Friday, May 25, 2012

Project Update: Lines of Code

Alright, so let me tell you a little bit about my project: Image-Assisted Total Station (technical stuff here!). Essentially, it's a total station (Leica RP1200) whose eyepiece has been replaced by a camera.

The system has three subsystems:
  1. The Total Station
  2. The camera
  3. The focal adjustment
Currently, these four run independently.Our first aim is to integrate and automate them. For that, the systems need to be integrated and the device calibrated so that it may run at any focal length (since focal adjustment is the most difficult part that is better left to the calibration setting).

Calibration requires taking readings on a number of targets. Readings are of two kinds:
  1. The photograph
  2. The tacheometric reading
The photograph is analyzed by a software called Halcon, which carries out image analysis and edge extraction. The tacheomatric reading is the standard total station distance reading, except that the movement of the device is automated and controlled by a pre-programmed computer. The program is written in pseudocode on C++ with a Visual Studio compiler.

As of now, I've developed sufficient code to make the device move progressively to focus on an array of targets. The next task - more challenging - is to set an algorithm on Halcon to extract full edge contours. Now, this involves several rather empirical parameters and nothing but experimentation will get us a good combination (there is no right combination).

The last stage, later, will be to develop a refraction model and test the whole thing on some giant rocks in the Alps. I hope I can get to that stage!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Amazing U-Bahn!

Four days in Germany and one thing that I've simply come to love is the Untergrundbahn (U-Bahn), the subway network in Munich (it's also in Berlin). This network is very similar to the Delhi Metro, which I've called, in a previous post, the Gold Standard of Indian Public Transportation. However, in many ways, it is better and in some, worse.

The network is rather old, because of which most of the trains are old-fashioned and you can't here the announcements very well. The crowd is not too much, but the differential between train quality is pretty big. But of course, the punctuality is unbeatable!

An interesting feature about the U-Bahn is the fact that, unlike the Delhi Metro, one tracks hosts multiple lines. This seems to be a more efficient way of running the network. The ensuing confusion is easily avoided by the large screen that make sure you never board the wrong train (if you read them).

The U-Bahn and city trains (S-Bahn) are integrated so that at some stations, you can move in between the services. Then, the Tram network (in some parts like Marienplatz) and the bus network are also integrated with this, so that one ticket is actually a hugely economic way to travel. I still wonder how Germans can own so many cars despite this amazing fact!

The Delhi Metro however, is far more technologically sophisticated, being the newer one. The security system there is excellent especially when compared to the system here in the U-Bahn, which essentially makes it very easy to break the law. In fact, I've noticed in Munich that a lot of things actually depend on people's goodwill, which is a bad idea for a country looking at bringing in foreign workers.

All-in-all, for my long trips to the University and back and indeed, all over Munich, the U-Bahn remains an indispensable tool.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Last from India

It's exactly twelve hours before I'm set to take off from IGI Airport for FJS Airport, Munich. The packing is all done (I think I've managed to stay within the limit), the passport and visa are in order, Euros in my pocket...

But I do feel concerned. What if the apartment turns out to be fake? What if I run out of money? What if I lose my way? What if I goof it all up? Oh, so many what-ifs! I asked a previous DAADer for some advice, he just said:

Socialize and enjoy yourself in Germany.

Well, that is good advice but it still leaves me in jitters! The people who are already there are having a great time already... so I hope I can join in. My professor is picking me up, so that's another huge plus-point. But once I reach there and the eight-week clock actually starts, I'll just never know.

Well, in order to calm my nerves down, I've decided to write like mad over the summer, which is my Standard Operating Procedure for such situations! My next post will be from Munich. Till then, Auf Wiedersehen!

Grand Poetry!

This great song I got a friend came in really handy at this sad time for me. My seniors are leaving, I'll be away from home the entire summer... the emotions are pretty strong right now. A good song that says exactly what I'm thinking.

Trust is a Premium

One fine day, I get a message from Prateek, our mentor emeritus, that Unnati appeared to be taking interest in LSR MUN, scheduled at the same time as ours. This set the alarm bells ringing, so I sent off a stern message demanding an explanation, which did come. Supposedly she took care of the literary activities at her college - as I do in IITR - and that's why the interest. Seemed convincing.

A few weeks later, I got a call from her, informing me that she had "placements on that day" and may have to cancel. She has already made a neat little study guide, so I thought this was a genuine problem she had. Then, when I was in the Saharanpur Campus, she called to finally cancel. I was very disappointed - I never thought this would happen.

