Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A poem on free will.

A leaf was riven from a tree,
"I mean to fall to earth," said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
"Eastward," said he, "I now shall steer."

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: "'Twere wise to change my course."

With equal power they contend.
He said: "My judgment I suspend."

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: "I've decided to fall straight."

"First thoughts are best?" That's not the moral;
Just choose your own and we'll not quarrel.

Howe'er your choice may chance to fall,
You'll have no hand in it at all.

     Came across this beautiful poem on free will, written by Ambrose Bierce. The way we rationalize our actions/decisions and the way we continuously continue to believe that we are in control of  ourselves & our actions is indeed surprising. A large amount of research has been done on this topic - whether the decisions we take are really the results of deliberation done by our conscious self (i.e 'I' or 'me') or whether our brain decides stuff and makes it appear to our conscious self that it was the one that took the decision. In other words, how many of the decisions we take (should I overtake this car or not ? should I buy this brand of soap or the other ? should I ask him/her out or not ? ) are conscious decisions and how many are taken unconsciously. A clear answer to this question won't come until the big daddy of all philosophical questions is answered - what exactly is consciousness ? Where precisely does it reside and how does it work (inside the brain ? outside ? is it emergent ? epiphenomenal ? quantum mechanical ? fundamental ? adaptive ? darwinian ? mystical ?) Where (in actions of humans) does the conscious end and unconscious start ? These questions have been reflected upon for hundreds of years.
     With the increasing additions in technology and overall sophistication, I hope to see these questions answered in my lifetime...

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Amazing linguistic ingenuity!

[from Wikipedia]
     The Shishupala Vadha (Sanskrit: शिशुपालवध, lit. "the slaying of Shishupala") is a work of classical Sanskrit poetry composed by Māgha in the 7th or 8th century. It is an epic poem in 20 cantos of about 1800 highly ornate stanzas, and is considered one of the six Sanskrit mahakavyas, or "great epics". It is also known as the Māgha-kāvya after its author. Like other kavyas, it is admired more for its exquisite descriptions and lyrical quality than for any dramatic development of plot.

     The entire 16th canto, a message from Shishupala to Krishna, is intentionally ambiguous and can be interpreted in two ways — a humble apology in courteous words, or a declaration of war.

     There is not much point in pasting the entire article here, so please continue on to wikipedia and go through the amazing mastery over language, and wordplay presented in the poem - Linguistic ingenuity

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Long live the queen!

Ants have always amazed me! The way they act, sometimes, one begins to doubt whether they are individuals or are selfless robots built to serve their queen. No wonder, Darwin submitted to group selectionist thoughts when it came to ants...

Showcasing below, a spectacular group adaptation of army ants to survive Amazon floods.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Value of all the gold ever mined

If Wikipedia is to be believed: 'At the end of 2009, it was estimated that all the gold ever mined totaled 165,000 tonnes'. From
Let us extrapolate the figure to a optimistic maximum of 200,000 tonnes up till 2011. Then, going by the current rate of gold, the total value of all the gold ever mined comes to around 11 trillion dollars.

Now, although the two figures have nothing to do with each other, I found it rather surprising/shocking, that total value of all of the gold in the world is appreciably less, than the amount of debt the US government owes! (~14 trillion dollars)

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Intelligence in crows.

     Everyday a crow(or crows, I can't differentiate between two :) ) comes and sits on our window sill making loud requests for food. My mom keeps some food for him everyday, and this has been going for years now.
     The suprising fact is this however - when myself or my dad goes to put food near the sill, the crow simply flies away and comes back only when he is sure that there is no one near the window. But, when my mother goes near the window, he does not feel insecure! In fact, he does not fly off even when my mom's hands are close to him to put food. I wondered whether it was due to difference in clothing or overall appearance(from the crow's POV that is :) ) or some other factor. My mother said, that the crow 'recognizes' her. I believed that was not possible, until... I came across this amazing video! Especially the episode narrated starting at 4:19.

     We often, so much, underestimate the animals living around us. Their brains make them do a variety of things in order to stay alive, and even this is a big feat! We look with awe when a VTOL takes off and lands, but we hardly appreciate the feat a crow or sparrow performs when they land precariously on a thin branch of a tree. Of course, the comparison is not apples-to-apples, but the fact I want to strees is that, birds and animals have a superbly strong, real-time physics engine* with an amazingly fast feedback loop built right into their tiny brains.
Just another wonder of great Nature...

