Saturday, July 22, 2017

The userbase of WhatsApp is not really a reflection of it's popularity

Every Tom Dick and Harry I meet, asks me if I'm on WhatsApp. And why? They either want to share an "interesting forward" or they've just created a group and want me to be part of it.

So there are:
  • School alumni groups
  • Pre-degree alumni groups
  • Engineering alumni groups
  • Engineering close friends group 
  • College students-teachers group
  • Office group
  • Office cab group
  • Office CSR volunteer group
  • Office party group
  • Science society group
  • Parents teachers group
  • Local civic champions group
  • Religious society group
  • Lions club group
  • Orphanage support group 
  • Blood donation group
And of course, there's all our friends, relatives and acquaintances who want to send us those "really interesting" forwards.

Phew! 
There goes your peace of mind. Ping ping ping ping throughout the day.

Even seasoned WhatsApp users I know, tell me the only reason they are still on WhatsApp is because someone in their group created a WhatsApp group and peer pressure forced the others to join in. It's the domino effect. It's not an indication of popularity.

Any self respecting messaging software should not be restricted to just a phone interface. Having a web interface hugely increases the userbase because there are so many of us who:
  • Don't want to pull out a phone every time, when answering on a PC is easier.
  • Don't want to be disturbed by constant pings on our phone when we can log out of the web interface and have our peace.
  • Don't want to use the tiny keyboard on the phone when we can type much faster on the computer keyboard.

Why WhatsApp is a privacy problem

Although their privacy policy says they have end to end encryption, you do have to note this:

"We collect service-related, diagnostic, and performance information. This includes information about your activity (such as how you use our Services, how you interact with others using our Services, and the like)"

"We collect device-specific information when you install, access, or use our Services. This includes information such as hardware model, operating system information, browser information, IP address, mobile network information including phone number, and device identifiers. We collect device location information if you use our location features, such as when you choose to share your location with your contacts, view locations nearby or those others have shared with you, and the like"

"We collect information about your online and status message changes on our Services, such as whether you are online (your “online status”), when you last used our Services (your “last seen status”), and when you last updated your status message."

"We receive information other people provide us, which may include information about you. For example, when other users you know use our Services, they may provide your phone number from their mobile address book (just as you may provide theirs), or they may send you a message, send messages to groups to which you belong, or call you"

"We allow you to use our Services in connection with third-party services. If you use our Services with such third-party services, we may receive information about you from them"

"Your phone number, profile name and photo, online status and status message, last seen status, and receipts may be available to anyone who uses our Services..."


These don't really seem good from a privacy point of view. Ok agreed, that even other companies collect such information, but still, this information is much less sensitive when it is accessed from a computer than from a phone.

If you feel the government isn't monitoring and storing the so-called end to end encrypted WhatsApp messages, you ought to be naive.


Primary message: 
If you don't like WhatsApp, don't use it. Leave those fifty groups people have created, and get your peace of mind. There are so many other accounts you already have, which have both an app and a web interface. Use those.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

How to download files or an entire folder from Google Drive?

I've found it very strange that a product of Google didn't have a straightforward way to download files or an entire folder in one shot.

There is a way though:
  • As shown in the image below, click the folder or file you want to download
  • Then click the menu button to open the menu.
  • Then if you don't see a download option in the menu, just click the empty area at the bottom of the menu.

You'll get your folder in zipped format.




I assume it's just a bug that the download icon isn't visible.
Another way to download is to double click the file to open it and on the top right corner of the screen you'll see the download icon.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wear that helmet. It's actually worth it

Few years ago when taking my friend back home on my bike, he noticed me taking my helmet and asked "You wear a helmet for short distances too?".

I couldn't really believe what I was hearing. Still, there is a large number of people who hate helmets because it's claustrophobic, because they think it causes hair loss (it does not), because they actually feel they'd never get into an accident and sometimes simply because they can't afford one.

The safety lectures are not the only reason to wear them:

Stones, insects, tree branches: Even when riding a bike at 40kmph, these objects can hit your face at high speeds. Have a full face helmet with a visor. I've encountered these projectiles at least once a month. The stones that get half under a vehicle tyre and shoot out at you are particularly dangerous. A colleague's car windshield looks like as though a bullet hit against bulletproof glass and left a dent there. It was hit by one such stone.

Wind, dust, sunlight and rain: Very useful to be protected with a helmet.
And of course...safety: The visor protects your nose and the front of your face from getting damaged too much. A full face helmet protects the sides of your face (which are most probable for damage during an accident).


Look at all the pics here.

Get a helmet. Wear it.



Sunday, May 21, 2017

Writing GATE exam of another branch

I've written about how I was forced into doing Mechanical engineering even though what really clicked with me was computer science. Ever since then there was a desire to pursue an education in CS.

So what can a Mechanical Engineer do to get a degree in Computer Science? Either write GATE or PGCET. The PGCET people were obstinate about not allowing a Mech engineer to write a CS paper, but the GATE organizers (bless them) agreed.
With five months of preparation time and a work schedule which many-a-time required me to work on weekends, I started preparing. Even though a week before the exam I couldn't study due to work deadlines, I wrote GATE and waited...remembering the amusing moment when the examiners at the centre, double-checked my photo ID with my face, wondering if I was a genuine candidate (others who wrote the exam were much younger).

Results were declared and I was among the top 11% of candidates across India. To me it initially didn't seem a big deal that I qualified. It was only later that a friend from IISc told me that qualifying in GATE itself is a big deal. On top of that, I cleared GATE from a different branch than what I studied in my bachelors. This was accentuated by my meeting some CS graduates who told me that they couldn't clear GATE when they wrote it.

Even more surprising:  Only 16% of the students had qualified. Articles from HindustanTimes and IndiaToday.

I also wrote back to the GATE organizers thanking them for the opportunity and the organizing chairman Prof.G.J.Chakrapani replied back with his best wishes.


What helps with preparing for GATE?

The wonderful people who created GateOverflow. The single best resource on the internet. There's a PDF you can download which contains questions from previous years, segregated subject-wise.
They also have a stackoverflow-style forum where you can ask your doubts.
This is a very useful piece of knowledge, because it lets you know how you have to study the concept, in order to be prepared for the exam.

Now I'm finally doing my masters in Computer Science. A bunch of mind boggling mathematics as part of the syllabus, but I'm glad I got here.


And to the socially conscious parents...

I still meet people who have newly become parents, who are already planning to send their child to college to become a doctor or engineer. I ask them if they'd be willing to consider what their child's interests are, and they don't really care.
I feel sad for their kids.
A bunch of lovely dreams squashed by the perception of social status and bullying.

As long as the education system and the industry allows people to switch to what they like doing, I feel our people and our nation will have a bright future. Better still, might be the concept shown in Man of Steel, where the genetic makeup of a child is determined at birth and they are trained from childhood to become the best at whatever career they are genetically and mentally most inclined to like and perform.


"Knowledge is most precious to the one who truly seeks and respects it"
- Navin Ipe


Friday, April 28, 2017

What exactly is the "mothers love" part of home cooked food?

One of my seniors in college always loved saying (whenever we were at a restaurant) that mother's food is always the best food because it is sprinkled with a necessary ingredient: Love.