But a few days later, a little spy told us that the reason she had cancelled was because she had been selected as a delegate in LSR MUN. Sure enough, once the list was out, there she was: Unnati Walia - USA - Security Council. I was very angry - this was a blatant breach of trust. But when I look back now, I realize that it was always upto her - there is no such thing as trust. Everyone wants the greenest pasture.

Well, we had a crisis, one that Aparajita managed to find a solution for: she did not want a VC. So, we decided to reconfigure at the last moment: Rahil+Anantdeep on one committee and Aparajita+Nipun on the other. The second one, as we shall see later, was because the Arab League had become a sort of continuing crisis committee.

The EB saga reminded me of the fact that in any MUN, cancellations are something that you need to deal with. People say things and break their word - it is morally wrong but there is no space for morality anymore. Such challenges will have to be met.

Next: The Delegates

The Hunt for the EB

Now that we had a good team and all the necessary permissions, it was time to get down to some real work. Step 1: The executive board (EB). Or Executive Boards rather, for both the committees. That's when we had our first clash with the Congizance people.

Organizing an MUN is a more or less standardized process now and the most important part is a dedicated Facebook Page and Group. But the Cogni guys, hungry for publicity, refused (at first) to allow that. A lot of convincing and midnight arguments later, we were allowed to create them provided we kept publishing stuff about Cognizance too.
The most powerful part about Cogni is its Publicity Department and its formidable 60,000 contacts' list. Add the 200-odd high value contacts from Vox 2011 and we had a good mailer going.We sent out EB invitation. Now, based on last year's response, we expected about 30 applications. No problem. We ended with 100+ applications! That's the first time I saw the power of an established bran. It was toughing screening the applicants. We decided to take the best ones and send a questionnaire. 

Now, the questionnaire was interesting because I had asked very specific questions.  One respondent replied as the Delegate of Syria that he has full faith in the Responsibility to Protect, forgetting that his own country could be bombed based on that. One spoke up for refugees despite being the Delegate of Thailand, which promptly allowed Myanmarese refugees to die. But some gave brilliant answers, the best being Sahej Abrol and Unnati Walia. We seemed to be set.

We decided to make it Rahil Pareira (an old friend from MUN'11)+Unnati Walia, Aparajita+Sahej and Nipun as Crisis Director. The first sign that something was wrong was when Sahej stopped taking calls (he never replied to e-mails anyway). Then, one day, we decided to ask Sahej to respond or remove him. Fortunately, before we could even e-mail him he called up with some silly excuse about exams and said he wouldn't come. Honestly, I was mighty pleased with his exit.

We got in touch with one of our reserves - Anantdeep - who agreed to come, although he showed little interaction himself. So, now we had Unnati, Rahil, Aparajita, Anantdeep and Nipun.

Next: The Big Hit

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

This Summer: Live from Europe

This summer, log on to Opinions 24x7 as we take you through the journey so few go through. The education of TU Munich, the scenic beauty of Europe and the Indian connection.

The DAAD Files
This Summer
Accompanied by 1966: The Bombing of Aizawl and The Making of IITR MUN 2012

A Dream Ends in Four Days

Day 1: The Exams just ended today. Phew! What a last exam... I've managed to fill 34 pages in under 3 hours, although the handwriting leaves much to be desired! Well, enough about the exam, it's the post-exam events that mattered. I had plenty to do, of course: and that means just one thing after exams. Packing. But, as I put it to my neighbour, I had social engagements that mattered first.

"Aayega aaj, 7 baje?"

A chapo from me for a very special friend, a junior. I don't usually give proper Prakash-chapos-complete-with-ice-cream but for this one, I just wanted to. It was that gut, senior-y feeling. Yeah, I'm getting old! So, skipping dinner at the mess, I had some great noodles and even greater chats.

That was followed by a night-out with the erstwhile Literary Secretary...

Day 2: So yes, like I was saying, we just kept chatting and chatting about God knows what... the Section, my ascension, Punjabis vs. Maddus, grades... ah, so much! And for some unknown reason, I took a walk with him at 6:00 AM all the way to the EC cirlce!

Got a little shut-eye then. By the evening, Raman invited the Saharanpur guys to dinner on him. So, another night without dinner at the mess! Back in my room, a message: The Great Lit Dinner. But is it for the Debating Club too or have we finally split? A few deliberations here and there and it's decided: LitSec shall stand united!

Day 3: Packing time! The first installment of goods must be loaded into the tractor. Yes, Civil has decided to hire a tractor to ward off hungry rickshaw pullers. It was fun until we got there... getting certain GIGANTIC trunks up to the first floor was a headache. Really, which architect decided to put the cloak room on the first floor?

