National Geographic Photo of the Day

Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year MMXI

So yet another year draws to its close, in fact it's curtains for the first decade of the new millennium.

A year filled with scandals galore, a year that began with a massive earthquake wreaking havoc in Haiti, another in Chile that triggered a killer Tsunami, yet another in China, a year that saw a good part of the American coastline polluted by an oil spill, a year when state secrets and diplomatic cables were leaked to the public, a year that found the Korean Peninsula ever closer to the brink of war.

Of course all these mishaps were balanced by good too - a new tallest structure called the Burj Khalifa was opened, India hosted the Commonwealth games way better than anyone thought it could, the first synthetic living cell was made, the H1N1 Influenza Pandemic was declared over, researchers trapped antimatter at CERN for the first time in human history and much much more.

On the personal front, I've seen a few more foreign lands, done a few more projects and published an IEEE paper, delighted in the company of my friends more than ever before and grown wiser, if in small increments, over the course of the year. The Blog has picked up steam too, with over 1500 page visits per month consistently over the past half year at least (since I began tracking it), breaching 10000 unique page visits in total in the first half of 2010 and a new high of 2500+ visits this month of December. I've won a *few* ;-) contests and giveaways online putting my poetry writing, prose and puzzle-solving skills to the test and earned a bit writing articles for a few websites too. College has been going great and this year will determine pretty much where my life's headed. A lot hangs in the balance.

If the supposedly prescient Mayans are to be believed, we only have 2 years left before the world ends. Put that time to good use lest some not-so-extinct Mayan truly gets his opportunity to say "I told you so!" :P (though I scarcely think that'll happen). Enjoy life, but spare a modicum of thought and a helping hand to those who're less fortunate. Sure, go out and party tonight, but exercise enough restraint to avoid being too wasted to drive yourself home in the wee hours of 1-1-11.

So here's wishing you a Happy New Year! A year filled with joy, friendship and love.... A year where you make a meaningful contribution to your family and the world... A year filled with achievement. For it is in the act of achieving that any human being gives meaning to his or her life. Why lead an insipid existence content with the daguerreotype of yesteryears? Instead discard the prosaic, whet your intellect and relish in your efforts to bring light to tenebrous depths. For that is what sets you apart from an unthinking animal.

Heartiest wishes for an excellent and worry-free 2011 !

An Egyptian Excursion - Day 6

Breakfast today was pretty heavy, an excellent spread at the buffet. We got ready to check out, and our driver for the day, Karam (a friend of Tiger/Nemr's), was waiting for us. And so we started to the airport. On the way Karam pointed out the 6th October 1973 memorial, pretty much everyone seemed to know about it and from the way they talk it's apparent that they respect it and revere the people who gave their lives during the Yom Kippur War. Few of us would ever accord the same degree of reverence to those who laid down their lives in Kargil or the war of 1971.

He proceeded to showed us the Cairo International stadium among other sights. Our flight was leaving from Terminal 3 of the new airport. Pretty large, spacious and pleasing to the eyes. One big airport in the middle of the desert.

There was a dark-skinned African guy who got stopped at the entrance though - apparently some issue with his tickets. His companion, another negro, was let in and he proceeded to find a ticket counter where he could set things right. Meanwhile the man who got left behind (with a thick African accent) kept saying "You let white man go, but I go to America, they stop me there. I go to Europe, they stop me there. Now I come to Africa, you stop me here too. OH MY GOD!!". While I can imagine that it must have been distressing for him, his words were so funny with that accent that I couldn't help laughing at what was happening (not in front of him though).

There was another problem with our seat allotment which kept us standing at the counter for some time, though they did resolve it. Next stop - duty free. After browsing through many of the shops there, we boarded the plane. As usual, there were a few Indians laughing loudly on the flight as if it was some train compartment they'd hired exclusively, drawing looks and giving us a 'good' name :P . When we finally landed at Aswan, the tour operator from the Pyramisa Isis Corniche was there. One Mr. Abdul Rehman, who gave us a full briefing of the sights to be seen on the way to the hotel.

Soon after checking-in, tour arrangements were to be discussed. Now like I always say, we never take group tours, we prefer traveling alone - just the 3 of us - with a guide and driver too at max in a vehicle. All the prices were in dollars (they kinda prefer that to the Egyptian pound here) and they were all pretty damn expensive. Even compared to London and such high-flung places.

