The thrill of photography.

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Omkar temple, Bangalore, India. One of my favorite images.

Today, Aug 19th, is World Photography Day.  Why Aug 19th, you ask?

On Monday, August 19th, 1839, the Daguerreotype photographic process was released to the public as an open-source technology. Read about it in Wikipedia, if you want.

Thanks to this great gesture by the French, you and I can enjoy photography without paying hefty royalties to anyone. Vive la France!

Photography is my primary stress-buster. Keeps me sane, makes me really happy. Almost as good as sex. Almost. (I have been an involuntary celibate since many years, fyi).

In the days of celluloid film, photography was a demanding hobby. Composing a good photo required considerable skill, a great deal of patience, a lot of good luck and a competent studio that could develop film correctly. A professional photographer or a serious hobbyist who wanted to develop his own photos had to have skills in chemistry as well, and a dark room, and plenty of money for film and chemicals.

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Scarlet darter at dusk.

Film photography was a time-consuming and expensive hobby, but it was fun nevertheless.

Things changed with the birth of the digital camera. Nikon introduced the first commercial digital SLR camera in 1986. And Canon, Minolta, Sony et al quickly followed. Those early digital cameras cost a fortune. Most of us photographers in India could merely dream of buying one.

Today, we have cameraphones, point-and-click digcams, gopro’s, webcams, god-knows-what-else, for any budget, any skill level.

Some questions about photography:

Is photography very expensive?

Of course not. If you have a decent smartphone, that’s enough to get started. Some of my best images have been made with my phone. If you have about Rs.20K to spare, you can get yourself a very good bridge camera that’s almost as good as a DSLR camera.

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Made with my cellphone.

If you don’t have Rs 20K to spare, there are hundreds of affordable point-and-click digital cameras out there.  As your skills improve, you can spend as much as you want, depending on how far you want to go. For most people, a bridge camera will be all they need.

Should I buy Photoshop or something?

Not necessarily. Most camera manufacturers offer free imaging software with their cameras. And there are many photo apps on the net, all free. Gimp, Snapseed, VSCO, the list is endless.

Do I need a computer?

Perhaps. For cameraphone photography, you don’t need a PC. Just click, process, share. For a bridge or DSLR camera, you do. Any unbranded PC is enough.

Where do I save my photos?

As you take more pictures, you will find yourself running out of space on your PC or phone. Not to worry. There are many cloud-based sites like Google Drive, Flickr and 500px that allow you to store and share hundreds of images. If you have the money, buy an external or internal hard disk.

What is the best time for photography?

In principle, any time is good. For outdoor photography, daytime is best. I do most of my photography in the hours between 3pm and 6pm, depending on the season. Dawn is also a good time. Avoid afternoons, in general.

What kind of photography do I get into?

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Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata).

Anything you like. Nature, wildlife, food, people, travel, street, candids – anything at all. There are on-line resources for every taste, every skill level, every person.

Does photography pay?  No.

Don’t even think of quitting your job. At the professional level, photography is really expensive and very risky. Save your money and time. Enjoy photography as a hobby, take great photos that you can share with your friends and family, spend as much as you can afford, and not a penny more.

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Butterflies are difficult to shoot!

Which camera do I buy?

Buy only the camera you can comfortably afford, without the need to pay in instalments. Buying a camera ( or any other electronic device costing less than Rs. 20K) on instalments is just foolish. Cameras have negligible resale value. Remember that.

As I said, all you need is a good smartphone and a free app. Nowadays, you get all kinds of affordable lenses and accessories for smartphone photography, if you think your phone is not good enough on its own.

If you’re looking for an inexpensive and immensely satisfying hobby, that will last for a lifetime, and that may or may not get you laid, I’d say modern photography is one of the best options you have. I’ve yet to get laid, but one lives in hope.

Go ahead. Put your hand into your pants. Take out your cellphone. Make your day.

Cheers … Srini.

Faith … or mental illness?

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Is faith a psychiatric disorder?

In my country, there are more godmen than scientists, more ashrams than hospitals. In my country, stone idols drink milk, dead men are brought back to life, snakes take human form, cats bring bad luck.

All my customers are scientists. Almost all of them have religious icons on their desks, and have their own weird superstitions. Like the organic chemist who gave me a “scientific” explanation on why one should not trim his fingernails after sunset. Or the physicist who would never start any experiment in his lab during Rahu kalam (an inauspicious time of the day). Or the brilliant professor who told me that her husband would die if she took off her mangalsutra even for a minute.

