Do you really want to know?

What’s over the hill? That’s a question that keeps us going, isn’t it? But sometimes what’s on this side of the hill is so beautiful that you don’t want to budge. Perpetual youth is the curse of never being curious about what lies over the hill. The rest of us, we love the view here, but we want to plow on and check out the view from the top as well.

Outside the small town of Ghoti on the Mumbai-Nashik road

Sometimes you get a glimpse of it from down at the bottom. Looks like someone’s made a good place for a selfie or two, a share on social media. This climb will be worthwhile, you think as you set off.

Naneghat, the view across the pass

At other times you reach the top, exhausted. To your dismay you find that it’s not the end of the road. There’s the steep downhill bit. It looks quite scary, and the path is wet. Do you really want to do it? Are the distant plains quite as nice as they look from up here?

Crossing Malshej ghat in Maharashtra

Sometimes you wish that someone had made a keyhole in that mountain, so that you can spy on the other side without needing to climb. It does happen, you know! These hills are full of tunnels.

Monsoon waterfall at the top of Malshej ghat

But sometimes,the other side just falls on you. There’s no way you want that. You roll up the windows quickly and get away from it fast, before all that falling stuff drowns you, or washes you down the hillside. Driving in the Sahyadris during the monsoon will give you all these new perspectives on aging and geology. What you make of these lessons is up to you.

A drive in the Monsoon

Monsoon is a time when I like to travel in the Sahyadris. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, given how damp and wet the weather is, how badly road surfaces are damaged, and how poor the visibility often in. But the compensation is there for you to see. It is exactly what Kalidasa described in the 5th century Sanskrit poem called Meghdoot. The flanks of the mountains are wet with rain (like the flanks of elephants streaked with water, he said), and the grass and rice fields are a rich green (the young green of growth, he wrote).

I drove through countryside which may not have changed so much since Kalidasa’s time. Nashik is an old city, associated with the Ramayana. The Panchavati ashram, from where Ravana abducted Sita, is said to be here on the banks of the Godavari. In this season you may expect a general lack of sunshine, a gloomy light, like in the photos here. But not everything is dark. The rain feeds streams which cascade down these hills which are more ancient than mammals. It pours over trees and plants which evolved with dinosaurs, and changed with the weather. Fragile humans, so tied to the weather, came later, building temples on these ancient mountainsides.

The fences that farmers put up seem flimsy and puny on the scale of this landscape; in any case, every gate stood open. This 700 meter high plateau was just at the level of the last clouds of the monsoon. Farmhouses and apartment buildings were scattered across the green. Every now and then we passed under a cloud which was busy dumping rain over a square kilometer. The windshield wipers were hard put to clear the water cascading around them. And then in a minute or so, we would be out of it, and watching the beautiful landscape again.

These photos were taken on a twenty kilometer drive as we drove from the Someshwar waterfall on the Godavari river to its source at Trimbakeshwar. We stopped every couple of kilometers to take photos of the green hills, the green paddy fields, and the hardy wildflowers that come up to the edge of the highway. I’ve called this an electric green in the past, but I would gladly take up Kalidasa’s description of this as new green. If only those power lines would not interrupt every view!

I was tired of the limitations of mobile phone photos, so I was trying to take photos in the rain with my camera without getting out of the car. Unfortunately a big splash of water landed on it when I took one of the photos. I managed to dry my camera with a combination of towel and micropore. When I looked up, a strange formation of mountains was visible off to the side. The Deccan shield has been eroding for about 60 million years, ever since the sundering of Gondwanaland. The slow process of erosion creates these temporary shapes of great beauty. If our lifetimes were long as geology, we would see the shapes flow like the water of the monsoon which is its agent. But we are short-lived. We see the cause and forget the effect.

