Personal Reflections

So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish

So ‘The Day’ is finally here. In a few hours, I will be flying cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows towards a new town which will be a home away from for me for the next few years. Yes folks, I’m leaving India today to join University of Surrey in Guildford, UK. I’m joining the four-year BEng Electronics & Computer engineering course there. (This course is a mix of both hardware as well as software related subjects.) As I do some last-minute packing at this ungodly hour, I can’t help but feel excited and nostalgic at the same time!

University of Surrey logo
University of Surrey logo

My journey towards joining University of Surrey began many moons ago, in the beginning of 2009. UK-based universities used a centralized application system called UCAS, and that’s where I began. UCAS allows you to apply to a maximum of five universities – my choices were Surrey, Aberystwyth (Wales), Kent, Aston, and Cardiff (not necessarily in that order). To cut a long story short (I feel sleepy!), I got offer letters from all five universities by mid-May. I now needed to pick one of these. SurreyΒ  is one of the best universities in UK for electronics engineering / computer science. Surrey’s faculty of electronic engineering is at the cutting-edge of research in the field, including working closely with Surrey Satellite Technology, a spin-off from the university’s Surrey Space Centre which has worked on major projects such as the European Space Agency’s rival to GPS. Surrey county is also where many electronics and software firms have their headquarters. Surrey, thus, was by far my first preference among the universities I applied to.

Also, they know a thing or two about 'good marketing'.
Also, they know a thing or two about 'good marketing'.

Around the end of May, University of Surrey’s Director of Student Recruitment Dr Peter Marshall (who was a professor in the faculty of electronic engineering before taking this administrative position) visited New Delhi. (This was after I had got my offer letters from all universities.) I met up with him for a chat, and by the end of that meeting I felt that Surrey was the right choice for me. I accepted by the end of the day (via UCAS). I must thank Prannoy ‘Pony’ Sablok, a DPS VK senior and Code Warrior currently studying at Aston University for all his guidance during the application process. Then began the paperwork. I received my visa letter from Surrey towards the start of July. I applied for my visa on 17th July, and just three day later – on my birthday – I got my visa. πŸ˜€ That was a pleasant surprise, since visa processing generally takes around two weeks!

University of Surrey location. That's Guildford.
University of Surrey location. That's Guildford.

My university is situated in the town of Guildford is approximately half an hour away from London by rail / road. I solemnly deny that the fact that Douglas Adams had a soft spot for Surrey (the county) had anything to do with my decision to join Surrey (the university). Arthur Dent stays in Leatherhead, Surrey; Woking is ‘the word for when you go to the kitchen but forget why’; Ford Prefect is (supposedly) from Guildford…and so on. More references to Surrey in popular culture can be found in Harry Potter, Lara Croft, and War of the Worlds.

A celebrity resident of Guildford
A celebrity resident of Guildford

The past few weeks have been spent meeting relatives and school friends. Had a great time participating in the AIIMS college fest Pulse 2009 with ex-DPS VK Quiz Club members Rachit and Varun! (Came second in general trivia quiz, first on movie quiz, third in science quiz.) Making goofy faces at the Code Warriors reunion (more photos from CW Reunion 2009 here)…


…total vellapunti

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Stationary on an escalator, the associated meetup, technology (un)conferences have kept me busy too. Which reminds me, i’ve been working on the draft of a novel too. Shshshsh… No more details yet. One thing that I have realized is that writing a long-length work is tough shit. You start working on something, and then you find it doesn’t quite fit in. Maybe I’ll rework those bits, spin them off as short stories and then publish them here some day. Oh, and I’ve been doing this in Google Docs – revision control is a very handy tool.

For the past few months, I have also been working with Youthpad (and to an extent, more.VoiceTAP) as a content writer. Coming up with new blog post ideas for Youthpad daily has been a fun task, although at times I’ve suffered from serious bouts of writer’s block. πŸ™‚ Sadly, with university starting I won’t be able to continue in this position. Anyway, it has been great fun!

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University of Surrey promotional video. I *heart* the catchy tune!

I won’t be blogging daily from now onwards (I hear my RSS subscribers breathing a sigh of relief), but I think I’ll remain fairly regular in putting up new blog posts. I’m also introducing three new post categories on my personal blogSurreyal, about happenings at the University of Surrey; Stiff Upper Lip, for everything else quintessentially British; Take42, which I intend to be a vodcast. I’ll try to incorporate more podcasts, videos, pictures in the future. And just FYI, I think it’d be a swell idea if someone starts a company called Take42 Interactive, as a parody of Take2 Interactive. πŸ˜‰

Still packing...
Still packing...