Painstaking labour... followed by the Great Lit Dinner! Well, not exactly... Estimated Time + 2 hours = no seniors. Really, this is the worst side of LitSec. Fortunately, most of them showed up. So we asked Pillai to mention the coordinates of the BT Dept, made Rathore dance, made Harsh speak in Hyderabadi isshtyle, made Tarun talk about 'Madhya' Pradesh... ah, so much fun! And the food... lip-smacking, one of the best chapos yet!

Day 4: Final packing - another tractor! This time, less social service, just take your stuff and any light stuff you can find. Phew! This is real labour... oh, the fascination of Civil Engineers with labour! And then the final moment, Baridhi's chapo and my gift to him. I never asked for a chapo, but he did insist. And the long walk back to see him off at Govind Bhawan... the longest walk I've ever had at IITR.

Four nights away from my mess. One amazing branch. Superb friends. The best seniors anyone could ask for. A dream of four days. 

Next stop: Munich

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Semester of Conquest

A most difficult semester it has been, with challenges on all sides. One thing stood apart as the characteristic of this semester: an acute shortage of time for anything, as work after work came onto my desk.

This semester saw an unbridled expansion of my extracurricular activities all with the aim of fulfilling the promise I had made to myself in July last:

Third year will be lived as a third year.

At the same time, my strict discipline seems to have begun to loosen, with more time going into pointless sleep and facebook - things I look towards correcting next year, the year that finally counts. A lot of changes will have to be met, but for that, a review of the year gone by is necessary.

This summer from Munich, Germany, OTFS looks back to a year full of constant battles for power and success; a year of victories and ultimate losses; a year when I cut my teeth and faced the politics of the Cultural Council; a year when I gave back to those who have given me so much more. This summer, we review the Semester of Conquest.

Still the Better Option

One year back, the history of Bengal in India took a decisive turn when a 34 year Communist regime that had turned itself into a political machine was decimated by Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, thus ending a regime that had bought Bengal to its knees.

Now, Mamata Banerjee is not the best of Chief Ministers that the state has ever had. She is high-handed and rather undemocratic in her working; even as a CM, she behaves a leader of opposition and it extremely unpopular in other states as she constantly blackmails the Central Government, of which her own party is a part.

Yet, what is important is to notice the change she represents: a street-fighter brought up in an extremely dangerous environment as a fascist Communist party crushed all dissent and turned the Land of Tagore into the uncultured Land of Marx. Her victory at the hustings show that Bengalis, as Indians, demand democracy, not ask for it. OTFS celebrates one year of the Trinamool Congress Government, brickbats and all.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I Take Your Leave

It's been a long journey -
A thousand miles and more.
At every step, a new beginning -
Challenges and hardships; trials galore.
So glad it's finally over -
I can now rest in peace.
It's been a long journey -
And now I take your leave.

Looking back at the journey -
There's so much I could've done more.
So many mistakes, so many misgivings -
So many times when I was hurt and sore.
So glad it's finally over -
I hope to move on and forgive.
Oh yes, it's been a long journey -
And now I take your leave.

Thinking of life afterwards  -
There's so much I could share.
'Cos life's not a bed of roses -
Now don't you pretend not to care!
But let me leave it to you -
Life will teach you better, you'll see.
For me, it's been a long journey -
And now I take your leave.
And now I take your leave...

An Attack on Democracy

The uproar in Parliament over the 1948 cartoon, re-published in an NCERT Class XI textbook, and subsequent events including the resignation of key advisers of NCERT all point to one dire thing - our democracy is weakening, we are becoming a nation of votebanks and sycophants and the space for freedom is diminishing as we speak.

The move to 'order' NCERT to stop circulation and printing of the textbooks shows the arrogance with which academic bodies are looked down upon in the country. There are many such instances of this, such as the deletion of Ramanujam's essay from the DU curriculum. But this one is of a very grave and serious nature because MPs are directly responsible for this.

Ever since NCERT reworked its history curriculum, history has been refreshingly re-focused on understanding its evolution rather than the rote learning that most of us are used to. Students are encouraged to think and wonder about history rather than accept as someone tells them. Political cartoons are an integral part of our democratic history - who can ever forget RK Laxman's famous cartoons? Cartoons help people understand the mindset, the overarching narrative of the times, which is vital to understandings history.

Now that MPs have successfully managed to pressure NCERT, many dangerous fallouts are certain - parts of our history will be blanked out, politically inconvenient facts will be distorted and we could end up like Pakistan, which has created a completely different history of its own, divorced from reality.

