Monday, September 29, 2008

Three Dimensions of Photography

A recent article by Christopher Hitchens for Vanity Fair, commemorating the culture magazine's 25th anniversary since its relaunch in 1983 narrates the story behind the famous photographs which have graced the magazine pages over the years. The author writes, during the course of the essay

"To have once or twice worked with photographers like James Nachtwey is to have appreciated the way in which - contrary to a once cherished belief of mine - the photographic image can possess a moral weight greater than words"

Photography to me, is an exalted art form. Never in the past four thousand years of human existence had an art form come close to the pinnacles which photography has reached in the past two centuries. Photographs as chronicles of our times are a medium par excellence. Great photographs over time have captured in mind blowing detail every aspect of our lives - from daily mundane activities to avant-garde expressions of human exisitence. But the beauty of photography also lies in the abstraction they so easily impress upon their viewers. Literature poses a level of abstraction which is presented in the tone and style of the writer's language. Painting delves into a level of abstraction which is presented through the palette of the painter, sculpture in the chisel of the sculptor. These art forms are essentially two dimensional. They are either seen from the perspective of the writer, the painter, the sculptor or through the perspective of the reader and viewer. The characters of literature are moulded by the style of the writer. The painter's brushstrokes paint the emotion of the subject and the sculptor's chisel shapes the subjects form. It is only photography which allows for three dimensions in perspective - that of the photographer, that of the viewer or audience and that of the subject which is being captured.

It is true that the influence of the photographer on the subject is critical and the photograph may be in essence what the photographer 'intends' it to be. But essentially, photographs are capsules of time and essence which necessarily include in them an additional variable - the implicit nature of the subject. Be it a 'capture' of an animate character in a portrait or a 'capture' of an inanimate object like a building, the very nature of the subject is never lost in the photograph. It remains despite all external perceptions, all superimpositions it is subject to - it remains in the texture, it remains in the film grain and it remains in the exposure.

From my collection - August 2008

The story of a photograph can be told through three distinct narrations. One is the story of the photographer, who through the camera in his hand tries to capture for posterity what his eyes see. He considers the camera to be an extension of his sight, hopefully invisible to others. He hopes the photograph to be an extension of his thought, made visible outside his mind. The second story is that of the viewer. He considers the visual stimuli of the photograph and tries to fathom the meaning of the frame of time. He considers the opinion of what has been captured by the extended sight of the photographer. He tries to understand the nature of the subject. The thrid story is that of the subject - who may never see the photograph or might not have the capability of sight itself, but nevertheless has a story to tell which is expressed in the way the subject is captured at that moment in time.

I was once asked to come up with a quotation to describe photography, to put down in words what a photograph stands for. After much deliberation and thought I came up with the following-

"Look into my eyes, you may know what I see; Look at my photograph, you may know what I think!"

I won much praise for this. But I still believe that, just like prose is two dimensional in the way it can be understood, explaining what a photograph is - in prose is two dimensional and therefore incomplete. Hence even this essay here is also incomplete.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Better Humor

Humor is a rare gift among humans. The above cartoon is hilarious. Had the comic artist storyboarded it with a minor difference it would have been excellent. Here - in text - is what I suggest.

Frame 1: Employee on his bed, waking up late, on the phone telling the employer "Good Afternoon Sir! Horrible Traffic Jam Sir. Will be coming in late for the meeting, Sir"

Frame 2: Employer actually stuck in a traffic jam as depicted in the cartoon above saying "hmmm... we are waiting for you. Make it fast!"

That would really make this hilarious!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hype Cycle of Emerging Technology and Me

Research Firm Gartner has recently identified five technologies which are about to reach the peak of the hype cycle. Hype Cycle according to Wikipedia is the

"Graphic representation of the maturity, adoption and business application of specific technologies"

I was just wondering how many of these have an impact or application on my life today.

