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Articles in Category: General

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General

11
October
2017

Making Art From Google Maps

The Earth from Above

Making Art From Google Maps

Earlier today I looked up some location in Bangalore via Google Maps. One thing led to another and I ended up spending the entire morning exploring beautiful Earth via Google Maps. Most often we use Google Maps for locations and directions. We use it for intra-city navigation and occasionally for those weekend trips when we venture farther from our daily routines. Apart from these, it's interesting to note that Google Maps can be a useful tool to discover the beauty of our planet.

It's not that I'm somehow a pioneer in discovering the artistic merit in Google Maps. Postcards from Google Earth, Street View Stereographic, Jenny Odell's Satellite Collections, Florian Freier's Cached Landscapes, David Hanaurer's WorldWide Carpets and Shaun Utter's Random Google Maps are just some examples of artists getting inspired by Google Maps. In almost all of these examples, the focus has been on urban landscapes. The artists don't present Google Maps as they are. Being artists, they transform the images into something surreal; they assemble collages; they saturate the colours or accentuate the patterns. In the process, they leave their signature as artists in what they create. What I created today is different.

4
October
2017

Engineers, Think Products!

Practical guidelines to Indian engineers

Engineers, Think Products!

Many engineers in India are working side by side with engineers from other parts of the world as part of global design teams. Yet even the simplest of electronics that we see around us has little or no connection with India. Why is it that a country that produces top engineering talent good enough to work with the best in the world looks like just a consumer, rather than a partner, in this global industry? Why do we not see a large number of electronics products that are ‘made in India’ or ‘designed in India’?

Obviously, there is no single or simple answer. Undoubtedly, several other countries have done a lot more to promote their industries. However, in this article I stay away from the policy aspects and approach this question from a purely engineering viewpoint. I take a candid inside look at the engineering community itself and explore where I think some of the missing pieces may be. I do not have any magic recipe for success, but I do make some suggestions based on my experience and introspection.

14
August
2017

The Manual of Technical Communication

Book Review

The Manual of Technical Communication

Authors: Students of University of Alabama in Huntsville
Publisher: UAH Business and Technical Writing Program, 2014

There's one aspect of being an engineer that's often overlooked by engineers. Engineers focus on solving problems, building systems, writing code, designing models, and so on. They enjoy this sort of work but what they don't enjoy is to communicate. Perhaps this is because they lack the essential skills to do this right. Most university degrees in engineering include at least one module on technical communication but students take this module out of necessity rather than motivation. It's important for young engineers and students alike to realize that technical communication is the "x-factor" that could make them stand out from the crowd. This book written and edited by students at the University of Alabama in Huntsville is a practical guide and a good starting point for all engineers.

Why is technical communication so important? An engineer's work cannot see the light of day unless she can explain her design decisions to her peers; or rationalize the budget and cost considerations of a project; or describe clearly the idea that's in her mind; or convince her boss why something needs to be done differently; or make a presentation to potential clients; or write an email that summarizes what was discussed at a lunch meeting. If as engineers we are unable to put across our ideas clearly, we will probably not reach our full potential and put to risk the projects we work on and our careers in the process.

1
July
2017

Communicating Science and Technology

Learnings from ScienceComm'17 India

Communicating Science and Technology

Yesterday I attended a conference organized by Swissnex India that was hosted at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) at IISc campus in Bangalore. Although the event was focused on science, the theme applies just as well to technology. Being an engineer, I write more about technology than science per se. Nowadays, the boundary between science and technology is fuzzy and the lag between research and commercial application is also shrinking.

The premise is that science is not just for scientists. Everything that's discovered and later applied comes back to affect society and the common man. Genetically modified foods, cancer research, climate change, species extinction and artificial intelligence are just some areas of science that people need to know about, discuss and debate. But science and technology is not written in simple language. Use of technical jargon and dense writing are common traits of scientific writing. It may be understood by the scientific fraternity but not the common man. Worse still, if written by journalists who don't understand science very well, facts can be misrepresented, misquoted and misunderstood. How then can we simplify science for all?

27
April
2017

Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature

Book Review

Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature

Author: Marcus du Sautoy
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2008

Published first in the UK as Finding Moonshine, the first US edition got a title that a layman can relate to more easily. Symmetry is everywhere, in nature as well as in man-made objects. Symmetry gives balance and stability to structures. Symmetry is aesthetically pleasing just as lack of symmetry can be used cleverly to draw attention or to suggest that perfection must be left to the Gods. Flowers use symmetry to attract bees, whose vision has been honed to recognize patterns rather than colours. The way bees form their honeycombs is also symmetrical. Outward symmetry can sometimes hide inward asymmetry, as in the human body. Symmetry exists in the molecular structure of methane.

The way to explain symmetry is through mathematics and this book takes the reader through the journey of one specific branch of mathematics called group theory. In particular, the book is about the classification of finite simple groups (CFSG), which is the pinnacle of achievement in this branch. While mathematics is not every reader's cup of tea, this book simplifies the subject a great deal. Anecdotes make it entertaining. The book is also an insightful view into the world of mathematicians and how they work.

3
April
2017

An Analysis of Tech Meetup Groups in Bangalore

Visualizations in R and their discussion

An Analysis of Tech Meetup Groups in Bangalore

Two days ago I was thinking of starting a new meetup group in Bangalore but in the process I asked a few questions. I wonder how many meetup groups are there in Bangalore? I wonder many of these are really active? Which are the big ones? How many members are there in total? To answer these questions and satisfy my curiosity, I downloaded some data from Meetup.com and analyzed the same.

In fact, Meetup offers an API to make this process easier but the API has its limitations. You can only look at the details of a group after you have joined it. So I adopted a manual approach since I was interested in only high-level metrics. I copied some overview data manually from the web browser. Subsequently, individual group information was obtained by web scraping. The language of choice for this and subsequent visualization was R. So, here are the findings.

13
March
2017

ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever

Book Review

ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever

Authors: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Publisher: Random House, 2010

Rework is a book about a different approach to work and running a business. It was authored by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson who are the founders of the web application development company "37Signals". Since 2014 the company renamed itself to their successful flagship project management tool Basecamp. The company was also behind the development of the web application framework, Ruby on Rails (RoR). RoR was subsequently open sourced in 2004.

Rework is for anyone thinking of starting a new company or changing the culture and practices at their current place of work. It is a condensation of their collective wisdom and lessons learnt from running successful businesses. Unlike other books that I have read of a similar aim, Rework does not read like an autobiography with a few punchy pieces of relevant advice and lots of padding otherwise. It reads more like a collection of anecdotes and opinions on how to run or manage different aspects of a company. The layout of the book is such that it is a very easy read; even pleasurable; and you can complete a few of its short yet to-the-point chapters in a single sitting such as on your bus ride to work or before you sleep.

28
February
2017

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Book Review

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Author: Leonard Mlodinow
Publisher: Penguin, 2009

This book is about the important role that probability and statistics play in our lives. It's title comes from the fact that the path traced by molecules are haphazard. In fact, it was first observed by Robert Brown, later analyzed by Boltzmann and Maxwell, and finally mathematically proved by Einstein in one of his papers of 1905. Just as random bombardments by molecules on a piece of pollen suspended in a liquid sometimes reinforce and give the pollen a visible nudge, so do random events in our lives sometimes shape our future more than we could have predicted.

There are in fact, two problems with accepting this. Firstly, our minds are not really built to either generate or recognize randomness. Our minds more naturally look for patterns and attempt to find the cause of things. Secondly, we like to be in control. We value skill and ability. So to say that our future is determined by chance is quite the opposite to what we like to believe.

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