I mentioned the same thing to a pragmatic uncle of mine, and his immediate response was "Bull***t!" :-)
At least he wasn't of the opinion that the taste of food comes from an emotion.

So what exactly is the "mothers love in home-cooked food" or to ask it differently, what makes home cooked food more healthy? What makes outside food bad?

Outside food answers you are familiar with:
  • Artificial ingredients
  • Too many spices
  • Reused oil

But that's not all. There are some things you've never noticed because your stomach was either resilient enough to handle it or you just didn't know:
  • The food was not cooked fully (many cooks aren't really cooks. They were just looking for a job and someone taught them the basics and they have too many customers to serve. Who has the time to cook food fully?)
  • The food has burnt particles in it (I know there are a lot of silly people who have told you that the black portions of rotis and parathas are ok. They are not)
  • The ingredients used were of low quality
  • The food contains H Pylori. Causes horribly painful stomach aches.

So the "Love" in the food is...

The love is the care with which the food is cooked. Not every mother can do that though. Many of them hate being in the kitchen and many aren't very knowledgeable about cooking. But the more access to knowledge the mother or father or any family member has, the better their cooking will be and the more healthy it will be for you.
There's one other thing: Certain foods get associated with memories of one's mother or family. For example, there are friends of mine who love Ragi Mudde (plenty of childhood memories associated with it). Others can't even stand the taste of it.

If you don't have access to healthy home cooked food, buy a stove (even if it's an electric induction stove) and learn to cook your own food. Trust me, it'll be entirely worth it. If you live in a place that does not allow you to cook, then leave that place and find a place where you can cook.
Invest in your health and you will reap benefits. Ignore the food part of health and every other part of your body will suffer.


ps: On a side note, if you've heard of people saying that eating with the fingers is tastier than eating with a spoon but were never able to explain why; I have the answer for you. I asked this question on skeptics.stackexchange.com and here's the answer:

There is scientific research which says that touching (tactile sensations) itself, not just the changes in the diffusion of taste and odor compounds with different textures, can adjust the perception of taste and smell. The studies don't specifically say that the taste is always improved, but tactile sensations affect the perceived taste. 



Saturday, March 18, 2017

Getting a quick summary of table sizes and rows in MySQL

Just a quick post to show you a technique my colleague showed me on how to get the sizes of tables and an approximate number of rows it has, without having to wait long for a select count(*) from table.

Use this command:

        SELECT
             table_schema as `Database`,
             table_name AS `Table`,
             table_rows AS "Quant of Rows",
             round(((data_length + index_length) / 1024 / 1024/ 1024), 2) `Size in GB`
        FROM information_schema.TABLES
        WHERE table_schema = 'ballast'
        ORDER BY (data_length + index_length) DESC;


This will show you a result like this:

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| Database     Table                           Quant of Rows  Size in GB
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| ball            TableHosp2015               110654400             11.05
| ball            TableHosp2016               115890383             10.30
| ball            Table2016_temp                87027666               6.49
| ball            Table2014_temp                73765370               5.78
| ball            Table2015                          62064795               4.86
| ball            Distances                               158372               0.02
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Indian Education System inadvertently trains you to deal with customers

The first part of this blog post is anecdotal.

As Indians, we tend to complain a lot about our education system. About how it focuses only on securing marks and does not spark interest in students.

A neighbour recently asked me for my book on C++, saying she wanted a few theory concepts to write as part of an assignment her teacher gave.

As the book was an old one, I told her the best place to get her info was on the internet.
Her answer surprised me. She said she wanted to refer the theoretical concepts in the book and write those for her assignments because that's what the teacher would expect. Scoring the marks was of a higher priority than learning the theory.


Two ways of looking at it:

Way One: Here's where you start cursing the Indian education system which designed assignments only for the purpose of scoring marks. Pull your hair out and ask for the system to be changed so that kids would have better practical programming knowledge.

Way Two: Our Indian education system had just given birth to another little girl who saw the problem from the customer's perspective. This is exactly what every CEO wants their sales people to understand.

Find out what the customer wants and tailor your response and product to that. You make the sale!!!

My little neighbour learnt how to anticipate what the teacher wanted and gave the teacher exactly that. Marks scored!!!
You see students all over India finding such shortcuts which get the job done. Finding innovative ways of impressing the teacher, pretending to be extra humble for some leniency or marks, pulling strings to get hold of the studious guy/girl's notes...and so many more...

Rings a bell? Somebody's famous quote of "I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it".

We are expected to do this as engineers too. If there's a solution already available, just use it instead of spending time doing things from scratch and allowing the competition to gain an advantage over us.


The customer focus:

As a person who designs the Architecture of software, my primary goal is to ensure that the customer's requirements are fulfilled, instead of choosing an architecture and technology that would look good on my resume/CV.
If the customer's work can be done with a simple technology, it is better to use that, than to choose a different, more complex, more time consuming technology that would add a lot of punch to your portfolio, but would be of little or no value to the customer.

When you do find people who care about what the customer wants, treat them like a precious gem. You have a valuable find.


ps: This is not to misunderstand those genuine people who spend time understanding concepts and improving on the theoretical understanding. This is also expected of good engineers. To be well informed, educated and at the top of the game. These engineers are a league apart. Inventors. Scientists. People who create value for the world.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Aha!


Continued from the previous Aha!



Vendors
Share with this link





To be continued...

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How to speed up MySQL inserts

One would assume that if an application had two threads, and while one thread inserted data into one table and the other thread inserted data into another table, the inserts would be faster than if both threads inserted into the same table? No. It isn't faster.
The various threads that MySQL has, are to manage the other different operations.

There however is a technique that can improve insert speed further.

Smart programmers already know that using a batch insert is more efficient and faster than calling INSERT multiple times from their program.

What you perhaps do not know, is that after you send the batch of insert statements to MySQL, they are executed internally as separate inserts.

INSERT INTO Table1 VALUES (1,2,3) 
INSERT INTO Table1 VALUES (4,5,6)

What if you could combine it into a single insert statement like this:

INSERT INTO X VALUES (1,2,3),(4,5,6)

It'll actually execute faster! Some people report a 2x increase in write speed. Others, report a 40x increase.


How to do it? 

Just set the rewriteBatchedStatements=true value in the connection string.

So if you normally connect to MySQL like this...

Connection conn = DriverManager.getConnection("jdbc:mysql://"+ domainName +"/"+configRef.getBallastDatabaseNameOfSQL()+"?" + "user=" + username + "&password=" + password);

...you just have to change it to:

Connection conn = DriverManager.getConnection("jdbc:mysql://"+ domainName +"/"+configRef.getBallastDatabaseNameOfSQL()+"?" + "user=" + username + "&password=" + password + "&rewriteBatchedStatements=true");


In my opinion, MySQL should have kept this as default behaviour and the user should have had to disable it only if they were doing very large batch inserts.

Do try this out even if you don't execute too many inserts. In applications dealing with a lot of data though, this option can come as a life saver! You save a humongous amount of time with these super fast inserts.

Avoiding memory problems when working with huge amounts of data

There would be times when you run applications with libraries like Apache Storm or similar programs, and you'd be surprised when these applications crash and restart with no apparent reason.