I’m no stranger to world-famous godmen. I’ve seen them up close, watched them perform their ‘miracles’, produce gold watches, drive their devotees into a religious frenzy. I’ve seen people getting ‘possessed’. I’ve seen a godman’s photographs generate nectar and holy ash.

Why do people consistently fall for such obviously crooked godmen? They call it faith. I call it something else.

Faith is their raison d’être.

They will not give up their faith. In the face of overwhelming evidence against their godman, they will still cling on to him. Show them a video that clearly shows their godman producing holy ash from a tube hidden in his sleeve, they will denounce the video as a fake. Explain to them that the “nectar” pouring out of the godman’s photograph is merely the product of a simple chemical reaction and show them how it can be done, they will yell at you and call you an agent of Satan.

The phenomenon has been extensively studied by psychologists. There’s a scientific term for it. It’s called persistence of belief. Or confirmation bias.

People will interpret data based on their own individual beliefs. When they are given evidence contrary to their beliefs, they will either disregard it outright or twist their interpretation of that evidence to fit in with their beliefs. This is why godmen get away with all kinds of crap. They have a deep understanding of how confirmation bias works. And they know that confirmation bias is contagious. In particular, parents can and do, pass on their confirmation bias to their children.

I lost my only child solely because of confirmation bias. Haven’t seen her in fifteen years. She believes that I am the embodiment of evil, because I stood against her mother’s godman. And mind you, the godman she worships died in 1918 – in Shirdi. Such is the contagion of confirmation bias that more than a hundred years after his death, his cult still continues to grow. And has become frightfully powerful.

Harsh experience has taught me to keep my scientific arguments to myself. There is just no point in explaining to people that blind belief in a godman does not constitute religion, and that talking against an obviously fraudulent godman is not blasphemy.

I have tried to explain this to my ‘rationalist’ friends. You know, those hopelessly misguided souls who rant against godmen and religion. They firmly believe their ranting will bring forth a new generation of enlightened humans who believe only in science. No matter what, they will not let go of that belief.

In other words, these “rationalists” suffer from confirmation bias – just like their non-rational counterparts.

I am fiercely proud of my country, the depth of her culture, the greatness of her philosophy, the vastness of her scriptures, her achievements in science, her ancient sagacity, her capacity to assimilate alien cultures and enrich them while doing so.

However, nowhere in her scriptures does She say that we should not use our common sense. Krishna in the Gita talks at length about ‘muda bhakti’, i.e. foolish, mindless devotion. You may read the Gita if you wish to. And whether you accept Krishna’s divinity is your choice. But the wisdom Krishna imparts in the Gita is practical and down-to-earth. If you take the trouble, you will discover that much of the knowledge in our ancient scriptures, like the Upanishads for example, is practical in nature. Contrary to what you may think, skepticism was encouraged in ancient India, debate was preferred over discourse, and evidence was a pre-requisite to belief.

Thanks once again to confirmation basis, we have been made to believe instead that our culture is based on ritualism and our scriptures are ‘mumbo-jumbo’ – this being the term favored by ‘rationalists’ and ‘free-thinkers’ (who are neither rational, nor free nor thinkers).

So. How do we deal with confirmation bias? We don’t. There is no real cure for confirmation bias.

Just as you cannot convince a devotee that he is wrong in his beliefs, you cannot convince a ‘rationalist’ that he is wrong as well. It may seem incongruous, but frequently ‘rationalists’ base their arguments on flawed evidence. And just like their superstitious counterparts, they will not accept that their evidence is flawed. Ironic, isn’t it?

Therefore, don’t bother. Just steer clear of both sides, smile and go about your life. You can use confirmation bias to your advantage, in your business and in your social life.

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There is a very good reason why first impressions always count. That reason is confirmation bias. If your customer (or potential lover) forms a favorable first impression of you, then confirmation bias will usually compel him to hold on to that image, even if you screw up later on. And vice versa. If someone forms a bad first impression of you, there is little you can do to correct it later.

Do your homework then, before that first meeting.

And don’t fall into the trap of confirmation bias yourself. Learn to look at both sides of the coin. Realise that even scientific evidence can be heavily biased. Understand that even renowned scientists have frequently been shown to be wrong – but rarely accept that fact.

If you do an internet search for the ill-effects of alcohol, for example, you will be presented with tons of research papers that conclusively prove that booze is bad for you. Do a search for the health benefits of alcohol, and behold, you will be presented with an equal amount of evidence that proves that booze is actually good for you.

