Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Visual treat

Summer in Bangalore is a visual treat. Though it brings heat, the array of colors from the city's blooming trees brings a refreshing coolness. During the British period; trees from various parts of the world were brought to the city and this was how Bangalore got lucky with having these trees. Come summer; you can witness the aura of colors and you'd just ignore the rising temperatures. Flaming reds of Gulmohars from Madagascar, the lavender flowers of Jacaranda from South America, Trumpet rose from Central America, African Tulip from Africa to name a few.

I wait for summer just for this visual treat. Amidst chaotic traffic are plumes of flaming oranges and yellows and the lush canopy of rain trees lined along the roads. Here are few snaps I managed to click this year.

A bee busy collecting nectar from the flowers of the Indian Beech Tree


Copper pods also called as Yellow flame tree. 


Crepe Myrtle


Flowers of Yellow Tabebuia fallen on the walkway. Isnt it magical?


Canopy of Rain Tree


Trumpet Rose tree with not a single leaf. 


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Facebook Data Breach

These last couple of days has been all about data breach scandal at Facebook. If you haven't heard about it yet; then probably you are living on another planet.

Image source : http://editorialcartoonists.com/cartoon/display.cfm/139370/

So what happened? 

Cambridge Analytica, the London based elections consultancy firm is amidst an ongoing scandal alongside Facebook over the alleged harvesting and use of over 50 million users' personal data.  These data were then used to influence the outcome of 2016 US elections. 
This company helps political campaigns reach potential voters online, it combines data from multiple sources to build profile of voters. The company then uses algorithms to predict voter behavior, which then could be influenced. 

An academic Dr. Kogan created an app called "thisisyourdigitallife" in 2014 that was supposed to offer a personality prediction through a series of questions. This app was a personality quiz based on your Facebook data which includes information like your location, likes, preferences and such. About 270,000 people downloaded this app; who not only allowed it to access their data but also their friends'. Dr. Kogan passed on these user data to the political firm Cambridge Analytica. A whistle blower detailed the usage of these collected data; saying that these data harvested from millions of users were used to build models to exploit what they knew about them and turned it into psychographic profiles. What this means is identifying people based on their values, preferences, attitudes, interests, lifestyle and use this information to influence them. 

So, if you took such a quiz; a seemingly harmless question like "Do you like beef?" can say a lot about your religious sentiments and emotions and give an idea about your ideologies and political preference. Someone out there has created an online profile of 'you' and using it to influence you without your knowledge. How is that for a  jolt? 

What does this have to do with 2016 US elections?

Empowered by such a tool, the Trump campaign used these profiles to influence voters for 2016 US elections. What is the fun part here? Cambridge Analytica once featured Steve Bannon who served as the CEO of Trump's 2016 presidential bid on its board and is also partly owned by Robert Mercer, a billionaire who spent millions on Trump's campaign. The company helped the campaign identify voters to target with ads that influenced people's voting decisions and helped in strategic communications. The company's CEO admitted to the company being largely responsible for a vast amount of Trump's campaign. All the research, analytics, targeting. television and digital campaign were run by Cambridge Analytica. 

But how can you use this information to influence?

Lets say you have a piece of news to share. Different takes on the same article is pushed to different groups based on the profiles created. It doesn't take long to figure out which one of them was more effective. The better one has more clicks, likes and more shares. The more clicks and shares, the louder the message is. The company created an effective data mining technique; which was then misused for political ads. 

How did this come to light? 

Cambridge Analytica's CEO who is now fired; boasted how the company could bribe, use sex workers, blackmail and sow misinformation to try and help political candidates in an undercover sting operation. 

What is Facebook saying?

Facebook says Mr. Kogan mishandled the data but was obtained legally and within rules. The users logged into Facebook network to answer questions posed by the app; so they did it willfully. It said people knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated and no passwords stolen. However since 2015; Facebook has prohibited app developers to request and receive access to data of users. Facebook told Cambridge Analytica to delete the data but it wasn't destroyed. Cambridge says it did not break any compliance policy since the data was received legally and fairly. Zuckerburg has now acknowledged that Facebook made mistakes and promised regulations on how much third party apps and app developers can access user information.

Cambirdge Analytica and India

SCL India, the Indian branch of Cambridge Analytica's parent company SCL says both of India's biggest political parties are its clients.  Both Congress and BJP are now passing the buck to one another and denying links with SCL India and are accusing one another of using SCL's services. SCL India says it has successfully managed four election campaigns for BJP and among them names 2014 general elections. 

Why does it matter to you and me?

