Mathematical Matters

I’ve spent the better part of my cognitive existence disliking all things even remotely mathematical. So extreme has been my dislike that I once told a dear and well-meaning friend who tried teaching me quadratic equations that I gave a “rat’s arse” to maths! I now realize that this had more to to do with bad teachers and a deeply ingrained fear of the numbers. Consequently I failed to grasp the beauty of all that is mathematical. Now faced with the prospect of running multi-variable regressions for my social science dissertation, I wish I had taken ‘Maths With Mummy‘ a bit more seriously. I have to admit that I have gotten plenty of help in recent times though.

the Klein bottle is a certain non-orientable surface, i.e., a surface (a two-dimensional topological space) with no distinction between the One avenue of help has been ‘The Language of Mathematics’ by Keith Devlin. Not only is the book beautifully written, with amazing illustrations of the Klein bottle, minimal surfaces and so on; but is also a really fascinating journey through the history of mathematical thought. I didn’t know for example, that Riemannian geometry upset Greek mathematical thought so much, (Devlin discusses the Greek precursors to Riemannian geometry) that mathematicians were thrown off ships!

What I find the most engaging and elegant though, is Devlin’s definition of mathematics. As he points out, maths is not only about numbers and what you can do with them, it is the study of patterns. Some thoughts, like this, change the way you look at a subject forever.

The other avenue that has in recent times fueled my mathematical curiosity is Michio Kaku’s book on Hyperspace. I grew up watching Star Trek Enterprise; with Spock materializing and re-materializing between dimensions. In later years I graduated to Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent racing through hyperspace to save civilizations, eat and create improbability fields out of Brownian motion and a cup of tea.

Like my mathematics, my physics too was terrible all through school. I had no idea why Anti-Logs mattered or why thea minimal surface is a surface with a mean curvature of zero. Ohm’s law always gave the same result. I did however love science fiction, and still do. Michio Kaku’s book is probably the only science book I have ever read without a break. It abounds with tales of flat-landers, goldfish and the mannerisms of some of the greatest physicists the world has ever seen.

What I particularly love about this book though, is not the fantastic ease with which it has been written, but the fact that the author tells me how a physicist thinks. Mathematicians and physicists do what they do because they see beauty and elegance in proofs. Wow.

If there are just two books in your entire life that you should read concerning all things mathematical, read these. They’ll change the way you look at numbers and perhaps even your life. And along the way, you might, just like me find writing a mathematical dissertation a little less painful if not fun too!

Pixel Pride


I spend a lot of time manipulating images on my computer, aside of academic work and listening to really loud music of all kinds. Every now and then, my constant obsession with browsing the web for newer tools to get a picture perfect effect has led to a huge collection of software dedicated to image manipulation. Here’s what I have to do almost everything with pictures…