The reason in many cases (as you'll infer from the error logs) is that the application ran out of memory. You just didn't have enough RAM.

Why this happens:
If you specify (using -Xmx2g) that your application can use a maximum of 2GB memory, you have to remember that there are other applications running that might also be free to use that much memory.

Let's say you have 4GB RAM.
App1 takes up 2GB.
App2 takes up 2GB.

App1 deletes some large datastructures that it's using, before creating a new datastructure.

The request for creation of a new datastructure makes the Garbage Collector try to allocate more memory. Sometimes, operations happen so quickly that the GC has no time to remove the unused memory before allocating new memory.

Since you've run out of RAM space, the OS would typically allow your application to use virtual memory. To do that, you need a swap space. If you don't have one, your application might crash with the message that there was insufficient memory. Your application might not even catch this exception and yet crash.

In many managed servers like AWS, the nodes don't have a default swap space.  You have to create one. It's very simple and completely worth it.

How much swap space to create?
Go for double the size of your existing RAM. I know that sounds like a lot, but believe me; I've seen how a system with 4GB RAM has used more than 4GB of swap space when I had allocated it 10GB of swap space. Hardware is cheap, and we now have disks with plenty of space, so create large swap partitions/files.

How to create the swap space?
First check if it's already there with

free -m

and check for how much disk space is available with

df -h

On an Ubuntu 14.04 system, just run these commands:

sudo fallocate -l 6G /swapfile (the "6G" means 6GB of disk space)

sudo chmod 600 /swapfile
sudo mkswap /swapfile
sudo swapon /swapfile

To make the swap file permanent:

sudo vi /etc/fstab

and at the bottom of the fstab file, add this line (press tab instead of a space wherever you see a space in the line below):
/swapfile   none    swap    sw    0   0

If you like tweaking things more, you can also tweak the swappiness setting which determines how often the OS will transfer data from the RAM to swap space.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Aha!


Continued from the previous Aha!



Packaging
Share with this link




Continued in the next Aha...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

USB tethering. Use internet on your Desktop PC via mobile phone internet

Whenever I've used internet via a mobile phone's WiFi Hotspot, I've always wondered if it was transmitting extra data just for the sake of being in sync with the laptop. Or perhaps adding extra bits to the packets when transferring data.
Turns out it is true. Using mobile hotspot actually takes up more data.

While some people have suggested tethering your mobile with the laptop using Bluetooth tethering, which is said to (but I haven't verified it) use lesser data, I feel a wired connection would be much better.

That alternative I found in USB tethering.

All this while I was actually considering buying a WiFi network card for my desktop PC, and I came across USB tethering which solved my problem elegantly and with no additional cost.


How to do it?
  1. Just take the cable you usually connect your mobile phone and desktop PC or laptop with, for transferring data via USB.
  2. Go to your mobile phone settings and activate USB tethering.
  3. Switch on your mobile phone internet.

That's it. Your phone is now a modem. You can use internet on your desktop PC or laptop. Best tethering option because your phone is connected to the PC, and it even gets charged in the process.

Kudos to those who came up with these brilliant solutions!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Mobile wallets have disappointed

Although India returns to cash normalcy now, it has been a mystery, why Rs.2000 notes were printed instead of smaller denomination notes which would have saved a lot of trouble to citizens.
The past few months have seen a rise in advertising and promotions of digital wallets like Paytm, Freecharge and Mobikwik.

I tried a Paytm and Mobikwik and skipped Freecharge due to the large number of reviews saying they don't honour cashbacks and a load of other complaints.



Paytm

  • Registration problems: For what is cited as the most popular e-wallet in India, and with even tiny shops in Delhi putting up "Paytm accepted here" posters, I was surprised that I wasn't even able to register with Paytm. The textfield in the registration page wasn't accepting any keystrokes! A few refreshes and tries later, it still didn't work. Wrote to Paytm about it and they fixed it.
  • Godnose what problems: After creating my account, at a critical time when I needed to make a payment to someone a few hours later, I logged in to transfer money into the Paytm wallet, and Paytm pops up a dialog box asking for my date of birth. Oddly, no year option is provided below 2010. Even after manually typing the correct date of birth, the dialog box just wouldn't disappear!
  • Payment problems: A friend tried paying at KFC with his Paytm account. We waited more than 4 minutes for the transfer to happen, tried again with other customers waiting behind us and finally just did a cash payment.

I had it with Paytm. Logged out and didn't bother with it again.



Mobikwik

Mobikwik was in the news when people were posting comments on Facebook about PayTm offering poor service, and somebody from Mobikwik was busy posting comments inviting people to use Mobikwik instead. Such an action in itself shows a lack of class. There's more...


Good parts: 

  • Account creation: No trouble with account creation. 
  • Money transfer: Transferred money to the wallet from my bank easily. Transferred money to another bank (after some initial hassles) easily (you can't transfer any amount that you got via a purported cashback though). This is one function that is performed by mobile wallets very well. Bank to wallet to bank transfers. No extra charges involved. [EDIT: As of Feb 2017, when I tried doing a transfer, I was charged a processing fee of Rs.84 for transferring Rs.2000. Feeling cheated, I tried transferring the remaining amount from the Mobikwik wallet to my bank account, and I got an error saying "you have exceeded the daily number of transfers limit". This really shows how pathetic their service is. Don't ever use Mobikwik!]


Bad parts:

  • Silly name entry error: I typed in the bank account number and the IFSC code of the bank of the person I needed to urgently transfer money to, and Mobikwik does not process the request. It shows an error message for two seconds after which the message disappears. Couldn't even read it. Tried again and saw the error "oops. Sender name is a mandatory field". Much later, the Mobikwik team replies to my complaint saying it was because I didn't enter my name in my profile. This is such a dumb way to create a software!
  • Responses to complaints: You can't call up. You have to write them a complaint which it seems gets answered by an AI program that gives you some standardized reply. You then have to reopen the ticket and then a human responds. Nice way to delay resolutions and annoy customers.
  • Bloated bus booking costs: Mobikwik says they offer 50% and 100% cashback on bus bookings. But the cashbacks are only until a limit of a few hundred rupees. So if you book a bus for Rs.1500, you won't get Rs.1500 credited back to your account. Moreover, the bus prices listed for my trip were shown as starting from Rs.1148. On redbus.in, the same buses were listed for Rs.200 lesser, and there were also many other buses listed at half the price. Mobikwik cashbacks are a farce.
  • Bloated electricity bill payment costs: If one tries to pay their electricity bill via a government website, the website charges an additional 50 paisa over the bill. Mobikwik charges Rs.8 extra, and then pretends to give you a Rs.4 cashback. So basically you end up paying Rs.3.5 more than required. If it wasn't for the extra cost and cashback pretence, it would have actually been convenient paying through an e-wallet.
  • Nonexistent water bill payment: Clicking the "view bill" button does not even show the bill amount. Complaining, results in a standard AI reply. Reopening the ticket results in "We would like to inform you that it was due to an up-gradation. In such cases your Wallet balance is not deducted. Please try again". They didn't bother to fix it anyway. This bill payment was probably just a gimmick.
  • Free petrol farce: I receive an SMS about being able to get free petrol; 100% cashback, from designated petrol bunks from 6pm to 9pm on 3 days. The rider is that the limit is Rs.100 cashback although it says 100% cashback. I look at the list of petrol bunks, go to one of them and ask how I can pay via Mobikwik. They tell me they haven't even heard of any such offer and that they accept only card payments. 

