Monday, December 17, 2007

Macaques: expressive, intelligent and social? Or the other way around?

PS: I'm at home in Bombay. To call my internet access here bad is to compliment it. Posting will be a bit slow for a while.

Have you ever watched a Bonnet Macaque and felt that it was extremely expressive? It indeed is. Macaques use a huge range of facial gestures to communicate within and between their social groups. Each gesture has a subtle meaning that indicates different degrees of submissive to aggressive behaviour, to simple greeting and play behaviour. Simple things like lip-smacks (submission) and eye-flashes (greeting) lubricate everyday living. Presenting, a display of the bottom, unlike in humans, is almost a gesture of humility, at any rate, submission. And yet, even high ranked males will occasionally present to lower ranked monkeys, perhaps to keep their loyalty, to keep everyone happy. Adult males, females and younger members will groom others (allogrooming) to ingratiate themselves to the groomee. When members of another troop come too close, a strategic yawn will display the majestic canines of the alpha male, providing an oh-so-subtle indicator of discomfort.

Behaviours are also used to indicate heirarchy, each animal's knowledge of its position within that ladder and subtle shifts that occur. A young male will present often to an older, higher ranked male, until one day it begins an alliance with another and reaches upward on the social ladder. Females are born into their positions on this ladder in Bonnet macaque societies, and cannot climb or descend. Almost tailor made for these trapped females, Bonnets have a separate ranking system one that measures social attractiveness. Females may have a low social rank, but be quite comely in other ways. Socially attractive females in certain interactions actually precede higher ranked females.

If you think about it that's a lot to keep in mind. Social heirarchies and networks will jostle for brain-space with food and water maps, spatial maps, cultural memories, and off course all the other hard-wired stuff. The boundaries and details of these social interactions will shift continuously, new players may emerge, old ones disappear. The representations of this complex system in the brain must constantly be rewired. It must remain flexible and capable of learning through an entire macaque life.

Anindya Sinha from NIAS, among others, has argued that this may be the route through which we humans, primates as well, have reached our extravagantly complex and conscious brains. He argues in yet another paper, that many complex mental states such as deception, intentionality and attribution may be seen in even 'primitive' primates like the Bonnet. The idea I suppose is that somewhere along the primate lineage the two process ran away with each other, complex and intelligent brains fueled the growth of more elaborate social and communication structures and vice versa.

An elegant idea, and testable! The more social an animal is the more likely it is to be intelligent. Even now, if one thinks about all the animals that are attributed with intelligence whether merely through folklore or through actual research, many are indeed social. Dolphins, apes, elephants, corvids are the first to come to mind, each with complex sometimes unexplored social systems.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Lighting for macro

A paper wasp (Vespa sp) taking off from the nest
One of the things that I find annoying about macro work, mine mostly, work that has been done with flash is the bland, black, unlit backgrounds. These give you darn little feel for the environment the animal is in. They happen largely because all macro work is this fine compromise between magnification, depth of field (DOF), available light and flash light.

When you increase magnfication, DOF falls, it's the law. If you want high DOF, which you usually do, that means you've got to nuke the subject with light. When you're adding huge amounts of light using a flash and meter for the flash, it usually is over-powers ambient light. Its so much brighter than ambient light that ambient makes very little contribution to the final image. Hence the black backgrounds. (Strobist on balancing ambient light.)

A hornet leaves the nest to forage
There are off course many ways to deal with this. You can compromise on DOF, use selective focus instead of trying to keep everything in. That allows you to lower your aperture, pour in less light and be closer to the metering you would get from ambient light.

The second is simply to find areas of high ambient light. Not necessarily on your subject but on the background. On some distant object, for instance, which then becomes this nice bright source of buttery background bokeh as in the hornet images in the post. The bright patches in the background come from a tree which the evening light was hitting. It was at least 4 feet away from the nest, completely out of focus and created this lovely warm coloured bokeh. You can also use the sky in this manner, it's almost always a very bright source.

Inbound and outbound traffic

The third is to actually light the background yourself! I personally have gotten so stuck with the idea of lighting my subject that I never think of backgrounds at all. Off course, in my defense most of my earlier images used a single flash which could only be pointed in one direction. So, it was a bit hard to light two things at the same time, now with two I can do more if I want to.

