Friday, November 12, 2004

IBM Freebies

My frustration level must be going up, because it's usually frustration that inspires me to write. Here I am again.

Last weekend I stayed over with a friend of mine in his newly rented house. As he welcomed me home I noticed he was wearing a white t-shirt with a blue IBM logo on it, and an IBM cap. I've seen him in IBM gear before. IBM hands out a lot of freebies to its interns these days.

In the kitchen I found an IBM coffee maker and an IBM coffee mug, along with a pack of ground coffee with the legend "Starbucks breakfast blend, packed for IBM". Mmm, coffee, powered by IBM. In the bathroom there was an IBM towel, and the toilet seat cover had a big blue IBM logo on it. Hmm, toilet, covered by IBM.

Next to his sink was a blue sponge scouring pad with an IBM logo. Behold, the IBM sinkpad.

No prizes for guessing his favorite music genre: blues.

Needless to say, his long internship has afforded him a lot of IBM clothing. Shirts, track pants, socks, you name it. The last time he visited his family in India, his mother gave him a new shirt on the first day. He spent quite a while looking for the IBM logo on it. It must have faded or something, he guessed. He says new interns at IBM are given a gender-specific form to specify their clothing preferences. Boxers or briefs?

In a past life he was an intern at IBM India Labs in Delhi. It is to IBM's credit that their freebies are not only gender-specific but also culture-specific. As fond mementoes of his IBM Delhi days, he still has his IBM spittoon and his IBM lungi. Close your eyes for a moment and picture yourself using those.

The potted plant in the corner of his living room, thankfully, didn't have a logo. Only the pot did. IBM pot: the favorite pot of all intern smokers worldwide! (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Instead of growing towards the sunlight, this plant was growing towards the kitchen. What gives? "This plant grows in the direction of the nearest IBM site," he explained. "It has been genetically modified to droop and shed leaves when IBM's share price drops." Would that be the blue gene?

He even had two IBM footstools. Do you even *have* a footstool? I don't. I never interned at IBM.

Sadly his internship at IBM is coming to an end. The days of free IBM kitchen wipes and free IBM knee-pads will soon be over. He is joining the deprived ranks of the full-time employees who do not get freebies. Alas. Of what use is a 401(k) retirement savings plan and dental benefits if you cannot surprise your significant other on her birthday with a free IBM pink slip or free IBM black thong?

His internship has certainly served him well. IBM merchandise is generally well designed. It can certainly create a good first impression. It has class, you know what I mean?

Imagine this situation: you, a male IBM engineer, are on a first date. It's dinner in a fancy restaurant. The conversation is going well because you have kept yourself from talking about the benefits of high-K dielectrics in IBM's 65-nanometer SOI technology or the problems of substrate noise in CMOS designs of radio frequency PLLs. As the waiter brings you the check, the restaurant is getting rather warm, and your date is quite hot too. You take off your sweater to reveal an IBM t-shirt.

Her: You work at IBM?
You: Yeah, in the circuits research lab.
Her: Cool. Hey, you wanna come over to my place for some coffee?

On the other hand, imagine this situation: you, a male AMD engineer, are on a first date. Dinner in a fancy restaurant. The conversation is going well. As the waiter brings you the check, the restaurant is getting rather warm, not to mention your that your date is quite hot too. You take off your sweater to reveal an AMD t-shirt. Uh oh, not this one. This t-shirt is a particularly nerdy production.

Her: Hey, that's weird. What's your t-shirt say?
You: Oh, it's a... um, it's a t-shirt celebrating the Hammer tapeout. You see, (pointing to a picture of a hammer on the t-shirt) Hammer is the code name for AMD's next generation processor. And this (pointing to a penguin on the t-shirt) is linux, and this (pointing) is windows. We're going to rule both linux and windows with Hammer. Well, the picture actually shows only one window, but you get the idea... and this (pointing again) is the sinking Itanic. That's the competition, you see. And this here is the tapeout date...
Her: *Yawn*. Nice. Hey, can you call me a cab? I'm headed home.

You head home too, and burn the offending t-shirt.

See what I mean?

The Hammer tapeout t-shirt described above really exists. Some of us (those who have realized that we didn't stand a chance anyway, also called realists) haven't bothered to burn it. I still wonder who designed it. There must be an especially fiery place somewhere in hell reserved for such people...

