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I almost died in Bhutan

By on Aug 27, 2015 in Travel | 3 comments

I almost died in Bhutan. No joke. Tuesday was my second last day in Bhutan, with my flight out leaving early morning Wednesday. I was spending my time in Paro, where the only international airport in the country is located. My plan was to spend this last day visiting the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery that’s 3,100 metre above sea level. It’s situated high up in a mountains among steep slopes, with a 2-3 hour trek leading up to the ridge where the monastery is located. (More on my trip to Bhutan in general later.) I had no problems on my way up, making it to the top in 1.5 hours. I explored the monastery and surrounding caves, met with monks, chatted with other hikers and police officers. I had a great time. I started my descent at around 3.30pm in the afternoon. For one-fourth of the route, it was easy going. Descents are easier than climbs anyway and I expected to be down at base camp even quicker than the time it took me to go up. I was even taking the trickier goat paths in certain stretches because I felt confident enough in the route. I mean, I saw and met travellers who were senior citizens. How hard could it be? And then, it started raining. Now, I’d been aware that it might rain. It had rained on-and-off for the past week, but mostly it was a manageable drizzle that lasted at most an hour. The weather app that I have – possibly due to a lack of data on the country (based on Forecast.io) – shows forecasts for a very generic “Bhutan”, the entire country, rather than the cities / towns I was in. So although I’d been getting alerts the entire week about long spells of rain, I mostly ignored them since I found they didn’t really apply in real life. This time, it was a downpour: the kind that you see in typical Indian monsoons. Within minutes, the entire path was caked in mud, rocks turned slippery. I was past the official break point on the route with shelters by this time. The next point would be all the way down at base camp. I made a few crucial mistakes which haunted me… Mistake #1: I was wearing a pair of running shoes, rather than hiking boots. Buying hiking boots was actually on my to-do list before I came to Bhutan, since I might need it. (I brought only one pair of shoes with me from the UK.) I’d planned on buying this in Kolkata, where I was flying out from. One thing lead to another and I never found the time to do so. I could possibly have bought them in Thimphu (the capital, where I spent a few days) or even Paro, where I was staying. Thing is, I really like my trainers (they are great trainers) – and since I didn’t have any space in my backpack to carry a spare pair of shoes back, I decided to forego getting the hiking boots. This would come back to bite me in a big way, since my trainers have practically zero tread or grips on them. On any other day, with dry slopes, this would have been no problem at all on this particular route. Tuesday wasn’t that day. Mistake #2: I started late on my ascent / descent, especially during off-season. Typically, hikers make an early start for Tiger’s Nest in the morning, so that they can make their way back by the afternoon. These, to be fair, are mostly people on guided hikes. I started my ascent almost at midday, at 11am. By the time I’d been to the monastery, spent a good two hours exploring the place, and started making my way back it was already pretty late. There were no hikers on the trail, and people from surrounding villages, anticipating a rainy day, had headed back to their homes either near the summit or base camp. A couple of other groups of hikers I met offered me the chance to join them on their way back. I politely turned them down, because I wanted the chance to enjoy the journey in my own solitude. *** Not many people know this about me: I have, or used to have, a crippling fear of falling, especially up/down stairs. (I’m not, however, afraid of heights at all.) I’ve mostly got this under control now in normal circumstances, to the point that I can safely take stairs at work or personal life without freaking out. And, if you know me, I have generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). I’m prone to panic attacks as well when I feel things spiralling out of control. I’ve mostly got this under control as well in the past few months. Within minutes of the downpour starting, I knew I was fucked because of my shoes. My feet were finding it hard to find purchase, and the rain had just started so I knew it would get worse. Climbing back to the top or the rest area would be hard – and with my flight leaving tomorrow I’d still be stranded. My weather app predicted a 98% chance of heavy rain till 5am the next morning. While I took that with a pinch of salt given past experience, I still couldn’t discount it. And with a late start, I’d also...

