Month: August 2017

How to Take Memorable Photos During a Solar Eclipse

How to Take Memorable Photos During a Solar Eclipse

I have mixed feelings about the eclipse. It’s a spectacular phenomenon to witness, more so because it happens so infrequently. From a physics point of view however, it’s not much different then when you are watching a movie in a theater and an incredible Hulk comes in and sits in the seat right in front of you blocking your view. In contrast, when the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet collided with Jupiter, it was spectacular not just in the visual sense but also very rich in its scientific content.

Don’t get me wrong. Total solar eclipse is a spectacular event and had I not been geographically disadvantaged, I would not have missed it for anything. However, there is one thing I would not have done. I would not have taken pictures of the eclipse.

Let me rephrase that. Maybe I would have taken a few pictures just for the memory of the experience. But I would be well aware that these images are just like millions of others. They lack originality.

Every day NASA is presenting us with such exquisite images that we have lost the ability to really get surprised or enthralled. Few years back, one image of the surface of Mars would make us swoon. Today, it’s just routine. Ditto for the Monkey Head Nebula, M83 and NGC 4258 galaxies, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s satellites, the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Tarantula Nebula, the supernova explosion SN 2014J in the galaxy M82 – you know what, I could just go on listing the spectacular images for the rest of the article and there would still be tons left. And all these have just become routine.

This is a solid proof of the groundbreaking work in science communication that NASA has done over the decades. And it’s what Elon Musk is doing for the space flight. The regular launches of the SpaceX and returning of the Falcon 9 rockets is slowly becoming a normal thing, so much so that one often forgets the tremendous amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. I go and watch Apollo 13 from time to time just to remind myself of the incredible complexity of a space flight.

Coming back to the solar eclipse, what chance does your image of a solar eclipse have against this spectacular onslaught? Moreover, there is not much difference between images of eclipse taken from different parts of the world. Sure, there will be some change in colour depending on the conditions but essentially, it will just be a bright blob getting eaten by a dark one. Spectacular, but not original.

So, can you take an image during an eclipse, one that is different from all the other images? The answer is yes.

You see, if you want to take a memorable image during the eclipse, don’t focus on the Sun. That’s where everyone else is looking.

Focus on the surroundings.

I had a chance to witness a total solar eclipse once. I saw it through the protected shades but my brain did not store the image of the blocked Sun for this memory. Or maybe it did and later on it was overwritten by the 8790998657 images that I saw on the Internets. No, the memory of the eclipse that has stayed with me is far more unique and much more beautiful.

It was very bright in the beginning – imagine the scorching Indian Sun with no clouds. And gradually, the quality of the light began to change. It grew dim, as if it’s evening or dusk and then the darkness fell, all just in matter of seconds or maybe a minute. This transition from absolute bright to absolute dark has stayed with me all along.

Maybe it’s because I am naturally drawn towards images that show interplay of light. For instance, one of my favourite moments in a Spielberg movie is when he shoots the setting sun in a long shot, with dark shadows of men against the background of the bright star. You see it when the men are digging – in Raiders of the Lost Ark for treasure or in Saving Private Ryan to bury their fellow soldier. Unfortunately, these type of scenes have become rarer in today’s CGI world. Isn’t it ironic that Spielberg, one of the forefathers of CGI along with James Cameron, never really went back to it in a big way after Jurassic Park? He made Lincoln instead, which again has fantastic interplay of light and shadows.

You will see that the images of eclipse that stand out are those taken against some background. A mountain range or a plane crossing the Sun. That’s what I want to see. How does the light change in different landscapes – mountains, rivers, monuments? How do the animals behave? What do birds do when it suddenly becomes dark?

There is so much to record if you are not focused on the Sun.

One of my favourite videos of the solar eclipse 2017 was taken at the Nashville zoo. The flamingos were going about their business as usual when the darkness fell. They huddled together, thinking it was night. As it grew bright again, they slowly came out of the huddle to start the day anew.

We need many more videos like this.

Why Do I Watch Old Movies? And You Should, Too.

Why Do I Watch Old Movies? And You Should, Too.

 

Have you ever gotten bored while watching an old movie? Maybe the plot was predictable or the technical finesse was far below the current standard of I-have-the-latest-CGI-so-I-can-show-you-the-fight-from-720-angles-in-four-dimensions. Whatever the reason, you watched the movie for few minutes and shifted to something else or if you had to watch it, you counted every minute till The End.