Mobikwik; you have sorely disappointed.



UPI

The government's Unified Payment Interface. This would actually be good if only more people adopted it. Sadly, everywhere I have asked, people haven't even heard of it.



Privacy

While digital payments and tracking are nice and it would lead to a better economy, some people have told me how data is used and misused. You certainly don't want some private company or even a government organization knowing how many underwears, fruits or other items you purchased at what time of the year. You don't want them analyzing that information, making predictions of what you would buy next and sending you targeted advertisements or making conclusions about your life based on your purchases.

The idea of a cashless society is good, but is not really practical or likeable in practice. E-wallets have a very long way to go in terms of service, and a great deal to buck up in re-gaining the trust of people.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Viruses in Indian cybercafe's

Happens all the time. Take a pen drive with a word file to get a printout at a cyber cafe or a shop where they do printouts, and you come back with a virus infected pen drive.
At least this used to be ok as long as the virus didn't do anything to the file. You could still take the printout. Now-a-days, there's a bigger problem: The virus copies all the files into a hidden, unnamed folder and all you see is an empty pen drive. How are we to take a printout now?

Sadly, the popularity of Microsoft Windows and the availability of pirated copies is one factor that contributes to the spread of these viruses. What's worse, the cyber cafe owners refuse to believe that their computer has a virus!
I wonder when people will realize that pirated operating systems are very likely to have backdoors and more malware? Something you have to be very aware of when you type your passwords in cyber cafe's.

Having an antivirus is not enough. I've seen numerous cases where antiviruses are unable to detect viruses and worms. An antivirus detects virus signatures (a certain pattern of characters that a virus file contains). When the creators realized this, they started creating viruses that would alter their signature whenever they copied themselves to another disk, using an encryptor and decryptor. Then came polymorphic viruses which could change the signature of the encryptor and decryptor too. Antiviruses also use heuristics (virus behaviour like replication, overwriting files etc) to find viruses.


The alternative
 
The better way to stay safe, is to use an operating system which is heavily monitored by a community of voluntary software programmers all across the world. People who are dedicated to maintaining security and privacy.

One such operating system is Linux. Although some of the other variants of Linux were good earlier, I now dislike the interfaces of Fedora and CentOS.
One good Linux operating system you could use is Ubuntu. It's as good as Windows, it is safe and it is free of cost. Ten years ago, you could email the Ubuntu community and they would send you an Ubuntu CD for free by post. They've stopped that now of course, but you can still download Ubuntu and either burn it onto a CD or create a bootable pen drive from which you can either try Ubuntu or install it into your computer.

The best part is, that you don't even have to install Ubuntu to try it out. Just create a liveCD or do the same in a USB stick and you can run it to see if you like it.

Do note that if you have an old computer that cannot boot from a pen drive, then you will have to burn Ubuntu onto a CD or a DVD to create a bootable disk which can be used to try or install Ubuntu.


A message for Cyber Cafe owners in India

Enough of viruses and malware. Please install Linux on all computers you have.
If your users still want to use Windows, then you can install Linux and have a free Virtual Box in Linux inside which you can install Windows.

Some users would want to use Microsoft Word and Excel on the computer. Linux has an alternative named Libre office which comes pre installed with Linux.
If you don't like Libre office, you can always use the awesome Google Docs, Google Sheets etc.

One thing I would advise you should check though, is the compatibility of your printers and scanners with Linux. Do this before you install Linux, by trying out Linux with the Live CD option. Take a few sample printouts and scans and see if everything works fine. If any old printers need drivers to be installed, you could either contact the vendor and ask about linux drivers or search the internet using the device model number and I'm very sure you would find free drivers which you can download and install for Linux. The modern printers I think would work without any extra drivers. Do try it out.


Why I'm writing this

I went to a cyber cafe to take a printout and ended up with a virus that messed up the pen drive's partition table (and also hid the files, so I couldn't take the printout). Came home and had a hard time restoring the partition table.
For anyone who encounters this error:

"The driver descriptor says the physical block size is 2048 bytes, but Linux says it is 512 bytes."

Use this command to fix the blocks on your pen drive:

sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/ bs=2048; sync

Most likely, the would be "sdb". Make sure you confirm that, because if you choose "sda" and it happens to be your hard disk, all the data on it will get permanently erased. 
The dd command is used to: Convert and copy a file, write disk headers, boot records, create a boot floppy. dd can make an exact clone of an (unmounted) disk, this will include all blank space so the output destination must be at least as large as the input.

Did that, and the disk is as good as new!


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Visits to some North Indian tourist spots [Part 2]

Continued from Part 1



Disclaimer: Views expressed here are based on a single visit, so would be lacking a complete perspective. Advice from locals are also included.


When in North India, have a plan for food. Especially if it's tough for you to handle poorly cooked food or food with burnt particles in it.
Most people in the north are accustomed to eating chapathis, rotis, naans and parathas which have black burnt spots on them. They feel it is normal because it is so prevalent there. Burnt spots are actually not a part of the recipe.
See this.
Eating burnt food causes cancer, and other health complications.
Try searching for South Indian restaurants where they take care to cook food properly (Saravana bhavan was one example). Idli's and dosa's early in the morning are a safe bet. Try not to eat from restaurants where the chutney is too watery. You can actually check that by walking up to the kitchen and asking them to show a sample, before you sit at the table.

Your body produces heat via the muscles (which is why you shiver), and having a good amount of nutrition is essential for your muscles. In cold weather, make sure you have full meals which are well cooked and do not have burnt particles in them. Even if you have to eat at an expensive restaurant, it is worth it. Buy fruits too, but only after verifying that they are sufficiently ripe.
You'll notice that it's very tough to find bakeries there. It's always handy to have some bread with you, and if your stomach suffers from having eaten restaurant food, drinking some curd will give relief. You could also buy some steamed rice, buy the curd separately, mix them and have curd rice.
Also, drink water constantly whenever you feel a bit thirsty. Hydration is important during travel.
You'll get 1L mineral water bottles of reputed brands for Rs.20 even from chemist shops. The 2L bottles cost Rs.30, so it's better to buy those. Refuse to pay more than the MRP. Even for soft drinks kept in cold storage. It's illegal and there are shops where you can find it at MRP too. Both in Delhi and Agra. Even at the bus stands.



