Saturday, October 6, 2007

From Up There...

Being at IITB is not amazing just because of academics but also the extra curricular activities on the campus for which dignitaries keep coming and we get to hear from them their experiences. Here's my latest nice experience:

Sunita Williams (Commander, US Navy), NASA Astronaut
Keynote Speech at Zephyr '07 [On experiences of her recent space journey on Atlantis]

Excerpts from her speech which made a mark on my mind...

- When you look at the earth from space it looks amazingly cool! You can even see the mountains and creeks under the surface of water. BUT you do not see any boundaries. Boundaries are what we have created and exist only on pieces of paper and in our minds. They are not really there.

- These boundaries in your minds are the only things that can stop you from what you can and want to do. I challenge you to shed all the inhibitions of races & genders and chase your dreams.

- Another interesting thing that you see is a thin blue layer protecting the earth. This is what we call the atmosphere. And from up there you realize how thin and fragile it is. I challenge you to take good care of it as it is our responsibility towards coming generations to hand them over a habitable planet.



- I feel when we send people to the outer space they should be representing the earth and not as citizens of a particular country. Our space suits / spacecrafts should have pictures of the earth instead of flags of the nations.

The question answer session that followed was pretty interesting not because it was dominated by queries from the aspiring children. An IT professional made a request not to entertain any requests of the Indian political parties who are trying to take advantage of her Indian origin! A nine year old even dared to request her hug on stage and she dearly obliged. She deftly answered all the technical queries from the aero – space engineers, had motivational replies to children’s doubts about the future and articulate replies to the press. I liked her presence on the dias and the way she kept her calm and replied to a question ‘is space continually expanding?’ with ‘many people in the front rows would be able to answer that better than me…’ . Some other anecdotes that interested me during the q/a session were:

- While landing back the spacecraft made screeching sounds. The co pilot said after seeing her expressions of concern “Don’t worry; I have landed both Discovery & Atlantis. Atlantis makes these noises while landing. It is nothing to worry about. ”

- “My perspectives have changed. Whenever I enter a room I now also see the ceiling and the remote corners which I never did earlier and try to imagine how much fun it would be to float in this space.”

At the end she reiterated her points of the boundaries and mentioned that the only thing she feels bad about is that she could not talk personally to people, which she wanted to do and would be making an annual trip to India to fulfill that.

Please do so. We will be obliged!!

[PS: Thanks Reddy for the pic who is still so much excited about seeing her face to face in the lift and got a chance to take the pic!]

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Third Wave, Second Life & First Person Prespective

Disclaimer: I wander a lot....even while writing! So hang on till the end..I am sure you would find it interesting.

I was not even born when Alvin Toffler's famous book 'Third Wave' was published. It was a best seller back then and still sells like hot cake because people read it again & again and get amazed to see how many of his predictions are really becoming true. The most significant of the changes being the shift from mass manufacturing & standardisation to customisation & personalisation. A shift from economies based on industrialisation to the ones based on information technology happened far too sooner to his surprise though. The changes in social structure are happening and what he mentions as 'telelcommunities' are seen everywhere around us. One such high profile community I believe is about to revolutionise a lot of things around us. It's called 'Second Life'. [If you still don't know about this visit secondlife or to read more Second Life on Wiki].

Its a 3D environment in which you can login with a different identity than yours. You can make your three dimensional digtial self look the way you want, dress up the way you wish, build things inside the world and communicate with other fellow 'residents'. All the things that are seen inside are created by the residents. The Linden Labs, SL's creaters are trying to build a virtual world by selling lands and property rights and creating a economy of its own. And they have kept the world to evolve freely as an ecosystem and people are trying to put it to use according to their needs. Interestingly people are finding worthwhile usages like a professor from MIT has started her classes inside for foreign students. Leo Burnett has put up a office to hold its global meetings inside SL. Recently read something about IBM planning to put up a huge virtual facility inside it. And reuters has appointed a reporter to report happenings inside the world.
Sounds wonderful isn't it? But it is still in its primitive stages, the renderings are poor and the controls for user are not greatly usable. But all these things will surely improve with time.

Here are some of the pics from my recent tour to the fairyland. Many things are possible inside which we can only dream about [like me getting an offer for a dance from a young and pretty Croatian! And I just have to use an animation of my choice salsa/ramba/tango etc to do so!]. One can fly to go from one place to other and many more.


