Read All About It!

© Shaunak De (http://shaunak.ws/)

Breakfast for most of us is perhaps incomplete without a copy of the newspaper. But before that copy makes it to your table, it has a story of its own, perhaps as interesting as the stories it carries. Every night the paper makes its journey through an efficient and hardworking distribution network which works tirelessly though the night to sort the copies, insert supplements and advertisement leaflets. Every vehicle imaginable serves as transport, from the trucks that the area distributors bring in to the mopeds that the paperboy runs from sub-centers like these. From the presses to your table, the entire decimation happens in a matter of hours, every night.

Little Black Cormorant

Little Black Cormorant © Shaunak De (http://shaunak.ws/)

A Little Black Cormorant makes a perfect touch down on the water surface.

A Chance Encounter

© Shaunak De (http://shaunak.ws/)

Photography is a solitary avocation, and it can sometimes leave you feeling a little isolated and lonely. You begin to believe that you are you perhaps unique in your pursuits, you begin to feel a little alone. And then, life introduces you to wonderful people, who you can completely identify with and resonate to. People who may be a world apart geographically, but as close to your heart as your own shadow.

I was walking about shooting on Juhu beach, when, by complete co-incidence I happened to meet Laïd Liazid, a french photographer and film maker, on tour of India for his latest documentary. The differences in culture and language hardly seemed to matter as we bonded on the most powerful thread there is, that of a common passion. We spent the night shooting in and around Mumbai, and talking about photography and life.

For his documentary, Laïd tours the world asking people "What is Love?". To answer to you Laïd, it is perhaps the most beautiful feeling known to man. Love can become an inexhaustible source of courage, strength and happiness. Don't reserve your love for objects or a person; learn to love, with all your heart, life itself. And you will see, that life becomes beautiful. It grows and expands and makes place for all the wonderful people that the universe sends towards you.

Laïd has some amazing photographs and time-lapses from around the world. Please check out his work at - http://www.laidliazid.com/

A Fistful of Moonlight

GIrl, glow, hands, mumbai, night© Shaunak De (http://shaunak.ws/)

When the world around you is chaotic and dark, when your own thoughts are clouded by the storm raging around you, gather a little moonlight in your palms, and feel tranquil in soothing warm glow.

Click on the photograph twice for a larger view.

Into That Heaven of Freedom

Nation, a word we have grown up to associate with country or political state, with a boundary of some nature. But how do you define a nation? A nation can definitely not be defined by a shared cultural, racial or religious origins. There are several examples of great nations with very diverse cultural identities. Geographical proximity also falls short in the demarcation of a nation. Take Alaska for example. The last frontier is as much a part of the United States of America as Hawaii is. Do you define it by its political boundaries? Political borders that are drawn by human agreement, mostly in accordance to the ability of a group of people to exhibit violence serve as perhaps the weakest definition of a nation. The question becomes much harder to address if you try to define a nation, even before its conception. Take for example the state of Palestine which was officially formed in 1988, although its notion existed aforetime. The notion of a nation, so as to speak this transcends cultural, racial, or sociopolitical boundaries. The idea of a nation is more complex, and is precisely that, an idea. Before the lines are laid on a map and we all agree that here exists a nation, the nationals must be brought together. United under a common binding entity. And more often than not, this is the idea of the nation. A banner that brings together diverse individuals, each with distinct identities, backgrounds and opinions to the nation coherently unite them.

Leaders play an important role in the nurturing of creation of this idea. They are pivotal both before and after the official formation of the nation. Before formalization, leaders create an image, an idea, that people can subscribe to and have nationalistic feelings for. Much like Gandhi’s or Bose’s role in creation of the idea of India. Leaders are crucial in cementing the idea of the nation in other nations as well. His holiness, the Dalai Lama, is perhaps the last guardian of the identity of Tibet, a state that has been largely absorbed into China for all diplomatic purposes. And much after the establishment of the nation, leaders play a vital role in the consolidation of nationalism, and keeping it pertinent to changing times.

Leaders, then work to build images and identities that constitute of the concept of a nation to which citizens of the nation subscribe to. If we look beyond the classic definition of a nation, and start to treat it like an idea which is subscribed to, a whole new look at nationalism and liberty begins to emerge. If nationalism is nothing but the acceptance and adoption of an image, then consider the case of an individual geographically located in one country, whose thoughts, ideas, popular culture, preferences are influenced by those prevalent in another nation. For example, a person living in India may subscribe to the ideas of Barack Obama. Adopt a ‘United States’ life style, have a preference to a USA culture and sing the star spangled banner beautifully. Then is he or she not as much a subscriber of the idea of the USA as any other man? Can only the action of physical birth qualify a person into national membership? The scope of the word liberty is wide. Should an individual not be at liberty to choose his sense of national identity? When one takes into account this possibility, the idea of liberty begins to open up and widen. Perhaps, true liberty must involve individualistic choice on nationality as well. True liberty must then enshrine the concept of open borders.

