Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Jupiter's Moons

My father has a pair of binoculars which have fascinated me from my childhood days. If you look at the moon through that, you can see all mountains and valleys and craters. If you look at the full moon, you will have to look away because of its brightness. If you look at perfectly dark regions of the sky, you will find them full of stars that are invisible to the naked eye.

In spite of all its power, however, the binoculars did not make stars look like anything but points. Only when I looked at the brightest, unblinking stars could I see any noticeable increase in brightness or size. I learnt soon that these brightest stars were not stars at all, but they were planets of our solar system. As I grew up, I became really interested in astronomy through pre-dawn discussions with my grandfather sitting on the riverbank in Hooghly. In those days, the sky was much clearer in Hooghly and I even remember having seen the Milky Way, which I have been looking for ever since. Also, I had wonderful Russian books such as "Astronomy for Entertainment" and the book whose Bengali translation was called "টেলিস্কোপ কি বলে." This latter book was a true childhood favourite since it contained an imaginary trip through our solar system, stopping at the different planets or their moons and visualizing what we would see there. It was in this book that I  first read about the four largest moons of Jupiter - Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Around the same time, I realized that these four moons could be seen using my father's binoculars, and in the following years, I tried to see them whenever I got a chance.

The binoculars had one problem. Since they were quite heavy and had to be held by hand, my hands shook. This happens with everybody, and it can be reduced with practice. I believe my hands would now be steadier since I am used to holding a heavy camera these days, but at that time my hands shook wildly when I looked through the binoculars, and I found it difficult even to look steadily at the moon, let alone a small object like Jupiter. So while I got a glimpse of Jupiter's moons through those binoculars, I would have to wait many more years before getting a good look at them. Over the years, Jupiter remained my favourite object in the night sky. This was also probably because it was one of the very few objects that I recognized. In spite of all that love for looking at the night sky, I was never good at identifying stars. I can recognize some constellations like Ursa Major or Orion, and maybe the Pole Star. But I can recognize the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn when they are visible.

When my cousin bought a reflecting telescope last year, the first object that we saw after setting it up was Jupiter. This time I saw the moons quite clearly, but the telescope was large and difficult to point at anything in particular. I tried photographing Venus, Jupiter and Saturn from my Newark apartment but failed because of two reasons. Firstly very little sky was visible from that apartment and it was not possible to set up the tripod in such a way that I could point my camera at the planets. Secondly, Newark is full of lights and it is difficult to see too much in the sky, even after dark.

When I moved into this apartment in Virginia last November, I noticed two things: one, the apartment had a balcony, and two, there was a small wooded area in front of the building which meant the place was relatively dark. Naturally I was longing to take some pictures, but never got around to it until last week. On Saturday evening as I saw Jupiter rise over those woods, I set up my tripod on my balcony and took a few photos of Jupiter with all the zoom that I could muster. The windchill was -10 degrees Celsius, so I couldn't try too many different settings. Here's what I got.

Jupiter with its four largest moons.

Of course, my camera, lens and tripod may look like "heavy equipment" to laymen, but where astrophotography is concerned, my equipment is fairly amateurish. My camera sensor gets noisy at low light, my 70-300 mm lens when coupled with a 2x teleconverter generates a good deal of chromatic aberration and my tripod cannot completely prevent vibrations when this big lens is attached to the camera. So while taking this photo my equipment was operating at the very limit of its capability which means the photos are pretty bad. But even with the sensor noise, the lack of focus and distorted color, this is the best look I ever had at Jupiter's moons, and even this much was beyond my expectations.

Afterwards, I went out and tried photographing the night sky from the lawn in front of my apartment, and nearly got frostbitten fingers from the attempt. The photos were not very good, but the number of stars that I can see here are far greater than in Newark and I am hopeful that during the summer, I will be able to take some better shots of the night sky.