The other good reason for lighting the background, is to be able to separate the subject from the background. When the main subject is lit directionally, it may have parts of it in shadow. This part will be the same near black shade as the background. It's a good idea not to have this so you can tell the shape and form of the subject itself, to separate it so to speak.

Two ways that immediately come to mind to do this, brighten the background as before or rim /back light the subject. The hornet pictures actually have both tricks in them. The back light is provided by a fully zoomed flash, you can even snoot it to prevent spill, the trick is to get the light behind the subject just lighting the edges.

A few more technical details on the hornets in my flickr photostream.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Clean up 3: or the story of keep trying

Some of the folks at clean-up 3
You must remember the first two clean-ups (1, 2)? It didn't end with those. The green-gang had yet another clean up and this one unlike the previous one was attended predominantly by students and a fair number. I can't say exactly how many, people kept drifting in and out of the effort depending on their schedules, but lets say at least 15 in all. I was thrilled!

We picked an area around one of the messes, the C mess. The garbage here is largely the responsibility of mant of the very lazy students IISc breeds. Folks won't walk 2 meters to a garbage can, they'll leave things right where they are. It doesn't help that the place is surrounded by residential areas. Much the same thing happens and occasionally domestic waste also ends up in this place. Its a thorough-fare as well, so you can imagine the state. Anyway, we had a long session of picking up after the .... and then we had a discussion about what next.

Mahua recruiting for Green-gang
Many were understandably not happy about the idea of clean ups alone, and wanted to do more to ensure that places we cleaned would remain that way. We initiated a few things, one of these has so far generated a positive response. We decided to ask IISc admin for more dustbins, to begin with in this area. We got much more than that, we were told that the area was ear-marked for 'development' and they asked us to plan what we wanted there. After some back and forth, it was decided we didn't trees and bush hacked away, since the areas actually quite rich in bird life, and we presented a plan for a few extra dustbins, lights and cleared paths. And voila! Work seems to be already underway!

This is the most positive and immediate response I've seen IISc make about just about anything. Good to know it can be done!

The other clean-up efforts had also spawned several initiatives, many of them have gotten quite far in themselves. A post about them in a short while, or maybe Arati who has put in a great deal of effort into many of those endeavors, will pick on this and oblige us with a post on what's been going on?

PS: For those of you wondering why the blog silence for a while, I made the last push needed to finish and submit my thesis. It's done and we'll be back to regular schedule shortly.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Johnathon Jones in the Gaurdian

I couldn't agree more. And this is NOT a bad thing.

"Critics and museums lie when they claim serious art is accessible. It is obscure and demanding."
Johnathon Jones

Bat harems

These are short nosed fruit bats (Cynopterus sphinx). I like this picture and a lot of folks do as well. One of the reasons is I guess the nice geometric formation. But the other almost certainly is our human preference for large-eyed infantile creatures. These are nocturnal bats and cant echolocate so they use their eyes to find food and hence must have large eyes. Unlike the eyes of the next guy who is an insectivorus bat, which echolocates and creates a world view using that sense instead. Thats most probably one of the leaf nosed bat species (probably Hipposideros ater), and was shot in Lepakshi, AP. (Not pipistrel like I'd said before).

The other interesting thing about this group is that its a group. Most bats actually live in some kind of group. But this one is special, because its a harem. A male bat creates a resource, in this case its a roost. Actually under more natural conditions these bats build what are called tents. However this group lives in the eaves of the physics dept. And the females basically live in his resource and he gets the first go at reproducing with them. The groups remain stable over quite some time apparently, with some dynamic fusion fission going on. So I guess a female could truly 'evaluate' a male over a period. According to one study, harem keeping males though sire abt 65% of the offspring of harem females, not all interestingly!

A bat guy who came to the lab recently speculated that the guy outside the group is the male, he says that the male is probably the bat on the outside cause they dont usually stay within the group and are the first to leave at disturbance. Which are both interesting actually. Cause if you look closely at the image (click for a larger version) you'll notice ticks on some of the animals. All animals in groups face some costs, here females are sole parental care providers so there is no 'division' of the males efforts. But they will almost definitely get parasites from their roost mates. Also a big group is also always more attractive to a predator! (If you look carefully one of the bats has an eye missing, put out by a predator?)