This breach of data is a moral problem. Misuse of sensitive personal data without proper consent is trust issue. I keep advising few of my freinds who are over enthusiastic on social media not to click on quizzes and personality tests from third party app on Facebook and to set proper privacy settings because you are giving away too much of not only your information but also your connections'. It s exploitation; you cant make out the impact just because its virtual. All these social media accounts are so interconnected now; that to login to one account; you have to validate it with either Google or Facebook. These are so ingrained in our lives that their power is much more than one can imagine. Your information is being used without you being aware to change the face of the world. Isn't that scary?

Got a Twitter forward this morning and I think it couldn't have been said better.


Monday, February 26, 2018

My Aurora Borealis experience in Norway

Those mystical greenish dance of lights, an enigmatic natural phenomenon occurring in the northern hemisphere are comparable to none. Having read about the Aurora Borealis in school; it had been my dream ever since to experience this wonder. My perseverance finally paid off when I booked a flight to Copenhagen for the second week of November. The plan was to fly into Tromso, north of Norway, one of the best spots to catch the lights.
For someone like me from a tropical place; winter in the arctic region was quite an experience. The warmest it got was 0 C. Layers of clothes and mugs of hot chocolates don’t help much. The chill wind hitting your face makes you feel as if you are sitting in a freezer set on the lowest possible temperature. I have been in the subarctic region earlier once; in Iceland. That was during summer; not the kind of summer that we tropical folks know with loads of sunshine and flip flops and straw hats. Nevertheless; there was no brazen wind waiting to freeze your hands the moment you remove those gloves to click a picture of the spectacular landscape around you.
There are tours you can sign up in Tromso to “chase” Aurora Borealis. Since it was the primary reason to have ventured that north, my friend and I chose a tour on that very day we landed. There are few revelations about the northern lights occurrence that we didn’t know earlier. It was not that I was expecting the lights to be dancing throughout the day. The aurora is elusive and skittish. No one can really predict the time and place when one could catch a glimpse of the lights. It depends on many factors; like the skies being dry and clear, the location and of course tons of luck. I had also researched well about how to take good pictures of northern lights with a DSLR – the shutter speed, focus and all that nuances. Need to capture them to show off on social media, right?
A couple of hours before starting for the tour; a mate in the hostel I was staying prepared me for what to expect. He went for a tour the day before. I didn’t really think it was necessary then, but I thanked him tons after the tour. After the initial guidelines from the guide and the usual “It’s all up to nature ultimately” sermon; we started at about 7 PM. The tour is a “chase” where we set out in a group of 8 in a bus and drive out of the city lights for about an hour or two until we find the aurora. You need a dark spot without any other light interference for better chance of seeing the lights. We stopped at a spot; grabbed our camera and tripod; got out and adjusted the settings and gazed at the sky. The wind was brutal, the thermal suit, gloves and caps were not at all a match to the freezing negative temperature. All we could see was a sky. “Where?” desperate for a flick. We saw a thin grey streak for few seconds like the tail vapour of a jet. The guide took a couple of quick photos (You see, since they are doing this day in and day out, they have the camera set to right settings to capture the lights, including the height of tripod). The clouds hovered over in a short time and we had to leave. We roamed around for another hour or so desperately trying to catch a glimpse. The lights just decided it was not ready to show up in the locations we went. Resigned to ill fate; we returned to hostel just before midnight with promises from the guide to share the photos he clicked.

Now; this is what Northern Lights are – mysterious. There was nothing close to how they looked on photos versus how they were seen to the naked eye. No wonder there are many folk tales and legends surrounding the lights. It is not easy to give up on northern lights that easily. So a second trip was booked for the third night of the stay. Don’t they say you get surprises when you least expect. On the second day while returning from our drive to Lyngen Alps (this warrants a separate post); we saw a grey haze in the sky. Oh! I should’ve mentioned, by now we got accustomed to the fact that lights dont show up as electric green to your naked eye. It’s only the camera that can capture that color. To a naked eye; a whitish glow is a sign of northern lights. A stop on the road and a rush to unpack the camera gear and seeing the picture confirmed that we did spot northern lights. Totally unplanned and unexpected. It was difficult to capture it on camera though since we were on the road and lights from vehicles constantly crossing us didn’t give many good chances. Nonetheless; a few stops and many tries later; I did manage a couple of pictures.


We got lucky on the third night when we had booked for a trip. The lights that night at the location was literally all over the sky and green enough for the naked eye. They blazed the sky, sweeping and swaying like a graceful dancer. They put up a spectacular show for complete ten minutes before coming to an abrupt end. I stood there speechless; unaware of the gusty wind that was knocking me down or the cold numbing my bones. I waited holding my camera, like a lovelorn teenager; feeling forsaken. I did not take hundreds of time lapse pictures or video as I had carefully planned. I just lost it all. The guide suggested we move since the wind was really harsh that night. Everyone had at least one broken camera equipment, courtesy the wind.