I have been in this situation a few times and there was this one time when I went on watching the movie with great interest. It was much later, when I asked myself as to why I was watching that particular sub-standard movie that the light bulb went off. The reason I watched the movie had nothing to do with the plot or the acting. The main characters could have been swallowed by a boa constrictor and I would not have noticed. Since then, I particularly look forward to watching old movies. And if your interests overlap with mine, I can assure you that after reading this article, you will never get bored watching an old movie.

This does not mean that all old movies are boring. In fact, there is as much art in many of the old movies as there is in the contemporary ones but that is a topic for another post.

A slight detour. One of my interests is history. That’s a very broad statement. It’s like saying I like books so let me narrow it down. There are certain periods from the past that I find very interesting. Starting from the Triassic period – 231 to 243 million years ago – when the T Rex ruled, on to few million years ago when the Homo Sapien and its many cousins made an appearance. From say about 5000 years ago, my interests jump randomly all over the place. I am fascinated by the Indus Valley civilization, the Inkas and the Mayans but the Greek and Roman history does not hold my attention. I love the European history starting from the dark ages, about 700 A.D.  going through middle ages and the renaissance. I am bored by the French history (and the movies with those false wigs). I am interested in Napolean only so far as to his effect on Beethoven’s music.

The period starting from the industrial revolution is very interesting. The American Renaissance in the 1850’s followed by the upheaval in scientific community in the beginning of twentieth century caused mainly by Einstein. All of the twentieth century is simply fascinating. Two world wars and the world map redrawn several times including many events like India’s independence. There is the cold war era, dominated by the USA and former USSR, coming down of the Berlin wall and disintegration of the Soviet Bloc.

As much as I am interested in the history of the aforementioned periods, I am also intrigued by the way the people lived in these eras. And this is where the old movies come in. We cannot watch how people lived in earlier periods, but the later part of the twentieth century is well documented in the movies. And it’s not so much as to what the movie is about or what the film-maker is trying to show.

It’s what the film-maker shows inadvertently that makes these movies so interesting. There is so much interesting information packed in these movies. Here are a few categories.

Traffic and vehicles: While watching old Hindi movies, I am more interested in the background. The traffic is so sparse, empty roads everywhere with very few cars and sometimes horse carriages. It’s a totally different world altogether. If ever a time machine is invented, the first place I want to go to is India in 1950. It’s an absolute traffic paradise. The roads are literally EMPTY!!

I am not a car guy in the sense I cannot reel off specs of every car the way Jerry Seinfeld does at the beginning of each episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. But even I notice that the cars in old movies are much different. Sometimes they have those funny doors that open like a flap from the middle. If it’s a really old movie, you can see people turning the wheel in front to start the car. Mostly in old India you see the abundance of Ambassadors. In the movie Taxi Driver (Not the De Niro one but the Dev Anand one) which is mostly shot on streets of Mumbai, I counted only ONE two wheeler in all of the movie.

Technology : All thorough movies of 50’s to 80’s you see the old telephones. In the late nineties, pagers make a brief appearance. This is followed by the first age Nokia mobile phones, then the ones that open with a flap. This has plateaued with the arrival of tablets/smartphones. No big change in last ten years, unless you are watching a Sci-fi.

Fashion : This is more interesting for women and yes that is a sexist statement. Look, I am all for equality but that does not mean we ignore the obvious differences between men and women. It’s a fact that an average woman is way more observant than an average man. Do you know why The Shawshank Redemption will never work in a women’s prison? Because each and every woman will notice that the protagonist’s shoes have been freshly polished. Old movies are the best indicators of fashion because it is the movie stars who are the main proponents of what’s hip at the time. You notice the different hair styles or accessories from oversized sunglasses to bell bottom pants. Sometimes, you marvel as to how your parents or grandparents could imagine that silly fashion was hip!

Socio-political climate : It’s not just the background that provides information. You can also tell a lot about the times by looking at which issues the film maker has chosen to highlight. For instance, Vijay Anand’s movie Tere Ghar Ke Samne was made in 1962 when the Indo-China war started. The movie is a subtext on the Indo-China problem which was the biggest issue at the time. It is very clear how much the Indians were taken in by the rhetoric of brotherhood with China (and possibly the influence of Gandhi was still strong). The movie ends on the premise supporting Nehru’s now infamous slogan “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai”. No history book will give you a clearer picture into what ordinary people were thinking at that time than a movie like this one.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines zeitgeist as

“the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.”

