Sunday, March 21, 2010

The woes of the lone tourist

My Washington D.C. trip that started last weekend in the manner described in my previous post came to an end today with me getting caught up in severe metro disruptions and missing my bus. Or should I say I hope it did? I am still in the bus (the next one) and it’s a long way to Newark. However, this post is about woes of a different kind.

Travelling alone, like everything else, has its pros and cons. While the pro side is a clear winner because I never have to worry about convincing others to go where I want to go or worry about others’ reactions before suddenly changing the day’s plans, the con side has one major point that deserves mention. It is something that I call the curse of the photographer - the curse to remain un-photographed.

And as I realized first-hand on this trip, having a more sophisticated camera does not make your chances better. On the contrary, the bigger your camera, the harder this curse hits you.

If you look closely at the photo here that was taken during my Niagara trip in 2008, you will see two people behind me who are grinning at their own cameras trying to capture themselves and the falls in a single frame. Now I usually find such antics extremely funny and I am yet to see an SLR-wielding person doing that, so this time when I desired to have my photo taken in front of something memorable, I approached others and requested them to do the job for me. With everyone owning a digital camera and photographing each moment of their life one would think that photography had become a skill that everyone has. Not so at all. Let’s take a look at some of the results that I obtained by handing over my camera to others.

Case 1: This one was taken in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. I requested a gentleman with an SLR to take my photo in front of the largest elephant that was ever mounted. He took a perfect shot of me – just there is no elephant to be seen in the frame. My bad, of course – I should have explained to him that I am not interested in knowing what I look like.

Case 2: I was at the base of the Washington Monument looking longingly at the Lincoln Memorial. Will somebody take my picture with that building in the background? I handed one gentleman the camera and explained very carefully what composition I wanted. “The Lincoln Memorial in the background and me at one side. Do you understand?” He nodded and took the photo. Isn’t the composition perfect? It is just a minor problem that I am completely out of focus.

Case 3: This time I was cautious. I wanted a photo with the US Capitol in the background and I wanted to make sure I was in focus too. So I put the lens at 18mm and stepped down the aperture to f/16.0 to ensure everything was in focus. If you are not familiar with this jargon, just understand that I put the camera at a setting where nothing could go wrong. Or so I thought until I asked this gentleman with a large DSLR and a National Geographic cap to take my picture. As I took my position, he started moving backwards with my camera and before I could realize whether he had taken a photo or not, he handed it back to me saying “Eight photos.” When I looked, there were indeed eight photos – some were blurry and some were sharp. Here’s one of the sharp ones. Can you see me?

Case 4: This one was taken on the first day itself in front of the Smithsonian castle. This is not too bad actually and can be salvaged if I work at it for some time, but I wonder if the person with the large Nikon DSLR who took this photo shoots all photos tilted like this.

Case 5: I would not let go of the elephant at the Smithsonian. I had first seen that elephant in the 1977 Guinness Book of World Records in our house in my childhood, and have wanted to see it ever since. So I went and posed in front of it again. This is the only shot in this post that was not ruined due to the photographer’s fault – the Asian lady took great pains to kneel down in front of me and click the photo. It was I who had left the flash popped up – I blame the curse for it. Whoever was at fault, the result was that I lost my face.

At times like this, I seem to grasp the full meaning of what Ansel Adams meant when he said, “The most important part of a camera is the 12 inches behind the viewfinder.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Disrupting D.C.

When I first planned my Washington D.C. trip in December, the first thing that I did was informing my cousin Ananda about it since he lives in the suburbs of D.C. On emailing him, I found that D.C. and surrounding areas are buried under unprecedented amount of snow. Over the winter, as my plans took shape, the the intensity of snowstorms increased as well.

These two things are unrelated, you say? Then listen to this.

I booked my bus tickets to D.C. last weekend and then checked the weather for this week. The weekend showed heavy rain. Lately has been exceptionally consistent in the inaccuracy of their forecasts and I planned my trip based on the assumption that they would be wrong this time too. Not this weekend. I arrived in Washington D.C. on Friday evening in the midst of a torrential downpour.

