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Controlling Light: Part 2 March 15, 2008

Posted by Leonardo in Uncategorized.
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This movie does a fantastic job of explaining the nitty-gritties of off-camera lighting or ‘strobing’. Thanks Paul!


Controlling Light March 2, 2008

Posted by Leonardo in photography.
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This post was prompted by a question I am asked often- what kind of lens should I buy with my new dSLR (that question usually follows- ‘I have a point-and-shoot for 2 years. Which dSLR should I get?’). Now I am by no means any sort of expert in photography, although I have been waving my Olympus E-330 around a lot these days. But I have found some interesting ways to get cool effects by controlling light without shelling out an arm and a leg, and a chunk of your mortgage, for a top class lens (or as the pros call it- ‘good glass’).

A creative photograph essentially boils down to creative control of light. Good glass (read- very expensive lens) is one that can open to a large aperture at long focal lengths. Google ‘F number’ for your desired level of explanation. The wikipedia link is here. A large aperture essentially allows the lens to take in more light. A large aperture also means that a lot of the light will pass close to the edge of the lens which is hard to make perfect. so naturally, the lenses are more expensive. Until a couple of months ago, I thought that getting fast glass was the only way to get great pictures. Then I discovered a cool way around it. Basically, if you can control how much light you work with, you can get great pictures with your existing kit lens. The great part is that the equipment needed for better light control costs a fraction of good glass and is a lot more forgiving to rough handling.

Strobist.com is an excellent first step for anyone wishing to take control of your light. It requires 2 main things- you are using a camera that has a hot-shoe (all dSLRs and some ultra-zoom cameras have this), and you have one or more external flash units. It then encourages you to take the flash off-camera. By doing so, you get to control both the direction and intensity of the light hitting the subject. The Strobist blog is pretty full-featured with how-to’s and where-to’s for complete beginners to advanced professionals. Here are some of my early attempts at ‘controlling light’-


This photo shows you my test shots of the setup of wireless flash receiver set that I bought from Gadget Infinity. They are called the Cactus v2s and they stopped working after two days. I am using another stop-gap wireless trigger set with one flash for the time being till I have some $$$ saved to buy a more reliable set of triggers. You can see 2 flashes on the floor illuminating the closet door. The cool thing about wireless triggers is that you can sync more than one flash for optimal lighting.


The first pic was shot in ambient light (60W bulb). The second one was shot with a Sunpak Super 383 flash on the lower left of the flower. The effect on the composition is striking.


The picture above was shot with the flash on the left side. This creates a ‘hard light’ effect and also brings out the texture of the wall.


The flash is inside the vase.


Even when you fire the (external) flash on the camera, you can use what is called a ‘snoot’ to direct the light on a small spot on your subject as illustrated in the picture above. It is really easy to make a snoot. I just folded a cereal box to make a cuboidal ‘tube’ to fit on the flash head.

Though it is highly recommended to use dSLRs to get maximum flexibility, you may also use the popup flash of your megazoom camera for the same/ similar effects. I am of the opinion that you can be very creative with your point and shoots as well and good photographs depend on the photographer much more than on the camera. This is why I encourage people to first explore their current camera capabilities and hone their composition skills. Learn about lenses, f-numbers and exposures before jumping to buy a dSLR. There are far too many people who keep their dSLR on ‘Auto’, thereby making their creative input nil, which completely defeats the purpose of a dSLR. Get your camera dial off ‘A’ and get creative!

Bluelaser’s first Burlesque February 20, 2008

Posted by Leonardo in arts, Burlesque.
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There are a lot of things to do in New York any given day. Things that suit the easy-going and the finicky, the poor and the rich, the dabbler and the artiste. Last week, I decided to go see a Burlesque show.

“So what”, I hear you say, “lots of people like Burlesque”

Naturally. However I went to one having an idea how it would be, when I really hadn’t seen a Burlesque show before.