Europe serves as a powerful illustration of this concept. Although strong nationalistic identities exist across the continent, an individual is free to choose to settle at any of these culture centers. It is out of choice and at his or her liberty that a person chooses to be French, German or Hungarian. Because the individual has certain patriotic and nationalistic feelings towards these countries, the culture and perhaps the language that he or she chooses to remain aligned to them. By choice, not by compulsion.

It follows then, that in an open world, economic liberty must also be granted. The influence of governmental agencies on the business of private individuals and corporations must be waned. On the path to the greater sense of liberty then the principles of economics and competitions of an open market should be the sole check and measure. The rights of the employee are usually well protected in labor laws across the world. The liberty of the employer on the other hand is seldom spoken of. We cannot have a conducive environment for business, if the industry as a whole is under constant threat of muzzling by policymakers, either to please populist sentiments, or environmental. Liberty granted in this regard can reap enormous benefits in the long run. The success story of China is not one written by populist sentiments. Rather it is a saga of government encouraged capitalism, and complete economic liberty granted to industry. Today the rise of the dragon is out there for all to see. Liberty then, must not only be granted to the underdogs, but evenly and in equal measure. The movers of the economy must be at freedom to progress, with the government, not despite it.

Morality is a debate that has raged on for eternity, and shall continue forever more. If we speak of the lofty ideals of liberty and freedom, then by which aspect of these are we allowed to segregate and judge people for their choices? To an extent, of even exercising legal machinery to disallow them. The acceptance of homosexual marriages, use of marijuana and other substances and legalized prostitution remain political buzzwords drummed up every election season. If a man is to be allowed a choice in life partner, then why restrict the gender? If the sale of cigarettes and alcohol are socially acceptable, then why restrict the sale marijuana? Surely the individual should be at liberty to choose his poison, figuratively speaking. And if it is perfectly legal to produce pornographic content, then why is is not legal for a woman to choose the path of prostitution?

In every aspect of our lives, the guardians of our liberty, our chosen government, applies restrictions. And the joke of it all, is that we are told, these are in place to protect our freedoms. Privacy is of little concern when matters of national security are in the fray. Human rights somehow stop applying when the government deems fit. If is funny how a state of national emergency is declared when the government has failed, but the punishment for this failure is borne by ordinary citizen, with the confestication of their fundamental rights.

If we as a race are truly to engage in the pursuit of happiness, life and liberty; then we need to review the very definitions of liberty. Are we truly free? It is both a question and an answer in itself. If history has taught us anything, it is that, when one begins to question ones franchise, one moves a step towards one’s freedom.

into that heaven of freedom shaunak de

Share Your Profits With Microsoft, Buy That Copy of Office.

In a world that free coffee is so hard to come by, it’s a wonder that some individuals would invest their free time in building fully capable software tools and give them out for absolutely nothing. And the ‘free’ does not end there, you are also at liberty to look at the source code, modify it as you please, package and redistribute or even sell it if you like. “Free” as in freedom: both gratis and libre. Unfortunately this is the real world, and it is not much of a fairytale. The user experience in most open-source tools, and in particular office suites, is somewhat lacking. Let us examine some reasons as to why open-source tools lack a certain level of finesse and polish, and why a commercial organization, making a profit from the utilization of the office suite, should look beyond open-office and its variants, and invest in commercial solutions. Before I proceed, let me clarify, I am an open-source aficionado (a love affair that started with Red Hat Linux 6 over a decade and a half ago) and am the as big a proponent of the open-office suite of tools as any other man. However, here I try to take an honest look at the state of things and reason out, why it is important for profit making commercial organizations to invest in the lingua franca of office suites, Microsoft Office.