Undaunted by the rain, I dragged my suitcase underground and boarded the first Red Line train leaving for the suburbs where my cousin would be waiting. The train stopped two stations short of my destination.

"This train is now out of service. All passengers must exit." said a female voice.

I exited and waited for the next train which arrived in ten minutes or so. I had hardly settled down in the train when I noticed that its doors had not closed yet. And then the same announcement came. In the same female voice. All passengers got off again and the empty train thundered away. There was a power failure in one of the stations and metro services were disrupted.

Eventually a train managed to take me to my destination without going "out of service" midway. My cousin boarded the same train and we both alighted at a station near his house. When entering his house we saw a notice on the door: "Water supply will be cut off in the housing complex on Tuesday 16th March from 8:00 am until repair is completed." It seemed wherever I went, things were falling out of place. But the final blow was yet to come.

Early next morning, we woke up to discover that we did not have any Internet connection or cable TV. A call to the customer service confirmed that their technicians were working on that issue, but we did not get the TV or Internet services till late in the evening. The rain continued throughout the day.

And once restored, the Internet confirmed my worst suspicions. was indeed wrong in its prediction when it said the week would be sunny. Now the new prediction was a rainy Monday and cloudy Tuesday as well.

I wonder how long I'll have to wait before the CIA rounds me up for disrupting life in the capital.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Squaring the Circle

More than a century ago, Rabindranath Tagore wrote the lines:

E kebol diney raatre jol dhele futa paatre
Britha cheshta trishna mitabaare.

(It is like pouring water all day into a leaky pitcher,
Trying in vain to quench your thirst.)

He was writing about complex things like human desire for wealth, but the things that reminded me of those lines after all these years are quite simple: a square and a circle.

I have a photograph that would have made things clear in an instant, but since I am a little doubtful about the legality of publishing that photograph here, I have to take the long drawn route of using a thousand words instead.

To make a long story short, I had to grade a bunch of Java exam papers on Friday. My students are all science or engineering undergraduates and so, when we set a question asking them to write a function to calculate the area of a square given its side and the area of a circle given its radius, we did not think it was necessary to supply the formulae for them.

Big mistake. It turns out that at least 30% of the class did not know those formulae and got them wrong.

I must give them credit where it's due though; everyone knew that finding the area of a circle involves some sort of calculation involving a pi. Some even knew the value of pi. But that was about the extent of their knowledge. In the few hours of grading, I discovered that the area of a circle could be any one of the following, apart from the usual pi*radius*radius:
  • 2*pi*radius
  • pi*pi*radius
  • 2*pi*radius*radius
  • 4*pi*radius*radius
  • pi*pi*radius*radius
  • 2*pi*pi*radius*radius
I may have forgotten a few, but that should give you the general idea.

People seemed much more knowledgeable on the subject of squares. Most of them wrote it correctly as side*side. However, some of the more interesting answers were:
  • 2*side
  • 4*side
  • 2*side*side
  • length*height (these two parameters were not defined in the problem)
  • side*side*side*side
By the evening I had all but forgotten the real things. I deducted one mark per formula error. My colleague who is also a TA felt I was being too harsh on the students. After the papers were returned in class, I did have to answer a few questions. Some of them were from the girl with the side*side*side*side. She tried to support her answer by this line of argument:
  • She was just a freshman (a college first year) and didn't know all those complex formulae yet.
  • This was a computer science exam and the mathematical formulae should have been provided.
  • Nobody remembers all that stuff nowadays anyway.
  • Rest of her program was correct.
  • A square has four sides.
Finally I had to tell her that it would be unfair to the students who got it right if I gave her full marks, and that made her leave. She seemed far from convinced though. After all a square does have four sides. Thankfully, she did not try to prove side*side = side*side*side*side using a square with side 1 as example. I have faced that sort of thing before and it is NOT funny.

I hope you see now what made me remember Tagore's lines and what that initial rant about pouring water into leaky pitchers was all about.