Thoughts on Jurassic World

By on Jun 14, 2015 in Reviews | 3 comments

I went to see Jurassic World yesterday, I movie I’d been highly anticipating for a while. Normally I don’t get time for any blogging these days, but this is such an exception. Thoughts… Jurassic Park was one of my favourite movies as a kid. It used to come on Star Movies all the time, practically every week. (The first two movies I ever saw were, if I remember correctly, Independence Day and Godzilla Roland Emmerich version.) I was completely fascinated by dinosaurs like any kid would. My favourite dinosaur was a triceratops, also because one of my favourite characters on the animated cartoon show DuckTales was Tootsie the Triceratops. Holy guacamole Batman, there’s more product placement in┬áJurassic World than a Michael Bay movie. And of course there’s a fucking Starbucks while trying to look at dinosaurs. Is that a ’92 Jeep Wrangler? Of course it is, because a character fucking tells you that it is. Is the ambulance a Mercedes-Benz? Of course it is. Having said that, they also know how to take the piss. This is where the director – who did one of my fave movies Safety Not Guaranteed earlier – shines. They can work in blatant product placement like “Verizon Wireless presents Indominus Rex” and still make it sound genuine. So many great actors from beloved indie TV shows. Similarly, when describing the new genetic hybrid dinosaur Indominus Rex, one of the characters says how “audiences aren’t wowed by dinosaurs any more; they want them bigger, faster, and crueler” it seems very self-aware and directed the audience of the movie. It’s touches like that throughout of self-awareness that make this film great. It’s basically a kaiju film, in how the film ends. I like the inspiration taken from Michael Crichton’s novels on the characteristics of Indominus Rex (warning: spoilers on that link). First, The Amazing Spiderman and now this…Irrfan Khan truly is Hollywood’s go-to actor for playing an Indian executive in a corporation that gets swatted at by giant reptiles. Which is a very specific niche to be pigeon-holed into. Speaking of corporations, how exactly does Ingen (the corporation that owns the genetic rights of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic universe) keep coming back from bankruptcy? Instead of owning theme parks, in the real world they’d probably become a patent troll existing on life support, using their patents to sue companies making genetically modified Basmati rice. Because there’s only so many “mishaps” at theme parks Wall Street can withstand. Having said all of that, go watch the movie! It’s a worthy successor to the Jurassic...

For 2015, I’m Trying To Give Up Antidepressants

By on Jan 2, 2015 in Personal | 3 comments

It’s been a while since I have spoken about my mental health issues publicly. And I think it’s time to talk because I’m trying to stop taking antidepressants…and I don’t know yet whether I’ll succeed. *** I stopped taking my antidepressants in the first week of December 2014. Not suddenly…I went on a proper action plan for slowly weaning myself off them. My current bout of depression started in September 2012, which makes it just over two years now. For over a year, I had been on the highest dose of my antidepressant medication – citalapram, 40mg / day – as my course of treatment. Additionally, I am still currently on pregabalin – a drug more commonly used to treat nerve pain in chronic cases – to control my Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Seven months ago, I started feeling better…and that depression was no longer my problem. I felt a modicum of control in my life, through the consistent treatment that I was getting from my psychiatrist and my therapist. Sure, I still had “issues”…but the world didn’t feel permanently dull and dim, like it did in my earlier phases of full-blown depression. So, I told them that I was feeling better and would like to begin proceeding with ceasing antidepressants. I began this process in June 2014. I had good reason to be worried about “doing this the right way” because antidepressant discontinuation syndrome is a very real thing. In the alphabet soup of mental health disorders, this one’s bad because sudden or quick cessation of SSRI antidepressants (like citalopram) can cause electric shocks in your brain (“brain zaps”; which I’ve had to deal with earlier), sensory disturbances, insomnia and a whole lot more. The cause for this, like many other mental health problems, remains unknown. It’s the possibility of insomnia that I was most worried about. I knew that worsening insomnia would flare up my anxiety disorder, because it usually does. I wanted this badly. There was a part of me which wanted to know that I had won. And I wanted this from a medical professional because I worship objective feedback. I desperately wanted closure on this chapter of my life that had gone on for the past two years. I needed this. The road to the end of the tunnel wasn’t easy. Technically, it’s possible to taper off in a couple of months. It dragged out to six months for me because dose adjustments sometimes took longer to get used to. I also had to pause on cutting back dosage during weeks when I had to readjust the dosage of my anti-anxiety medication upwards to counteract issues are they cropped up. But, by mid-November 2014, I was on the lowest “starter” dose of citalopram and I got the go-ahead from my psychiatrist to stop once I finished with my last batch. At first, everything seemed to be going okay. I stopped taking citalopram and felt fine. While it was too early to celebrate, I was secretly doing victory laps on the inside. And then, a few days after I stopped taking it, everything went spectacularly shit. The worst part was the first week or so. I found myself hitting random brick walls of grief which came out of nowhere. I found myself crying uncontrollably, something which always wrecks me because I hate crying. What shook me to my core was that all of this was happening without any reason: not a bad day at work, not fights with people, not a sad song or a book or a film or a TV show. I always look for rational explanations for life events, and especially when it comes to emotional matters I find that I can’t deal when emotions come out of nowhere due to the loss of a sense of control that evokes. It scared me because after six months of slow progress, I was suddenly facing what happened at the height of my depression. A sudden and unexpected regression that seemed like an unravelling of everything that I worked towards to make go away. The answer, of course, was that I needed to stick to the path of staying off my medication a tad longer to see if the situation improved. I always talk about the importance of seeking professional medical help. When I detect things going wrong, when I notice the early-warning signs, I make an active effort to set up an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. I exercise, practise meditation, eat right, ensure that I have an active social calendar so that I don’t stew in my own thoughts, stick to my medication religiously. What bothered me is that I did everything right. What bothered me is that I have ended courses of antidepressant treatment in the past when my depression went away without any of these problems. Faced with this supposed regression, I started questioning whether things really have gotten so bad that I need to stay on them longer. And how much longer I needed to stay on them. And whether there is any light at the end of the tunnel for me. Whether this will affect me for the rest of my life. At this point, I found myself blaming one person: me. I was the one who thought that I was better. I was the one who asked to be taken off antidepressants. I have...