Shimla and Kufri


Note: I haven't traveled much in Shimla, so these views may be very biased. There would be a lot of other people who would appreciate these places for their beauty, heritage and resources. For a rational mind though, it's the experience that counts, and I didn't like it. These opinions are geared toward the precautions and realities.
These are also two overrated places. Perhaps they were good in the past, but now both places are worth avoiding because:
  • Tourist operators have taken tourism for granted. They will actually insult you and speak to you rudely if you do not accept their services or are not willing to pay the exorbitant amount of money they demand. Lies are also part of the package. You'll be charged Rs.2000+ for a little taxi drive of 12km to around 4 tourist spots. We traveled double the distance for a lesser price at Manali.
  • A friend tells me that people throw stones at people who bring their own vehicles for touring the place. I don't know how far this is true, but given what I saw about the nature of the tourist operators, I would be inclined to believe it.
  • The buildings and alleys are narrow and steep. One hotel area we went to was infested with monkeys.
  • A friend says it isn't worth visiting Shimla for the snow because the crowd is so great that all you see it boot snow. ie: Snow that has been walked upon so much that it's black.
  • Snow also means power cuts and no water supply. See the article from Times of India below.
Click image to see clearly

Perhaps some reasons to visit Shimla would be for the apples, the view, the snow at Kufri and the toy train ride. But given that you can get all of these at other places in India, it might actually be worth skipping Shimla and Kufri altogether. These places are overpriced and the tourist operators just bring a bad name to the place.

Why you should definitely skip the tour operators at Kufri:
If you can get a bus or app based cab or a local friend or a bike which can take you to Kufri, then no problem. Go ahead. Enjoy the view and the snow during winter.
But. There are these few things you have to be aware of:
  • At Kufri, the tourist operators get a commission when you spend a lot of money at certain places, and they take you there for exactly that. Our guide made sure we went out of our route to take us to an ATM where we had the opportunity to withdraw enough of money. While we initially thought of him as an angel, we later realized it was so that he'd get his commission.
  • Definitely avoid Hip Hip Hurray: The tourist guide had so highly recommended this place that we thought it would be a large area full of adventure activities, like Wonderla. It turned out to be an extremely extremely extremely tiny place with a few cramped up amusement activities. You can take part in each of those only once, unlike Wonderla where it is unlimited. And yet, they charge Rs.700 per head. What's worse, if you choose to skip it, they will actually start insulting you. Just avoid the place altogether.
  • Skip the horse ride at the Kufri hill top: This is another place where the tourist guide gets a commission from the horse ride organizers. They'll tell you you have to climb up for 4km and 11k feet height to reach the top, and you won't be able to do so unless you take the horse ride for Rs.500. That seemed dumb to me. If a horse could climb, then so could I. For 10 minutes, we walked up a 45 degree incline huffing and puffing and after that the route was easily walkable at a 20 degree incline. The people walking down congratulated us on not taking the horse ride, as they said the hill top was just 1.5km of a walkable distance away and the organizers had cheated them by offering the ride for Rs.600 per head. They said even Rs.500 was not worth it because the amount you pay is only for the ride up. To ride down, you have to pay more. People who took the horse ride were even complaining they didn't enjoy it. One woman got off the horse out of fear because the hooves of the horse were slipping on the smooth rocks along the path. It didn't seem safe to ride a horse on a sharp incline.


Once on top of the hill, you'll have to pay an additional Rs.10 to enter an area where you pay Rs.50 if you want to get photographed with a Yak. Rs.50 for 5 shots with an air gun with which you shoot plastic bottles 20 feet away. You get to dress up in traditional attire and get photographed for a fee. You get some less than impressive mountain views and some makeshift stalls where you get cooked Maggi for Rs.60 (price for a packet is actually Rs.10).

Since we decided to skip the expensive Hip Hip Hurray and horse rides because we could see we were being cheated, our tour guide actually had the cheek to ask us "If you didn't have money to spend, why did you come here".

This is the reality of Shimla and Kufri.
You'll find snow and adventure for less than half the price and with zero insults and plenty of hospitality at other places in India. Go there instead.



Manali

The experience of being to Manali was better than Shimla, Kufri and Mussourie. Although at this time of the year many of the trees had shed their leaves, the people of Manali had not shed their hospitality. Everyone we met were warm, hospitable and very helpful.

Freshening up: If you haven't booked a hotel, you can freshen up at one of the government latrines. It's maintained reasonably clean, and you can get hot water from a geyser. It's Rs.10 for number1, Rs.20 for number2 and Rs.20 for bath. There's a separate wash basin with freezing water during winters. For women, the costs are lesser, and the caretaker there is polite and helpful.

Food at Manali: Unfortunately this sucks even in Manali. Restaurants; even the posh one I went to (hotel Kunzum) had food that wasn't cooked fully. The waiter there was however kind enough to seat me near a room heater which was a huge relief from the freezing cold.

Entertainment: New year sees a stage being setup at the main chowk at Manali, near the bus stand where drama, magic shows, songs and street plays are hosted. They also provide a public fire source near the stage where you can warm your hands.

Market: The goods here are reasonably priced (woolen clothing though is priced a bit more than Mussourie, but you can bargain), and you can get fruits, shoes, jackets etc. of good quality for a reasonable price. But make sure you bargain and are ready to walk off if you feel the price isn't right.

Tours: Taxi operators are willing to take you around for Rs.1500 with no receipt (which was far cheaper than Shimla, because in Manali they take you much farther distances). The operators were very polite and gave us a generous helping of whatever other information we needed to know about the place. You can visit places like Solang valley etc. A visit to the friendship peak though, needs more preparation and more than one day.

Solang

Food at Solang: At the adventure spot where paragliding is held, try to eat only the Maggi served there. I ordered rice and rajma and had to return it because it was full of large burnt pieces. The cook was cheeky enough to tell me it was tadka. They don't really care about the food they cook because they know you'll eat bad food anyway.

Paragliding: Rs.700 for the short and safer version. Rs.3000 for the one which launches you from much higher up. You use the cable car ride to reach the top of a hill where your paragliding guide and his friends hurriedly lay the parachute on the ground and within a few minutes, without any apparent safety checks, they ask you to run and the guide and you get launched into the air. For some people the ride is smooth. For others they oscillate in the air at such angles that we thought they would fall to the ground. We heard of a case where the parachute got caught onto something during launch and both the guide and the tourist got very badly injured. A colleague told me (of his experience, where) the string of the parachute got cut before they started, and the guide simply tied the cut strings into a knot and proceeded with the paragliding. Dangerous and a complete disregard for safety. We skipped it.



Cable car ride: At Rs.650 per head this is a tad expensive, but is a world class product and is a nice experience. You get to go up and come back down with that one ticket (unlike Kufri where the horse ride of Rs.600 was just for the way up). You might find the seats a bit dusty. We inferred it was from the paragliders who land on their bottom on the mud and then use the cable car to go up.



Skiing: After it snows, there is also skiing available at Manali, but I think you have to get trained for a few days before you actually attempt it.

Spring water: There was a place we were taken to where people said they got fresh spring water which they drank directly. Never drink water from such sources. The places where this water flows from can be infested with rodents and insects which do all their stuff in the water.

From Wulffmorgenthaler (now Wumo)

I'd recommend Manali. Nice adventure activities, good people. Reasonable rates. The food can improve though. Try to go during the season when you can get apples for very cheap prices.