  • 3D Illustration: Blender and Wax 2.0 (strictly speaking, Wax 2.0 is a video compositing tool) Wax 1.01 comes with WinMorph (for regular 3D imaging), Google SketchUp (for architectural environments, OpenFX (for whatever I can’t achieve with the others) and Hugin (to stitch amazing panoramas)
  • Colour Tools: ColourPic (for precision) and ColourCop (for the simplicity and that it can average colours into 5X5 sampling option)
  • DTP: Scribus (Open Source and much much better than MS Publisher or the like)
  • EFX: Citra FX (not free) and Photo Filtre (free and brilliant)
  • Albums: JAlbum (I like the templates) and Adobe PhotoShop Starter Edition (changes your default file associations after installations which is a pain, but it is excellent nevertheless)
  • Image Comparer (not free) to get rid of duplicate images, accuracy is sometimes problematic, but oh well.
  • Image Editors: Long list. Corel Snapfire (fast and easy), Adobe PhotoShop CS 3 (nothing beats PhotoShop), GIMP and GIMPShop (I love the interface), Image Badger (not free, but great for format conversions), Olympus Master and PIXELA (propriety digital camera software, risk free card XD card reading), Paint.Net (the best MS Paint replacement ever, supports layers!), Photo Pos Pro and Picasa (nothing better for the one second Sepia effect and its an amazing organizing tool as well)
  • Render: Pov Ray and Art of Illusion both offer endless opportunities. Art of Illusion requires Java though.
  • Open Clip Art Library (for all the clip art in the world)
  • Drop Box Image Processor (not free, but the most amazing time saver for “performing iterative common image related tasks” ever)
  • XNView to view images (much better interface than IrfanView, supports as many formats if not more and can completely remove all exif/metadata from digital camera photos to reduce them to up-loadable size)
  • UMark Professional (not free) to watermark images. I’m told there are freeware alternatives, I find this fast and efficient though.
  • ITag to work with metadata for images
  • Poster Forge to create great looking posters with zero effort
  • Screen Grab: Several including; CamStudio, ScreenShot Captor, Screen Grap Pro and Win Split Revolution (which has several other uses aside of just screen grabbing)
  • Unicode Image Maker (If you do make images out of Unicode text ever, I do)
  • InkScape for Vector Drawings

So far so good.

Cinematic Counsel

Want to make a documentary without a studio, professional help and on a laptop? Its not as difficult as it sounds. All it requires is some monetary investment and a bit of study. Here’s what I learnt when I started on the typical shoe-string budget documentary.