OTFS prays that on the 60th anniversary of the Lok Sabha's first sitting, democracy does not become a figurative image in our country.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Secret: The Right Team

Now that the decision to organize IITR MUN 2012 was made, the next question was who would do it with me? The initial idea was to keep this as a Literary Section affair - and to that effect, I shot off a number of e-mails and FB posts. Most replies were short and sweet - no. And some never even got back to me!

Then, it hit me. There was a co-coordinator last year - would he be interested? It took no more than one post on his wall and Harshit and I were set! Of course, getting a team and an idea is a big deal - but getting it through the Cognizance bureaucracy is quite another. Fortunately, destiny was on my side - more than half the Cognizance OC was from my class and the Finance Convener was a Lit guy too.

It took almost no time for me to prepare an event proposal and it was passed pretty easily too. We had a big advantage that IITR MUN 2011 was a grand success and it is seen as a pretty sophisticated event, meant for the really smart kind of people Cogni wants to bring (or so the faculty advisers were told!) Getting the financial proposal through took more time though - I was subject to discussions about the International Financial Crisis, the slowdown in manufacturing and finally negotiations for that last Rs. 500!

So, with Harshit and me as coordinators (took sometime to convince them that we needed two), we set about hunting for co-coordinators... the people who would do the beast-of-burden work! Harshit was of the opinion that we should call for interviews. But then, having done the Kshitij interviews already, I knew that was unfeasible. It wasn't hard to convince him - we had little time! - so we decided to take our volunteers from last year. And so joined Mrigaunk Pillai and Aditya Gokhale - our co-coordinators. Extremely good people to work with... they do have a set of work ethics different from my own, but that's never a bad thing.

And finally, just before the event, we needed our volunteers. I got Piyush from Kshitij and the co-coordinators got Anisha and Jyotika from Watch Out. And then we got our IP - Dhanush, Mannat and Shashank. Harshit and I co-chaired out one and only full meeting at the Library Steps - first time (and only time) we felt really important!

Well, with a great team in place, the next thing to handle was publicity. We had to get an EB and decide the agendas. And that's when we faced some real hurdles and setbacks.

Next: The EB Story

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Restroactive Amendments are Dangerous

The Finance Bill 2012, as passed by Parliament, is an interesting piece of legislation as it includes an amendment to the Income Tax Act. And not just any amendment - a retroactive amendment; one whose effect applies for all transactions since 1967. The instant reason for this exceptional amendment is the Vodafone tax case, in which an overseas transaction by Vodafone was deemed to be non-taxable by the Supreme Court. The amount, of course, is to the tune of Rs. 20,000 cr.

Retroactive or retrospective amendments are nothing new - they do happen, and they are almost always exceptions. Even in this case, it is well-known that this amendment is an exception. However, it is, undoubtedly, unfair. Changing the goalposts after the goal to deny victory is blatantly unfair. However, in this case, we have to look at who gains the most - all unfair laws are not necessarily bad laws.

This retrospective amendment is necessary because India cannot be seen to be a tax haven. In fact, even the DTAA with Mauritius needs to be revisited. A country like India, with huge developmental needs, cannot afford to lose tax revenue through such shady transactions in International tax havens (which themselves are under scrutiny by the FATF). And a significant loss, now made clear by the Vodafone tax case, would be a major blow. The net gain from this retroactive amendment thus, validates it.

Of course, we must accept that such amendments must be very few - exceptions, always. Businesses do not like an uncertain investment climate, and an uncertain tax structure would cause capital flight. The Finance Ministry must take pains to assuage fears. A balance must be sought - but tax money that is due must be paid up. India, after all, is no tax haven.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Accept it - it's Racism

The recent spate of killings of students from Northeast India in various parts of the 'mainland' have sent waves anger and resentment through the streets of Northeast India, with students coming out against what they call racist attitudes against them. So much so that even the Union Home Minister came out to say that there is no racial profiling. Not officially, at least.

The truth is that, for all the loud noises we Indians make against racist attacks on other Indian living abroad, racism is an inherent feature of how dominant Punjabi-ethnocentric power balances itself in a fragile Indian Union. Most people in this region, dominated by Punjabi culture, have a rather stereotyped view of what the term 'Indian' should mean - Aryan (fair and tall), Hindi-speaking, adhering to social mores related to morality, food preferences etc.