Rishikesh

Triveni ghat (Ganga, Yammuna and Saraswati rivers meet here)

Honestly, this is a boring place for people who aren't into religion. There's a small tempo style bus that'll take you to Rishikesh in 1.5 hours from Dehradun ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminal). Once you reach the bus stand, you could approach an auto rickshaw terminal where they give you a bill for a tourist ride to spots in Rishikesh. We were charged Rs.520 which we felt was too much.
Anyway, the auto driver loyally took us to spots like the Lakshman jhula etc. and my co travellers got to dip their feet in the Ganga river and bring back some Ganga jal which they had been taught was holy water. You also get to see the temple which was the founding center for Rishikesh as a religious pilgrimage spot. There's also a Banyan tree there which is actually 3 trees joined together.
The auto driver takes you to a place, and promises to come back in some time, once you are done visiting the spot. In one case he took so long to come back, we thought he cheated us. He came soon enough though. Turns out he didn't expect us to return so early and had gone for lunch. Many of the other temples looked like apartments that were converted into a temple.

Rishikesh is apparently not a good spot for shopping. The auto driver told us everything is priced 3 or 4 times more than usual because of being a tourist spot.

Everyone we met, recommended doing water rafting in Rishikesh, and I even overheard a girl saying "Bahut maza aaya water rafting karke" (she had a lot of fun rafting). Might have been nice to do it, though later a colleague mentioned how his raft turned upside down, all of them ended up in the water and were luckily saved. Apparently you have to sign a declaration stating that you know what danger you are getting into. All it would take is for you to slam your head onto a rock or get impaled by an underwater piece of wood wedged between rocks. There's also bungee jumping at Rishikesh.

Rishikesh as a place was crowded and narrow. A bit suffocating. Some places have a lot of monkeys, but the monkeys didn't harm us. Plenty of foreigners. Plenty of police around. Still, it didn't feel like a safe place to be in.



Chandigarh

This was one beautiful city. Neat, wide roads, plenty of trees all around and plenty of open space. You get excellent quality curd there. The food wasn't very impressive though, and a tad expensive for what it was.

Auto rickshaws don't have a meter, and charge a reasonable fixed rate. The locals are aware of the rate and the rickshaw driver didn't charge us extra even though he knew we were not locals. He was willing to stop at multiple places when we wanted to buy things in between and gave us a cartload of information about whatever we wanted to know about the city. Very hospitable.

Make sure you visit the market at Sector 19. You'll get branded clothing for 1/3rd of the MRP, because they are manufactured just a little distance away in Ludhiana. A classmate of mine with his own clothing manufacturing business says that you can bargain even at the fixed price shops in this market, and you are actually expected to bargain. When you start walking away they'll come to you with a lower price. Buy as much as you can from Chandigarh. Woolens, jeans, pyjamas, shoes...whatever clothing items you need. Also note that there are different quality of woolen clothing available. Learn to identify it.

It's worth visiting Chandigarh to buy clothing before you go to the colder places like Manali and Shimla. It's also a good place to do some shopping to buy things for taking back home.

The International airport: You need to make sure you aren't taken to the old airport at Chandigarh. Go to the Chandigarh International Airport, which the elderly Ola taxi driver told us is not actually in Chandigarh, but in Mohali. Throughout the ride he told us about the Sikh religion, the generosity of Gurudwaras, the culture in Punjab where if there's an accident on the road, no vehicle would go forward until the accident victim was helped. He also recommended we try the Makkey di roti, Sarson da saag, lassi and the parathas of Punjab. To which I mentioned that I developed stomach problems after eating burnt parathas and roti's for the past few days. To this he said that parathas will be well cooked and not burnt if they are cooked properly.
This is what inspired my question on Seasoned Advice where I got it confirmed.

Be aware though, that Chandigarh airport sees a few flight cancellations during winter because of the fog. As of 2017, they haven't yet upgraded to CAT III. Might be better to book a flight from Delhi.


Accommodation: When booking a hotel, make sure you get a place in one of the sectors, which are the well planned, neat areas. If you get a room in an industrial phase instead, you'll end up in what our taxi driver referred to as a 'third class area' with potholes and filth. This is one of the problems of booking a budget hotel with Oyo. I've written to Oyo about also mentioning the locality type along with pictures of the room.


Misc

You could also try a trip to Dhanaulti, Chopta or Auli. Nice places with a lesser crowd and plenty of clean snow during winter. If springtime, visit the valley of flowers.

Wishing you a good trip to North India. Hospitable people, nice places (but recently, horrible food). Hope my bunch of tips and info would be of help. Do let me know in the comments.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Visits to some North Indian tourist spots [Part 1]



Disclaimer: Views expressed here are more focused on precautions and are based on a single visit, so would be lacking a complete perspective. Advice from locals are also included.



This post is geared primarily toward South Indians. If you are visiting North India, it's helpful to have someone with you who speaks Hindi as well as the North Indians do. The North Indians have a hard time identifying what a South Indian is trying to say in Hindi.

Do your research. Find out what the rates are for tourist operators and avoid taking help from people who offer you a hotel or taxi. Basically, be a bit suspicious of anyone who approaches you to offer help. Try to arrive at places only after sunrise, and approach tourist operators after you have left your luggage in a hotel, as that'll give you a better chance of negotiating prices. Remember that bargaining is very prevalent in North India. Even in the "fixed price" shops. When you state the lower rate you are willing to pay and start walking away, they'll come after you with a discounted rate. Make sure you bargain and do your research before bargaining.


General Info


You could also call up hotels and ask. People are generally very helpful.



