Tools

When I look at my old photos I find that the digital camera completely changed how I work. If you are an amateur photographer you’ll find this familiar. In the days of film, you took few shots, since each was relatively expensive, and you had to change rolls every 36th shot. Digital cameras changed things quickly. I see that within months I’d started to take photos of things I wouldn’t have thought of as photo-worthy before, and in less than a year I’d begun taking multiple shots of the same thing, trying out angles, framing, aperture, exposure. As a result, my technique changed quite rapidly. And with that came new subjects and new ways of looking at things. With film I used to take more photos of places and people, but with digital I started taking more macros and nature. And this changed my holidays; suddenly I was interested in wildlife and mountains, forests and birds.

So do tools change you? Children with IPads certainly spend less time outdoors, and (on average) have more difficulty with weight than those without. Teenagers on TikTok seem to have slightly different interests than those on Instagram. Adults spend more time on their phones than is good for them. The first pandemic after the completion of the Human Genome Project has seen three vaccines within a year with about thirty more in trial. These are unthinkable changes, on par with the way tool use changed hominins. Every piece of technology is social engineering.

The limits of us

I had taken this photo of the youngest niece when she was six months old and sitting in a baby bathtub. She’s fifteen now, and growing into a very personable adult. I looked into her eyes in this photo and had the disconcerting feel that her glance has not changed. I know it is not possible; she did not have control over her head movements then, and her eyes probably did not focus. But somewhere in that glance is evidence of the mind that she has. I’m sure many of you have similar experiences with people you love.

My first thought is that it is a matter of personality. But I read that a personality takes time to develop. Instead, what I think I’m seeing is her temperament; that is the word that experts use for the mental orientation that develops into personality. That probing curiosity, that skeptical openness to new things, am I reading too much into that glance of a six month old? I’ve been with her on too many of her explorations to mistake that. That look in her eyes has not changed.

A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them

The Astonishing Hypothesis, by Francis Crick (1994)

The most believable models of the early development of the brain take us to the very limits of what we now know. Behaviour that we know and recognize is the surface; behind it are layers of processes no one really comprehends. At the bottom of it all is the neuro-chemistry which scientists are beginning to get a handle on. How does the genetics of neurotrasmitter densities map on to temperament? No one knows. This is why the astonishing hypothesis still remains a hypothesis; even after a quarter century of astonishing progress. Part of the problem may be that the question is not precise enough. These are wonderful questions, and they take us right to the limits of understanding who we are. It is a pity that the subject was born so late, I’ll not be alive when it is able to satisfy my curiosity.

The last picture show

When I finally liberated myself from film, fifteen years ago, I started carrying my new digital camera in my pocket everywhere, having told myself that I would continuously take photos of everyday life. The two years when I did this gave me a bunch of photos which are very interesting to look back at. The pandemic seems to be another blow to movie halls. In the late 1980s the easy availability of video killed off a whole bunch of movie halls. Some came back this century as multiplexes. Now the post-pandemic streaming services are another blow. I wonder when, if, movie halls will make a come back now.

The intimacy of movie halls makes them ideal sites for superspreading. That’s something we always knew; remember the times when it seemed like everyone in the hall was coughing? The post movie crush in the lobby and roads outside are another place where distancing is impossible. What will masking, distancing, evolve into five years from now? I don’t think five years will be sufficient for vaccines to reach everyone in the world, not if the rich nations (the US, EU, Canada) continue to oppose a temporary waiver of global intellectual property rights on SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

Hobby horses

For a few days now I’ve not been able to stop thinking of horses. Their origins mysterious, like the origin of everything we see around us. Their role in human history and culture, large and long. When humans arrived in most continents, the number of equine species had probably already dwindled to more or less what it is now: two or three. Historically, only two were domesticated, horses and donkeys. Although zebras have been trained (Lord Rothschild once drove to Buckingham Palace on a zebra-drawn carriage) they have not been successfully raised in domesticity.

Two sculptures of horses really stick in my mind. One is the pair of life-sized blue horses, polyester resin images made by the French artist Assan Smati, the other is the group of four harnessed to a chariot, made of fired clay in China probably 2200 years ago for the tomb of the Qin emperor Shi Huang.

Reflection

After nine months of being confined within the immediate neighbourhood of home, watching the garden, the sea, and the sky respond to the changing seasons, I find it distressing to be elsewhere in the middle of the city. I can no longer ignore the expanses of concrete unrelieved by vegetation, the traffic, and the haphazardness of a city by the seas in which the majority of its citizens don’t have even a distant view of the sea. This is what I hear many people grumbling about. If work from home remains the way many of us work, then there will be a slow draining of people away from these congested unlovely parts of the city. There will be new inequalities of course; the people who stay will be people whose work involves being on the spot. Hard to follow the possible lines of the future. Maybe I should put together a panel discussion to talk it out.