* - for lack of a better word

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

     Last week, I received an unexpected mail(not email!) from the US.
     The mail was from a company called GoGrid. GoGrid is one of the early cloud providers. I was one of their beta customers, more than three years ago. At that time, beta customers had to register a credit card with them in order to participate. After I was done with the beta(which I liked!), I never kept track of GoGrid. Hence, was a bit surprised to hear from their corporate office in CA.
     Here are the two scanned pages. The first sentence on the first page tells it all!

     Their euphemism states no other fact than that - they were hacked into! And, the hackers had got access to credit card information(along with other personal data) of GoGrid users.
     IMHO, a cloud vendor itself getting broken into is really a shame! Hardware failure is okay, downtime due to maintenance is fine (if once in a blue moon), insufficient provisioning can be tolerated at times, an SLA breach can be compensated for, but a security lapse is just not done!

     GoGrid has offered credit card fraud monitoring and protection plans to those whose cards they think were exposed. But, whatever they do now, बूंद से गई, वो हौद से नहीं आती! They are not getting back the trust they had!
     I had nothing to worry about the data breach though. As always, I had used a virtual credit card when I signed up at GoGrid :)

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

On websites storing passwords...

     Many sites, especially the ones with a 'social' angle ask for usernames and passwords of your other accounts like gmail and facebook, so that they can leverage your already formed contacts from those sites. These sites that ask for username/passwords conspicuously mention that they don't store your passwords for the other accounts. However, I have seen no site conspicouosly mention something like 'We do not store passwords you entered on *unsuccessful* login attempts at our site'.
     Of what use would an incorrect password be to a site/organisation ? Well, none, if the the site is 100% professional and ethical. Otherwise an incorrect password can prove to be quite useful. For a user, an incorrect password for one site might be the correct password for some other! Thus, if a site has accumulated enough incorrect passwords entered by a particular user, chances are, that they can successfully log in into other sites using the user's username and one of those incorrect passwords! Now thats bad, isn't it ?
     One of the reasons people use same passwords everywhere or even use simple passwords is because strong passwords are difficult to remember. In addition, there is this innocent looking advice that they are trying to follow - 'Never write your password down'. When in fact, the advice should sound like this - 'Never write your password down where someone could easily find it.' Carrying the list of passwords in one's wallet is worse than having a weak password. However, keeping the list in a decently safe locker is way way better than using weak passwords all over the Internet.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Buying goggles for summer ?

     I just bought new sunglasses for summer B-) It makes a lot of difference if you are driving/travelling for even an hour in bright sunlight. I brought a pair of nice polarised goggles. Thought, would share some details about it here in case somebody finds it useful.

      First- why 'polarised' goggles(hereafter PGs) ? Do they make any difference ?
      Polarised googles are aimed at reducing 'flare' (bright, undesirable reflection in simple words). Flare quickly causes eye fatigue and I can say this is true with experience. By reducing flare, PGs essentially make your driving comfortable by keeping your eyes relaxed instead of strained (often unconsciously) to compensate against the flare. But, as might be portrayed by some shop owners, PGs by no means are a cure-all against bright sunlight. I guess, in general they would make 10-15% difference in the long run at max, over normal non-polarised goggles.

      In a shop, how to make sure that the pair you are planning to buy is really a pair of PGs ?
      The test is really simple - put on the shades and look at anything that uses LCD technology for display. That would be - mobiles, digital display watches, LCD monitors, LCD TVs, laptops and what not. Now tilt your head sideways while looking at the LCD display. Try both, left and right sides. With any of the tilts, if the brightness of the display changes appreciably or you see wierd colours on the display, then you can be sure that the goggles are indeed a polarised pair. If not then not! With a mobile, the test is even simpler, just hold the mobile in front of your eyes and rotate it in the same vertical plane. The reason this test works is because LCDs themselves work on the principle of selectively blocking light on the basis of its angle of polarisation.