I saw the lights even on the last night of my stay as we were casually walking along the main street in downtown Tromso. Words are inadequate to describe what the Aurora Borealis look like and how I felt every time. But the sense of awe that accompanies an encounter gives you goosebumps.
The greatest firework on earth – Aurora Borealis.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

What does money mean to you

A friend asked me this - What does money mean to you? I didn't have an immediate answer. Money - the great manipulative tool invented by mankind. What does it mean to me - NOW? Perhaps that would've been a more appropriate question. Our needs and wants change as we go through phases in life. Our experience teaches us a lot.

For some, money is a motivator - makes you do awesome things. It enables us to reach for the stars, to invent, innovate, to create. It makes us endure our struggles with a smile, enjoy that mundane job, keep us sane in the most insane environment. On the face, money is a tool to obtain what you want. Everything costs money. But deep within, it means more than a mere tool. For most of us money - it means many things. It means freedom, power, security, happiness, respect, reassurance and love.

When I was young, money for me was a way to obtain things my parents wouldn't buy for me. Simple! I wanted Diary Milk chocolate. It was a luxury those days. After months of nagging; my father would buy a slab and break it into half to be shared between my brother and I. I used to think that when I grew up and made money; I would buy lots of chocolates as and when I need. I need not have to depend on my dad. So, money then was a tool to gain freedom. It's another story that I don't like chocolates now :-)

These days, I work because I need money to pay my bills. Gone are the days when technology was passion. I think after having worked over a decade; it gets saturated. All that hoopla of learning and creating awesome stuff weans off. It could be due to various factors - opportunities that don't come easy, lack of support and the daily struggle of life. These days its about paying my mortgage and my bills. I have even reduced buying things for me - no more buying gadgets and footwear that I once so loved. I suppose most of us go through this phase, isn't? You want to acquire material comforts, car, house and then at one point it just does not make sense? Maybe not for all of us. There are folks who keep acquiring wealth, for their children and their children. Then there are some who see money as power and so keep hoarding money and properties.

I do think about future as well. How would I sustain if I didn't earn actively. How about my health? How long will I live? So the security part is something that I haven't got quite convinced. What if I save and save and then I die early? So this one is a bummer right? We still have to save for a rainy day.

Oh! I do indulge in my passion; that is traveling. Need a bit of money for that.  Nothing beyond that. I am glad that I have not been greedy. So when I actually think about what money means to me; it has been a tool for me to remain independent and to pursue my interests.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Over fridge magnets

All of us have that one trigger point that would get us into a conversation. That topic that breaks the ice and lets even the shyest person to get talking. For some, its the weather, for others football or movies or books. For me, its always travel. 

A friend knows that too well. When he gets his other friends and I go quiet and try to hide myself; he will casually mention to others "Ask her how many places she has traveled?" and there! i am now forced to talk and after few minutes, the conversation becomes so easy! Now! that is how you get me talking. It has happened at work as well. 

I got into the habit of collecting fridge magnets from wherever I visited. Earlier, it was one magnet per city; then as they grew exponentially, I limited them to a magnet per country. This is how my fridge at home looks now.


Not many yet, but it sure is eating up the real estate.  

Recently, I had to call in a maintenance service to fix my fridge. The guy who came in to look into the issue was particularly interested in the Cambodia fridge magnet. I am wary of strangers; especially if they are in the house attending to a service call. Yet, I was able to answer all his questions about Cambodia. He apparently watched a documentary about Angkor Wat and has been interested to visit it since then. He wanted to know the flight charges, visa, how long to fly and how many days would he need. He was also inquiring about how much it could cost him. Some of his comments were interesting. 

"Why did the Cholas had to go that far to build temples?"
"We should pay to see the temples built by our own people!. Ridiculous!" - when I mentioned him about Angkor Wat park entry fees. 

I also shared a little about how the country now is Buddhist and these Hindu temples are all Buddhist temples now. A perplexed look, a sigh! Meanwhile, the work was done and off he went. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Google Maps

The first time I ever saw a navigation device was during my first trip to the US back in 2006. I gaped at it in utter disbelief. How can these folks trust a small device to take them to their destination? Back in India, we relied on fellow people right? Either stop at a road side tea shop; sip a cutting chai while asking for directions. You'd get a "go straight, take left, take another right; you'll get a round about. Just stop there and ask someone; they will guide you further". That was the norm. Now! there is this pager like device mounted on the car dashboard that's speaking to you. One of my friend had named the lady of his GPS "Jill".