You will have to use your own judgement.

As for me and my former daughter Sanjana, who believes I am the embodiment of evil, well, I consider her dead.

I have lost faith in her.

Srini.

City of Palaces … and rip-offs.

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Mysore Palace

Want to get royally ripped-off?

Go to Mysore.

Half my family hails from Mysore. My forefathers served under the Wodeyar rulers. One of my great grand-uncles painted some the murals that are displayed inside the Palace. Hardly a month goes by when I do not visit this city, either for work or for photography.

And I’ve come to hate the place. Mysore typifies the horrific state of tourism in our country. Rickshaws and taxis that loot commuters without fear, hotels that give you the worst possible service, grossly overcrowded tourist spots, abusive waiters, corrupt cops, the list is endless. Everyone wants his cut, everyone has his hand out, everyone has a nasty invective for you.

And garbage everywhere. Mind you, this city claims to be the “cleanest” city in India. Well, it is marginally cleaner than Bangalore. But then, Bangalore is without question, one of the filthiest cities in the world, not just in India.

Some of the “hotspots” of this formerly regal city:

Chamundi temple: Well over a thousand years old. Home of Mysore’s presiding deity. Try getting into the temple on any day of the week. Minimum waiting time is an hour, and you have to literally fight your way in. Literally. Count the number of encroaching hawkers and illegal shops around the temple. Inhale the tantalising stench from the huge pile of garbage on the hillside below. And then ask yourself, if this is how this city treats its presiding deity, how will it treat you?

Mysore Palace: For heaven’s sake leave your camera and cellphone with someone you trust. Cameras are not allowed inside the Palace. If you carry one, the cops inside will ruthlessly extort you – even if you do not take the camera out of its case. Same applies to cellphones. Photography outside the palace is permitted, without any entrance fee. Even here, you can get ripped off by touts. Be on your guard, will you?

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Chamarajendra Wodeyar, King of Mysore 1868-1894

Mysore Zoo: If you’ve seen a zoo before, then don’t bother. There’s just nothing special about this one – except for the pickpockets and petty thieves inside. Keep all your jewelry out of sight, remove your bangles and ear-rings. And keep your purse or handbag hidden, or booby-trapped. Distribute your cash and cards in various pockets. If you’re from Bombay, you know how to protect yourself from pickpockets. The same principles apply here.

Karanji lake: Next to the Zoo. If you want to observe human couples in foreplay, this is the place to visit. Once a nice waterbody for birds and birders, Karanji has become polluted with sewage, and infested with lovey-dovey couples. The lake smells foul on most days. You still can see waterbird species like the painted stork, spot-billed pelican and oriental darter, but these special residents of Karanji are constantly disturbed by boating and illegal fishing. Bird populations have been declining and will eventually disappear.

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Kukkarahalli lake.

Kukkarahalli lake: Same as above. Once attractive. Now avoidable. Not as bad as Karanji, since Kukkarahalli is not as commercialised. But it is getting there.

Brindavan Gardens: The best place to get groped. This place is definitely unsafe for women, even if they are in a large group. The much-touted musical fountain is not worth the trauma you will have to undergo to get there. Parking is a nightmare. Traffic is ghastly. Crowds are unruly, drunk and abusive. And they grope, grope, grope.

Ranganathittu bird sanctuary: For a bird-lover like me, Ranganathittu used to be the place for observation and photography. Used to be. Now, the place makes my blood boil. Far too crowded. Leaky boats. No safety measures of any kind. And the usual rip-offs. The “friendly” boatman will take you on a prolonged boatride for your photographic pleasure, if you cross his palm with a good amount of silver.

Srirangapatnam: This “historical” town on the outskirts of Mysore was once the capital of Tipu Sultan, a person for whom I have very little regard. Srirangapatnam is as bad as Mysore for tourists.

The so-called “expressway” from Bangalore to Mysore, once a great road to drive on, is choked with traffic and extremely unsafe. Without fail, I see at least two accidents on this road, each time I drive down. I wonder when it will be my turn.

My country has so much to offer to a discerning tourist. Ancient culture, spectacular temples, remarkable architecture, awe-inspiring natural beauty. And yet, India has less than 0.7% of the world’s tourism business. Tourists are ripped off everywhere they go, abused, intimidated, and frequently molested. India is generally known as one of the world’s most unsafe destinations.

Anyone who knows Mysore the way I do, will understand why.

Srini.