Delhi


As of 2017, if you want to visit Delhi, first get a good mask. The pollution there is indeed bad. You'll see the difference in the clarity of the air, when you later visit places like Manali. The alternative would be to return from your Delhi vacation and get a lung transplant from a donor who used to live in a hill station.
  • Transport: Delhi is an excellent place to use the app based taxi's. Uber was our cheapest and best option. Ola was also good, but more expensive. Avoid the autorickshaws. They overcharge you and a fellow traveller we met said he was even bullied into paying double of the fare he was asked for, at the beginning of the ride.
  • Sight seeing: Use a combination of the HoHo sightseeing buses, app based taxis and the Delhi metro. For HoHo tours, the start point is near the Connaught place police station adjacent the Hanuman temple where if you are lucky you'll see a blue HoHo bus waiting. If not, wait for a while and it'll arrive. The HoHo office is on the opposite side of the road and is not very visible. Most of the locals aren't even aware of HoHo. Ask for the Delhi Tourism office instead. There are more pickup points at places designated with a HoHo board. There are buses that reach the various tourist spots every 40 minutes. The buses are indeed very timely and we once had to run to the entrance of Humayuns tomb knowing that we missed the bus by a minute, only to reach the entrance and see the bus moving out. Keep a tab on the amount of time it takes you to reach a monument, once you leave the bus. You'll need that much time to go back to the entrance to catch the next bus. If you missed any tourist spots, just use a taxi or the metro the next day.
  • Food and water: As in almost every city where food is cooked with apathy, the restaurants in Delhi are unreliable. Don't expect food that's fully cooked. Expect food that's burnt. At least one hotel I found where the food was of reasonably good quality is Saravana bhavan. The others were obviously McDonalds and KFC. A cousin says Karim's chicken is overrated and the amount of oil in it is good enough for bathing in. What's worse, is that if you want to skip the restaurant food and depend on just bread, it's rather difficult to find a bakery. The water is even more unreliable. A friend used to say that if you drink the water in Mumbai and fall sick he'd be surprised. But if you drink the water in Delhi and don't fall sick, he'd be even more surprised. You'll find mineral water available everywhere. Even in chemist's shops. Do not pay more than the MRP and buy only known brands. Try ordering food online. It's not easy to get access to good restaurants in Delhi.
  • Hotel bookings: Before booking hotels online, try to contact someone you know in Delhi and get info about certain localities. I booked using Oyo, and got a hotel room in a place which seemed nice on Google Maps, but was such a crowded marketplace that the taxi driver couldn't move forward or take us till the hotel. We had to carry our luggage and walk through the crowd. As we reached closer to the hotel, we noticed we were walking in a dark alley where it seemed like we were in danger of being robbed. I've requested Oyo to start providing pictures of the localities too. Also requested Google Maps to have a layer to display the crime rates of an area. Try booking hotels that aren't too far from the Metro stations. They come in handy. I hear AirBNB is also a good option.
  • Traffic jams: Although there are fewer traffic signals than Bangalore, the roads are good and wide, the majority of Delhi traffic is cars. They easily cause jams, and you had better start early if you plan to catch a flight, bus or train.
  • Ice skating: Delhi (actually Gurgaon) has a very good indoor ice skating rink (we went here because Shimla's ice skating rink is an outdoor rink which gets closed during heavy snowfall). The rink is at Ambience mall, but be warned that some wise-crack has named two malls as Ambience. Don't go to the one at Delhi. Go to the one at Gurgaon. This rink has actual ice on which you skate. Make sure you choose skates that fit you correctly, and make sure you carry socks that are higher than ankle length (otherwise you'll have to purchase socks there for Rs.60). They also have lockers of 1.5ft depth, 1.5ft height and 1ft width, to store valuables. These lockers have a nice smartcard which locks and unlocks them, but using the locker costs Rs.150. A ticket to iSkate costs Rs.450, and you can skate for 1.5 hours. Make sure you carry a bottle of water with you, as skating for that long is extremely tiring and they charge Rs.50 for a bottle of water. If you just want to watch people skate, there's a bar (not a metal bar. A bar where they serve alcohol) on the balcony with a good view of the rink. Don't go to iSkate before viewing some tutorials, and make sure you exercise your entire body for at least a month before going, because it takes a lot of strength in your leg muscles and back muscles to support your body on thin pieces of metal. Don't be afraid of falling, as that's what helps you learn. Just keep your center of gravity low so that you don't fall hard. I've written to iSkate to make a water dispenser and a TV display with a tutorial available. Let's hope they implement it.
The Taj Mahal is said to have been inspired by this



You have to walk barefoot here, so carry a bag into which you can keep your footwear. The official shoe rack will cost you Rs.10.





Agra

Info here.




Mussoorie



I feel Mussoorie is quite overrated. Sure, it's a place with a great view of the mountains, but the poor accessibility, cramped spaces and exorbitant tourism rates make it worth missing.

  • Reaching Mussoorie: If you get off at the railway station, the bus stand for buses to Mussoorie is at walkable distance. If you get off at the ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminal), you'll have to cross the main road to reach a chowk full of blue auto rickshaws. They'll take you to the bus stand for Rs.10. Buses to Mussoorie are available every half an hour. One bus goes to one part of Mussoorie and the next bus goes to another part of Mussoorie. Buses are available from 10am to 8pm. There's a conductor in the bus who issues a ticket. The ride up the mountain is a 1.5 hour swingy curved route, so make sure you get a seat in the bus. Once on top, you'll enjoy the lovely view of the valleys and evergreen trees. You'll also find yourself stuck in a jam. There's very less space for vehicles to move, and a taxi driver says he's even been stuck in a jam for 4 hours, when the distance he needed to cover was just half a kilometer. The better way would be to have your own motorcycle to navigate the roads there.


  • Getting out of Mussoorie: Now this is the difficult part. To come up, you have buses every half an hour. To go back, you only have buses every one hour. Moreover, you have to stand in what is purported to be a queue, at a ticket counter, on a narrow footpath where a restaurant owner chases you for standing in front of a washbasin he's constructed on the footpath or for standing at the entrance of his restaurant. What's worse, is that the ticket counter won't issue you a ticket unless the bus has arrived. The ticket costs Rs.56, but you won't get change for Rs.4. This time there's no bus conductor to issue you a ticket when inside the bus. The ticket counter has a perpetual queue of people waiting to get out of Mussoorie, and being disappointed that they have to wait for a full hour for the counter to start issuing tickets for a small bus that surely wouldn't accommodate all of them. The other way to get out is by taxi. They charge Rs.100 per head. No app based taxi available here. You won't go through all this trouble if you simply skip Mussoorie altogether.
  • Sight seeing: Firstly, there's a local bus tour for which you'd have to register early at Gharwal travels. Costs around Rs.250 per head. Secondly there's a taxi union with fixed rates that'll cost you Rs.1800+ for a max of 5 people (each person pays 1800/5). Thirdly, there are cycle rickshaw wallahs who'll charge you Rs.400, but are slow and are said to ask the passengers to disembark and walk on uphill slopes. If you've seen waterfalls already, there's no fun watching the Kempty falls. Same goes with boating. There's a place called the Clouds end and echo point where you just get the same view of the mountains that you'd have seen anywhere else without having to shell out Rs.50 per head, and echo point has no echoes. Then there's company garden for which you'll have to shell out Rs.18 per head, and you enter to find it more ordinary than any other garden you've seen anywhere else. There's said to be a tiny boating area which I was told isn't worth visiting. A wax museum where the wax figurines have almost no resemblance to the actual people they represent (but they still charge Rs.100 per head for entry). Sir George Everest is another sight seeing place from where you get a good view of nearby mountains and can hear some echoes too. But again, this isn't any different from any of the other mountain views you get at Mussoorie. There are said to be some adventure activities at George Everest.
  • Purchases: Woollen clothing is available at reasonable rates at Mussoorie. Scarves for Rs.100, gloves for Rs.100 to 250, Jackets for Rs.800.
  • The wax museum: Skip this. It just isn't worth the money. On the way to Mussourie, you'll find a lot of advertisements about the wax museum, with pictures of Mr.Bean. When you reach the museum, you'll be sorely disappointed. See the pictures below.
Mr.Bean (really?)
Charlie Chaplin (Ewww...)
Bruce Lee (why so perplexed?)

Einstein
Gandhiji


Obamas (Whaaaat??)
Saddam (lost weight?)


Try to skip Mussoorie if you can. Not really a place that offers anything significantly different to a tourist, is rather cramped up and difficult to get out of.


Continued in part 2


Saturday, January 7, 2017

When visiting the Taj Mahal...

There's a lot of hype about the Taj and the person who built it: Shah Jahan.

But even the brain of a child can find a logical flaw with that. While waiting in line at the Taj, a little girl in front of me was shown the Taj and the surrounding garden. Her father told her that this was built by Shah Jahan.
After a while of looking around, the girl looked up at her father and asked:
 "yeh Shah Jahan ne banaya hain yaan kisse aur se banwaya?".