The problem of a sub-optimal user-experience that most open-source tools deliver, begin with the people building them. Unfortunately, the people who enjoy devoting free time to building software, are as far from your everyday computer users as you would expect. We enjoy complex user interfaces, learning key-maps and special commands to get things done. We enjoy having to interact with the machine, cryptic labels on buttons and complex workflows to get the perfect result. Unfortunately the “other half” simply wants to get their job done, acceptably and as smoothly as possible. And this fundamental disconnect between the developers and their users show up in the jargon littered, convoluted user interfaces that plague most open-source tools. What seems simple to the developers may become a compounded eyesore for the end-user. What seems new and ground-breaking to the developers, quickly become a steeper learning curve for the users.

Speaking about open-office in particular, the suite was built with a "run anywhere" ideology in mind, and was thus built in Java. It is designed to work on Windows, Mac and Linux. And it is a hard task to come up with a coherent user interface within the limitations of the chosen frameworks and languages that is also responsive and intuitive. It is perhaps prudent to accept that Microsoft have done an amazing job with the user interface of the new Office 2013 suite. They have created a refined experience that makes the users work flow easier and even enjoyable. They can only do this because they really are not limited by the platform they build on. Their market position allows them to create a new platform, design language and hardware requirements. The interface is thus limited by the developers and designer’s imagination alone. All in all this leads to a more refined user experience that suites like open office can only hope to mimic.

Developer skill and time available to open-source projects is also quite limited. Much of the developer effort is spent making changes to the core mechanisms of the software. Something that will probably go un-noticed to most end-users. For instance the most recent commits to the open-office code base deal with Hebrew language support and fixing the calculation for “leading metrics for CoreText”. These will go un-noticed to you, unless you speak Hebrew and can measure fonts at the sub-pixel level. Microsoft on the other hand can focus their highly trained full time developer effort on building both the core and the casing.

Microsoft invests a lot of time and money into not only the user experience but relevant finer details that come together to produce a great product. The profit they make from the sale of the product allows them to invest in professional user experience designers, human computer interaction researchers and artists who can create visually engaging templates and typography. To put it in directly, if you profit from using the office suite, it is perhaps prudent to share your profits with Microsoft so they can improve the product, and in-turn help you do your job better, and perhaps profit more. Using the well-developed high quality suite may cut into your bottom-line and look a little bad on the balance sheets, but it can significantly boost employee productivity and morale. And surely a happy employee works better.

There are small irritants within open-office that can throw a lot of users off. One of the biggest peeves is the fact that the open document specification does allow the embedding of fonts, however OpenOffice has not implemented it (Those interested can follow this bug report filed in 2003). A decision that ends up causing more trouble than its worth. Imagine the state of your average Joe. He has no idea what font embedding is and has never heard of the open document standard. He looks at his print of a document and finds it to be very different from Jane’s simply because Jane had “Myriad Pro” installed on her system and he did not (And he doesn’t even know about it!). The only work around to this is to convert it into a PDF document (which incidentally, is not set up to embed fonts by default either). This is something very basic that can confound those unfamiliar with computers. We must come to an acceptance that there is a certain level of technical skill that is required to make OpenOffice do that comes naturally to Microsoft Office, and this can cause a lot of frustration amongst the technically uninclined. Ideologies and technical debates mean little when the user shoots himself in frustration.

Reward Microsoft for creating a better user interface and share some of your profits with them. And most importantly spare your employee the blood pressure pills, buy him or her a copy of MS Office.

A Decision on Death

Death is a certainty we all face, and yet, surprisingly so little thought is actually given to the element of the matter. All of us are headed to the pearly gate, but no one is quite sure how. In fact, it’s even considered to abnormal to ponder on the actualities of the end. Perhaps I will die in a blazing ball of glory having crashed into an oil tanker. Maybe, I will die silently and in solitude on the top of Mount Everest. Perhaps I will turn it into a group activity by deciding to become a suicide bomber, for instance. We go about our lives looking to make it exciting, fulfilling and fun, without sparing a moment’s thought to its closing. Let me borrow then, a moment from life and indulge in the aberrant proceeding of deliberating over death. Let me then attempt to answer the macabre question of how I want to die?

Just like I don’t want to live an ordinary life, I don’t want a humdrum death. Just like my life, I want my death to have meaning, and to be an experience, albeit a final one. Just like we romanticize life, liberty and the future, why not romanticize death? To being my search for a meaningful death and to understand every nuance of the ultimate end, I would like to head to Ukraine. Home, to the death threat that kept the world on precipice, a town that stopped living in a heartbeat and the eternalized valley of death.