Green IT

While I am very interested in this topic and would adopt a Green IT product if I had an option, my contribution to the 'Hype' or its impact on me (directly) is not significant. Green computing is the study and use of computing efficiently and the only exposure I have had to this are chain emails which warn us about the amount of power that can be saved by switching off the computer when it is not in use!

Cloud Computing

This is something I hear about very frequently. But despite being among those considered to be 'tech savvy' I have in the past made the mistake of thinking of Web2.0 and Cloud Computing are one and the same. Even as I write this I have not yet read Wikipedia articles about them to clarify my doubts. This according to me is a situation where innovation or 'invention' in the IT/Internet domain don't really have the same impact as 'inventions' in the classical hardware scheme of things. I recently purchased a digital transcriber which allows me to capture in digital form what I write on a paper, using this device. I am fascinated by the technology behind this and consider this to be groundbreaking in its utility. But a similar innovation in the IT/Internet domain would not be a tangible, physical product. Its utility will be manifest as an improvement in the way data is stored, retreived etc. This would result in downloading and uploading speeds to increase. Great! But the pace at which it happens has an inherent incrementality to it, which steals the shock and awe of a physical invention!

Social Networking

Now this is one emerging technology which I agree as having significant impact on my daily activity. Social networking has been pretty popular now for the past 3 years and I have been involved in various social networking sites and have actually found it to be useful in helping connect me to old friends. But if Hype Cycle peak is acheived when business application of the emerging technology becomes apparent, I fail to see this happening yet. I haven't been influenced to purchase anything yet as a result of being part of this social networking sites. Although, I can understand that information about me that the webmasters of these sites have access to, can be used to market products to me, I think I still haven't come across a such a proposition.

Video Telepresence

This is a very attractive technology, But I haven't yet been exposed to any business application which helps me use this effectively. I did see advanced prototypes of this in HP Cooltown in Singapore back in 2007, but have not had any business application of the same. But this is one technology which I can see being very prevalent, atleast in the near future - especially aided by the growth in cloud computing!


While I blog regularly in its traditional sense, I am yet to get onto this new phenomena of Microblogging. But some aspects of this seem odd to me. Earlier today I had an arguement with a colleague about the whole need to broadcast 'What I am Doing Right Now' to others, which is one of the main drivers behind the Microblogging buzz. I can see it as a superb tool at the workplace to replace old systems like sending memo. It is mainly facilitated through the mobile phone technology, using which most people Microblog. India with its already booming mobile telecom market is I think poised to get on the Microblogging bandwagan. I might just do so too!

Going by my dialog above, one can currently conclude that I am not really Tech Savvy. This I guess would be a victory for my colleague Freddie who claims I am an old relic who does not understand the impact of technology!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chalta Hai...

I recently finished reading Khushwant Singh's "Train to Pakistan". I had heard about it, read the reviews, read the sunday supplement commentaries about it and seen the trailer of the movie - but never read the book itself. The thing that struck me most about the story is the fact that it is poignant even today, 60 years after the brutal partition of the Indian Subcontinent. Khushwant Singh's prose is easy to read and almost like a screenplay unfolds to the reader and comes alive. The book was also accompanied by photographs of Margaret Bourke White, the renowned Life photojournalist who covered the horrors of the great partition. The horrifying photographs of vultures feeding on the carrion of human flesh and other such, helped bring the context of the prose in morbid detail.

The characters of the book are not all perfect and there are no true protagonists or antagonists. As the prose makes very clear, "The fact is both sides (Hindus & Muslims) killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both raped", almost every character in the book has some or other shade of grey. As I read through the book and was introduced to feelings of the various characters, another thing struck me as being very true. The character of Hukum Chand, the local magistrate and most influential person in the story is according to me, representative of our collective nature - of the people of the Indian Subcontinent - the fact that we do not have high standards for ourselves.