The view from the room itself though was just too beautiful to describe. Right on the banks of the Nile - the cradle of the Egyptian civilization, with the Tombs of the Nobles right across the river on a hill, and the sun's beautiful rays shining down on the water. We decided to take a Nile cruise on a boat from the hotel's dock.

And so we went, taking in the beautiful scenery as we watched the rich greenery and civilization on the banks on one side contrasted with the stark desert and sand dunes on the opposite bank that extended into the distance.

Mind you though, we kept our hands firmly within the limits of the boat. The Nile crocodile is the largest crocodilian in Africa (with some 20 feet plus specimens recorded) and is sometimes regarded as the second largest crocodilian after the Saltwater crocodile. A fact we were well aware of. One of the rocky little islands in the middle of the river even had an ominous "Croc warning" danger sign.

We saw Aga Khan's mausoleum (now closed to the public) on the way too. Soon the boat stopped at the Nubian village. These Nubians live in a somewhat more traditional fashion on the west banks of the Nile and on Elephantine island where they settled after being displaced to make room for Lake Nasser. Here, we had Hibiscus juice at a traditional Nubian house where they had croc skins among other weird paraphernalia hung up all over. There was even a relatively small crocodile in a makeshift tank in the middle of the hall.

Walking through the streets of this little place, we nearly got run over by 2 camels. Periodically, a camel or two run down the streets with a tourist or the owner himself on it. There are shops where you can get souvenirs made by the locals here too, and the shopkeepers call out "Hey India India" based on the color of our skin, except one dude who incorrectly called out "Hey Sri Lanka" :P . We took the same boat back with our guide to the point where we started this little journey where a car from the hotel was waiting for us.

We skipped over to the opposite side of the road (crossing the road is a slightly more perilous affair here compared to Cairo) to look for some place we could get plenty of bottled water. We did find one such shop where the shopkeeper was busy watching some old Amitabh Bachchan flick on his little TV. On seeing us, his eyes lit up like two 100W bulbs and he went "India India... Amitabh Bachchan you like??" and only after he confirmed this would he sell us the water. Even gave us a discount LOL. We had the car drop us back in front of the hotel's entrance and from there we took a walk along the road on the banks. Some tout tried to accost us saying he was a cook from the restaurant, pity we come from a land where touts are a dime a dozen. Didn't work. A little bit of shoe shopping and currency exchanging and Hostess Ho Ho buying later (I just love HoHos and I was frankly amazed to find them here in Aswan too). Had an ice cream too after many days (we'd been unable to find much in the way of ice cream during our time in Cairo).

There was no dearth of people of Sudanese origin here in Aswan. Everyone seems to like Amitabh Bachchan more than any local stars. Google it too if you don't believe me, but they kinda greet Indians here with "India India?? Amitabh Bachchan!" hahaha and they just love his movies (as we would find out during the later days). Soon it was dark and time for dinner, which we had at our resort's restaurant (they sort of messed up with a Vindaloo that wasn't quite a Vindaloo) with the dark water lapping the shore barely a few feet away. Wonderful setting with the Movenpick Hotel (yes the same folks who make that awesome ice-cream) on the opposite bank showing off its ever-changing lighting. I was beginning to miss the constant texts I'd usually keep sending a friend of mine by now. The phone had instead turned into my travel diary of sorts, keeping track of everything I did wherever I went. Stored the location I was at on the phone's GPS for memory's sake .

After dinner, I tried to turn in early (big trip next day), but to no avail. There was some crazy prom slasher film on the tube which ended with everyone else dead but the target of the obsessive slasher.

Then, quite coincidentally, The Mummy came on. Couldn't resist watching The Mummy all over again what with this being the land of the Pharaohs ;) . For the record, Hamunaptra is imaginary and Imhotep was an architect, engineer, physician and adviser of the King Djoser, and he didn't quite stab the king in the back and go about cavorting with his bride.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Augmented Reality, the Word (Lens) on the Street, and the (Delicious) Cloud Conundrum

Now this one's about 2 tech topics, one of them part social issue, recently in the news.

Augmented reality applications are all the rage these days. What is Augmented Reality you ask? If you're one of those technologically-challenged folks, well it's a term for a live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated sensory input such as sound or graphics. Essentially, the computer adds virtual objects to your view of the world to help you gain information.