  • Spend some time thinking about the film. Why do you want to make the film? Who is your audience? What are the key themes? Do you have enough footage? If not, will you be able to get enough footage? I wrote down my answers. You can try using this Film Template.
  • Watch other documentaries, small films and read anything you can on the subject of your film. Download all the documentary manuals and editing guides you can find and read those as well. I spent over a month just reading before I actually got down to editing.
  • The toughest thing is to get right is audio:
    • Do not compromise on external mikes, especially if you are making a documentary. Foley artists are generally not an option in a documentary.
    • Sound is also the least correctable. Audio editing suites including SoundForge and Adobe Audition 2 only amplify sound or reduce it- that includes background noise. Try and minimize on the background sounds, you’ll thank yourself later- it’ll save you edits and possibly sub-titling as well.
    • Download and install the free and excellent Audacity. Audacity might not do as much as the professional suites do; however its a great tool to learn the basics with. Once you know how to manipulate the sound envelope, you can graduate to more complex sound editing packages.
    • I played around with tracks from the 25th anniversary edition of Cafe Del Mar. Stick to instrumental- helps you tune your ear into sound better.
    • Use VLCC media player, plays any format including several raw data formats. That means it can play media directly from your cam without any encoding or conversion.
    • Install the K-Lite Codec Pack, to make sure you have all the possible audio and video codecs.
    • Get an audio/video conversion application. Google for some of these, to start with: Any Video Converter Professional, Media Coder, Moyea, MuvAudio2, Proletary and SUPER. Between these tools you’ll manage to convert from all commonly known media formats including IPod movie, flac, aac, ogg vorbis, .mov, .avi and so on.
  • If you use a camcorder:
    • Use one that has a one-touch DVD burn and a HDD with at least 30 GB space. Video occupies a lot of space.
    • Get an external HDD with a casing and a fire wire port cum cable. Dump all your video on it and keep it carefully for edits later. 120 GB should do nicely. Do this even if you have DVD backup. NLE platforms work better with external HDD than DVDs.
  • Carry DVD-R with you:
    • As many boxes as you need. Its a small investment, around 720 rupees for a pack of 25. This is especially important if you’re shooting in way-out locations, small towns and such.
    • Make sure you use branded DVD with at least the standard 4.7 GB capacity. It is not nice to have a cam full of footage and nowhere to dump it.
  • Use a tripod and a monopod if you can.:
    • Don’t attempt to film long speeches, community meetings and such with your shoulder and hand. Its tiring and very probably the video will turn out poorly thanks to all the movement.
  • Avoid panning and zooming too much:
    • Its hard to resist but too much of zooming can ruin a perfectly nice video sequence.
    • Concentrate instead on the composition of the shot, focus on the object and move the camera only when you need a change in your story.
    • It helps to write out a rough sequence of shots before a shoot. Think about how many CUs and ECUs and mid-shots you need. Its worth the effort.
  • Create a script/story board/edit log:
    • The story board is the most powerful tool to aid in the making of a good film.
    • Choose any method you are comfortable with: draw, use a template or use OmniCodex. OmniCodex is freeware and is meant to be a notes-taking application. If you use text-only storyboards try it- the only limitation being its inability to use graphics. I merely add a reference to a graphic/clip on my HDD.
    • Write a script, learn the symbols and the verticals. The level of detail doesn’t matter. It helps to put ideas on paper.
    • Keep an edit log, make a text file and put down what you worked on today. Make it complete with the sequence and clip details. Makes you feel accomplished and gives you a good starting point for tomorrow.
  • Invest in a good video editor:
    • No freeware application has really great NLE capabilities.
    • If you’re new to film making get hold of a copy of Adobe Premier Pro, else stick with one of the Avid distributions, Avid Express Pro is my favorite.
    • NLE suites are expensive, but its a one time investment. If you’re a student you can get discounts.
    • The advantages of using a professional NLE are many. There are many options, lots of templates, complete manuals, online tutorials and simply so much more you can do with them.
    • Buy keyboard stickers for NLE keyboard short-cuts. Or print a cheat-sheet. Editing with the keyboard saves more time than you’d imagine.
  • Scout around the web for plug-in SFX. There are some excellent freeware ones available.
  • Video:
  • Key Shots:
    • Spend some time defining your opening shot.
    • Pay attention to the title and the credits. Remember to credit most people who helped you with your work, unless you have a credit line limit. Roll/Crawl are good title and credit effects- stick with those unless your film has flashy effects too.
  • Cuts:
    • Begin with rough cuts and refine and refine and refine.
    • If you have several clips: Re-name your clips. Arrange them.
    • Edit the clips first before you attempt to put them in a sequence.
    • Remember the best editing is invisible editing. Your cuts should appear in the final product as no cuts at all!
  • Use bins:
    • Most NLE suites including Avid distributions use bins. The word bin comes from older film-holding bins that were used before everything went digital.
    • Think of a bin as a place to hold and categorize various shots/clips/footage. Once you understand bins- create as many as you think will be useful.
    • There is no limitation to how you use a bin. My bin list usually includes:
      • Archive Bin: Here is where I dump all the original footage I have not used/will not use.
      • Current Cuts Bin: The current edits.
      • Final Cuts Bin: The final edits.
      • Format Cuts Bin: Any edits that have been formatted with special effects/purpose etc.
      • Selects/Storyboard Bin: The edits/clips that are key to the story/script and storyboard
      • Generic Bin: This is usually titled this way: Title of project-Generic Bin. It holds all those clips that don’t go anywhere else. Like a temporary workspace.
      • Title, SFX & Transitions Bin: Edits that are titles/special effects or dissolves/cross-fades and other transitions between clips/scenes.
      • Trash Bin: Trash. Why keep a bin, then? One important lesson with editing is never to completely trash your source footage. No mater how awful, you might need it for a filler/fade-out/black space and so on. The same goes for a script or a storyboard. Use cross-outs for text you don’t want. Don’t delete.
      • Video Bin: This is where all your raw footage goes. Its from where you pick out clips. Like a video clip repository for your film.
  • Make sure your system has the following:
    • A complete Java distribution: To run effects
    • A mouse: An optical/wireless one if possible. If you’re editing from a laptop the touchpad is lousy to lasso and make fine edits.
    • A flash-drive USB 2.0: With at least 4 GB of space, to move large video files when all the cables refuse to work.
    • Good external speakers, a mic and headset: So that editing music is easier. Voice overs also work better this way.
    • A fire wire cable: To capture video from your camera. Cheaper than a video capture card.
    • At least 2 GB of Ram: With 256 Mb or more dedicated to video memory. You can set this up in the BIOS.
    • Get a reasonable graphics card. Try Nvidia and make sure both OpenGL and DirectX (the latest versions) run on your system.