Hukum Chand's character is one of a lackadaisical, unkempt person who does not have very high standards for himself. He is corrupt and given the circumstance and the power that he wields, guilty of not doing anything constructive. He is also stuck in a moral conflict with himself - he recognizes his ineptitude and the bad that it is leading to, but is unable to compel himself to do anything better. He ends up rationalizing that "life is like that" and one has to go on with it. This is probably the most damaging kind of rationalizing a person can do and the mojority of the populace of the subcontinent is guilty of doing this throughout our lives. We have the "Chalta Hai" attitude - which is the anchor tied against our legs.

Back in college a professor asked us - a batch of soon to graduate MBA students, a question - "What is holding India back?". After some debate about population and restrictive government policy and other such like, the professor answered his own question. He showed us students the need to be fiercely demanding in improving the quality of one's life, a spirit which he had found in people struggling to survive in post-war Cambodia - and in juxtaposition, the lack of the same spirit in the Indian psyche. Most of us were moved by this and spent sometime debating and discussing this topic. But soon the hullabaloo of the topic waned and we were all consumed in the pursuit of academic requirements. Most of us now have comfortable jobs and are settled in the pursuit of monetary rewards and the topic is all but lost as one good presentation during the MBA course.

As I read the book, I have realized that it is the nature of Hukum Chand and truly that of the majority of our populace is the main cause of our being backward and toothless. And toothless we are. Consider the issue of our national security. A few colleagues and friends of mine were recently having a conversation about the spate of bomb blasts which has hit our metro's in the last couple of months - Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Delhi. Soon we realized that there is probably no other part of the World today, apart from Iraq where there is a full scale war, that there are bomb blasts every other day and the response or the action to curb it is not even registering a blip. We as a nation have come to accept this sorry state of affairs as just another incident and "Chalta Hai" attitude is manifest.

I live in Mumbai and commute everyday to office on the local suburban trains. The passanger carrying capacity these trains according to estimates is around 1700 people. A recent survey estimated that more 5100 people occupy the space meant for 1700 people during rush hour. The conditions of the trains are bad - one is barely able to find a foothold into the train at most times and many people hang on precariously at the edge and on the roofs, but very few people are committed to do anything about it. One soon realizes that there is no other viable alternative for getting from one place to another, without burning a hole in one's pocket or loosing a lot of time. The traffic is so bad that one ends up rationalizing that travelling for a short time with one's face directly in the next person's armpit on the local suburban train is better. According to statistics around three people die everyday in cases related to the Mumbai suburban train system and the effort to solve this horrendous situation is hardly visible. The number of people falling off trains and getting seriously hurt are innumerable - I happened to witness one such incident earlier today morning - but we hardly are bothered to improve the situation. In fact, the reaction one is more likely to hear about the Mumbai suburban railway is, that it is amazing that despite all these problems, it still manages to run and ferry millions of people to their destinations everyday1 The "Chalta Hai" attitude is manifest here in the fact that we dont have demanding standards and the alternatives are so bad that we are okay even with the despicable conditions.

And this attitude has a the same nature as a contagious disease. We are 'okay' with people defecating all over the railway tracks and footpaths - afterall these poor people do not even have a place to stay - and we are also 'okay' with our kitchen refuse to be thrown just outside our own front doors. We have only recently started getting water in our taps, so we need to adjust if the government cannot organize garbage disposal yet. And this attitude also makes us accept multiple bomb blasts as something borne as a result of India's muti-ethnic populace. We always seems to be under the misconception that we need to adjust with what we have or what is thrown at us - but fail to realize that once we have accepted this, we will always get only what is thrown at us.

Another thing which is common to our response to all the bad things that happen to us is a display of rage - usually misdirected. I can recollect an incident of arguement with my friends over an alleged case of racism against us Indians in foreign countries. The reaction to such a situation was rage and anger directed at the foreigner. The arguement which I had to this reaction was that, rage against a racist remark is futile and it was as if "I can't do much about the fact that I am being racially abused, but as long as I can react to it by being angry its okay". This for me is another manifestation of the "Chalta Hai" attitude as being angry and retorting to someone will not help solve the situation.