At 'Rose Garden' : A night club






But one thing I could not help noticing is the perspective that is offered. A typical first person perspective common to shooting games like Counter Strike, Quake etc. where the camera his behind your head showing you on screen what your virtual avtaar might be 'seeing'. A tried to change the settings but invain. To explain the
perspectives better here are some from one my favourite movies 'The Matrix'.

This is the first person perspective from the protagonist's point of view. Though he is not the narrator of the film the story unfolds before us from his perspective. We learn about the matrix as he gets lessons from Morpheus and so on.


The second person's perspective...how the person in front..here the Agent views Neo shooting at him.


And the third person perspective..as if somebody else is seeing them in combat.


The only thing I could do in SL was focus on something of interest and some more of it. But I could not change my perspective to look at what is behind my back. I had to turn and the controls were not really easy. Though some would debate that it makes it more realistic but my point is why not provide something that we do no get in real life...flying has been provided...so why not another perspective?

This stayed in my mind beacuse of an incident last week. I was travelling in the city transport bus in Ahamdabad which accidently hit a autorickshaw. Apparently nothing got damaged so the driver moved on. But the young rickshaw driver was not pleased. He followed the bus, meanwhile gathered his accomplices using his cellphone and withheld the bus on a corner by blocking the road from all sides of the bus... Bollywood issshtyle! Everyone in the bus wanted to see the view but everyone feared to lose their seat as it was pretty crowded and only God [& the autorickshaw wala ? :P ] knew how long it was going to take. Everyone was sure they are safe but could not get down because it was pretty remote part of the city and alternative transport wasn't around. So one had nothing to do but sit and could not even see the drama! Usually you go to see films but here the film itself had came to us and we could not see it! What happened later was insignificant from this column's point but I sure felt bad about us having only one perspective in real life.

Toffler talks about a lot of things in Third Wave ranging from business and economics to politics to learning systems to social lifestyles to media and technologies. And all the changes he predicted have been happening maybe at different rates but we can easily note the course of events. To put it in his words....
"A powerful tide is surging across much of the world today, creating a new, often bizarre, environment in which to work, play, marry, raise children, or retire. In this bewildering context, businessmen swim against highly erratic economic currents; politicians see their ratings bob wildly up and down; universities, hospitals, and other institutions battle desperately against inflation. Value systems splinter and crash, while the lifeboats of family, church, and state are hurled madly about. Looking at these violent changes, we can regard them as isolated evidences of instability, breakdown, and disaster. Yet, if we stand back for a longer view, several things become apparent that otherwise go unnoticed."

On a serious note I want to stress on this longer view that we are forgetting in our fast paced lives...to look at ourselves from a longer distance..to see where we came from and where are we headed...not in the sense of whole humanity but as an individual. We all have our opinions about things/people/happenings around us. But what if they are not like what we are thinking of them as? There is a cliche that
goes "put yourself in the other person's shoes...". But that's a second person perspective...it could be biased as well. I am talking about a distant view of you and all the things around you. Could it change anything for you? Surely worth a thought I guess...

Friday, June 1, 2007

LOST!!!

I have been waiting to start a blog since long but wanted to start with something really worthwhile and interesting to share….n had such an experience very recently. One of the best ones in my life. A night trek where we got lost in the jungle and wandered all night!
So here goes the story...

One fine evening, as always, I was pondering in my hostel room about finishing some pending work and was making plans to do it that very night…when someone knocked on the door. It was a wingmate [a term I heard in the IIT campus where hostels are divided in so called ‘wings’ and each has a coded descriptor..mine is BGL..B wing Ground Floor Lake Side!] I think this would be the best place to put the Disclaimer: I wander a lot....even while narrating! So bear with me.
So the wingmate asked if I had a torch. Well I did not and so replied no but was wondering why did he want a torch at 5 o’ clock in the evening! He told that they were leaving for a night trek...from Lonavala to Rajmachi! Night Trek…that sounded interesting as I never had been on one before. I paused for a second…thought about the pending work and as usual kept it more pending…and left. Picked up a bottle of water and a towel and joined the already waiting gang. They did not get an extra torch but sure got an extra companion. But nothing mattered....everyone was way ahead of time excited to start the trek.

Or so we thought till the ultimate experience began…we arrived to Washi at around 7 after an hour of Bus drive to leave for Lonavala by whatever mode of transport we could find which is not a very difficult thing at the point we were. But being IITians we managed to screw up things ourselves and believed that it was more exciting than it would have been otherwise! Too many words till now...here is a pic of all eight of us who went on that unforgettable journey...