It started when my friend offered me tickets to one of the best groups in the city- called Pinchbottom NYC. He had seen their shows before and asked if my wife and I would be interested. What the heck, it was for art. My wife’s first (wise) question was “what’s Burlesque?”

me: “Its a form of theatre. Its sort of titillating and risque. Very vaudeville.”

wife: “eh?”

me: rolling eyes “Vaudeville” I had actually no idea what vaudeville is/was “Its like the Lido”

Now my wife is a culture vulture and has travelled the world over long weekends like a woman on a mission. She has actually been able to afford to see a Lido show.

wife: “wow, that should be good. And the tickets are only 15 bucks? We should definitely go”

So we took the tickets and like any conscious person with typing skills, immediately typed ‘Burlesque’ in Google. We saw a YouTube video by this particular group. The story was rather interesting The show did have a striptease, but the strategic areas were concealed with a smiley face and two cute sunflowers.

wife: “so no nudity?”

me: “of course not. I am sure they have to apply for a license for that.”

So came the day and we dressed up and went into a converted studio at the corner of Broadway and Canal Street. Both of us were very happy that a lot of couples came. Not the shady crowd of unsatisfied pervs that go to strip clubs. But obviously, because there is no nudity.

The show starts. The storyline is pretty cliched and vaguely funny in parts. The first lady comes up, dances a bit, starts to strip. Catcalls everywhere. The tease stops with her clothes flung around the stage. No biggie- she has a thong and two dangly things from her whaddyacallems. We knew that.

Then comes the second performer. She starts dancing behind a lit screen so we can only see her shadow. Very nice. Suddenly she tears through the screen.

wife raises an eyebrow: “she looks naked to me”

me: trying to see if its an ingenious disguise on her privates. Nope. “Gak!”

And then more and more women come up dancing, not particularly well or within rhythm. They are a mix of young and old, slim and cellulitey, big and small. Most of them wobble. There facial expressions are perfect. Then one by one they do the striptease and pretty soon all of them are wearing nothing but makeup.

wife whispering: “this is not like the Lido”

I should mention that it was a great performance, if you are a Burlesque enthusiast. We were certainly exposed (groan!) to an artform that was totally unknown to us. I admire the courage and motivation it takes to perform where you have to stand naked in front of dozens of strangers. I also have a friend who does Burlesque shows on the side (scientists are interesting people!). And to all Burlesque artists- I applaud you. But I must admit I was sort of distracted by the en-masse nudity. For me it felt out of context (unlike in a strip club) and sort of uncomfortable. Maybe we need to see more Burlesque shows.

A new way of science February 7, 2008

Posted by Leonardo in science.
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As I was putting up my poster on Monday night at the Biophysics meeting, a bored security guard nearby (lets call him Deshaw) came upto me (B) and we had the following conversation:

D: “So wat is yo stuff about?”

B: with pins still in mouth “Essh abou visad” all pins out “Its about the visual receptor”

D: “Cool” Reads the poster for a while “Man, didya make all of this sh*t?”

B: wincing slightly at this description of 4 years of data “yes, it is my work”

D: after carefully trying to read everything “What are ya sayin’ here bro?”

B: “Well, we show how many units of these” points at the rhodopsin diagram “are needed to be able to see” laughs mentally at the generalization he just made

D: “Um..hmm. Aw! Is this how books get written?”

B: surprised and happy “Yes that is how it eventually goes into books”

D: also surprised and eyes gleaming “That be so cool dawg, so damn cool”

B: feeling rather nice about himself and the scientific community in general “Thanks!”

D: “You know wat tho bro? You guys should come up with a new kinda math”

B: “What?”

D: “Dude, math right now is jus too hard. I would read if I cud understand it li’l better, y’know wha I’m sayin’?”

B: “Actually, you may like a special display tomorrow. Its by a friend of mine. She has made a molecular fitting program to work like a video game”

This was indeed one of the most fascinating displays at the meeting. My colleague wrote an API for a force-feedback based haptic device to work with a software that docks small x-ray structures into a big model of a complex protein. It is like playing a video game where you maneuver the molecules into the model like a jigsaw puzzle. The joystick rumbles when you get clashes or repulsions between the molecules and guides you to the correct orientation. I have used the software with a mouse before, but using the joystick really blew me away. Its like Flight Simulator for geeks. I immediately saw the potential of the device in teaching biophysics in schools.

The next day when I was wrapping up my poster, I met Deshaw again:

D: “Man, I went upto that bada*s thing dawg. That thing is sick”

B: “So you liked it?”