I got used to it; the way I got used to many other things. Anyway; what prompted me to write this post is this strange phenomenon of us Indians trusting an internet app. For someone who is tech-savvy; its a no-brainer. But for the tech-illiterates; the advent of Google maps to navigate has been a slow admission. Maps has been there for a while now; but I see the cabbies and others have embraced it only recently. Few months back; when a cabbie or an auto driver asked me where to go; I would truthfully admit I dont know the route and that I will switch on maps. My answer would be always met with disgust. "Computer? Madam - computer hege heluththe?" - Madam, how can you trust what a computer says? And then they'll set about asking passer-byes for the direction. 

The past few months though; I have seen a round about. Cabbies are relying on maps and dont trust the decision of a human being anymore. Few days back; a driver (mind you, a learned man who definitely knew how to use maps) at a traffic signal asked my cabbie the direction to a place. My cabbie's smart answer - "You have phone right? Use google maps. It shows the roads accurately. There is no need for you to ask anybody anymore". 

And today; I was chided by the cab driver for directing him on an alternate route and for my back luck; there was a traffic jam in the impossible of places! He told me "That's why, we should listen to what Google says. My fuel is getting wasted. We could've reached by now". I did not utter a word. 

This may seem nothing; but to gain trust of people who are stubborn to let of their old ways and who are suspicious of technology; it is a big deal. Google Maps has come up with ads with the tagline "LookBeforeYouLeave where it says how Google Maps can help you address traffic issue and how it can preempt your woes on the road by showing an alternative and fastest route. These ads are aptly made for Indian audience, drawing scenes from everyday life like how a wedding procession on the road or a cricket match can make roads unpredictable. This intelligence the app uses to make decisions is a boon for a frustrated Indian who already has a nightmare that is Indian road. The app now supports vernacular too. 

I have thus decided to not face the wrath of my cabbie hereafter and just let him trust his maps!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Indian outside India

Traveling to me is an excellent way to connect with people from around the world. I stay at hostels which offers a good platform to meet people. Interacting with others helps you learn about them and you develop your acumen. A harmless banter, a useless knowledge or even an important topic of discussion expands your view of the world. I did not know Guinness available in other parts of the world is not "Guinness enough" from an Irish man. How about the presence of Christianity in Jordan? You can of course read about it; but the interactive discussions and questions and more discussions with a local is so enriching. I can discuss sushi with a Japanese and then turn around and ask a Mayan descendant what does it mean to an actual descendant now while sharing hazelnut and chocolate cookies made by another hostel inmate from Israel.

The way I have questions for them, I as an Indian face lot of questions. Some of them are stereotypical, most common ones that I have been asked are the same questions wherever I go. First question is always about why am I without an accent? They have met Indians with thick accents! Indians dont know how to converse politely. Indians are generally not considerate. Why am I not like a typical Indian? Are you living out of India? That may explain your un-Indianness. These questions embarrass me and makes me sad. Yeah, what a bad reputation we have built for ourselves? Now apart from explaining why I am without accent, I now have the moral obligation to correct their misunderstandings. How do I tell not all Indians are rude? How do I convey Indians at heart are good but the society has made them run an never ending rat race? Why am I trying to sweep the truth under the carpet? I do get approving and appreciating comments "You are not like the other Indians I know. I thought all were the same." Should I take this as a compliment? I only cringe whenever I hear this and trust me! I have heard this many times in different parts of the world from different people.

The follow up question is always about safety in India. "I've heard that its not safe for girls in India, how bad is it?" or "How do you manage being a woman in India". "Dont you get scared walking on the streets?" "Is it true that you can get robbed and raped?" Imagine this! you are representing your country and someone is asking about the news they hear, how do you cope with it? Should I say - "You know, its not everyday and everywhere such incidents occur." If I try to play down an incident - even one incident, then I am being unfair. Yeah, maybe bad things travel faster in the wind than good ones. But hundred good things cannot make up for one bad incident. It doesn't end there. Those people who've traveled to other places want to visit India very bad. But they are unsure, they are scared. I feel sad as an Indian, perhaps ashamed too. I admit the facts but give them few tips on pockets of India which are gorgeous and are very safe to visit. That is the best I could do for my country.

Travel has taught me to make better judgement, to respect differences and make space for everyone. It has taught me to be inclusive and humble. Travel has taught me how frivolous we all are. It makes me to laugh at empty egos and irrelevant ideologies. Travel has taught me to be human.