Farmhouses by the road

Drive 50 kilometers out of Mumbai and turn off a highway, and the scene changes completely. The high-rises and crowded concrete ribbons of highways are a memory. Instead, you are probably driving down a two-lane road through countryside which is lush green in the monsoon, and dry grassland at other times of the year. The houses that you see have to deal with extreme rain, extreme heat, and, in places, fairly cold weather. I kept stopping to take photos of farm houses as we drove along. The house in the featured photo looked charming: cattle sheds faced the road, and the farm house was behind it. Trees shaded the structure, affording protection in all weathers.

Smaller houses were more common. Behind two small plots of paddy fields was a miniature version of the other house. Corrugated metal sheets covered a cattle shed, and the actual house stood behind it. In spite of its diminutive size, its placement looked charming: on a higher patch of ground surrounded by paddy fields. Of course, the fields are flooded at this time for several weeks, and mosquitoes can breed in that standing water. The lovely looking place may be very uncomfortable at night.

The land had been flat but rising away from the sea, but we were now reaching a line of hills. When I stopped to take this photo, I was actually interested in the many waterfalls you can see in those hills. But then I found an interesting composition with this tree and the three low houses behind. I still got a couple of the waterfalls in the frame though.

This was one of the few two-storeyed houses that I saw. Brick and mortar had been supplemented with steel and concrete, at least in the flat terraces. Was that a good idea in these parts? The roof would bake in heat. In the monsoon the water might pool in places instead of running off quickly. It is not at all clear that changing the local style of architecture in the Sahyadris to one derived from the inland planes is a good idea.

This was such a cheerful sight that my hands seemed to come up automatically for this shot. On a day which was mostly cloudy, the sun had broken through briefly to illuminated ripening grain. The cheerful yellow and the surrounding tender green centered on a little farmhouse. For the first time I saw a house in which the front doors faced the road. The doors themselves, if you pay attention, are sturdy jobs in wood. I love these tile roofs. A little cost-intensive to begin with, they afford easy care. This stretch of road charmed me thoroughly.

Two spiders

Orb-weaving spiders (family Araneidae) are generally what I notice, not the ones which hide in leaf-litter. The one in the photos above had woven a neat web in an opening in a wall when I first saw it. When I came by with a camera late the next day, the web was much less neat; it had torn and been repaired. Either someone’s hand had gone through the opening, or the rain and wind had torn it. I don’t know much about spider identification, and I have not seen a field guide for India yet, so anything I say is a guess. Just based on the shape I wonder whether it belongs to the genus Eriovixia or Eustala. This one was in the middle of its web during the day both times that I saw it, so that might rule out Eriovixia, which weaves orbs, but then hides in leaf-litter with a telegraph line connecting it to its web.

This seven-legged spider is quite likely to be a species of giant wood spiders, perhaps Nephila kuhlii. The banana shaped body is what leads me to this tentative identification. I guess it must be on the older side, since it has lost a leg, perhaps in a fight. I spotted it in a nallah on the side of the road when we stopped at a tea stall on Malshej ghat. That portion of the nallah was thick with spider webs, all of this one species. some of the specimens were smaller, likely younger, and had red legs, and dark bodies without the spots. Do their legs darken and spots appear on their bodies as they grow older? Or was this a different species? Even if it is different, the yellowish colour of the silk in the web indicates that it still belongs to genus Nephila.

Murder by glory lily

Glory lilies are not lilies. They should rightly be called Gloriosa superba. They belong, along with 10 other species, to the genus Gloriosa, which, in turn, lies in the family of crocuses, Colchicaceae. Lilies, on the other hand, belong to the family Liliaceae. Why do glory lilies look so much like lilies then? Not a far-fetched accident, really. Colchicaceae and Liliaceae both originate from a single parent plant, around 117 million years ago, in the early Cretaceous period. This parent was old enough to be one of the earliest flowering plants, and lived at the same time as the early ceratop and theropod dinosaurs. Yes, you are right, I’ve gone off topic. What is really the difference between lilies and the crocuses, you ask? All plants in the latter group contain colchicine, a widely used medicinal drug, and doctors know that overdoses of colchicine can be fatal.