Free as a bird?

Yesterday evening we decided to get a coffee, walk with it, drop into a shop to buy a replacement charger for a phone, perhaps pick up some bread for the coming days. It took almost half an hour to get a coffee, because the queue was long. A couple in front of me was told that they had to mask themselves if they wanted service. They pulled their masks out of their bags and put them on their chins. We took the coffees out.

The phone shop was so full that they were not allowing more people in. There was a little cluster of people waiting at the door. We went on to the bakery. It was empty; a lone person at the counter served us. This was the only sign that we were in the middle of an epidemic.

The newspapers have been full of the news that Mumbai’s case count is declining, COVID care centers are winding up, and that more commuter trains are running. The anthropause is over. I can now hear the distant sounds of cars from the balcony. The sky is turning the grey that Mumbai’s pollution usually makes it.

The worst of the pandemic may be over, but the epidemic is just smouldering. It can catch fire again. The complacent behaviour which we saw yesterday is just the oxygen that such a fire needs.

Happy Dusshera

I stepped out to buy a loaf of bread on Saturday and found a parking apron taken up by a trio busy stringing marigolds into streamers. Of course, the time-keeper in my head told me, “Tomorrow is dusshera.” It wasn’t very easy to track this year, with no lights, no festivities, no night-long dances. But it was hard to forget too, with all the sighing and complaining from friends and family about missing everything this year. I didn’t actually, I’m a happy bear these days. I’m a day or two late, but a happy dusshera to you.

But while lost in uffish contemplation of these photos snapped off quickly with my phone, a monstrous jabberwock raised its head. Do you recognize a subtle bit of structural racism here? Let me explain. A phone camera is no longer the simple light catching device that a camera was forty years ago. The image is mediated by software, and the huge improvement in this decade has been due to the addition of AI to the mix. That tweaks the exposure and colour according to optimizations it has been trained to use. Many of these improvements involve recognizing and enhancing faces. Just check your photos from five years back, and you’ll see how much better faces look in recent photos. I say usually, because it depends on the skin colour.

The AI is trained on data sets selected by Google, and these are largely biased to lighter skin colours. See, for example, a photo taken three years ago, by a six year old phone, in Madrid’s Atocha station. I have taken a random face from the shadows and inset it to show how well the AI has captured that. All I did was to increase the overall illumination in the inset. See the subtlety with which the details and shadows are rendered. Compare that to the inset face (with the same tweak for overall illumination) visible in the photo above that: the AI has rendered the bamboo framework in the background better than the face. This comparison shows that it is not light or darkness that makes a difference; it is algorithmic bias. It took me a bit of work on the featured photo to make the face visible. It is because of this bias that a DSLR or a good bridge camera still remains superior to a smart phone for street photography in India and most of the world.

Make up your mind!

My cousin and his wife came over for dinner on Sunday. Now that the monsoon is over, and we can keep our windows and doors open, we’ve begun to invite one couple home every week. If we do infect each other, then a week gives us enough time to watch for symptoms. For most of us it is the first in-person meeting with anyone outside our homes in six months, and there is a lot to talk about.

This couple had traveled to Jaipur in early March, in the same days when a super-spreading event involving infected tourists began the national panic. My guess is that COVID-19 had been spreading already below the radar for at least a month before this. In any case, they’d picked up a piece of Jaipur blue pottery for us. Yesterday I took a couple of photos with this new prop. Neither The Family nor I could choose a favourite. Please help.

How is your life under lockdown?

As I read an article with the same title as this post, I realized that the premise was quite right. The four authors had looked at tweets from Melbourne to see how the quality of your life under lockdown depends on the neighbourhood that you live in. Do you reveal your moods on social media? I haven’t been reading tweets, but the blogs I read do reveal the ups and downs of our moods during lockdown.

Now that restrictions are being lifted, and we are able to leave home, it seems to be a good time to take stock of the last seven months. You will remember that there was a lot of despair at the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when the number of cases was small, but growing rapidly. That didn’t last too long. Very soon I could see people reacting quite individually.

It was interesting how people reacted to the claustrophobia of strict lockdowns. The Family was never terribly interested in cooking, but, like a lot of people around the world, she dived into it. And found that she was good at it. Like many of you, we rediscovered our families, and had frequent chats on phone and video calls with far-flung family members.