So waiting for something to take us to Lonavala we fell pray to a na├»ve Sumo driver who we thought can be fooled easily and got fooled ourselves….not by him but by circumstances and of course his naivety. Actually we were seven of us then and the only experienced fellow amongst us, Dixy, was going to join us in Lonavala, coming from his home in Pune. So this Sumo Driver whom we called Anna all the time afterwards was so skeptical about all the things that he did not want to go to Lonavala from Pune without any seats even when we tried to convince him [read try to fool him] that we are almost paying the cost and that he would get seats from Lonavala. But he requested to just take two more seats and we agreed. We all sat in the Sumo so that people would feel that we are about to leave and would join us in hurry. But that was not to happen. Only groups with more than two people would come and leave because we did not have enough space. Once in a while Anna would bring a person, and would go away to fetch another. Meanwhile the one he had already brought would get bugged up with our constant blabbering and ‘farting’ [another IITB term for pathetic jokes/statements/arguments]. So this continued for around 90 minutes...the time needed to reach Lonavala. We were still in Washi and waiting for Anna to bring two more co-travelers. We also made futile attempts to start the Sumo to give an impression that we are almost leaving but nobody would board…finally Anna managed an old lady and another old person [who helped us afterwards]..and we got going...Finally!

We started at around 9 and should have been in Lonavala by 10.30 – 11. But that was not to be. On the Mumbai – Pune Express Highway, Anna missed the exit to Lonavala and it was very late when we realized that. And on top of it was Anna’s reason: that he did not know about it! He expected us to tell him where to take the turn! That was the biggest ‘fart’ of the day! Anna who would not have been remembered had he did his job properly made a long lasting impression with a screwed up job! So the only options we had then were to hike around 7-8 kms back to Lonavala or go to next station and take a local train to Lonavala. Later appealed to all of us considering we had to walk the whole night anyways. So as guided by the old person who boarded last moment we managed to catch the last local to Lonavala had reached there by midnight. Dixy was waiting for us since 3 hours...but he did not throw much tantrums probably knowing what lies ahead. Amongst us only he had trekked that way before and did not remember much about it!


We got an idea about it when we came out of a Lonavala station and faced a fork on the road. Dixy paused for a moment and then confidently took the right road and we all followed. But that was the wrong one! He realized after going 100 meters and said we should have taken the left one! There we realized how exciting the night was going to be!!!

So as per his description straight ahead from that road a couple of kms ahead we would cross a village called Thakurli, past it a few kms after that we’ll find a dam, past the dam a wall on right, will follow the trail which will lead to a very small village. Going further the wall would suddenly shift to left of the road after the village and then subside. 10-15 kms from that point would be the Rajmachi village, at the foothills of Rajmachi. Rajmachi was a strategically found geographical point on a plateau and used shrewdly by Shivaji and other Marathas to keep a vigil around his fort in the Sahyadris. As planned we would be reaching on top of Rajmachi by sunrise, enjoy the view and trek down from other side to Karjat and by noon take a local to Mumbai from there.

Everything happened fine till few kms after the wall. The view was scenic and the weather was pleasant. Cloud cover and cool zephyrs took a lot of stress away from the heavy duty walking we were doing up the slope.


But because of the cloud cover no stars were visible. There was no light apart from the couple of torches that we had. So we had no sense of direction. Only that the moon had risen from a particular direction….somewhere around a 30 degree angle around it would be east and at right angles from that zone towards left would be north and we had to head in that direction.

There was a strong track that we were following sided by small hills on right. After a few kms walk we took a break. Dixy lighted the scented candle he had bought. I really felt I should have been able to fly to see the top view of a bunch of hikers sitting around a small candle in the middle of wilderness at 1 am in the night! Alas I could not and so here are some ground level shots.. :p.





Few more hours of walk on the hilly terrain and we came across a road being constructed on a mountain. Good to see people after a long time! Though it was pretty late some were still working....it reminded me of my pending work but to hell with it! I was having a rocking time! We heard some music from a truck…did not know till then that the radio transmission covered that wide a area! And it was on at 1.30 am. At least gave a feeling that we are not too away.