So I was not completely surprised to find in a medical journal an article titled “A rare case of attempted homicide with Gloriosa superba.” It seems that in Sri Lanka it is common to have a tea made with coriander seeds, a condiment all south Asians will have in their kitchen. Apparently, one day in 2016, a man was brought into a hospital in Colombo with diarrhea and profuse vomiting. He went into shock. His hair fell off, and he developed trouble breathing. So much so, that he had to be put on a respirator. The attending physicians might have been flummoxed by the symptoms, had the family not brought the pot in which his tea was brewed.

It seems that the man’s sister in law was missing from the house after she made the tea. Seeing the man in distress, his wife took a small amount of tea to test it, and developed milder symptoms of poisoning. The rest of the family identified glory lily seeds mixed in which coriander seeds in the pot, and brought it along to the hospital. The journal article contains more details of the symptoms and treatment, and nothing else about the crime. The means and opportunity are reasonably clear. But the motive? And the resolution? It is all left to your imagination, gentle reader.

The plant grows wild in the Sahyadris, and in other parts of India and Sri Lanka. It is also a fairly popular garden plant, with several cultivars available. All of them are perennial vines which grow from tubers that sprout up to six stems every spring, some of which are stiff enough to be upright and can grow up to 4 meters in height. The one I saw was half that. The lance-shaped leaves grow opposite each other or in a whorl around the stem (as you can see in the wide-angle shot). The tips of the leaves can wind around support to pull the vine up. Here it has climbed over a lantana bush. I’ve only seen them flowering during the monsoon, but my experience is limited. The flowers are either solitary, or appear, as here, in a group of a few. The 6-7 cm long petals start off in yellow and orange, aging to a deeper red. The 6 stamens appear in a ring around the bottom of the flower, just above the green ovary, from which a single style juts far away. The distance between the style and stamens prevents frequent self pollination. You can see that the flowers in this cluster were all at different ages. This is reportedly common, and is a also strategy to minimize the chances of self-pollination. Contrarily, studies show that fertile seed production is higher if they are self-pollinated by hand than if they are cross-pollinated. It’s natural pollinators are not documented, so if you see one, perhaps a sunbird or a large butterfly, make sure you take a photo.

Unremarked villages

A week ago we drove four hours out of the city to stay at a place by a lake in the middle of the Sahyadris. We wanted to spend a day in the middle of nothing, driving and walking along village roads and fields, and possibly walk uphill for a bit. To do that we drove along the highway, looking for the turn that would take us towards a couple of smaller hill forts. At this unremarked turnoff a village had grown larger than its neighbours. In the evening we saw commerce at full swing. The “Gent’s Parlour” was busy, one man getting a shave, while another waited. The door advertised a long menu of services: cut, shave, massage were expected, but mask, bleach, scrub, and facial were not, and chandan left me guessing. Would that be a sandalwood facial?

In the morning The Family had found a bakery in the village setting out fresh baked biscuits, and picked up an assortment. It had lasted us through the day. At the end of the day we stopped at a large and popular stall for a tea. I’d missed these roadside eateries during the last couple of years. The tea was made with care and ginger, and lubricated the end of the pack of biscuits. It’s making gave me enough time to walk about a bit and take a few photos. I was lucky with the time. It was the golden hour, when the most ordinary of sights take on an extraordinary glow.

It had been an overcast day, which constantly promised rain. As soon as we got out I realized that I had forgotten to pack rain gear. “In the middle of monsoon!” The Family shook her head. Fortunately it did not rain. But many of my photos had a gloomy and rainy look about them. Like this of a hut, next to paddy fields, standing between trees. The setting had the look of numerous idyllic paintings of the Indian countryside: fields, a hut, with its own small kitchen garden where the woman stood, only the man and his oxen in the field were missing. A zoom gave me a good view of the hut. Its sturdy front door was shut, but the coloured cloth decorating the front wall gave it a cheerful look. A blue tarp covered an opening higher in the roof for the monsoon; I guess in summer it is removed to let air into the house.