AR is commonplace in the military world with heads up displays (HUDs) showing a pilot or soldier target location, missile lock information, distance, altitude and other such details overlaid across his or her view. When they came to cellphones and mobile devices, it was first in the form of simple applications like the AR Tower defense game (you build laser towers and defend the center from invaders) on the Symbian-enabled (these days you'd be better off saying "Symbian-disabled") Nokia N95 smartphone. The game used the phone's camera feed as the environment, with the aid of fiduciary markers, or physical points of reference placed manually within the camera's view, and generated the "playing board".

Interest in AR was recently sparked by Star Wars : Falcon Gunner, an augmented reality game that lets you use the city (via your camera) as your background and simulate an actual window through which you can shoot at TIE fighters from the fictional Star Wars universe. Watch the video above. But it's not all fun and games.

Browsers like Wikitude brought forth a new genre of applications. Ones that let you see the world around you in more (useful) detail. Integrating itself with the GPS, accelerometer and compass on mobile devices running on Symbian, Android and iOS, the Wikitude World Browser and Wikitude Drive applications show you visually where you are, the history of the place, and what spots of interest lie around you from a ground level real-time view as you pan your camera. Feed wikitude an image of some product you find at a supermarket or department store and it'll return product details and where to find said item within your vicinity. A similar application exists by default on Samsung's Galaxy Tab too. There are others like Layar and TagWhat.

Now a new application for iOS has taken it to a whole new level. It's called Word Lens. What it does is take the video feed from your camera, recognize any foreign language words in the live video, and replace those words seamlessly with their translated version in real-time. Now that is just awesome! You don't need to take a picture and wait for it to translate. The processing is real-time. For now the app is free, but the dictionaries (right now you have only Spanish to English and English to Spanish available) are paid - the price is very reasonable though, around $5 a pop. It's not perfect, but it's a promising start in the right direction and makes you go "wow" the first time you try it.

While I'm on the topic of changing the view of the world around us, augmenting it, there's also the question of our own lives moving more into the virtual world. With facebook and orkut, picasa and flickr, dropbox and skydrive, to name a few, a good amount of our data is stored online. Enter the cloud. Wikipedia says that Cloud computing is Internet-based computing, whereby shared servers provide resources, software, and data to computers and other devices on demand, as with the electricity grid. So all your data is not on your PC but on a server provided by a 3rd party on the internet. This offloads a great deal of stuff from your hard drive, helps you free up memory and lets you access your data from anywhere in the world. You can work on your documents on the move, collaborate with colleagues a 1000 miles away, share your vacation videos with friends without using any physical media and make backups to online services to preemptively counter any possible data loss on your hard drive. There's also a green side to things as it lets you pool computing resources.

This is all well and good but like some bright foresighted individual once said "No pain, no gain". Indeed, the risks are significant. All your data is on "the cloud". Your deepest personal secrets, your work details, family photos and what not. The companies hosting them don't "own" the data in a moral sense, but they do technically have control of said data. Lawfully or unlawfully this data can be accessed by them and used. All that separates your data and some creepy dude trying to get at it is a username and password in most cases.

We all know how often passwords can be leaked. The recent Gawker Media fiasco was evidence enough. The passwords, email IDs and usernames of nearly 1.5 million users of Gawker Media sites (, Fleshbot, Deadspin, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, io9, Kotaku, Jalopnik, Jezebel) were stolen by hackers who then posted the information publicly on the internet. Considering how many people use similar passwords on other accounts with similar usernames and email addresses on several other websites, you can guess how secure your data is.

Your access to cloud applications is dictated by internet connectivity. You have no real control over the bandwidth you possess and any disconnection hampers your work if you're dependent on those files in the cloud. Availability of your data and applications is a key issue, especially in the business world.

Any downtime on the service provider's end is your loss. What happens when your cloud service provider disappears altogether? A danger highlighted by Yahoo's recent disowning of "Delicious" - a social bookmarking service. With more than 5 and a half million users storing their bookmarks online, sharing them with people across the globe, it's not something you'd expect to shut shop in a jiffy. Those bookmarks could very well be built up over a few years. Yahoo, meanwhile, decided to 'sunset' Delicious and the blogosphere blew up with talk about Delicious shutting down and people losing all those bookmarks. It later turned out that Yahoo was letting go of Delicious but that the latter was looking for a new partner to pick it up. If this can happen to a bookmarking service, what happens when your favorite photo-sharing site goes down? Do you really want to be in the position of having a month to download and re-organize all 100GB worth of your files that you've racked up over 4 or 5 years? Or even worse, would you want to risk losing them all? One of the dangers of cloud storage is that you can never predict what can happen. There is also the problem of incompatibility between different cloud service providers. When one goes down, you can't just shift all your data to another without uploading each and every piece of it (provided you even have a physical copy of that information at that time).