      On road, in which cases would a PG help and in which would it won't ?
     Almost all PGs are constructed such that their axis of polarisation is perpendicular to the plane of ground (road). Thus, any light being reflected off the road will be effectively(but not perfectly) attenuated. At the same time, any light reflected off non-horizontals surfaces like vehicle bodies, windscreens, advertisement hoardings etc will not be affected by PGs. Hence, PGs are best suitable and effective for highway driving esp. if it is a 'cement road'. In city traffic, we hardly get to see the road surface, leave alone flares from it :) However, it is good to get PGs just in case you decide to travel far. Also, non-glass PGs (thanks to polymers!) are not very expensive. One can get them starting 350-400 INR.

Happy Polarising ;)

PS: For photographers - buying PGs instead of a proper polarising filter can be a makeshift way to saving a few bucks. However, don't expect the same fidelity. Also, since PGs are only linear polarisers, your AF sensors might be misled :)

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

'If we are merely matter...'

Came across a wonderful passage written by Carl Sagan. It was used as a 'stimulus' in a psychology study recently. The passage is about human pursuit of understanding what we and the universe are all about, and the belief that there is something higher than science. Being written by Sagan, it is no wonder that the passage leans towards science, however, it does not tout science or scientists as omniscient. It is something to think about, and definitely worth sharing. I have made bold what I think is the most crucial in the passage -

It is very reasonable for humans to want to understand something of our context in a broader universe, awesome and vast. It is also reasonable for us to want to understand something about ourselves. And understanding the nature of the world and the nature of ourselves is, to a very major degree, I believe, what the human enterprise is about. Truth should be pursued, and science helps us pursue it; science gives us meaning. All we have to do is maintain some tolerance for ambiguity, because right now science does not have all the answers. This tolerance goes with the courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations and knowledge tell us. The more likely we are to assume that the solution comes from something outside science, the less likely we are to solve our problems ourselves. If we are merely matter that is intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there's nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less, or does that make matter more? We make our purpose. And we have to work out what that is, for ourselves.

[ copyrights with original copyright holders ]

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Sunday, August 15, 2010


     Watched the Marathi play 'खिडक्या'(Windows) yesterday. Originally, a German play, it has been translated and adapted into Marathi.
     I will give a 'must watch once' rating! I like plays based on unusual scenarios and uncommon topics. It has been very well directed and both the characters in the play(Jyoti Subhash and Aseem Palande) have done a fantastic job of acting. The script and dialog delivery is excellent. In short, there is nothing that can be removed from the play for the better.
     The play depicts how dementia (cortical, most probably) brings about changes in the life of a cheerful grandma living with her rather inactive husband and interacting on-and-off with her daughter's son. The play is set in current times. Details have been planned and executed pretty accurately from start to finish. The slow introduction of non-sensibility into grandma's dialogues must not have been easy to accomplish.
     'खिडकी' has been used as a metaphor. Once referring to an actual window, and later on, to the Internet. Through the खिडकी (window), the character seeks attention and interest from other people around, to bring colour to her dull, monotonous life.

     Ultimately, I saw the play as another reminder about the stark truth that - the world is in our mind and the mind in our brain. Thus, any problems with our brain can alter our perception of the world to an absolutely unimaginable extent. Had blogged about it some time ago....

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Friday, May 21, 2010

What do i like to shoot ?

     My interest in photography rose by a considerable amount in the last couple of years, more so in the last 7-8 months. Photography is an excellent way to vent and gradually give a boost to the creativity in oneself (whatever little one might have).
Through this post i wish to record (primarily, for my own reference down the line) what I like to shoot.
     As with most people I started liking to take snaps whenever I found good landscapes, rainbows, beaches, sunrises and sunsets. These are places/times where the photographer can get an aesthetically good looking shot without too much effort. The colours and composition almost always looks nice when there is a rising sun, clouds, mountains and a sea-shore or river in it! Another reason why everyone gets those shots beautiful is because camera manufacturers know that they have to get those shots right and so they design and test the cams to bring out the best in those kind of scenes. Also, for a landscape, one (usually) focuses at infinity so there does not arise the question of what aperture value(f-number) to use to get the correct depth-of-field.
     After my interest in landscapes I got interested into flowers. Tried various things - shooting with different angles, from various perspectives, zooming-in & out etc. Although inherently beautiful, flowers are slightly difficult to shoot than landscapes. The focus has to be perfect and images sharp. Shooting dark flowers (purple, deep red, deep magenta) requires ample light, otherwise you have to bump up the ISO to get a steady click. The DOF has to be just right to get a dramatic effect.
     After flowers, I have developed interest in creating photos with everyday objects. I like to express concepts through commonly found/seen objects. Such photos often have no 'beauty'(in the usual sense) in it but, they might convey a message or thought. From my experience, creating them is not easy. Since there is no beauty, there is no right angle, right perspective, right light or right DOF. Everything is in the hands of the photographer. Even the objects in frame are at the mercy of the photographer. He may alter the composition at will. He can manipulate the light by using reflectors and strobes. Manipulating lights implies manipulating highlights and shadows, which gives further control over the end image. In this genre of photography there is a lot of scope for producing creative pictures and, I think there is lot for me to learn there. So, I'm going to stick to it for the near future at least.