Its interesting that males show behaviours that suggest avoidance of both these costs but the females don't! I wonder if and why the costs are assymetric between the sexes?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Vultures in the main building

This image to me is iconic IISc. The Faculty building has been the face of IISc for donkeys years, its on every brochure, every handbook, every calender. No one notices the details.

Like the two Scavenger vultures that have been on its ledges for the many years (don't ask a lady her age, and a PhD student how long they've been) that I have been here. I'm told they've been there well over thirty years. They're reputed to mate for life and I think larger birds are relatively long lived (but 30 years? maybe they've turned over...) I wonder if Tsundue had a word with them when he was up there?

Anyway, a few years ago Nature news had a feature to which the title was "Faeces brings colour to birds' faces: endangered vulture eats shit to impress females". Now see thats just a brilliant feature to read with your breakfast chai. Its also the sort of thing that adds to the perception that theres not much 'substance' to biology just these silly 'observations', particularly the more classical branches like mine.

But lets put this whole observation in perspective. These birds eat feces in order to accumulate carotenoids which give their heads that characteristic yellow colour. This colour is a signal they can't fake as far as we know, they must eat shit to be yellow, hence its an 'honest signal'. The birds when they eat the shit are obviously taking a risk with endoparasites, enteric infection and so on. And a female could judge from the colour just how much of a risk a particular male took. She could also asses his present condition and tell whether he got away with the risk. Now then, the male bird is in essence signaling to her saying in a sense 'I can do well despite my handicap, hence I must have good genes!'.

Amotz Zahavi sometime ago came up with a brilliant theory called the handicap principle which he says explains many many examples of exuberant sexual display in organisms, which are hard to explain in terms of plain old natural selection. And this behavioral observation seems to fit quite well with his theory. And off course there is an opposing theory, which is Fisher's runaway selection hypothesis.

Here's the paper for the work I referred to. Here's the theoretical work that proved that the handicap principle can work as model. The history of the theory itself is full of some nice internecine evolutionary biology warfare, but I'll leave that to you to find out.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Gearheads and junkies: what a scratched lens can do

My first Nikon lens, a 28-105mm ( It was bought brand new and without the scratch)
It didn't sound like anything at all, as much as it sounded like silent fingernails on a blackboard. I saw the scratch and I could actually feel the blood drain from my face. It was my only 'real' lens at the time. Which means that it was the only one that metered, and auto focussed, that Nikon would approve of and which had burned an ugly hole in my grad student size pocket*. Oh my God, what was I going to do? Not much, all my money had leaked out then. I covered the scratch with a black permanent marker (mostly worn off now) and kept making pictures and saving money. Eventually I bought new lenses and other gear. I still use this lens, by the way, although I do contemplate replacing it.

It works, not always, its bad for some situations, notably with on or just off axis light. When I stop it down the scratch has a greater presence in the final image. But mostly it's usable. If I use it less than I should, it's because my stomach still turns at the sight of that scratch. The images below were all made using this lens in this state. So repeat after me, it's-not-the-gear.

*(The other one was just this stupid Minolta 50mm which I reversed with a piece of metal, it never amounted to much that lens, just a few odd unimportant shots.)

A Sausage flower bud

Off at the deep end

Jumping jack flash

Hetropogon grasses
(The flare isn't from the scratch, it's from the lack of a hood, and I actually like it!)

PS: Jumping Jack flash there is Vivek, my labmate. We were having some fun with the empty swimming pool a while back. Anyone who's up for being my guinea pig for experimental shooting, shoot me a line, we'll have some fun.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Wolf snake

Just eye-candy for today. And a link for a photography competition website. Andrew, the webmaster, e-mailed me to let me know about it and thought you would be interested too. He seems to be doing a great job, aggregating the important details upfront for your convenience, especially about how image rights are handled in the competition. Watch out for those alright?