The eastern sky. The bright object near the bottom is Jupiter.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: Chander Pahar

[This review has no spoilers. My longer Bengali review with spoilers here.]

Which is the scariest real or fictional creature ever? Dracula? Frankenstein's monster? Spiders? King Kong? Ghosts from innumerable horror movies? Septopus? Dementor? Velociraptor? The answers will, of course, be as diverse as people are, since what scares one could seem comical to another. That is the point where most horror movies fail - as soon as they show the cause of fear, a lot of their viewers simply stop being scared anymore. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was no doubt aware of this problem when he was writing Chander Pahar, and so he decided to never expose Bunyip, the mythical beast that guards the diamond mines in his story. In my opinion this is where the story succeeds as a spine chilling adventure. Shankar, a youth from a remote Bengal village explores Africa with seasoned adventurer Diego Alvarez, and along with man-eating lions and black mambas and herds of elephants, he also runs into the mythical Bunyip lurking in the Mountains of the Moon. Who or what is the Bunyip? The tribal people say he is an evil spirit who guards the diamond mines. Diego Alvarez says it is an animal that killed his friend. Shankar never sees the Bunyip, but he sees what it can do, and he sees the fear in fearless Diego Alvarez's eyes when the Bunyip is mentioned. By the magic of his pen, Bibhutibhushan instills that same fear in the readers' hearts. While reading the novel we turn pages tense with anticipation. What will Shankar see next? What will the Bunyip do?

This is also where the  movie has its greatest failure. By showing the Bunyip as a mere mortal animal, it totally destroys that supernatural aura surrounding the beast. Whether the shown creature is scary or not is a different question altogether, but it wasn't necessary to show it at all. It really beats me why director Kamaleshwar Mukherjee could not understand this simple thing, whereas everyone I know seems to find this same flaw with the movie.

But the Bunyip aside, the movie is a very brave effort to bring Bengali cinema up to the international standard. Yes, most of the special effects were ridiculous, but the movie was made with a meager budget of Rs. 15 crore. Accepted, there were plot holes and inconsistencies, but it's a movie after all, and what movie doesn't have them? On the other hand, there were stunning visuals of Africa, an international cast and live African animals - something unthinkable for a Bengali movie. Most people including me were skeptical about the acting abilities of Dev Adhikari, the actor playing the main protagonist Shankar, but I am happy to say Dev was reasonably good in the role. Besides, the director knew of Dev's weakness in delivering Bengali dialogues and used voice overs in a lot of places. Gerard Rudolf is even better in the role of Diego Alvarez, and the way he handled Portuguese, English and Bengali dialogues is commendable.

When Bibhutibhushan wrote the book, research was difficult. He must have had to work really hard to get most of the facts right. However, the director's work was not easy either, since the viewer of today is raised on Discovery and National Geographic Channel documentaries on Africa. He had to shoot on location, show the real thing, or he would be caught cheating. He got that mostly right barring a few exceptions. The first lion sequence, the cave and the Kalahari have been shown particularly well. The scenes in Salisbury of 1911 are believable, though obviously the city was not shown on a grand scale. One particular omission that pained me was the absence of any mention of the strange baobab tree, something that immensely fascinated the Shankar of the novel. Also, due to a mix-up in the names of the mountain ranges in the original book, the film mostly shows the Richtersveld mountains which hardly have any forest cover. The real Mountains of the Moon would have been the Rwenzori range which has dense tropical rain forests just like in the book.

But in spite of its many flaws, the best part of watching Chander Pahar was the fact that I watched the movie in a theatre sitting in the US. Nobody can remember the last time a Bengali movie released here. Although the number of people watching the movie (9) was not encouraging, I hope Chander Pahar will make more producers and directors take up big budget productions like this and release them in the US. This was one of the very first novels that I ever read. I really wish to see more of my childhood favourites come to life on the big screen.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Appearance

"Oh my God! How different I looked back then!" exclaimed a friend while looking at a photo taken in 2008. "You, however, have hardly changed," she added.