Wow. This has been one long blog post. Soon, I’ll be switching over to a new time zone. It’s 6am in the morning right now, and I still haven’t slept one bit. Need to get some rest now. I want to thank all my readers for the immense support and great company that you have given me. And remember, if you need to get in touch I’m just a click away.

So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish! πŸ™‚

PS – The cake is a lie.

Reviews Technology


There have been quite a few web-based ‘local search’ engines in India. ‘Local search’ is a search engine which enables you to find – at the very least – addresses and telephone numbers of various business establishments, restaurants, movie theatre show timings, etc in your particular city. A few major players in the Indian local search business are Yahoo! India Local Search, JustDial, AskLaila, OnYoMo; plus some niche players such as Foodiebay (restaurant listings and reviews) and (events, restaurants, pubs, cafes; I reviewed an associated service name Burrp! TV earlier).

However, most of these services are intended to provide you with information before you leave your house / workplace. You can look up information for a place you plan ahead in visiting. If you want to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to some restaurant or find a business when you’re on the road, you were pretty much screwed. Sadly, most of these local search engines don’t have good mobile interfaces (except for JustDial). JustDial also operates a human-operator assisted telephone helpline (6999-9999). The way this works is that you call the number, a human operator types in your queries into the normal JustDial interface, and then reads out the results to you.

As you can imagine, this procedure can be quite cumbersome. You may be unlucky enough to get an operator who isn’t that good / doesn’t understand what you’re saying. Many times call centre operations are based out of one city, and if you’re calling in from another city then they’ll be thoroughly confused (as I’ve found out at times).

So you were pretty much screwed in such situations…until now. To circumvent these and other problems, Google India launched Local Voice Search about a year ago. It was a laughable attempt at that time, because the whole operation was based on a human-operator picking up the phone and keying in whatever you wanted to know into standard Google Search. Totally not worth talking about. Now however, they have shifted to an automated voice recognition system – which makes the game a bit more interesting.

If you stay in Delhi (NCR), Mumbai, Bangalore or Hyderabad, dial the toll-free number 1-800-41-999-999. This connects you to Google’s automated voice-based local search system. The system will prompt you to speak a type of business (e.g., ‘cafe’, ‘pizza’…), restaurant / shop / other business establishment (e.g., ‘Subway’, ‘DHL’…), or movie for show timings (e.g., The Taking of Pelham 123).

The voice recognition system will they play back what it understood, ask for confirmation, and then prompt you to speak the area name in which you are seeking whatever you want. In case automated voice recognition fails, the system will transfer your call to a call centre where a human operator will assist your search. (Human assist is available only from 8am to 12 midnight though.) Once the system has recognized all your choices correctly, it will read out the top three results for you – and also send you an SMS containing details for free (if you’re calling from a cellphone number).

I have tried out the service a few times, and my reaction to it is mixed.

  1. Movie timings: Almost always fails to recognize movie names, especially if the movie name is weird (for instance the example I gave). When it does find a match, you don’t get results from all cineplex chains. That’s still understandable, because till now there’s no single service which allows you to check show timings across all chains. (Hint hint, entrepreneurs. Here’s an area you start-up. That is, if movie theatres stop being a dick and give you access to their data.)
  2. Restaurant / exact business names: Mostly gets it right. The problem is that the contact details supplied are often out-dated / not working, so you’re back to square one. Still, when it works this is a life saver. After all, you’re dialling in toll free, so it’s not as if your money is being wasted.
  3. ‘Vague queries’ (searching by business type): Hit-and-miss affair. Again, toll-free, so no harm in checking.

The main ‘problem’ with Google Local Voice Search is not so much of not an extensive-enough database or voice recognition. The main problem is that it’s search engine simply does not understand the concept of ‘proximity’. Once I tried to track down courier services in Bhikaji Cama Place or Vasant Kunj. Voice recognition identified the place name correctly both times. Yet, when it came to giving results, it gave me address in South Extension and Lajpat Nagar! (People who live in Delhi will realize how ridiculous this is.) And it’s not as if those services don’t exist in the places I specified (as I found out from JustDial mobile web search).

Clearly, Google Local Voice Search has quite some way to go before it becomes a dependable alternative to ‘calling your friend who lives closest to the area you want to go to’. However, the concept holds so much promise that I’m sure Google (and other companies) will invest into efforts such as this – and we, as end users, would definitely want to adopt services such as this. Searching by speaking out words is so inherently intuitive that it has the potential to bring the power of search to a lot more people and in a lot more environments (d0esn’t tie you down to your computer desk).

Until then, we can only hope for better results than shown in the video below… πŸ˜‰

Howard shows off the capabilities of his ‘amazing’ phone on The Big Bang Theory