It was pretty late in the day when we passed this village school. Earlier, The Family had chatted with girls walking home from school and some boys had stopped to look at me taking macros of flowers. Not every village has a school. We’d seen children in uniforms and with a backpack walking fairly long distances to school. The school was closed now. A man walked around checking that the windows were properly shut. I was surprised that after all these years Indira Gandhi still shared wall space with a colourful grid with the alphabet. So many people live and work in the unremarked villages that we saw, doing all the things that people do anywhere in the world. Their lives are quite as busy as ours. We talked about them briefly, in passing. Just so, some of them must have talked about us, briefly, before their conversation went on to something of more interest to them.

Midweek Mobile 4

Does AI have limits? You come to this question very quickly when you begin to think about phone cameras. They have tiny lenses which would once have limited both the amount of light and the resolution of photos. Once upon a time, the limited aperture would have meant long exposure times (and camera shake). It would also have created a resolution problem: that you could not get distant details with limited aperture (that’s bokeh for you). How does a phone camera wriggle out of this problem and produce photos as sharp as these two?

There are two parts to the answer. One is physics: the chemistry of silver halide crystals is replaced by the electronics of CCDs. The pixels can be made smaller, and there are clever constructions for noise reduction. As a result, you get closer to the ideal of “one photon, one pixel”, although not very close, at least on the cheap phone that I use. The other is mathematics: there is a lot of computation between what you see and what the CCD gives. First there is the subtraction of the background noise. Then there is the AI which begins to make statistical inferences about the image. Earlier I’d mentioned computational super-resolution: the improvement of lens resolution by making assumptions about the nature of the lighting. In both the photos above I looked at another technique that the AI uses: image averaging.

When I looked at this scene of the Sahyadris, there was a wall of dragonflies between me and the far cliffs. Each hovered in the air to find prey, then quickly darted to it. The light was not too bad, and on a normal camera, many would be blurred, but some would perhaps be sharp because they would be caught hovering. I wondered what the 65 megapixels of my phone camera would catch. Surprise! It caught nothing, although the EXIF told me that the exposure was 1/1912 seconds. Nothing at all, as you can see in this full size zoomed segment of the photo. I went over the photo segment by segment at full size. Nothing! What happened?

The phone camera took multiple readouts (frames) from the CCD sensor and then added them together to form the final image. This image averaging give noise reduction: pixels are averaged over frames and random noise is cancelled. But the random darting of the dragonflies also mimicked noise, and was removed. The exposure time written on the EXIF is probably a sum over the exposure times of the frames. The shorter reported exposure perhaps means that a smaller number of frames is averaged over.

Do I have an image that tells me that the camera is doing image averaging? Yes, the image comparator above tells me that. The “original image” (compressed for the purposes of this blog to 640×480 pixels) is shown on the left. The photo was taken from the car as it slowed for a speed bump. The EXIF data tells me that this was shot at f/1.7 with an exposure of 1/2422 seconds. In that time I estimate that the car must would have moved by a hair over 1/2 mm. The original looks sharp here, and looked even sharper on my phone. But the full size zoom shows strange artifacts. The lettering on the signboard is very blurred, as it would be if multiple images were added together. But the narrow leftmost pole supporting the roof of the shack is perfectly clear. Similarly, the edges of the sun umbrella are clean. This is clear evidence that the AI has selectively added parts of images. Even more than image averaging, there is clearly adaptive multiframe image averaging at work.

A 1450×1088 pixel section of two photos reduced to 640X480 pixels are shown here for comparison. The left from a phone camera, the right with a macro lens.