I chuckled to myself. I knew it wasn't true. I have changed in appearance over the years as much as anybody else, mostly because my body puts on weight whenever I am looking the other way, but also because of changing hairstyles, spectacle frames and, er... facial hair (which I finally got out of the way in 2002). So this narcissistic blog post is about looking back at some of these old appearances of me, and feeling amused or jealous, as the case may be.

To be reasonable, I will exclude photos of childhood from this list. All of these photos depict me later than my late teens.

So let's get the unpleasant one out of the way first. This is a photo taken by my father sometime during my final years in school. My beard had started growing in the most ridiculous fashion, and I had not started shaving it yet. You can see the result. And those glasses! Oh, how can I forget those glasses? They were my first pair. These large carbon fibre frames were the rage in those days. Now looking at them almost kills me with embarrassment. Seriously, I looked like that?

When I started my engineering at IIIT Calcutta, the first thing to go was the beard. The moustache followed six months later, although both of them made cameo appearances from time to time before the semester exams. The large carbon fibre glasses made way for narrow metal frames. The third significant change in my appearance concerned my weight.

I have been slightly overweight since my high school days. I always loved food, but was never a voracious eater. So my weight could only be attributed to a lack of exercise. After coming to IIIT, I decided to do something about it. That something was a four mile walk every day and a reduction in food intake. The latter one was easier to implement as I was living away from home and my mother was not around to check the amount of food I was eating. As a result, I was soon about 10 kilograms lighter and I loved it.

Those were strange times - photos were still taken on film. I had a small auto-everything camera which my mother sometimes used and which I had taken to college with me. Neither that camera took good photos, nor were the scanners which I used to scan them later any good, which is a relief, actually. The few photos that I found of my first year are so grossly weird that I would rather die before publishing them online. I would have died after publishing them anyway, for my other friends who appear in those photos with me would have had me assassinated. So fast forward to my third year in college when two of my friends brought digital cameras to college (on separate days). It was an amazing thing, nothing short of magic. We fooled around with those cameras all day, clicking photos of everyone from the professors to the tea sellers outside the college. Oh those grainy photos in all their 2 megapixel glory are almost painful to my eyes now, but at the time they were the best photos of my college life.

Then came fourth year, along with six months of staying at home during my project at ISI and soon I was on my way to fatness once more. Here you can see me during this period. This was taken by my cousin in May 2005, shortly before I joined my first job using a 3 megapixel digital camera that my other cousin sent from the US. Here I am neither extremely thin nor excessively fat. Yes, my Blogger profile photo is cropped from this photo. So this is not really an unknown look for my readers and hence there is really no reason to select this photo in this collection, but you know, kittens can justify anything.

The next photo shows me a year and a half later, in February 2007. I was comfortably settled down in my job and almost halfway back to my old weight by virtue of sitting at one spot all day and hardly having any time to cook healthy food. By this time, I was a photographer, so this was taken with my own Sony point-and-shoot by my friend Bhavana. Also, "A Joyful Experience" was already a year old at the time. Another year and a half later, in August 2008 to be exact, I said goodbye to this job and flew to the United States to do my PhD. I was further fattened up at this time and also, I had my first haircut in USA on New Year's Day which meant I had annoyingly long hair by Thanksgiving break, when the next photo was taken. This photo was the one from which I have supposedly not changed. But as you will see next, I actually changed a lot in between and then returned to the same configuration.

It was only appropriate that I should lose weight during my second innings of college life like the first time. Only, this time it was far more difficult. Firstly, you don't simply walk for miles in the winter anywhere in America, and particularly not in Newark. Secondly, as a student with an embarrassingly low income, most of my eating out options were limited to McDonald's and the like. Thirdly, I was seven years older than last time, which made things difficult. However, I found New York City a very good place to spend the weekends, and I sometimes walked seven or eight miles on each visit. Usually I have seen people put on weight after coming to the US but I was an exception. I dropped another 10 kilograms (or 22 lbs as the Americans would put it) and became very thin indeed.