D: “Yeah man, it was awesome. But the chick kept talking about some electron potential sh*t that went over my head y’know. She was real pretty tho”

B: “She was probably trying to explain what she did to make the software”

At that moment, the aforementioned colleague smiles at us as she passed by.

D: “Daaammmn! She’s soooo fiiine”

and before I knew it-

D: “Man, I gonna hook you up with her”

B: “WHAT?”

D: “You looked out for me dawg, I gonna get you her number. You guys can get a li’l sumthin sumthin goin’ on”

I could only hope that by ‘little something, something’ he meant a scientific collaboration

B: “No no no. She is our collaborator. I have her email. I am married. She is married. She is going to her lab people… Wait, Deshaw come back here. Come back. DESHAW!!”

How many VPs work for you? February 3, 2008

Posted by Leonardo in Uncategorized.
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This is a nice way to think of how much energy you use. An average person needs 2000 calories per day to have a healthy life. Energy divided by time equals power, so this average person is worth approximately 96 watts. Now if you take the 13-trillion odd watts of energy that the world generates and divide it by 6.5 billion people, each person is equivalent to 20 virtual persons or VPs. So an average person needs the energy equivalent of 20 people in our world. At this point, people outside US borders should raise their hands and ask the question- ‘but what about Americans?’. Indeed, now comes the really shocking part- an American (or people living the American way of life) is equal to 115 VPs! A European is half as many VPs. This gives around 13 VPs per person for the rest of the world. In the impoverished countries of Africa, the VPs per person are in single digits. This is the stark contrast of energy landscape the world. How do I know this? Check the Jan 21, 08 issue of Science.

Making a Green Meeting February 3, 2008

Posted by Leonardo in Uncategorized.
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Recently, the American Geophysical Society faced an unusual problem before their annual meeting. As an international group of scientists dedicated to greening the planet, the act of holding the meeting where scientists from all over the planet converge by aircraft at one spot would mean a huge contribution to the baddie gases by the members motivated to protect it. Thus a discussion arose as to what could be done to green scientific meetings in general. For people reading who have no idea why scientists have to meet (much less have an idea what they actually do) regularly- take my word for it- its important. I am typing this on my way to the Biophysical Society annual meeting across 2500 miles from where I live, in a half-empty Airbus A320. It is one of the biggest international meetings with more than 5000 attendees from any part of the world that has a reasonably fast computer (theoretical biophysics) to sophisticated particle colliders. This year, we are meeting in Long Beach, CA. The American Chemical Society is so huge that it needs to have two such huge meetings every year. Finally, one needn’t be an exclusive attendee at one meeting- you can go to any number depending on your time  and ideas (both of which scientists have a lot of). Scientists need to exchange ideas and set up collaborations on a regular basis. Meetings are the best place to discuss recent data (data that is published is usually more than a year old), generate ideas and ask questions directly to the people whose papers you read. A major perk of being an academic scientist (actually, an academic anything) is that you get to travel a lot if you want.

One obvious idea that was floated was to persuade the organizers to set up a virtual meeting via videoconferences. There are certain obstacles to this- time zones, IT networking ease, differing internet speeds and the ability to record your discussion surreptitiously. Having given many talks and attended discussions via videoconferencing, I must say that the technology needs to get far more robust and integrated than it is now. Few may know that a seminar delivered over the web is called a Webinar and this word was voted one of the ugliest words of 2006. However, the future will no doubt see this mature and hopefully get a spiffier name. Another idea is to decrease the number of big meetings and have small, focused meetings in areas close to universities. One example of this series is the Gordon Research Conferences where students and professors all live in university dorm-style housing and eat together at meals. These conferences are very productive both in terms of teaching and collaborations. A third alternative may be to expedite the publication system of scientific data by the journals. The publications should be made online only and the current peer-review system should be done away with. The online scientific community decides which papers are good by a system similar to Digg. The peer-review system does not have high success in detecting fraudulent data and adds many months to the publication of results. I think in future, we will see a mixture of the above and have less of these mega-meetings, thereby making science greener.

Hello Google?! November 6, 2007

Posted by Leonardo in gphone, iphone.
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The weekend announcement of the impending Google phone has evoked an unanticipated reaction from tech enthusiasts- ‘meh!’. Everything in the Google cellphone plan, which was initially thought would be an iPhone killer, is pretty obscure.

