.

The second flaw suggested by this incident is even more grave. That is, if Google does not have the meaning of the word in the input language in its database (for instance my name here in Bengali) , it translates the ‘sound’ into English. Now if that sound happens to be spelled as a legitimate English Word, as was “Horse’  in this case, it assigns the ‘meaning’ of the word in English to all subsequent translations.  This completely distorts the original meaning ,of course.

In this case I was reasonably close to the three languages to ascertain what was going on. It may not always be the case. I would perhaps go to a real person to put me wise than rely on artificial intelligence. Big Brother may desire to simplify our lives, but he is not so wise yet, after all.

Addendum: A conversation with someone who read this one. And an update to respond to all previous reactions

Rohan MurarkaHow can you gauge it based on translation of proper nouns?
HarshT :Rohan, good question, but one I had anticipated all along. Of the two arguments I made – the first one ( about translation being mediated through English stands irrespective. The second one is perhaps a problem because of the word being a proper noun ( hence not in the extant database of the source language). But understanding it as a common noun (in the mediating language) for further translation is what changes the meaning completely. It is an error that can be easily fixed – they just need to flag it as a word they cannot translate and retain it. Assume I knew no Bengali or English here -then I had no way to decipher that why did someone call me a ‘ghoda’. Instead the translation could have been ‘haurs’ with a quote or something around it to signifiy that the word was not ‘comprehended’ by the machine

A Summer as a ThinkSwiss Research Scholar : Something “Official” About It

Some of you may remember about my summer spent in Europe as a Think Swiss Research Scholar.

They are interesting Scholarships to apply to and are open for application for next year!

Anyhow I had posted some accounts of my travels to Rome and Berlin earlier.

Here is the link to my official account of my reflections from being a research scholar for two months. I hope it helps. Of course please contact me if you have any queries about the application process!

The Berlin Way : As Gauged in Two Days

 It is 1 am on a Thursday night. You are only two people left in the pub. It is obviously closing time, as you can observe the staff signal to one another to prepare for closing. My host and I continue to enjoy our drink, as the pub now looks ready to close, as the bartender says to the server ( in German), these two are the only ones left. I expected, we would finally be asked to leave the bar. Instead two more people join the two workers and they begin to enjoy their own drink, while we leisurely finished ours. And even as we left, they showed no signs that we were pests on them for staying on almost an hour after closing time.

Later I asked my host as to why we were not asked to leave, as I would have expected this in most parts of the world. And I was told, “ They Don’t do that in Berlin”. Friendly, forthcoming, multicultural is how I would describe this amazing city, which despite its dark history, albeit recent, really seems to live it up. And this is how I was greeted by upon arrival:

I arrived by a flight from Rome, that arrived rather late at night, and finally it was 1 am when I started from the airport (Schonefled the distant one). I had to take the train, get out at a small station, transfer to a night bus, change to a tram and finally walk about 7 mins to reach my host’s house. The journey planner website proclaimed that I could do all that in a little over an hour, and I indeed managed in about that time. In those wee hours on a weeknight, there were people in the trains, buses and trams who I could ask for directions. And there were people on the streets, many food shops were open! In the bus, I noticed a guy speaking in fluent German with a girl and decided to ask him if I was on the right bus. He told me, I am from Budapest and today is my first day in Berlin as well, pointed to the girl and told me, she is from Berlin and will be happy to help you and she obliged. Later I learned that they did not know each other till 2 minutes ago, and he had in fact just turned to her, to ask if she could tell him more about the city. And her style and expression seemed to suggest as though she had known him for long!

In the following two days I gathered, thats just Berlin!


Berlin: Did I fly in to Budapest instead?

 30 August 2011, Somewhere on the outskirts of Rome

I was to fly from Rome to Berlin. Instead of the airport shuttle from the central station ( 8 Euros), I decided to take a rather roundabout way that could get me there in about 3 Euros. But there was a catch, I had read about this cheaper bus route on the wikitravel page, but no one in the city seemed to have ever heard of it. But it does exist and you can read more about it here (coming soon). It basically involves going to a station at the far end of the line away from the center, and catching the bus.

There were two other people waiting for the bus who spoke in a language that I didn’t understand and wasn’t Italian either. This and their two large bags, suggested to me that they were indeed foreigners and waiting for the same bus. I decided to make conversation (in the hope that if the bus did not arrive, I will find 2 more people to split a taxi). So I learned that they were mother and son, traveling to Italy from Budapest and the only the son spoke English, and the mother perhaps Hungarian and some German. They were flying to Budapest. Finally the bus arrived and for 15 minutes before the airport stop, we were two the only three, apart from the driver of course ( They don’t have driver-less buses in Italy!). I did take the flight to Berlin!

 4 hrs later…N65 to Hackershmarkt, Berlin

It was 1 am when I started from the airport. After the train I transferred into a night bus where there were exactly 4 people. The two of them who I had a conversation with, told me it was their first few hours in Berlin as well, and they were from, yes, of course Budapest. They just arrived in Berlin for a few months on an internship in some Ministry. The Budapest story doesn’t end there.

My two lovely Berlin guides happened to be from Budapest as well, who I had randomly met two weeks ago , at the Amsterdam airport , where they decided, for whatever reason, to ask me for directions. Maybe they watched me gaze at the train map for 3 full minutes, which perhaps gave them confidence in me. I did manage to tell them that they were to take the same train as me, and by now sure that they weren’t dutch, asked , “Where are you from?” . Off they went, we live in Berlin, but we are from Budapest. We talked for some time and before leaving the lady handed me her card saying if you come to Berlin, we will be happy to show you around. I said in fact, I arrive there in two weeks. And they said before disembarking, do email, I did and my two days in Berlin were special because of Alida and Joseph ,originally from Budapest, but now true Berliners! And did I forget to mention that through them, I met another Hungarian filmmaker, though she grew up in Romania. I would say that’s almost Budapest!