So here I am in spring of 2009.

And then here I am in summer of 2009.

In summer of 2010 in Boston. Note that the glasses have changed to rectangular half-rimmed ones.

 And in fall of 2010 in Chicago. As you can see, I had gained back most of my weight once more.

This time, I was not able to shed the extra pounds, and I really don't know why. To make matters worse, I had seen most of New York City and the motivation for walking was gone. I had moved to a house next to the station which meant I didn't walk home also. So I started going to the gym. This resulted in my becoming slightly muscular, but without any loss of weight. So here I am in summer of 2011.

And then, in summer of 2012, as seen in the photo below, I was heavier than ever before. Clearly, something needed to be done urgently to reverse the trend, but I did not have time to do it as I was nearing the end of my PhD and was simply too busy with my dissertation and job applications. 

I kept getting fatter until winter, when I half-starved and half-exercised myself back to my fall 2008 proportions. So when I was travelling around the United States with my parents in summer 2013, getting hooded, and getting my photo taken all over the place, I had managed to look somewhat different again. I still look like that, except for the occasional hair cutting disaster. While this is still far heavier than what I would like to see myself, this is what I was like when I came to the US. So I have been worse, and I hope to get slimmer now that my new college/office has an area of 700 acres and I have to walk a mile to just go to the cafeteria and back.

Of course, what I do at the cafeteria once I'm there is important too for my appearance, but I think I have spoken far too long on the subject of myself, so I will make an abrupt stop here.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Polar Vortex

Just this New Year's Eve a little girl was asking me if I knew the way to the North Pole and whether I could take her there. When I said "Yes" to her, wondering what to say next, I had no way of knowing that the North Pole would soon be coming to her.

Now the whole world has been talking about the US polar vortex for the last couple of days, or that's what we in America would like to think. You may even have seen photos of the cold places. So here's a quick update for the readers of this blog about the weather here. It is also a post to remind me of these events next winter, when I feel it is too cold. So, just how cold is cold? A few points.

  • All 50 states in the US registered temperatures below freezing on Tuesday, January 8.
  • Chicago was actually colder than University of Chicago's research station in Antarctica
  • The polar bear at the Chicago zoo had to be shifted indoors due to plummeting temperatures.
  • Falls Church, the city where I live, registered a low of -16°C in the early hours of Tuesday. The windchill was -26°C at the time. Both these figures are officially the lowest temperatures I have seen in the US. Of course, Newark and New York were much colder on Tuesday.
  • My own thermometer, which is kind of accurate, measured -10°C on my balcony. I did not try to turn boiling water into instant snow, but I am sure it would have worked. By the way, that thermometer also has a hygrometer and it measured the relative humidity as 16% both inside and outside which means I have to use a humidifier all the time to prevent nosebleed.
The heating of my apartment broke down on Sunday night, proving yet again that Murphy's Law never fails. Thankfully it was fixed on Monday morning. I had to venture out for half an hour on Tuesday without gloves, and my hands felt really painful. Besides, when the temperature remains sub-zero for a long time, one gets to see some weird effects, such as icicles hanging under the car. The worst part of living here in Virginia during this period is that there is no snowfall which means there is no reason for school to close. Who heard of schools closing because temperatures dropped too much on a sunny day? So I am trying to endure the cold weather to and from school, hoping for a snowstorm that would close everything for a day. That would at least be better than this icy-surfaces-in-the-sun thing.

In the meantime, Google automatically enhanced some of the photos that I have uploaded during the last few days by adding animation to them and decided to call it "Auto Awesome." While the effects are nothing short of cliched and tacky, somehow it goes with the holiday spirit, and helps me imagine what it would look like if it snowed. Here are the two that I liked the most.