Now let’s get back to the photo of moss on a brick wall to see how much detail I could get from it. It was taken in full sunlight. At f/3.2 my macro lens required an exposure of 1/200 of a second to capture the moss in the comparison photo on the right. The phone camera lens has about 1/25 of the area, so if I’d masked my macro lens to keep only a phone camera sized area free, the exposure would have climbed to 1/8 of a second. But the phone camera reported f/1.7 (the lens is fixed), with an exposure of 1/264 seconds. Yet when I looked at the phone camera output at full size, I saw the blur on the left! Why?

First, keep in mind that the exposure time of the photo of moss implies averaging about 7 times as many frames as that of the cliff. You might expect so much averaging to remove blur. But I suspect that the blur in this second photo is an due to image averaging interacting with computational super-resolution: the improved lens resolution that AI gives. Since the small details in the zoomed view is almost entirely due to computation, little changes in the illumination can change the inferred image. Then averaging over the result can give the blurred details that you see. In the second zoom into the same photo you can see that the deep shadows look more noisy and equally blurred. This is also what you might expect from the averaging over super-resolved frames: CCD noise is removed, but inferred details are blurred by averaging over inferences.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Flies of the Sahyadris

Sarcophagidae. That’s what this family of striped flies are called. This one was almost a centimeter long. I came across it on a walk in the Sahyadris last week. Otherwise known as flesh flies, they can either lay eggs or maggots on decaying flesh. I’ve seen them across the south Asian region: from the valleys of Bhutan to the southern end of the Western ghats, and from the Sahyadris to eastern Tripura; wherever there’s a humid wilderness, or uncleared garbage. But if you want to approach it for a photo, make sure that there’s no decaying matter nearby. The maggots of some species are known to cause myiasis, maggot infections, in humans. I came across a checklist dating from 2002 of subcontinental flesh flies which could serve as the basis for a field guide, if you are interested. I have a collection of photos taken over the last decade. Perhaps on a hot day, when I’m stuck in the house, I can try to identify them. I’m assured though that flies are as difficult to identify as moths, one can seldom identify them by appearance alone.

Another bothersome family of flies are these shiny specimens: blue, green, or bronze. I’ve seen these Calliphoridae across South Asia too. I saw this one, bigger than a centimeter, in the Sahyadris las week. Although a checklist specific to India was available since 2004, I’ve not felt an urgent need to be able to identify them down to species level (again, something I may leave for a hot summer afternoon). A few species of these can also cause myiasis in humans, and are best approached carefully. However, there are attempts to raise them in clean laboratory conditions and use their maggots to clean dead tissue in human patients. That’s a treatment that I may not be an early adopter of.

Dreams die

[She said] “These cars don’t make any noise.” “Someday all cars won’t make noise,” he said.

Harold Robbins, in The Betsy

My cousin was a great car enthusiast even before he learnt his Ambassador, Buick, or Citroen. When he went missing from home once in early childhood, he was found standing by the nearest big road, looking at cars. Safely back home he reeled off a list of all the car makes he’d seen. A couple of years ago, driving on the highway, he said that we’d just passed another cousin’s car. There was a lot of skepticism in our car: “How could you recognize it? It is so dark”, “There are a hundred cars on the road like his, and we are going so fast”. But he was right. The other cousin reached the destination a few minutes after us. If I can’t recall from the hood ornament which car I’ve photographed, I just have to ask him. The featured photo is of the hood of a Dodge, from the late 1940s, if I remember right.

It’s just that when I die, I dont want to leave any enemies, and I figure the only way to do that is to outlive them all.

Harold Robbins, in The Carpetbaggers

The first internal combustion mechanism, fire pistons, may have been developed about 2000 years ago in Borneo or Sumatra, but it was only about two hundred years ago that it became a pillar on which trade and industry stood. Take the Pamban bridge. It was constructed in 1914 as part of an ambitious imperial scheme to connect India with erstwhile Ceylon. What drove it were dreams of trade: from Britain’s overseas factories in India to Sri Lanka, first, and then over the ocean to Singapore, Hong Kong, and east. Every phase of this dream involved internal combustion machines. A supercyclone ended the dream. But in the 21st century this dream of a world-girdling trade route has been recycled by China. And part of the route is exactly the same as the century-past-its-date-of-expiry dream of the British Empire.