Watch the old movies to experience the zeitgeist of olden times.

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday

Perennial Seller

You always see some books in a bookshop no matter what the current craze is or which wave is sweeping the YA section. These books will, of course, depend on the country, the culture etc. But you can be sure that the same candidates will occupy the shelves over generations. Each new generation is discovering these timeless classics that their mothers and perhaps grandmothers loved and they in turn, are loving them.

So how do you go about creating such a work? Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday not only answers this literally million dollar question but in doing so, also destroys some of the popular myths about creation of work and its marketing. The subtitle of the book is The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts. Books are just one example. The principles described in the book hold true in not just every field of art but also extend to products such as the iPhone or even Google services.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of several books, including The Obstacle Is The Way which became hugely popular amongst professional sports players and coaches because it was helping them win. I came to know about Ryan’s work through the blog of Tim Ferriss. Tim’s blog is a treasure trove full of interesting recommendations for books, documentaries and much more. I have given away most of my books in favour of e-books but I am keeping the physical copy of The Obstacle Is The Way.

Creating something that provides value requires not just hard work but often blood, sweat and tears. There are no short cuts here. You may be lucky and create something that goes viral for a week or few weeks but to create something long lasting is a different game altogether. Ryan gives several examples – from Star Wars to Seinfeld to illustrate this point. What’s the reason that out of all successful sitcoms over the years, people still remember the lines and characters from Seinfeld? It’s because you can still relate to them. As Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said, “Focus on the things that don’t change.”

After you create something unique and valuable, your work is only half finished. Many artists are of the opinion that after putting everything they had in creating something, their job is over. They will simply release it and wait for people to discover it. Some may even feel that marketing their work somehow contradicts their artistic creativity and temperament. This is a fatal mistake, especially in today’s world where people are bombarded with new products 24/7. Who knows how many great works have been lost into oblivion because of wrong or misguided marketing strategies?

There are several different aspects here such as positioning and packaging, and the book deals with each of them in detail. “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is a nice and popular phrase but in fact, that’s what we do most of the time. The cover, the title are important not just for books but also for movies, products and organizations. For instance, Charity:water is an organization that builds wells in developing countries. The first thing that you notice is the unusual name which means that the organization is split into two : one that builds wells and another that handles administrative costs for the charity. What this means is that 100 percent of your donations go to building wells.

Social media is full of announcements of new books, new movies, new music titles every minute of every day. What chance a new work has of standing out against this onslaught? Ryan discusses several innovative strategies to make this happen. And most of these do not require a huge advertising budget. One of these is to give away your work for free – partially or completely for a limited period of time. One example of this strategy is the rapper Soulja Boy who uploaded his own songs to pirated sites but renamed them as latest 50 Cent and Britany Spears singles. Or there is Paulo Coelho who pirated his own books to Russia. Sure enough, Coelho’s sales in Russia rose from ten thousand copies to one hundred thousand copies in one year, driven largely by the piracy. This strategy is in stark contrast with traditional publishing model where they try to sell every copy to maximize the revenue. Ryan himself sent hundreds of free copies of his book The Obstacle Is The Way to athletes, coaches and managers.

A related strategy is to give away work at a low price. Barring few exceptions – well known brands like Gucci or Armani, for instance – low price works like a charm. According to Amazon data, the cheaper a book is, the more it sells. The reason Raymond Chandler became so successful was that he was one of the first authors to embrace the low priced paperback format at a time when most authors resisted it. A whole new class of readers who could not afford hard bound books discovered Chandler.

Your work does not stop with completion of one project. In the third part of the book, Ryan discusses strategies for building your faithful fan base who will not just buy your next work but also recommend it to others. This requires time, dedication and effort but it’s immensely rewarding in the long run. Examples abound ranging from Iron Maiden to Lady Gaga where faithful fans spread the word of each new release.

In a world where most advice is about how to make your product go viral quickly, Perennial Seller stands out because it focuses on long term success. Ryan’s experience of running many successful marketing campaigns and his background in Stoic philosophy result in a unique long term strategy for writers, artists and entrepreneurs.

Perennial Seller is not for sprinters, it’s for marathon runners.

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Ryan’s website is here and he is also on Twitter.