The cloud is all the rage with people predicting that iTunes will one day offer a cloud service for your music too. All I know is, if I ever put my data on any cloud, I'll have both eyes firmly on the provider.

Friday, December 17, 2010

College Chronicles : Sector Seven ;)

Now that I'm into the final semester of my Bachelors in Engineering, here's the customary College Chronicles post mentioning highlights of my time at college during the sem gone by.

When the 7th semester began I was juggling the work I had left at IIT Madras and all that was happening at college. The seventh semester being tight as it was didn't quite help matters. Had some friends to help out though:

(OK, so he didn't help out but he joined us on the benches we occupied near the co-op store)

Professional Ethics was one subject which we all took easy. The professor who took it had to leave for Italy on some training program for 10 months. So what he did was hold classes on Saturdays too (which I conveniently missed to continue my internship at IIT). Can't say he had too many fans though, especially with the way he corrected papers. However, this did have a positive effect on the latter part of the sem. He pretty much disappeared after mid-August leaving us with a whole day free.

The other faculty members couldn't leave well alone though, so we inevitably had classes on most days. In the midst of this, a classmate and I were working on a project sanctioned by the IEEE itself (yeah, with funding from them). That took up a lot of my time with welding, metal cutting, frequent trips to electrical and mechanical part shops and some electrical stuff to be done. I guess I was wrong to expect a "free" start to the 4th year. Once my extended internship at IIT was completed, there was the GRE to prepare for with just 2 weeks left on the clock. The kind of English the ETS tests us on is filled with words you'd rarely ever use even if you were a literature major or a lawyer. When that was done with, it was back to concentrating completely on college. Most of us were so engrossed in what was being taught that we didn't notice this dog take a walk through out class.

Now, when I say "concentrating completely" what I mean is enjoying every day to the fullest and preparing for exams on the very night before the test. Some would only study on the morning of the test. While class was on, you'd find most people looking more at their watches than at the professor teaching. When a particular teacher once asked why everyone wanted the class to finish so soon. Reply from our representative Praveen: "Ma'm, Pasikkidhu (hungry)". LOL. Yes, Thalaivar Praveen is a very hungry young man as evinced below.

The next bit of comedy came as a result of a particular report we had to submit each week. Now, this was for one of the lab classes. While some of us did do it sincerely (yes, that includes me), there would always be a few groups rushing to put together a report at the last minute. Code "borrowed" from one report, theory from another, calculations from yet another. A composite report so to speak. :) Why, some reports would only differentiate themselves from others in the kind of font they used.

This year was also the beginning of a new phenomenon during Dr. PK's classes. Some diagrams from Petrochemical Instrumentation are, strictly speaking ;) , just insane to say the least. And not all of us can depend on our quick rough sketches which are quite often far from accurate. So I took the initiative and asked him if he'd let me photograph the board after he'd drawn it. Contrary to popular belief, he was more than willing to oblige. Ever since, it is his wont to put forth a sly "Gaurav, don't want a photo?" every few diagrams :P

One of the staircases was declared off-limits 'officially' this semester.

Beginning at a 019019, frequent trips to college helped me breach the 20,000km mark on the car. Besides the work on the new Metro lines in the city was creating traffic snarls all along the route to college and driving me nuts. And when it rained hard, oh my, the roads would be flooded. At such times, especially when an exam was close by, we'd resign ourselves to eagerly keeping watch for this announcement courtesy of Mr. Ramanan.

(It reads "Chennai schools and colleges are on leave today thanks to heavy rain")

On the home front, Mum thought it'd be a good idea to change out the old mats and put something more..umm... colorful... there to say the least. I knew there was something fishy going on.

This hectic timetable had me tired and bored. For reasons unknown, my scratch support chief (like tech support, except you scratch him when you have a problem and you feel better) seemed much more tired than me throughout the semester. Yeah, Mr. Cactus:

It's common to hear the expression "Padichu kizhichitten" when referring to the intensity of one's preparation. However "Padichu Chair e odachen" is a new one. Broke it and fell flat on the ground during one of my pre-exam night study sessions. Might have had something to do with the fact that I was falling asleep sitting....