1. Its not going to make a phone.
2. Their revenue will be via advertising through the phone software.
3. The handset manufacturers who have teamed up in the so-called Open Handset Alliance (OHA) already have ‘rival’ software running on their phones.

The only potential advantage that I can forsee is if the handsets running gPhone run on 3G for fast net speeds over cellular networks. Lack of 3G is one of the major gripes about the Apple iPhone. One of the reasons why the iPhone is not 3G is because using 3G is a drain on battery and 3G is not yet available in all areas in the US. However, Apple is not stupid and it can fairly easily add in a 3G chip in the iPhone if pushed.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone to a drooling crowd in Jan 2007, the multi-touch interface and rich graphical features of Mac OS X that were introduced where never implemented in a cellphone before. Each of these technologies existed in isolation and Apple brought them together in a shiny, thin object. Thus the hype started and to some extent, the product lived up to the hype.

The idea that I will be bombarded with ads on my cellphone is far from appealing no matter how slick the interface might be. Google needs to do some serious innovation to come out of this one. Otherwise the inevitable dip in its share prices might be a good opportunity to buy google stock.

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Nice video of information revolution November 5, 2007

Posted by Leonardo in Uncategorized.
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I have done everything that is depicted in this video- including learning typewriting when I was 12 to spending the whole day searching for books and articles using library catalogue cards. This post is published within 1 minute of viewing the video on youtube using Flock on my MacBook Pro that I carry around with me.

Embedded Video

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On a Mac October 11, 2007

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A bunch of (almost) life changing stuff has happened to bluelaser since the last substantial post. One of the most significant changes has been that I have been using a Mac for the last month. And loving it.

Those who know me, know how opposed I have been to Macs and their hype for ages. For most geeks (the ‘purist geeks’ not ‘mac geeks/fanboys’) the Mac is considered a frivolous system that lays more emphasis on looks than on performance. Then there’s the exorbitant price of every Mac hardware (a power adapter for the MacBook Pro is $70 while one a PC laptop is $10), which makes Mac geeks elitist and generally dumber than PC geeks. In this post, I aim to debunk the above, and some more Mac-PC myths that you will not get from Mac-PC commercials or Microsoft’s strategies.

Vista Nightmare

My MacBook Pro (15″ LED screen, Core 2 Duo 2.2GHz, 2G RAM, 120G HDD, nVidia graphics 128MB RAM) came about after the untimely death of my Acer Tablet PC of 3 years because of a motherboard short. Faced with the choice of buying a new laptop, I guess I owed the switch to Macs because of the monstrosity that is Microsoft Windows Vista. I beta-tested Windows Vista many months ago and somehow hoped that the retail would be free of the kinks and inconsistencies of the beta. Nope. All the things that irked me in the beta were all there in the retail. One of the ‘features’ of Vista is that it is stable. Can you believe that in 2007, a software giant who has been in the business of making operating systems for the last 20-odd years touts OS stability as a feature? It speaks volumes about the company and is shameful to say the least. Most of the ‘cool’ graphical features are blatant copies of Mac OS X (desktop search, gadgets, directory nesting arrows). Those that are not (3D flipping of windows with Alt+Tab) are completely useless for any meaningful function. And Vista won’t tell you the time of day without 2GBs of RAM. User Access Control is a great idea which has also existed in Linux and Mac sinces ages, but nowhere has it been implemented in a worse way than in Vista. The Vista interface is terribly inconsistent with some dialog boxes with back arrows on the upper left (like IE 7) and forward arrows on the bottom right (like most dialog boxes). However stable Vista may be, it is horrible in the details and that is what killed it for me. Microsoft has really dropped the ball with Vista and Windows Mobile 6 OS (which will be part of a different post) and these 2 systems has really showed the lack of originality on part of Microsoft.