Happy filming!

PS: The pictures from top to bottom feature the following: 1) The Adobe Audition 2.0 waveform edit view 2) A Sony Camcorder with a HDD 3) A Non-Linear Video Editing Suite 4) An Avid Editors Keyboard 5) A four-pin fire wire cable.

PPS: Those of you who haven’t heard of Give Away Of The Day, visit the site. They feature some great paid software given away for free everyday. In the past they’ve featured flash converters, video converters, slide show builders and other audio and video editing tools.

A Calvin-Hobbesian Eulogy

Last night a friend and I were talking about comic strips. Those used-to-be mandatory humour inserts in newspapers that have now almost all but vanished or been relegated to awful tabloid style sunday supplements.

 I grew up on comic strips having spent many a lovely rainy afternoon curled up with Asterix and Obelix on voyage to Corsica, later I moved to Dilbert and the Weasels with a growing empathy for his cubicled existence, replacing Catbert with the many managerial attitudes I have known and disliked.

The most evergreen memory has been Calvin and Hobbes. I remember teaching English with Calvin and Hobbes and Political Philosophy too. This is hardly surprising considering that Calvin is easily the greatest political philosopher ever. There have been hundereds of comic strips in newspapers so far, several terrible or just about average,  and some so absolutely brilliant that I collected them and made scrapbooks for summer school projects.

Bill Watterson is one of my all-time heroes and I wish sometimes that there was a tad more (yes I know there are thousands of strips!), the world for sure is a much saner place with the tiger and the boy. There’s something about Calvinian hometruths and Hobbesian aphorisms…

The real beauty of the twosome is in that unique form of  impudence, the curious situations they get into and the enduring alliance between the brat-pack; terror-child, genius and his pretend tiger living in fantasies that both you and I share.

Dance away

One of the things I will always regret is not continuing to dance. As a child (as in most South Indian households, though mine doesn’t strictly qualify as one) both my sister and I went through the motions of learning Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music and so on… I remember the pangs of jealousy when my sister got to perform on stage before I did with a whole bunch of acclaimed dancers.
One of my cousins too is a qualified dancer now. Over the years I attempted to keep up dancing and singing and even playing an instrument but somehow never managed to get around to a sufficient level of expertise. So here I am someone with a sense of rhythm and well… that is about it, really.
There’s definitely something I love about Indian Classical dance forms though. Maybe it’s the fact that they manage to combine theatre and dance so exquisitely together. Or perhaps I find the movements, the beats and the feeling overpowering.

This verse by Tirumular sums it up nicely:

“We bow to Him the benevolent One
Whose limbs are the worlds,
Whose song and poetry are the essence of all language,
Whose costume is the moon and the stars…”
“The dancing foot, the sound of the tinkling bells,
The songs that are sung, and the various steps,
The forms assumed by our Master as He dances,
Discover these in your own heart,
So shall your bonds be broken.”

The beauty of it is that dance is a means of communication. This makes them the dance of the mind, the soul, the being and the universe at the same time. Few things possess such a quality all at the same time. Its all about bliss and harmony… central to all that governs the Aesthetic tradition in India, the Rasa theory in fact. One could argue that there is little innovation (as Dr. Rekha Jhanji does) in Indian art, strangely though it takes nothing away from the sensuous quality of Indian dance. Due in part to the fact that the Indian aesthetic tradition was never really about the artist as much as it is about the form and meaning of what it seeks to depict.