An aircraft against the IBM building in Chicago

Every man has his price. For some it’s money, for some it’s women, for others glory. But the honest man you don’t have to buy – he winds up costing you nothing.

Harold Robbins in The Carpetbaggers

Walking on the streets of downtown Chicago, I looked up to see an airplane coming in to land. I could quickly grab this photo where the two icons of the world’s 20th century superpower are juxtaposed (the tower was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and is located at 330 North Wabash Av). The dream of world-spanning trade routes fulfilled. Another dream: an endless frontier. Alexander of Macedonia is said to have wept after he thought there was nothing in the world left to conquer, but his nightmare descendants of today want to place their cut-price mercenaries and miners on new worlds. I suppose rockets are also internal combustion devices, though they have to carry their own oxygen.

The reality of living was never greater than when you held death clutched tightly in your hands

Harold Robbins, in Stilletto

Trying to think of means of travel which do not involve burning fossil fuels, the first one that comes to mind is the bicycle (so green, in the middle of rice fields in the Sahyadris). That, roller skates, and pedi-scooters. Have I missed something? Yes, horse or bullock drawn vehicles (also dog, mule or rabbit drawn: thinking of Radagast in the movie version of Hobbit). Not electric vehicles, nor modern trains, because in those you just burn the fuel elsewhere. Unless you live in a country which generates electricity mostly in nuclear plants or through renewables (in other words, France) I doubt I have missed anything except walking.

Bebelplatz with bicycles

People are not like a business.

Harold Robbins in Never Leave Me

Which is not to say that modern day trains are a disaster. The German experiment with the 9 Euro tickets is a success, I read, since it is beginning to wean people off driving and flying. I’ve always traveled in Germany by train; it was a quick and cheap way to travel, and it got you into the heart of a town with lots of public transport options at the destination (or bike-tours, if you were a tourist). The cheap worked once if you took the pain of traveling off-peak, and that is the threshold that the 9 Euro ticket lowers dramatically. It is a great way of subsidizing (relatively) clean travel instead of air pollution. Of course, there is something to the experience of driving on an autobahn, especially if you are driving a beat-up Volkswagen which stalls if you push the speed to 150 Km per hour. I never missed roller-coaster rides in the days when I did that.

We had to be free of the fear so that we could think of tomorrow

Harold Robbins, in A Stone for Danny Fisher

China was once the world’s bicycle capital. In making a transition to a middle-class economy, it decided to pursue a relatively cleaner path by subsidizing electric scooters and high-speed railways. They are more polluting than bikes of course, but they are less polluting than a car or two in every home, and frequent air travel. I loved those trains while traveling in China. I also love the new electric buses on Indian roads, and the idea of slowly replacing the two-stroke engines on three-wheeler taxis (auto-rickshaws or autos to us, tuktuk to tourists) by electric-autos. The road to cleaner travel is hard. We all know those terrifying moments when a dream turns into a nightmare, you want to wake up, but you find it so hard. Who says it only happens in dreams?

A small and dangerous world

We spent a couple of nights last week in an extremely wet part of the Sahyadris. I’d expected the room to be full of mosquitos. It wasn’t. I discovered why only when I turned my macro lens on the lovely brick wall that the architect had designed. It was meant to be a substrate on which moss would grow. Indeed it does. But my camera caught more than moss, as you can see. The canyons between the bricks were walls of silk.

Mosquitos, and other insects were decimated by the microscopic predators which live in the environment that we have built for them. My macro lens barely caught a glimpse of the spiders; they are less than a millimeter across (you can barely see it in the photo above). I won’t find it listed in a field guide. If I want to identify it I will have to catch an expert. I wonder where they used to live before humans began to build an ecology specially for them. We worry so much about feral dogs and the loss of cheetahs. We have no idea what havoc we play on the ecology at these sub-millimeter scales.