The crux of the problem with the pschye of a majority of Indians is that we do not set high standards for ourselves. We are in moral conflict with ourselves because of this and to make up for the lack of standards we have developed a pseudo sense of bravado which demands us to react to situations and expect some counter reaction. All the time we are hoping that something or someone will step up and make the case for us and show us the path to betterment while always accepting what is thrown at us. This according to me is the main cause of India's backwardness.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sad demise of the 150 year old Brothers...

From the Economist:

EVEN by the standards of the worst financial crisis for at least a generation, the events of Sunday September 14th and the day before were extraordinary. The weekend began with hopes that a deal could be struck, with or without government backing, to save Lehman Brothers, America’s fourth-largest investment bank. Early Monday morning Lehman filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It has more than $613 billion of debt.

I think this photograph is heart wrenching.When whole financial systems are crashing based on investments in dubious assets, this small time trader finds his most valuable asset - the people who are his main customers, lose their lunch money! Sad, sad day! (The article here)

Push Cart Coffee Guy in front of Lehman Brothers HQ in NYC

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An Example of Perfectly Competitive Market Condition

A market condition where no buyer/seller has market power - ability enough to influence the price at which a product/service/experience is sold, is called a perfect competition. Such conditions are not very common as there is a tendency for cartelization and the market condition usually becomes a oligopoly. But, I think there is one market which is a superb example of a perfect competiton example - the festival offerings market near Dadar Station in Mumbai!

The Ganesh Festival is currently underway and everyday as I walk to office walking amidst the bustling market which sells everything from flowers and incense sticks to toys and sweets, I cant help but be amazed at the number of buyers and sellers who throng these markets. There are many 'firms' which are selling 'homogeneous'- identical products and innumerous buyers. Also, anyone who wants to sell flower garlands or homemade wicker baskets can find a spot on the road and set up shop - very low entry barrier; well, there is a threat that some goons or a police guy might object to you sitting in that particular spot - but finding another spot nearby will not be difficult. All these conditions indicate towards a perfectly competitive environment.

I did a small dipstick survey to test this hypothesis the other day. I went around asking prices for one yard of a flower garland. The market can be classifed into three distinct geographical locations- as the sellers who are close to the entry of the rail station, those who have set up shop under the flyover and those who are on the pavements on the roadside. The price was uniformly in the range of Rs.6 to Rs. 6.50 for one foot of the flower. This price was probably on the lower side as I asked the questions in the evening and the quality of flowers was not as good as in the morning. Those under the flyover whose product was safe from the rain and sun during the day asked for Rs.6.50, but the number of people buying from them was much lower (This could also be because the area under the flyover is limited and the crowds feel suffocated). The ones near the station entry had poor quality products - dried out flowers. Probably because of the sheer number of people who move in that area during the day and the heat. The ones on the roadside pavements had the bulk of the business and uniformly charged Rs.6 for one foot. I asked quite a few people on the road for the price and all of them concurred with this amount.

I tried demanding, for a foot of flower, to be sold at Rs.4 and found nobody willing to sell. Market information is also high among the producers (another classic condition of a perfectly competitve environment) and they know that no other in that market would sell to me at Rs.4 and they are willing to forgo my business not offer an attractive price (Although, the quantity I was consuming was very small, I doubt if they would have budged from the price had I mentioned even a bigger volume of purchase). On the other hand, although there was no way for me to test it, the information of price and quality was high among the buyers also. Most of the people buying were women who are streetsmart and have an 'andaz' (right estimate) of what needs to be paid for the product.

This is an interesting market to study economics in. The dynamics of the market are purely competitive. I wish I could have spent a longer time in the market to see how the price transition from Rs.10 per foot in the morning (estimate), when the flowers are fresh to Rs.6 in the evening happens and where amongst the three geographical sections of the market does this happen. Is this price an equilibrium price which comes after fluctuations or is it a straight drop in price. This could be an interesting school assignment on economics if someone is willing to spend sometime in all the grime and brave both the rains and sunshine!
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