And many many thanks to Brian of Epic Edits for featuring my blog and feed in his feedlist.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The hedgehog, the fox and every modern man's pox

Apologies to Stephen Jay Gould for snicking the title of his excellent book

This day was wonderful for so many reasons, can I have it back please?
Some of you know that I am a graduate student right? I work in the field of animal behaviour now, but my training has been much broader than that and I've studied and done work in several other unrelated fields in biology. I'm not a polymath, but I do have a passing familiarity with a fair bit of biology.

I sat to down to tea with a friend today at the mess and I found a paper lying next to the window. Here's the title of the paper 'A simple reference state makes a significant improvement in near-native selections from structurally refined docking decoys.'

Mallika Sarabai
I had a WTF moment, then V pointed out the name of the journal, it was 'Proteins'. We made a game of it and tried to piece together what the paper might be about, based just on the title. The best we could make of it was a very very hazy idea. To think I've even worked in computational protein biology, albeit a long time ago. Worlds move on, jargon grows, knowledge becomes extremely specialized and inaccessible even to people just outside your sub-specialty. In Frazer's view the evolution of human societies went from magic to religion to science and it seems sometimes to have come full circle again and back to magic. Much of todays science is so technical and narrow that its much beyond the reach of so many, it might as well be magic.

Throwball player
What does this have to do with photography? A bit, I will come to it soon, I promise. Before that let me tell you about the hedgehog and the fox. Many of you might have heard of the adage, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". When hunted, foxes apparently try many different tactics to get away from their pursuers. All hedgehogs everywhere, off course, do one single thing, they curl up into a spiny inaccessible ball.

Isaiah Berlin and then others have used the fox and hedgehog analogy to divide writers, scientists, thinkers, etc into these two categories. Those who are fox-like and have multiple approaches, or do many different kinds of things, in whose life multiplicity is key. And those who are hedgehog-like, who dig deep into a single thing or idea and thoroughly study its every aspect. You're either a hedgehog, singular and focused; or a fox, multiple and hence, by implication, superficial. Depth or variety, those seem to be the choices offered.

Here is the modern man's pox. That it has come to this, a choice.

If you want to make the top of the game, given the way it's set up, usually the foxy choice is hard to make. In any field. To reach the top of the game, I might add, not your game. It's also true of photography. Nearly everyone at the very top of the field has a sub-specialisation, they inhabit a very special niche. Portrait photographers, children's portrait photographers, wedding photographers, bird photographers, industrial photographers, foundry parts photographer, automotive parts photographer what have you. Sometimes its not even a reaching the top affair, its a survival affair. I have occasionally felt the desire to go pro. The narrowness sits uneasily with me however. I can't see too many ways around it however.

When I think about where I come to photography from, something in me rebels against this. I am, as it stands, a scientist. I have a little creative instinct somewhere in me, it likes to express itself this way. I have things other than science that I enjoy, that I am passionate about. The reason I shoot is to make myself multiple, multi-dimensional.

The truth be told I am a pretty narrow photographer already. Look at my portfolio. I'm a nature photographer, in fact there are some who think of me as a macro photographer (how I squirm). Thats my hedgehog nature. And its what makes me good (sometimes, even if I say it myself). Nonetheless, every time I find myself stuck, hitting plateaus, in the way I see or shoot, I do one of the following two things. I pack my bag with a single wide lens; a wide right now, because that is what I shoot least. Or I shoot people, something I've always been uneasy with.

Looking at people looking at the image not the thing
Shooting people teaches me a lot about the theater within an image. Shooting wide teaches me a lot about the construction and configuration of elements within images. Both of these types of shooting are unforgiving in their own way, images fail easily. To make them well, I must learn certain basic things, about patience, form, position, timing, etc; these I can apply everywhere. I find growth in any direction, even away from my primary direction, is very satisfying. There's a part of me that knows it will pay off eventually. Every foxy thing I do, I can bring to bear on my hedgehog concerns. I think the Wiki version of the hedgehog and the fox idea codes it a bit wrongly. It's not so much to see the world through a single lens, but to make many lenses bear on the same world.

Monday, November 19, 2007

NWF winners gallery up

You must remember this post? Well the gallery of winners is out, theres three people from India, two from Bangalore!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Form is everything. Content is banal

I quote a friend here. I owe him some of my better conversations, he, like Vivek, knows where the digging is good or maybe even knows how to make any dig good. Questions and answers, a pair like form and content, one over-archingly more important than the other.