OSX Wins

All Macs need is for Windows users to give them a fair try for some time to get used to their OS. Like this Windows user, most never go back. I had initially intended to primarily use Windows with Mac OS X occupying an insignificant part of the drive since I was comfortable using Windows and was concerned with compatibility with all my other PCs and apps. But once I got down to using Mac OS X and figuring out how to navigate their menu system and single mouse button, I found myself using OS X more and Vista less. Sure, you could wipe out OS X and use the MacBook Pro as a Windows only machine, but I no longer wanted to. Using OS X it is immediately clear where Microsoft got its inspiration from. I must admit that some of the windows software still has no acceptable Mac versions- my most used ones being Origin for graphing and Vector NTI for sequence analysis. To use them, I run VMWare Fusion which virtualizes a Vista machine inside OS X. Its almost unbelievable to see it work. The virtualized Vista of course, works much slower than native Vista, but not enough to be a big problem.

And now the de-bunking of myths begins

1. Macs are faster than PCs
Apple first realized that the operating system was not really using the graphics processor that started to be included in computers from around the year 2000. OS X was the operating system that utilized the graphics processor in the way the operating system interacts with the user. That is why the Apple operating system is synonymous with Windows flying around and shiny, pulsating blue buttons (aqua interface). Although it increases the visual appeal of what you are doing, it does not add any speed to application processing. In my opinion, for the same hardware specification and a well-maintained system, Windows is faster than OS X.

2. Macs are more stable than PCs
What PC users have experienced as the ‘Blue Screen of Death’ (BSOD) when their PC crashes, has a geeky name when OS X crashes- Kernel Panic. The screen greys out and instructs you to restart your computer, in 3 different languages too. Kernel Panics also occur from bad/corrupt drivers, hard disk sector errors and memory issues by rogue apps. You can obviously limit the frequency of these panics by limiting the number and source of installed applications- same as in Windows. And the reason that Macs are safe from viruses is simply because no one writes viruses for Macs since they are only 6% (as of writing this post) of the world’s computing population.

3. You are hampered by a one-button mouse
Not really. You only think that because you are used to Windows navigation. Mac navigation works just as productively with a single mouse button. And for the occassions when you gotta have that 2nd button, Apple-click or a two finger tap on the MacBook Pro trackpad (really cool how that works) will be your right click.

4. Macs are for graphics, Windows for numbers and Linux for programmers
At least that was true before Intel-based Macs came into existence a year ago. Now with virtualization software, you can run all three quite easily on your Mac (warning: virtualization is very RAM intensive). There is a perception that OS X navigation is heavily mouse dependent compared to Win or Linux. That is true. However, there are very cool apps like Quicksilver that let you add keyboard shortcuts to almost every action and far surpasses the shortcuts used in Win or Linux. OS X is Unix based, although so far away from the regular Unix that you need another plugin to keep the native Unix apps running happily. Point is- everything runs on a Mac, but you need the appropriate plugins sometimes.

5. Macs are too expensive
Apple usually keeps the pricing of its products constant while giving it incremental upgrades. This is opposed to other manufacturers making their products cheaper and getting newer, more expensive stuff next year. For this reason, the consumer line of Apple products (eg- MacBook, iMac) are now very reasonably priced compared to their competitors than they were a year ago. The professional line of Apple Macs (eg- MacBook Pro and Mac Pro) are still sold at a premium. I guess Apple considers that professionals can afford to spend more which subsidizes the consumer products (airline business and coach class analogy).

Anything bad about Macs at all?
Of course they aren’t perfect. If something goes wrong and you don’t have AppleCare warranty, you are looking to spend big bucks getting your Mac repaired. Mainly because every piece of Mac hardware is so overpriced. Almost nothing is user replaceable/ serviceable (except RAM and battery). MacBook Pros also tend to run very hot. Some say its part of the design that the aluminum body acts like a big heat sink. I say it makes for uncomfortable typing. Apple also acknowledges that you should not keep these super hot running computers on your lap. So they officially dropped the term ‘laptop’ and only call them ‘notebooks’. Tablet PC functionality is also non-existent in Macs in their current form.

Summing up
My thoughts about Apple and OS X stem from using my MacBook Pro, and to some extent, from the iPod 5.5Gen which is the other Apple product I own. Apple is heavily focused on design which I think is great and under-appreciated till you use Apple products. Apple also likes to keep things simple so that the user has to do as little maintenance as possible. This gives you convenience that other products do not. As with everything else is life, this convenience also comes at a price.

The new bluelaser September 28, 2007

Posted by Leonardo in Uncategorized.
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