March 27, 2011

Always Coca-Cola

I still remember the first time I had a coke in a can. It was in India, after Coca-Cola's second coming, post economic liberalization in the country. The can itself cost 20 rupees, an affordable luxury at that time. I remember the intense anticipation, the impatient seconds of study to figure out out to open it, and then the surprising let down in the taste department. Even as I loudly tried to convince me and those around me that it indeed tasted better if not the same.

Nevertheless, coke was and continues to be a part of the familiar; a cornerstones of my world. There is yet to be a place I have been to, that the familiar red and white had not already visited. So when I came across some "facts" about the company, I had to try to make an infographic out of it.

More importantly, I needed a reason to try out inkscape - an open source vector graphics tool. I needed a better way to make infographics, and for all its capabilities, gimp was quickly turning out not to be the tool for it.


March 19, 2011


A week ago, I got to watch an NBA game courtside. And when I say courtside, I mean right up against the playing surface, close enough that a trip and fall could mean bad news for me. While there may be more proof if someone had recorded the game, the image on the left is the closest I have (click to enlarge). That is a screen grab from the game summary, showing the back of the head of yours truly. Granted the game wasn't that great, but I learnt things from the experience that make it truly memorable.

The biggest was that all the players looked surprisingly human. It must have been the distance and the angle, because you could see the tense walk, the relaxed stroll, and the rush after a score, writ large on their faces. And most surprisingly for me, the relief when they pass the ball on to the star on the team. You can actually sense the difference between the confident play by the star and the "hot potato" passes that get to him. I had always imagined that the commentators made it up - never realized the body language could be so loud.

Everyone, and i mean everyone, wipes their shoes before coming on. There is an unobtrusive pad tucked behind the column where everyone - the stars, the kids, the cheerleaders, the performers, and the corporate honchos - has to wipe their shoes before entering the arena. And the side effect of this obsessive cleanliness is the familiar squeak-squeak of shoes on wood.

If you are ever scheduled to do anything during a big game, prepared to never be ready for it. Say you are a playing a one-on-one with another guy in a sumo suit. One second you are walking through the entrance and the next thing you know, a mascot is flying in the air towards you to knock you on your behind. Or say you are scheduled to show up on television and wave while the voice in the air talks about something you represent. One minute you have a guy in a suit chatting inanities with you, telling you stand just so and face that way. And the next you know there is a blinding light on your face and a camera from halfway across the stadium zooms in on your pores. Talk about deer in a headlight.

Down on the court, in spite of all the din in the stadium, the players can actually hear each other and the coach. The fans makes it difficult, but it is not half as bad as the television makes it feel. And when you can hear each other, guess what else works - heckling. When you are sitting that close, and yell someone's name out - it is pretty hard for them not to turn in response.

The players wear enormous shoes. With no innuendo, if you leave your foot stretched too far out, it is only a matter of time before a throw-in results in your toes being squished out from under you.

And last but not the least, staring at cheerleaders is uncomfortable when you are close enough for them to look right back at you. Gawking is best accomplished via the Jumbo Tron. Moreover they all wear too much makeup.

March 18, 2011

Rare but spectacular

The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan is reminder that natural disasters have a magnitude of their own, and irrespective of where they strike, there is not much we puny humans can do. All the technology one can deploy is, at best an early warning, at worst a dangerous sense of false security. At the end of it all, one can only hope the human cost of the disaster is minimized.

I am still hoping that things start to get better soon, especially for the tens of thousands that are without basic amenities in sub-zero conditions. But through it all, I cannot but help consider certain aspects about the general reaction to this disaster. It is difficult to be objective when human suffering is involved, but here is an attempt.

During the first couple days of the disaster I realized a certain detachment in me with regards to the earthquake and tsunami. As if the news did not really get through to me. It was not until I took pause at the details emanating from the various news reports did the full impact of the disaster sink in. I realized that I was, unconsciously, tuned out to disasters on the news. Like the boy who cried wolf, our media is obsessed with keeping us abreast of everything, as if it is critical for my survival. When every day and every headline is blared out at the highest volume, how can one distinguish between the latest antics of a movie star and a disaster that is impacting millions? When every news programs promises to "follow the latest developments" for me, it is increasingly difficult to determine what news I care about.

The markets, predictably reacted by falling. Both the Japanese markets and US markets moved in step with news emanating from the disaster zone. But for all the rationality of the markets there is a very little linkage between the actual economic impact of the disaster. The image on the right is an example of the (ir)rationality of the markets. The real question is not whether the market is rational, but the fact that this is yet another drum beat into the echo chamber of the daily news cycle. Yet another source of ominous calamitous predictions of impossibly dire consequences.

The third aspect, which is also the reason for the title of this post, is Nuclear power. Most news coverage has been (mis)using terms like meltdown and radiation exposure, because they sound great on the evening news. What this does is two things. Firstly it takes away from coverage of the real tragedy, thousands needing basic necessities along with the real rebuilding that needs to happen. Secondly it helps bring about suboptimal decision making for our future, due to the inherent bias we have to fear the rare but spectacular.