I remember watching 'The Thin Red Line', with it's paradisaical travel catalogue frames. Each one a design principle illustration, a telling of the magic of point, line, colour, light, space: filled and otherwise. It was a story told in stills; if nothing had moved I imagined it would still be perfect. (Sontag calls film a series of under-edited images.) I cried and I didn't know why. Reading 'If on a winter's night', shuttling between books that maybe, that may become and readers that maybe and are in books themselves, back and forth between reading and writing and being. When I think of the books I love, and the movies. They all have this simple commonality, a play with form.

I look at my images, the ones I love. They follow a pattern, a structure that is classifiable with little effort. There is a path that my eye follows through the images; not a rigid linear one, more like the meanders each of our lives take, with an internal logic. A path, the logic of the image will compel each one that sees it, to follow. A conversation between what came before and hence what must come next. Even the surprises are planned and the detours mapped. The breaks work because they break expectations. If I do it right, you will see what I want you to see, ignore what I will of you and maybe respond how I would wish. 'If I'm doing my job then it's your resolve that breaks / Because the hook brings you back.'

I care about content, don't get me wrong, I even argued with R. (Unsuccessfully I might add, as always.) I cannot escape narratives, no matter how banal. I have a greed, Byatt's mot juste narrative greed (from another favourite, Possession). It doesn't work without the structure though, It cannot be communicated. It does not stay. A story is in the telling.

An outline shadows each image, an outline of it's elements, the bits and pieces that make it up. The insect here, the warm green bokeh there, negative spaces here, active ones there. Some part of my over active, organising classifying brain is at it before the shutter trips. I work at it, I look, I look and I look. I analyse, I see each image broken down. To forget I must know, I must assimilate and then I can let it go.

Slowly it becomes second nature and I silence the voices. The rule of thirds is distant background hiss and the colour wheel is second nature. I don't think of symmetry or balance or repetition. When the moment comes together, and it does rarely, I've bettered my chances of knowing. Now all I wish for is a camera that snicks rather than crash-bangs.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Mushroom cluster 8th Nov (no 2 in linked post)
Just because you got a good picture of something does not mean it's over. That the thing is done, wrap up your cameras and close the door behind you. There is almost always more to come. Learn to have patience, learn the rewards of return.

Things, particularly living things change, they evolve, they like people display sides of themselves that you've never seen before. You cannot anticipate everything, don't try to. Even the inanimate things, light moves over a familiar surface, moss climbs over it in the rain. Everything changes and you can keep looking and keep learning. Try not to be so wrapped up in shooting that you forget to see.

The same cluster 10th Nov

Many people visit the same places and yet their photographs are not the same. What sets the good apart from the also-rans is the ability to see and break tired ways of seeing, the patience with a subject that cracks it wide open. The good shot you wanted and got in the bag is often the one that has more to do with you and your head than with the subject at hand. Sometimes you need to stare at something stupidly for a while before it begins to speak to you. (It helps an awful lot if its an immobile thing.) Don't be easily satisfied.

More from 10th Nov

IISc green gang: Clean up 2

Some of the folks in this Saturdays clean up
The Green gang revived itself. We sent out a mail last week asking for people who were interested in green issues particularly as regards the IISc campus. We got a few responses, not overwhelmingly large in number but definitely some. Some of the folks who wrote couldn't be there this Saturday, but there's always next time. A big thank you to those who did turn up and participate.

What I'm really hoping for though is to see more students involved in this. A lot of the responses to this little project was from IISc faculty (which is great!), but not as many students as I had hoped (whys that?). Apart from CES students and Satyam, there were no others! (I love my juniors for their candor, by the way, credit where it is due.) I can't believe the rest of the students care so little and take so for granted the place we live in, that we're so complacent. C'mon folks, show a little something, signs of life? Is this why the place is such a mess in the first place?