Birthdays were celebrated with pomp and splendor as always in class. And yeah, with cake and plenty of ice-cream too. Observe how one of our daredevil class representatives spits in the face of danger and licks cream off a knife. Mr. Vigneshwaran attempts to recreate the effect albeit in his dream world with his finger.

This time around, we also hit a few big malls and went to the movies to celebrate the majority of us securing employment offers.

Our intra-college festivities took place as always in the form of Sivaranjini 2010 as well as the intra-college technical fest LiveBeat held by our department (hats off to my classmates who worked pretty hard to make this a success). Some posters (concerned with other events happening around  campus) invited us to enhance our electromagnetic properties too, not sure that was quite what they were getting at :P

There was one workshop by National Instruments conducted for our benefit. Only issues were that the class was packed and the microphone didn't work. Didn't help that the guy from NI couldn't really raise his voice either and that we were seated behind our juniors. End result - I slept through some of it despite trying my best (with my fingers even lol) to hold my eyes open. I'd imagine most others were far worse. Props to Topper Harini for capturing this snap.

I mentioned employment a few lines back. This semester we had companies coming to campus to recruit us. What this offers us, apart from a chance to write placement tests, sit for interviews and group discussions, is an opportunity to enjoy a day out with friends without fear of losing attendance. The only placement session I attended ... well the company HR Manager told me that I was "overqualified" for the job with the stuff I had in my resume. LOL. The only thing worthwhile that day was the trip to KFC with my classmates:

(Yes, Santhosh was busy looking at the food tray in Vigneshwaran's hands)

I'd put in a word in my last College Chronicles post, if I'm not mistaken, about a paper of mine that had been selected among the ones to be published in the conference proceedings of an IEEE conference in Shanghai. Well, it was dang in the middle of our end semester exams and that led to a drastic change in the timetable giving us pretty much 9 days worth of holidays inbetween the 3rd and 4th final exam dates. While the guys went back to their native places and the girls revised the remaining subjects' portions 10 times over (no offense meant hehe) during that respite the university afforded our department, I headed to Hong Kong first and then Shanghai where I presented the paper. It was received quite well and I got to see a lot of sights. The university didn't pick up the tab for even a portion of the (considerably large) conference registration fees (or any other expense for that matter) though because I'm not a PhD scholar or professor, and Vigneshwaran, my co-author, couldn't accompany me for lack of time to prepare for the conference and his management exams. So I turned this into a vacation with my parents. Had a wonderful time, really, and I'll be detailing all the sights seen and things we did in Hong Kong and Shanghai (with pictures mind you) in later posts on the blog. Stick around for that, or better yet subscribe for e-mail updates or the RSS feed so you won't miss out on anything. The links are on the left hand side column. You can also get notified of articles if you're in India using Google labs free SMS notifications.

Special thanks to my friend Kaushik and his driver for picking me up on their way to college whenever I hadn't slept enough to drive myself to an end semester exam. Without him, a lot of my last-minute reading wouldn't get done because I'd have to concentrate on driving during that last one hour. Speaking of which, this was my final odometer reading:


And so ends this College Chronicles post. Another 5-6 months and the final part of this tale will be up. The 8th semester has started off just fine, here's hoping it goes well too - especially our final year project. 

Do note that the remaining days of the Egypt trip will be up shortly on the blog, followed of course by a travelogue of the Shanghai-Hong Kong vacation + conference. Don't miss it. :) 

PS: Cheers to you if you got the Transformers reference in the title!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I'm Back

I've been gone quite some time from my blog, I know. This has been one hectic semester at college, not to mention the onerous task of filling in and completing applications to universities for my higher education. Had to pop over to Hong Kong for a bit and to Shanghai for an IEEE conference where I presented a paper of mine. And my most annoying exams played their part in keeping me occupied too.

So now I'm back ... kinda. I still have a few days pending from my Egypt travelogue to complete. Then I'll have the customary College Chronicles post up, to be followed by a detailed description of my days in Hong Kong and Shanghai - what I saw, where I went etc.

All this will start trickling onto the blog one by one after the 11th (that's 4 days away). A little bit busy till then though. I'm happy now that I'm averaging above 1500 unique page visits each month consistently over the last few months too. :)

Apparently, Rorschach has been running around the world - leaking his diary on the net, embarrassing some powerful people and such. Props if you get the reference. ;)

Here's hoping you'll be there for the upcoming posts. Happy holidays!