The truck driver guided us about the direction and we headed that way. Some time later we encountered another fork. In the dark we had no idea where we were going. There was huge stone with white paint splashed on it. One of the trail [which was still strong] was lined with a couple of smaller stones and we all had a gut feeling that we should head that way. But Dixy said that trail is going down and we had to go up…the other seemed like going up. So we followed that one. A few kms down that road we were trying to locate Rajmachi as was expected from Dixy’s description but was not to be found. We knew we were lost and by this time seemed to have moved in the jungle. Actually misunderstanding some arbitrary mountain for Rajmachi. And lo! What do we see?? Some lights twinkling in the jungle…that was surprising and scary at 2 am in the night! But we were running out of water so we took the so called risk and approached the lights in the middle of the jungle. And to our luck it turned out to be another small village. The dogs started barking as we approached and woke a few villagers who were sleeping outside the huts enjoying in the open. An old person offered us water and again gave us proper direction. We realized we were 4-5 kms ahead in the wrong direction taking the wrong path at the fork with the white painted stone. While drinking water we struck a conversation with him and came to know that they had lands nearby which they cultivated. The lands were taken by the Ambanis and provided them with electricity. The lights we saw were actually the street lights.... six of them for a 200 m main road lined with huts on both sides which served as homes for around 100 odd people. These people currently had nothing to do and in a phase of looking out for new opportunities. Life.. I wondered is a lot different than our '9 to 6' lifestyles in cities. This experience was far greater than my pending work I thought… as we headed towards the right direction.


But we had following a strong trail till now and still had landed in the wrong place. So Dixy and me both were in a mood to wander and take less treaded paths. We managed to convince others and left the strong trail and headed directly towards the direction of the mountains that the old man in the village told us was Rajmachi. Now this way was directly through the jungle and we could already feel our pulses increasing in excitement.

But avoiding the bushes and abutting the hillocks, we soon managed to lose the direction and get lost again…this time in dense jungle! But that was amazing....having no clue about our whereabouts we were wandering in dense forest trying to find our way with no sense of direction!



After meandering for around an hour, at around 3 – 3.15 am we managed to find a trail in the jungle. We decided to follow that.


Soon too many stones filled the path and we realized that it was a dried water stream. There are many of those around the Lonavala and Khandala ghats. We were sure we will be reaching a bigger water body if we follow that…and we continued. But it started descending…a lot! And we realized we are headed towards the valley. By this time we had lost all hopes of reaching Rajmachi and had started making plans to just find our way back if the trail doesn’t lead us to somewhere interesting soon. Descending down the stony stream in total darkness in deep jungle was an indescribable experience. Some of us felt of backing up but Dixy kept on motivating everyone with his crap that we will now reach Karjat if we follow that stream downwards. At around 4.30 we reached the climax point of the journey….a steap cliff edge. The stream we were following turned to a deep waterfall and we were on a dead end. We decided to rest there till sunrise and then backtrack. Then started the chats.



The point we stopped at was awesome. A huge boulder was held by a fallen tree just on the edge of the cliff. On both sides were mountains, on the back was stream that we had followed and far ahead was another mountain which Devang was pretty sure was Rajmachi because there was a photograph with same view in his Orkut album labelled so!












But then Dhakad cracked the best ever of the outing…saying it cannot be a fort because even F of Fort is not visible. Then started a S-E-R-I-E-S of F-A-R-T-S on letters which continued till sun rose at around 5.30 am. We started back soon.






Returning I thought would be a piece of cake and it went fine till the sun started glaring and our feet started aching from the 25-30kms walking that we had did in last 5-6 hours. But on the way back we saw all the nice places we had passed in the night, a few mountains that we misunderstood for our destination and found a well near the village we had reached in night, replenished our fluid resources and decided to head back to Lonavala.
























By 10 am everyone was completely exausted....nobody could move any longer. A night without sleep, nothing much to eat overnight and a blazing sun overhead made all of us crash as we found a shade on our way back. There were lots of other little rests...like one when we again came back to the fork and wondered what if we had taken the other road! But this was the last...no one could walk anymore. So finally after an intense discussion we decided to walk till the mountain where the road was being constructed which we had seen last night. Rough estimations told that the point would be around 2-4 kms far. We would request the truck drivers to drop us till Lonavala whenever they go and eat and live with them till they do so. Fortunately they were leaving soon after we reached and requested them. I thought this is the end of the experience. But the cherry on the cake was the truck ride on the half constructed road on the mountain with hair pin bends and just wide enough to fit a truck. Moreover there were empty containers which would keep coming on us.





At a couple of bends the truck stopped and would not pick up...an instead moved back...I was the on the end corner and could actually see the valley down. The scariest sight ever!
But we finally managed to reach Lonavala without anymore hiccups....went straight to a hotel, ordered lots of food and.... fell asleep right on the tables!
An unforgettable adventure indeed!!!

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