     Does every hobbyist photographer follow the same path ? Nope. Not necessary.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Mobile phones - now child's play.

There are more people with mobile phones in India than with basic sanitation. To say that mobile phones have become ubiquitous will be an understatement. But, this post is not about the omnipresence of mobile phones. This is about another very interesting effect of mobile phone penetration that i observed recently.
The other day, I was parking my bike in my building after I'd returned from office. Just then, I heard, the small boy (aged 5-6) who lives on the first floor saying something like 'Hello, I am leaving in half an hour and will reach office by 10.' Another one said 'Come quickly, we are waiting'. After a few seconds, the second one inquired 'Hello, why are you not here yet ?'. The first one said 'There are guests at home'. After a moment, the first one said 'Hello, I am leaving now'.
When i went near them, i saw that these guys were talking on (imaginary) mobile phones with each other! I stayed there for some more time, and saw that their plays were all centered upon mobile phones. They would take up different roles every time and call each other to ask something or the other on the phone. This continued on and on. At such young age, mobile phones have not only entered their life, they have secured a firm position in their day-to-day life. Growing up, I think they will not be able to imagine a world without mobile phones, the same way that people from my generation assume television or radio.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An unusual shot

Last to last Sunday, we went to Kalyan for my brother's engagement. The programme went well... well... only until we were returning back to Pune. A few kilometers before Lonavla our bus's fan belt broke and we were left stranded on the expressway. It was dusk already and vehicles going by had their lights on.
       Luckily I had my camera with me so,I decided to take capture some light trails. Unfortunately, i had not carried my tripod, so i had to take all the shots handheld. It was a learning experience.
       Good light trails are not easy to get. IMO, the best ones can be got when you are standing above the source of light(such as, on an overbridge). They come out better if the road is a one-way. On two way streets, the head lights of incoming vehicles blow out parts of the picture. To get a good shot in such a position is non-trivial. I decided to try it out. After a few trials, I got this one (some PP added) -

                                                        [click to enlarge]
      The red streaks are the tail lamps of cars passing by me. The head lamps of incoming vehicles can be seen in bright. This is a 3.2 second exposure at f/8. Simple long exposures were coming too ordinary. So, I decided to zoom out the lens during the exposure. I think that is what has made the difference. The texture formed at the bottom is a result of the zooming. I think, I started with around 35mm and zoomed out to 18. I wanted an object an object to appear close to the camera(to underline the visual effect of the zoom), so after a bit searching around, found the twig that you can see near the bottom.
    The yellowish light is the light coming from the parking lights of our bus parked by the side. Fortunately, it was not too strong to light the entire road and coming vehicles. Choosing the aperture value is an important part, especially when shooting trails from close. Because a smaller value (i.e larger aperture) can get you out of focus areas as the vehicle moves further. A larger value (i.e smaller aperture) won't let in enough light to get clear details in the short interval that the vehicle passes by you. In fact, this same thing happened to me. I, then, bumped up the ISO to 400 as a compensation. Another problem to be faced when taking light trails from close is that - the light from the head lamp of the vehicle the tail lights of which you want to capture also might come in the picture and blow out the darker details. This happens because you are standing close to the vehicle. The remedy is to angle the camera in such a way that the vehicle does not come into view until it has gone some distance away from where you are standing. Trial-n-error is the best way to figure out what angle works best.
      I must mention that, the photo here does not look beautiful in the classical sense (like a photo of a rose or a sunset or a fine lady), but it looks different and somewhat surreal. For anyone interested in photography, taking light trails will be exciting :)

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