“What kept us sane?” I asked The Family. She thought for a while. “The trees and gardens around us”, she eventually said. That’s what I was thinking. Waking in the mornings to bird calls, looking out at a sea of green (we live just above the canopy of the trees which surround us), the open views of the sky and the sea. “If it was not for that,” she said, “I think we might have been bickering all the time.” Niece Moja told us several times about how widespread domestic violence had become during this time. She said that the fraction of her clients that suffered from this had increased sharply. I could agree with The Family; we were lucky with our surroundings. But we also talked through a division of work in the house right at the beginning, and decided to keep fixed hours. I think that also worked for us. We could arrange our day to suit us.

The article that I had read also talked about the availability of amenities. We were lucky with that too. A bhajiwala and a store inside our complex kept open all through the two months of strict lockdowns. There may not have been a lot to eat, or greatly fresh vegetables, but we didn’t run out of food. Our help, who were locked up in their houses were unable to locate stores with sufficient food. Our security staff helped us to talk to the police and arrange for us to give them basic supplies once a month. This kind of relatively easy connection to the police and municipal services also helped us to stay sane.

Is this the first time in history that the middle class across the world has had almost exactly the same experience, and known that for a fact? All of us lived, and are still living, through a bad epidemic, closed in at home, totally dependent on small supplies, reading and watching the same news, the same entertainment, sharing our experiences through this new medium, which has suddenly become so central to our lives that we are more conscious of how it exploits us. What a difference between the global middle class and the poor. We know now that around 400 million people in India walked away from cities to their villages, crossing the subcontinent on foot. This distress is perhaps less visible in other countries, but it must be there. And that is another difference: I can read about your feelings and experiences and see how closely they mirrored mine, but I have little idea about the inner world of the poorer people around me.

These gardens were my hideaway for two months, while the human world went to seed. Now, as the garden goes to seed, the world around me does not exactly show signs of recovery. What was the most interesting thing that happened to me in the Anthropause? The sudden end to human noise in the sea brought a pod of curious dolphins to Backbay. They came, they looked, they played, for the first time in recorded history. Curiosity satisfied, they went back to the deeper waters in the Arabian Sea where they are normally found. That was a reminder that there are other intelligences in the world.

South Mumbai on Sunday

We took a little walk through the empty streets near the stock exchange late on Sunday afternoon. The roads were far from busy, and it was easy to take photos. I haven’t done street photos for almost year now, and it felt good to be out with my camera.

There was construction going on in this lot for a while before the lockdown due to COVID-19. Now work has stopped completely. I wonder whether it will resume at all. If the building industry crashes one can imagine that a lot of savings will be totally wiped out.

A street barber can always find work. The featured photo is a close up of this same barber at work. No masks! That seemed to be common on Sunday. This is not a political statement that the media is geared to recognizing. But it certainly is a response to the way the poor have suffered through the pandemic.

A raddiwala sleeps outside his shop. Sunday afternoon is a good time to sleep. Why is he sleeping there, I wondered. What’s his story? He is likely to be an employee. If he is still here at a time when this business is doing so badly, he must be quite desperate for work.

Above the raddiwala’s shop were lots of small apartments. The pink casement caught my eye. Every building looks battered after the monsoon. Some of them will get a coat or two of paint soon. Other buildings were not being maintained because the owner was planning to make money by selling the lot to a builder when the tenants moved out. These calculations will have to be redone.

There were games of cricket on every street. Sometimes even two to a street. This happens every Sunday, but it seemed to me that there were more people on the road now. Lockdown fatigue?

Younger children were going into a park to play. Different age group and different economic class. That’s why the toy vendor is standing at the entrance. The flood light is from a film shoot which had just finished. So they are shooting films again. Lack of consumers is not the problem with that industry.

This old man also seemed to be a raddiwala. Why was that little diya burning inside his kiosk. Evening puja? I feel sorry for people in this business. The margins are low, and at this time I’m sure he’s barely making money.

Near the stock exchange is this imposing neo-classical building which holds a bank. It’s almost a hundred years old now, and is in slightly better repair than many others around. It was perhaps the last of the neo-classical buildings here. Just about the time that it was finished, Art Deco became all the rage.

Time to get a taxi. This lemonade stand does business near the parked taxis. Clever guy. But someone should teach him the right way to wear that mask.

At the end of the walk I was very happy that I had a good mask and a face shield. I’d passed too many people who were not wearing masks. Outdoors the risks are lower than they would be otherwise. Still it is not the most comfortable situation to be in. I usually see a larger fraction of people with masks. Perhaps the people I saw today are always without masks, and only the middle class office workers, bankers, and businessmen wear masks. I’ll have to watch carefully the next time I come around here.