Logical to the core. She asked if Shah Jahan built all of this or did he get someone to build it for him. That girl is destined to become a software programmer! :-)

Precautions and tips while visiting Agra:
Before visiting, I did a quick Google search and found many tips and precautions. During my trip however, a lot of these precautions were irrelevant. Here's my helping of tips for you (primarily geared to the Indian visitors):


Travel:
  • You'd be better off booking your visit to Agra via Delhi tourism or any reliable tourist operator, as they'll save you a lot of time and hassle. Completely worth the money.
  • If you choose to go by yourself, you'd be better off leaving your luggage in a hotel in Delhi, taking an app based taxi (Uber was cheapest when I visited) or a metro to the railway station or a bus stand, visit Agra and return back on the same day.
  • If you choose to stay in Agra, book a hotel online and when you reach the railway station or bus stand, make sure you book an app based taxi (Ola was available in Agra) which takes you to your hotel.
  • The taxi operators and touts are extremely persistent in Agra. Once they sense you are not a local, they'll hound you like nowhere else in India. They just will not leave you alone. They'll follow you wherever you go and even if there's a policeman standing nearby, he won't intervene to give you some relief. Just stay within the waiting room of a bus stand or railway station until your taxi arrives. Try not to reach Agra before sunrise or after sunset just as a precautionary measure. Agra is afterall in Uttar Pradesh, which has a very poor reputation about everything.
  • Travel within Agra is also best done via an app based taxi. Saves you the hassle of getting cheated.


At the Taj:
  • Entry: You can enter via the East, West or South gates. The East and West gates are most crowded, and the official website recommends entering via the South, if there's a crowd. I chose East gate (and boy was it crowded!).
  • Tickets: There's a medium sized building where tickets are issued. Three queues. One for the Rs.500 ticket, one for the Rs.40 tickets for gents and one for ladies. I'd recommend taking the Rs.500 ticket during crowded days, as it helps skip extremely long queues at the Taj (trust me; the queues are really long. More about it below). Having cash with you is best.
  • Lockers: People recommend not bringing large bags to the Taj. While that's true, if you have no other option, you can still bring along your bag. There's a so-called "cloak room" near the ticketing counter that's around 5ft x 20ft in dimension. They have 50 or more lockers; cuboids, each of 1.5ft height, 1.5 ft depth and 1ft width (mind you, the opening would be 1ft minus 2 inches of metal). You have to purchase a ticket first to be allowed to use the locker. The actual use of the locker is free, but the scumbags managing the lockers expect a tip of Rs.10 or Rs.30 (without receipt). Once your bag is in the locker, you'll be given the key to it. Make sure you return before 5:30pm to reclaim your bag. If you have more than one bag, or it doesn't fit into the locker, you can give it to the staff. they'll attach a numbered tag to it and keep the bag on the floor. Although we were nervous about leaving the bag outside the locker, when we returned after 5pm, even though the initial staff had left and the ticket counter was closed, the backup staff gave us our bags after checking the number and asked for his tip. Nothing in the bag was stolen. There were many other bags placed on the floor, like my travel companions bags. Because of this I assume it's safe to leave your bag at the cloak room. Just make sure you don't have any valuables in it. The better alternative is to leave your bag in a hotel room.
  • Questions: Right next to the ticket counter building is a building where there are two gentlemen who are designated to provide help to tourists. Ask them any questions you have and they'll politely help you.
  • Going up to the entry gate: There are electric vehicles (a golf cart type of vehicle and a dilapidated tin can tempo) that'll take you 0.6km from the ticket counter area to the gates of the Taj's compound. The road at the East gate slopes downward, so you don't really have to take the electric vehicle (tickets cost Rs.5, but for the people holding the Rs.500 ticket, I think the ride is free). You can simply walk. There are horse drawn carts also available, but for Rs.200+, I feel they are just cheating you. Just walk. 
  • Safety along the path: I remember reading of a traveler who says that around ten kids would swarm you and insert their hands into all your pockets, pickpocket you in 30 seconds and scatter. Another book by a foreigner mentioned how pickpockets in Agra even remove your moneybelt. This made me take extreme precautions with my ID card and cash. But when I visited, I found nothing like that near the Taj. No swarm of pickpockets. No trouble. It was a well paved, wide road that led to the gates. There were of course louts standing at the side staring at people, possibly spotting potential targets, but basically, if you walk with a group, you won't encounter any trouble.

  • Queues: Now this was something completely unexpected. To enter into the compound, at 1pm, I stood in a 400m long queue for 35 minutes. To enter the marble platform on which the Taj stands, I stood in a queue that began from half the distance of the garden in front of the Taj, snaked its way to the marble platform, snaked away from the platform along corners away from the Taj, then came toward the Taj, went all around the Taj clockwise and after around an hour of standing in the queue, we got the chance to climb up the marble platform. There are two types of people you'll see. The decent kind who stand in the queue and the scumbags who skip the queue inspite of everyone protesting against it. Once on top, if you wish to enter the Taj, there's another queue that goes anticlockwise around the Taj. After another 45 minutes of standing in that queue, you get to enter the Taj, and are pushed by policemen into a small, dark place which is the center of the Taj. I was surprised that there was hardly any lighting there. We could barely see what was in front of us. Moreover, photography is prohibited inside. As you find your way to the exit, you'll also notice some clever people entering through the exit instead of standing in the queue.
  • Security check: They check you thoroughly before you enter the complex. They even check for things like toffee covers and tic tacs, probably so that you don't litter. I assume wearing a money belt would be ok, as long as you are able to show it to them if they question you.
  • What's allowed: Camera, a bottle of water, smartphone, small purses. In case of doubts, call up: http://www.tajmahal.gov.in/tourist_information.html
  • Shoe Covers: There are some flimsy shoe covers available for free at the Taj. If you don't want to get those, you could still walk around in socks. I'd recommend either getting those shoe covers or having a cloth bag with you into which you can put your shoes and carry it around with you instead of leaving it at an unreliable shoe rack.
  • Maintenance work: There are structures erected on one tower and at the backside of the Taj, for workmen to maintain the Taj. You won't get a perfect picture of the Taj, as these structures are an eyesore. It's probably best to postpone your visit until the maintenance is completed.



The Taj is indeed a beautiful structure. The inscriptions and designs on it are not painted on it. They are a separate piece of stone perfectly fitted into a groove to make it look seamless. Some find it awe inspiring. Some find it boring. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. It's a wonder of the world afterall...

For me, viewing the Taj was splendid. The experience of visiting and standing in the queue was horrible.

There are a few things the government could do to better the experience of people:
  • Create more entry points to lessen the serpentine queues.
  • Extend the visiting hours
  • Provide free WiFi guided tours which we can listen to via our smartphones
  • Improve the safety in Agra. Nobody likes pickpockets and touts in a world famous spot.
  • Get rid of the relentless people who refuse to take "No" for an answer. No I don't want to get into your taxi. No I don't want your hotel. No I don't want to buy that thing from you.
  • Provide better lighting inside the Taj.
  • Fridays are closed, so have hydraulic mechanisms that can be installed on Friday mornings and removed on Friday evenings, so that you don't have to erect eyesore structures for maintenance of the Taj for months at an end.

There are lakhs of people who visit the Taj everyday. There is certainly a lot the government can do with all that ticket money.


btw, this Wiki Travel Guide is quite accurate: http://wikitravel.org/en/Agra#Understand

The documentary by National Geographic is a good source of information about the construction of the Taj and the various symbolisms.