Friday, November 05, 2004

The Lungi

Today I discovered that I still possess an alternative to the pajama I wear to bed every night. I found a lungi in my closet. Which proves beyond a shadow of doubt that I am from one of the Southernmost states of India, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. (Those who know me personally are aware that I happen to be from both states, but I digress.) I daresay lungis are common in other territories as well, but in these aforementioned places they are ubiquitous. Male students of Trivandrum engineering college for instance never have pajama parties; they only have lungi parties.

Not many have read that obscure chapter from one of our great Hindu epics that describes how the lungi was born. In the days of yore, men of India dressed in the purity of white and the soberness of subdued colors, much like men of the Western world do today. Bright colors were for the womenfolk. The lungi was fortutiously designed by the third of five brothers, who was roaming the land in search of adventure thousands of years ago (so the epic goes). One evening he rested for a while on a river bank, when what should catch his eye but three sarees folded neatly and placed on a rock. "Aha, abandoned clothes," he thought. Little did it occur to him that they might belong to three hapless damsels who were bathing in the river. The onset of twilight had probably obscured any visual clues to that fact. Had he known that, his upright moral values would have kept him from changing the course of fashion history. But as it happens, he tucked the three sarees under his armpit and trudged home. All three were brightly colored. Perhaps they were purple, orange and green; or one of them might have been bright yellow or red, and a couple of them may have had a floral pattern. You get the idea.

The three bathing damsels came out of the water and were shocked to discover the loss of their garments. Reluctant to trust their modesty to the cover of darkness on their way home, they prayed in unison to Lord Krishna. Promptly coming to the rescue, he blessed them with the gift of the garb. (Astute readers are no doubt noting that this was not the only instance in Hindu mythology when Lord Krishna has imparted this gift to women in distress.)

Our intrepid hero meanwhile reached home and greeted his widowed mother. "Look ma, see what I have brought!" His mother, immersed in her evening prayers, merely said, "Arre Arjun beta, whatever it is, please divide it and share it equally among all you five brothers." (Once again, astute readers will point out that this is not an isolated incident of fraternal sharing thus inspired.)

Never one to disobey his mother, our hero promptly cut each saree into five and gave a piece each to his brothers. What were they to do? With a brightly colored cloth of that size, there aren't too many ways you can put it to practical use. Thus was the lungi born.

The story of a modern-day lungi begins in a textile mill somewhere in the textile manufacturing haven of Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, which is the Paris of lungi fashions. From there it finds its way neatly folded and packed in plastic to Mallu and Tam wearers in all corners of the world, from Alappuzha to New Delhi, from Toronto to Dusseldorf and Pollachi to Melbourne. Industry newsletters estimate that seventy percent of the lungi trade takes place at Coimbatore and Erode railway stations when trains are halted there.

Kerala's TV viewers of the early nineties will fondly remember the Kitex lungi ads that used to run just before the nightly news. Compared to its monochromatic cousin the mundu (or dhoti), the lungi projects a different personality on the wearer. While the white mundu bestows a degree of understated class and suave refinement, the bright pink lungi with yellow flowers when sported in public conveys a certain daring and a playfulness of character that few other forms of attire can accord to men. Both these garments also provide an unparalleled utility of function, subtly cloaking the contours of the lower half of the body while providing the luxury of ample ventilation that wearers in humid tropical climes need. They also have the distinction of being the only convertible garment for men; I am referring to the ability to fold it up to any length required by the situation. Show me a pair of trousers that can convert to shorts in two seconds flat! This foldability is very handy for fighting villains on the street, as Mohanlal and Mammooty and other worthies have demonstrated on the silver screen. It is also handy for wading across large puddles of unknown depth, as wearers in Kerala's capricious monsoon rains will testify.

Of course there are downsides too. The time taken for repeatedly retying the lungi has seriously affected worker productivity in Kerala; witness the lack of industrial enterprise in that state. And if you are a Mallu student trying to escape from the authorities by way of jumping out of a third floor balcony onto a neighboring balcony, a lungi can be a hinderance. Nevertheless there is a certain Mallu friend of mine who has accomplished precisely this feat at IITB and lived to tell the tale. He lives only a hundred miles away from Austin, so I must be careful what I say here. More about him another time, I think.