Amazon’s Fire Phone is incredibly smart…and what it means for the future of smartphones

By on Aug 25, 2014 in Tech Takes | 2 comments

The announcement of the Amazon Fire Phone is one of the most interesting technology news I’ve come across in recent times. While the jury is out on whether it will be a commercial success or not (UPDATE: recent estimates suggest it could be as low as 35,000), the features that the phone comes with got me thinking about the technical advancements that have made it possible. The caveat here is much of what follows is speculation – but I do have a background in research projects in speech recognition and computer vision related user experience research. I’m going to dive into why Fire Phone’s features are an exciting advance in computing, what it means for the future of phones in terms of end-user experience, and a killer feature I think many other pundits are missing out. Fire Phone’s 3D User Interface I did my final year research project on using eye tracking on mobile user interfaces as a method of user research. The problem with many current methods of eye tracking is that it requires specialised hardware – typically the approach is to use a camera that can “see” in infrared, illuminate the user’s eye using infrared, and using the glint from the eye to track the position of the eyeball relative to the infrared light sources. This works fabulously when the system is desktop-based. Chances are, the user is going to be within a certain range of distance from the screen, and facing it at a right angle. Since the infrared light sources are typically attached to corners of the screen – or an otherwise-known fixed distance – it’s relatively trivial to figure out the angles at which a glint is being picked up. Indeed, if you dive into research into this particular challenge in computer vision, you’ll mostly find variations of approaches on how to best use cameras in conjunction with infrared. The drawback to this approach is that the complexity involved vastly increases when it comes to mobile platforms. To figure out the angle at which glint is being received, it’s necessary to figure out the orientation of the phone from it’s gyroscope (current position) and accelerometer (how quickly the pose of the phone is changing in the world). In addition to this, the user themselves might be facing the phone at an angle rather than facing it at a right angle, which adds another level of complexity in estimating pose. (The reason this is needed is to estimate visual angles.) My research project’s approach was using techniques similar to a desktop-based eye tracking software called Opengazer coupled with pose estimation in mobiles to track eye gaze. Actually, before the Amazon Fire Phone there’s another phone which touted it had “eye tracking” (according to the NYT): Samsung Galaxy S IV. I don’t actually have an Samsung Galaxy to play with – nor did the patent mentioned in the New York Times article link above show any valid results – so I’m basing my guesses on demo videos. Using current computer vision software, given the proper lighting conditions, it’s easy to figure out whether the “pose” of a user’s head has changed: instead of a big, clean circular eyeball, you can figure out there’s an oblong eyeball instead which suggests the user has tilted their head up or down. (The “tilt device” option for Samsung’s Eye Scroll, on the other hand, isn’t eye tracking at all as it’s just using the accelerometer / gyroscope to figure out the device is being tilted.) What I don’t think the Samsung Galaxy S IV can do with any accuracy is pinpoint where a user is looking at the screen beyond the “it’s changed from a face at right angle to something else”. What makes the Fire Phone’s “3D capabilities” impressive? Watch the demo video above of Jeff Bezos showing off the Fire Phone’s 3D capabilities. As you can see, it goes beyond the current state-of-the-art that the Galaxy S IV has – in the sense that to accurately follow and tilt the perspective based on a user’s gaze, the eye tracking has to be incredibly accurate. Specifically, instead of merely basing motion on how the device is tilted or how the user moves their head from a right angle perspective, it needs to combine device tilt pose, head tilt / pose, as well as computer vision pattern recognition to figure out the visual angles the user is looking at an object from. Here’s where Amazon has another trick up its sleeve. Remember how I mentioned that glints off infrared light sources can be used to track eye position? Turns out that the Fire Phone uses precisely that setup – it has four front cameras, each with its own individual infrared light source to accurately estimate pose along all three axes. (And in terms of previous research, most desktop-based eye tracking systems that are considered accurate also use at least three fixed infrared light sources.) So to recap, here’s my best guess on how Amazon is doing it’s 3D shebang: Four individual cameras, each with it’s own infrared light source. Four individual image streams that need to be combined to form a 3D perspective… …combined with device position in the real world, based on its gyroscope… …and how quickly that world is changing based on its accelerometer Just dealing with one image stream alone, on a mobile device, is a computationally...