Power generation is a dangerous endeavor, be it wind, coal or nuclear. Even though wind generates less than one percent of world's power, it accounts for a fatality rate of 0.15 deaths per terawatt-hour. Compared to nuclear power which accounts for 15% of world's production and accounts for 0.0009 deaths per terawatt-hour. Coal, on the other hand, clocks in at 161 deaths per terawatt-hour. This is a similar bias as seen in the argument for lack of safety in air transportation.

As a commentator on Marketplace puts it...

... a 9-plus Richter scale earthquake and tsunami represent about as extreme an event as any nuclear reactor could ever face. If the danger from this shock is contained, nuclear will have passed its most extreme test. It's like the movie "Apollo 13" -- this is either nuclear's worst disaster or finest hour.

There is so much that we can understand, learn and admire from the people facing incredible difficulties in Japan. The best we can do is help in our own way. The worst is fall prey to the constant drumbeat of fear and let the rare-but-spectacular determine how we decide to live the biggest chunk of our rather mundane lives.

Update: An unbelievably awesome rant from TechCrunch, about the hysteria surrounding the nuclear "apocalypse".

March 17, 2011

Ooh Saturn!

Stuck in the daily grind, it is not always easy to lift our heads out to the heavens and realize how beautiful life in deep space really is. We either have to be an astronomer or have one of those trite motivational posters at work. If neither is your style, this is great alternative - The Astronomy Picture Of the Day (APOD). As the title so gently suggests, the site posts one picture a day, along with commentary by someone that is qualified to do more than just gawk.

What got me interested was this recent post. This isn't as much a picture as it is a series of pictures of the spacecraft Cassini, that rendezvoused with the Saturn system after leaving earth in 1997. A number of photographs from Cassini were collated, cropped and strung together in a stop-motion video. Fortunately a stop motion video in space is an oxymoron. And this is one video where each frame says well over a thousand words.

Apparently they are making is IMAX movie called Outside In. They couldn't have chosen a better trailer.

5.6k Saturn Cassini Photographic Animation from stephen v2 on Vimeo.

March 09, 2011

The Information

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, is a book by James Gleick, that has an interesting idea. That everything, including matter and energy, is nothing more than just information. The author talked to NPR, the interview is embedded below.

While the idea itself is obviously interesting, that is not the only reason I posted this. There is this post that I wrote on this blog, back in 2002. The idea of that post is surprisingly similar to that conveyed in the book.

I imagined a universe where matter is defined as...

"nothing but the extract of the information conveyed to us by the various input devices."

Going further, one could define the entire universe, with all of its constituent parts using ...

"A way in which there is no difference between the various units of matter, energy, ideas, minds and everyother thing in the universe. This unified way of looking at the universe is going to help us define the entire universe on a one dimensional scale rating information content."

I am super kicked that my ramblings of 9 years ago were not that empty. In no way is this meant to claim that post was even remotely complete - but there was that germ of a thought.

March 08, 2011

Run Forest, Run!

Human muscles are made up of two types of fibers - called slow twitch (Type I, and fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers. Both set of fibers work exactly as they sound. Slow twitch fibers are slow - but they can work for long periods. They do this by burning fuel aerobically, with enough oxygen. Since the process is inherently slow, it is not nice to expect slow twitch fibers to be quick.

The exact opposite are fast twitch fibers. Fast twitch fibers deliver speed, by quickly burning whatever fuel it can find even without oxygen - anaerobically. The problem is anaerobic fuel burning is not sustainable. So the fast twitchies, they a good to get you going but do not last long.

I had known this instinctively for a while because I had, for all intents, no slow twitch fibers in my muscles. I had always been able to do the sprint - the 100m. I was second fastest in school. But increase the length to 200m, I was fourth fastest. Anything beyond that, I was not interested.

So, I had resigned myself to never being able to pound the treadmill. Then I came across that pink image up top (click to expand). This is a version of the couch to 5k program. And the best part is it works! I am currently in week 6, having run continuously for 21 minutes last week. Which for someone who can barely do 400m is unbelievable.

TED, of course, takes it to a new level. Apparently what I am doing is not unbelievable, merely something that all of us are inherently capable of. A friend sent across this timely TED video. Enjoy.

March 05, 2011

Science, Engineering & Technology

I guess I first got the idea when NPR decided to introduce a culinary story, and referred to modern cooking methods like using foams and freezing as "scientific" cooking methods. I guess I did not understand why cooking on the stove was un-scientific. Or worse, scientific being used as a synonym for modern? Or new fangled crazy?

Close on the heels, I lost it when when someone referred to using a custom XML schema as new technology. And ETL as a brand-new capability.

So this is my attempt at helping bring a little sanity back into the use of terms like science, engineering and technology.