During the cold war, Ukraine was home to Russian nuclear capable missiles. The town of Pervomaisk was of strategic importance, whose silos hosted, amongst others, the formidable “Satan” (Soviet: Voyevoda) and exciting “Stiletto” (Soviet: SS-19) missiles. Each one capable of annihilating all of humanity. For years together they held an entire race at hostage, under the constant threat of eradication. What better than to start my journey to death than this? I would very much like to walk around the now defunct bases, and marvel at how much human ingenuity, technology and effort has gone into the preparation for the perpetration of large scale death. For a society that is so scared of death, we spend an awful lot of time creating tools to facilitate it. It is said that prostitution is the oldest profession known to man, but I must disagree. Defense research is definitely an older occupation. Ever since man could pick up a rock, he has tried to end another man’s life with it. Death is definitely then a preoccupation of many a clever men and women, and an economy in itself.

From there, I’d like to journey on to the sullen valley of Balaklava, immortalized as the “Valley of Death” in Lord Tennyson’s magnum opus, “Charge of the light brigade”. Six hundred brave men armed with nothing but sabers charged a fully outfitted Russian artillery brigade head on, all due to a miscommunicated instruction. The light brigade charged straight into the Russian ranks, staring death in the face. Sadly sheer courage offers little protection against canon fire. The results were preordained. All six hundred brave men and steed were lost. Although the lives of the courageous troops ended that day, their memories live on forever. Every time their story is retold, the light brigade charges yet again and shall continue to charge for all eternity and ever more. I would like to stand overlooking the valley and recite the entire poem to the reticent air that shrouds it. And pretend that the souls of the six hundred were listening, with their heads held high, in rapt attention. “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death. Rode the six hundred”. If your life has been significant enough, death then becomes just a gateway to true immortality.

The final stop on my tour of death would be a quaint town on the northern border of the country. A town most tourists tend to avoid. A town called Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear disaster known to man. Caused by a technical fault, the explosion caused the decimation of an entire city in a heartbeat. The nuclear fallout from the disaster will take twenty thousand years to reduce to half its intensity. A thirty kilometer radius around the accursed plant has been sealed off, because the radiation levels are deemed to be too high to be safe for living beings. It is here that I would like to die. I would like to walk across the barricades, slowly taking in the desolation and destruction around the plant. Then walk straight into the plant. And what a walk will that be! A walk to remember; a walk to my end. With a tune on my lips, and a confident stride, I want to walk straight into reactor number four, into its exposed core, and be irradiated into oblivion.

Why do give a though to one’s death at all, you ask? Because, if you decide how you want to die, you can command how you want to live.

Death Ukraine Shaunak

Further reading:
Crimean War
Chernobyl disaster
Ukraine Missile Silos

The Nation Wants To Know!

© Shaunak De (http://shaunak.ws/) - Modi arnab newshour cartoon

The nation watched in shocked silence as for the very first time in history, someone other than Arnab Goswami had his voice heard on The Newshour. The man was none other than the enigmatic Narendra Modi. Was Arnab "modified" or does everyman have a price?

I don't know about you folks, but any man who can shut Arnab up, in my book can run this country.

As always, click on the image twice to open a larger view and do share it if you like it!

The Verisimilitude of Veracity

The phrase “it’s not an exact science” often surprises me, mainly because nothing probably is. To an outside observer it may seem to be a craft of precision, but its practitioners know that if anything, science and engineering is fundamentally comprised of abstraction and approximation. The greatest engineering marvels, the most breathtaking scientific breakthroughs are nothing but an approximation with tolerances. A probability, that in all sense of practicality, the stated hypothesis is true. Engineers have a word for the process of approximation inherent in their design process; they call it “eyeballing it”. Slang for approximation a particular measurement that is perhaps too tedious, or too complicated to account for, and can be successfully approximated with little consequence to the overall system.

Take for example, the process of construction of a suspension bridge. Although, hundreds of simulations studies are conducted, and every possible parameter that may influence the stability of the bridge is modeled, at the very end of it, each of these computer models, no matter how complex and detailed, are just approximations. They are mathematical analogies of our understanding of the forces of nature which govern the stability of the bridge. It is impossible to completely replicate every intricacy of real life in a computer program.
Measurement itself is a process of estimation. A measurement is nothing more than an estimate of how closely an unknown quantity matches a known articulated standard. An attempt can be made only to reduce the errors, never completely eliminate them, hence making it impossible to have a precise measurement. A component of the bridge that seems to be accurately crafted when measured with a tape measure would seem abysmally erroneous when measured with a micrometer. One must realize, that no matter how careful the experiment, no matter how precise the measurement, there will be always an inherent unpredictability and an imprecision that consorts the apparatus.