When this Punjabi ethnocentric view clashes with the 'other civilizations' of modern India - the southern Dravidians or the Northeastern Mongoloids - there is a clash. But the sad result of this clash in this one nation is racism aimed and directed against those who look, eat or dress differently. One result of this racism is the term 'chinki,' which is so loaded with racism that it should make anyone blood boil if they actually examined its connotation carefully. For the word is not a mere comment on physical appearance - it is dismissive, it is meant to poke fun at, to dominate, to humiliate. It is the Indian equivalent of the term used for centuries in America to ridicule blacks - nigger.

Students from the Northeast are not treated as equals in this nation of 'unity in diversity' - no matter how many times any minister rejects that claim, there are a hundred more voices and stories that reinforce it. Northeast India, in total, is meted out step-motherly treatment, with the Central Government merely throwing money at it, as though money can solve all problems. This is a much deeper issue, one that goes into the fundamental question as to what is really 'Indian'. And it cannot be solved by official statements that carry little currency on ground.

Opinions 24x7 stands for the rights of students and people from Northeast India to live a life of dignity and safety and believes that if India cannot ensure that to its people, it is time to give up false claims of 'unity in diversity' and end this tragic experiment. We fervently oppose the Punjabi ethnocentric view of what is Indian and what is not.

Fix it, don't ignore it

Mamata Banerjee has been hankering for a financial bailout package from the Central Government for quite some time now, pulling all sorts of threats and tantrums to get it. Her argument is simple - the absolute financial mess that her government in West Bengal finds itself in is due to the previous government and therefore, the Central Government should not ask for taxes etc. since none of those loans were taken by her (government).

The problem is that this entirely distorts the idea of continuity in Government. The reason that the political executive is aided by a much larger permanent executive is to ensure that previous and incumbent government policies transition properly. In the US, where a new President appoints the entire bureaucracy again, this transition is much harder.

When Mamata Banerjee's party stood for elections, she knew very well that West Bengal was in dire financial straits. Therefore, her first task was to fix the problem. Instead of making use of her highly experienced Finance Minister, she has chosen to shift the blame to the Central Government. The hallmark of the Mamata Banerjee Government has been shifting blame to everybody - her government is cast in gold and everybody else is out to destroy her, that seems to be the mantra emanating from Writers' Building.

The proper and responsible thing to do for any self-respecting Government would be to accept that the State is in a bad shape and then make the hard choices needed to fix it. This Government was elected to fix the problems of the state, not to shift the blame. It is blatantly unconstitutional to waive off the loans of any State Government. Even morally, there is no logic in providing such a breather to West Bengal alone - all twenty eight states would be equally justified in asking for that. And the fact that the TMC is a constituent of the UPA does not mean that it can do whatever it wants - that would set an abominable precedent.

If Mamata Banerjee cannot make the hard choices needed to save Bengal, she should quit. There are many in her party who are more competent than her in administrative matters, such as Dinesh Trivedi. Mamatadi, for all her grand talks, is best suited to remain in Opposition in perpetuity. She just does not know how to run a Government.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Choosing a President

On July 27, President Pratibha Patil will demit office and the electoral college must elect a replacement before that. With a little over two months left, consultations are in a preliminary phase with all sorts of names coming up. While the BJP appears to have put its weight behind former President Abdul Kalam, that seems highly unlikely since the first UPA Government did not allow him to have another term last time around.

The two frontrunners, so far, are Vice President Hamid Ansari and Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Ansari is a respected citizen, known for his statesman-like stature. Unfortunately, the controversial adjournment of the Rajya Sabha in the middle of the Lokpal Debate wiped some of the sheen off his stature, which is why the main opposition BJP has rejected his candidature. While the UPA could still field him, it would open the floodgates for a contest, something best avoided in a Presidential Election.

Pranab Mukherjee remains the ever-favourite candidate. Being Bengali, he can even placate the firebrand Mamata Banerjee. However, he remains indispensable for the ruling alliance, the Congress' ace trouble-shooter, second only to the Gandhi Family in the pecking order. His elevation to the highest office of the republic would be a welcome move and it is possible for the UPA to convince the NDA as well, since it is known that Sushma Swaraj and Mr. Mukherjee share a could rapport.

One interesting idea that is making the rounds is that an apolitical person should be President. This is unnecessary - for one, the President must have some knowledge of constitutional law and must also know about all parts of the country. A politician fits the bill perfectly. True, a polarizing political figure must not be allowed to ascend Raisina Hill, but a consensus politician is very much possible.

Sadly, disturbingly even, the RJD seems determined to communalize this issue by asking for a Muslim President. The President of the Republic of India should not be determined on the basis of religion, since we are a secular nation. The attempt to communalize this august office by desperate political forces, already rejected by the electorate, must be shunned at all costs.