A discarded chair: was against the wall. Was it being used for unauthorized entry?
We did our first round of cleaning up this Saturday around the GPS and the path in Jubilee. We did do a bit of cleaning along the CPRI wall but really that seemed too much for us to handle by then and by ourselves. That'll need a bigger group and implements. It's smaller than the huge dump I wrote about earlier but bigger than a quick job. And the junk is truly bizarre. There were the inevitable bottles of booze, plastic cups, bottled water bottles and other food type stuff from the CPRI community centre. There were old clothes(!) and a blanket. There was glass tubing of different gauges(?). In the area of the wall near their pump-house, there were car seats, shoes, the usual stuff and ...two chairs. The place is due and ripe for a garbological study.

The two chairs I speak of

There will off course be more coming up soon. Feel free to mail us at the addresses below, to join or even to suggest things that need to be looked into.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The grass is greener

Gray nightjar (possibly the first record from IISc)
Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSome time ago we had a talk in out department by Prof. Madhusudan Katti from California. He started his career as a birder like me from my hometown of Bombay. If you know Bombay superficially, you'd be amazed that there is any opportunity to bird there at all. But both the sprawling city and it's suburbs actually do have a great deal to offer, from marshlands, to the seaside to the birds in the Borivali national park which sits paradoxically within a city!

Brown Shrike: a winter migrant
His academic interest continues to be urban wildlife and ecology, particularly in the area of reconciliation ecology. His talk was on some quite interesting work which he did recently in Phoenix, Arizona. He and his group were trying to look at the effect that the socio-economics of a neighbourhood have on the biodiversity in a particular area. They were specifically looking at the bird and plant diversity in 49 parks and their neighbourhoods in Phoenix which they then classified into different socioeconomic areas.

Bluethroated flycatcher: another winter migrant
They acknowledge that there are several processes in action which regulate biodiversity in an urban situation, they identify both top-down effects, (effects that flow from the decisions of policy makers to citizens: what trees to plant, how to landscape in public parks, etc ) and bottom-up effects (which flow in the opposite direction usually in personal land-holding). They also acknowledge that these effects might leak across, so given that birds are quite mobile what you see in the parks might have much to do with whats going on in backyards. What they expect is that higher socio-economic groups are making their neighbourhoods more diverse, by planting more diverse plants, possibly having more area to work with. The parks however which are top-down managed shouldn't show such patterns.

Verditer flycatcher: yet another migrant
After having controlled for a host of other possible effects, what they found was just that, socio-economics was good at telling you about plant diversity in neighbourhoods not in parks. But that it was good at telling you about bird diversity in neighbourhoods, but also partly in the parks! This I guess is the leakage effects across the two because of bird mobility. With due caveats about the applicability of a study like this particularly to a country like India, where so little is managed at all, I find this result quite interesting. Being rich means a lot of things, not only does it mean that you have the possibility of a more varied life, but it also means you have a better environment in several ways unthought of before!

For those of my readers who are wildlife shooters and want to shoot in urban environments, make the hike to the parks in the richer areas! There's better pickings there!

Spotted munias: residents
What it also leads me to, is this... In India, at least in the two cities I've lived in, Bombay and Bangalore, the campuses of educational institutes happen to be some of the most biodiverse areas. (Especially when I compare it to the only campus I've been on in the US, the Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore campus, which was nothing to write home about.) In Bombay, the IIT has leopards and jackals on it's campus. I've documented quite a bit of what is here in IISc, Bangalore. I've heard great things about the IIT, Chennai campus as well (Rahul?). So I guess, we live the lifestyles of the rich in our protected little enclaves? Without actually having their incomes, we at least experience some of the benefits of it.

Red avadavat: unknown status
Off course, a little thought tells us we owe it to having top-down management delinked from governmental management. Essentially, someone, somewhere in the history of our institutions had the good sense to think that if we can't offer the money, we might do well to offer the trappings. Think about it, in how many places in Bangalore would kids grow up with trees to climb? With a pool thats 50m long and amidst such beautiful greenery? (How I will miss my swims when I leave!) With a backyard thats essentially 500 acres big. What this also means is that we remain dependent on this wisdom continuing and not being eroded by enticements of 'development' and 'modernization'. Fortunately, since the communities are smaller we are more likely to be able to influence what policies are made as long as we ourselves remain interested and engaged.

PS. Has Blogger been driving everyone nuts with image uploading issues? Or is it just me? It's been a hellish month or so. Images take forever to upload with just too many errors and crashes.