Basic sciences are not bereft of approximations either. Scientists just have a better word for it. They call it “outliers”, data points or observations that do not match the hypothesis. In fact, they look upon these with disdain, as if it is the natural phenomenon’s fault that it cannot be correctly explained by the human created theory.

Our current understanding of the universe, and its most fundamental processes are somewhat lacking. We are not exactly sure what at the tiniest level, the universe is made of. Does the universe comprise of tiny orbs, probabilistic clouds or tiny vibrating stings? No one is sure yet. Light is something we see all around us, and yet its true nature has not been illuminated. We do not know if it is a particle or a wave. Perhaps our basic concept of light is completely wrong, and it is something else altogether. We can’t really be sure, but we still can explain most of light’s behavior with our theories of electromagnetism. Yet another beautiful example of how verisimilitude and not veracity construes the supposedly precise craft of science.

This propensity of approximation is carried forward to grass root science teaching. The simplistic Bohr’s model of the atom, the one in which electrons orbit around the nucleus much like planets orbit around a star, which is taught in schools, is a euphemism at best. As we currently understand them, electrons do not orbit the nucleus but exist as probability clouds around the nucleus which may be anything from a simple spherical to a complex lobular-donut-shape. The simplistic view is then a simplification made to allow students to grasp the overall concept of an atom, without having to descend into the details of quantum mechanics. This is just one of several concepts that have been perhaps over-simplified or even slightly falsified at the elementary level to aid teaching. Is it then right for educators to, in a sense, mislead an individual in the persons understanding phase, only to correct them at a later stage in their learning when ideas have already been firmly implanted in their now non impressionable minds? Perhaps, it is, for abstraction has always been a key tool in human comprehension.

A person may not fully understand the algorithms that are engaged in rendering this post on your screen for example, or exactly what causes the text to move when one engages the scroll wheel, but he or she is fully capable of using the computer system to read this and many other pages. Abstraction has always been a core component of understanding. It is natural for the mind to gloss over the nitty-gritty details that it is not fully capable of absorbing, until it gets the overall picture. And this process is natural and happens without conscious effort. When first presented with an image, the mind tends to first take in the general color scheme, shapes and outlines first, and only when a general understanding has been established, it takes cognizance of the textural details. Every germ of an idea that incubates in your mind, first starts as a broad definition, only imbibing details as the mind proceeds to build upon it. Similarly, one may only begin to unlock the mysteries of the universe, when one can postpone the details and concentrate on the matter as a whole. A little conceit may be permitted in teaching, because the process of human though creation: thinking is in itself is an approximation.

The impression of precision comes perhaps from the fact that scientific endeavor typically deals with mathematics which is perceived to be exact. Math is expected to deliver explicit results, which are clear cut, exact and determinate. But one must realize mathematics in itself is a form of art, which deals with numbers and all the rules concerning them. But each of these numbers, all the rules and the entire symphony we call mathematics, is a flight of fancy of human imagination. At the very fundamental, the number system in itself is riddled with inconsistencies. Our number system in itself may be incapable of dealing with the universe in its entirety. As a simple example consider a square that is 2 meters by 2 meters in dimension. This is a very real object that I can draw in the physical world. However if I try to measure its diagonal, I am vexed with a very perplexing difficulty. Our laws of mathematics say that the length of its diagonal should be the square root of two, but this is an irrational number. A number which cannot be determined exactly, which has an infinite number of decimal digits and can only be approximated. And thus our number system fails to meet the needs of a very simple physical phenomenon. Numbers, equations and the art of mathematics, so precise and exacting in demeanor, in itself is an approximation.

Then one would agree that science is then not entirely a left brain, analytical, clear-cut craft of precision, but to some extent a right brained, creative pursuit that needs to make some leeway for the imprecision and approximation that govern the very basis of it. Perhaps, we must also concede, that after all these years, and all our collective musings about the universe and its secrets, we still have not even scratched the surface. There are a lot of mysteries out there that lay under a shroud, a beautifully complex universe out there to discover, and the only way to begin to comprehend it, is to keep asking the right questions and sometimes, and be prepared for some erratum in the answers.

Hidden_universe_shaunak

Battlegroud Amethi

© Shaunak De (http://shaunak.ws/)

As the election draws near, congress sends in it's biggest gun, heir supreme, Mr. Rahul Gandhi. But perhaps he faces the greatest political challenge of his career in Amethi, from a poet and a soap opera actress.

News: Gandhis face first real fight

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