Monday, July 26, 2010

Inception - a thoroughly thought thought about thought

Okay. So there are hundreds of reviews about this movie written by well known and renowned critics, but I feel it is right on my part to write on the movie that I felt was one among the best that I've seen in the last few years. I have been criticising movies one too many and my readers have at times found it disconcerting that I should consistently have a negative take on reviewing the movies. And it is now time to change that perception.

Despite being in a very quiet part of New Jersey, I have had a lot of opportunities (I'm still not sure I've capitalized as much as I should have) for travel and entertainment respites. Theatres in these parts of the country usually run empty and I have an unbeatable record of being the only person to watch a movie thanks to the friend who ditched me and "happened" to miss the train. But that is a different story, and so was the story the day I went to watch the 'Inception'. The theatre ran almost a full house on the opening Friday and the hall did have a huge capacity of about 600. If it were 'Sura' there would have been ample time and patience for the audience to express their emotions and whistle. But, this one was different.

The thing that impressed me the most is the plot. Unlike most other movies that are being produced all around the world left, right and center, the ones that trade off the plot for the cast and action, Inception is woven into the plot as tight as a cocoon's nest. After a long time, I have truly enjoyed a movie because of its ability to derive its strength from the plot. I'm sure it has taken Nolan quite a while to come up with the plot (despite it's obvious ancestral properties from Matrix) and with great care and intricacy. Any less and the movie would not have probably had the same integrity of thought and feature. The concept of lucid dreams and sharing dreams has been out in the world for centuries (I personally know of its existence in one of the ancient Indian scripts - Bhagavat Purana and the oldest surviving text of this script is at least a thousand years old), but it still takes an amazing amount of effort and thought to capture it a 2 hour celluloid. For instance, the fact that your dreams are woven into reality is amazingly casted in form of people losing gravity in the dream when the previous level has people suspended in the air.

With a story of this kind, it is quite easy for people to get carried away with making the movie infinitely complex, but Nolan's effort in making it simple to the viewer yet not lose the value of the concept just amazed me. With the right measure of terminology (limbo, kick, inception) to give it a sci-fi bent, the story has been carved into shape by equally brilliant screenplay. The pace of the movie is just right and keeps the audience always interested in what is happening on screen. If one were to pardon my sense of drawing parallelisms, I'd say Sekhar Kammula comes the closest to this calibre when it comes to screenplay and integrity of thought. I'm sure this movie would go a long way in making Hollywood (and Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, ??llywoods ) appreciate the importance of thought in the inception of a movie. And yes, I still cannot believe how DiCaprio has managed to make such splendid choice of movies. Either, he is really worthy of these, or he should go buy lottery tickets. In either case, he is going to be a billionaire.

There isn't much of a suspense in the plot and leaving the end wide open to audience hardly qualifies as a suspense in my perception. Yet, I shall not be delving into the details of the plot or the storyline, like I usually do. For now, I remain happy and immersed in the ecstasy of seeing a movie that is well scripted and amazing thought out. Unless you are addicted to watching movies like Sura which are perfect antonyms of Inception, I'm sure it will be love at first sight.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Chains, The Markets and The Saws

I have a couple of posts that I had started drafting before this but I am pretty sure this one is going to see the light and on to my blog much before it's predecessors. It happened yesterday, when I was shopping in the supermarket and a "Marketing Manager" waylaid me and gave me his intellectual piece of advice about making money. For reasons that are obvious, I do not want to mention the name, origin or the firm he represented as they are of no consequence to what I'm going to relate here. So here he was, explaining to me about a shopping card that I can "buy" and earn points when I recommend somebody for buying the card. The 'Concept' he said, was simple - the more people I get to join, the more money I make. He went on to explain that I get a certain 'percentage' of points for each person who joins the chain with my "Number". And then, we just en-cash the points for free supplies from the "most" supermarkets all around the country!

While I stood dazed at his attempt, he conveniently 'understood' that the person he was talking to wasn't making heads or tails of this brilliant opportunity. And he went on explaining how the growth of the chain under me would generate revenue for me without me having to do anything. He said that computer scientists call this type of chain a 'Tree" or a pyramid and that it is a very powerful mathematical model that has been translated into a marketing model by the most brilliant of market strategists in New York. He even said, in full happiness of having stumped me, that the "growth" I would have in terms of revenue would be exponential. And I continued my state of daze, my mind thrown in its own whirlwind of thoughts, anguish and pity. Realizing that I hardly spoke anything, he gave me his card and left in pursuit of another outbound customer. I'm sure he wouldn't have imagined to meet a person, who has been working on a "Tree Differencing Optimization" problem for a part of his thesis dissertation and has been traveling up and down the 'Tree' data structure like a monkey for the past three months.

What I'm now going to talk about is my very own personal opinion and I hope it remains the same. It is the general lack of awareness about these "Pyramid" or "Chain" business models which made me wonder if people who stepped into this even realize the extent and impact of what they were doing! I have to agree that the "Chain Marketing" was one of the most brilliant marketing model that has been invented to attract low and middle income group, who, otherwise would not have invested in a business venture. That said, I do strongly believe that this is one of the most unethical ways to make money. Trust me, I do!

So what is this "Chain Marketing" ?

A Marketing model based on the exponential growth of a tree. For all my fellow computer science and math enthusiasts, the number of nodes at each level of depth of a tree is n^d, where n is the spread of nodes and d is the depth of the tree.

What does this mean to the chain marketing strategy. For a very simple analysis - let us assume that a person who bought the card, initiates no more than two others into the program. So the tree would now look as shown in the left. Imagine you are at the top (Red) of the chain. Assume you initiate two people (Green) into the program, and the green  initiate two more people (Blue), and the blues initiate two apiece. Now let's do a computation of the income - Assume for simplicity, profit of 10% per person and the card sells for $100. The Blues would get $20, the Greens ($20 + $4), and the Red ($20 + $5).  So what is the big deal here? If you haven't already noticed the second component, viz., the profit percentage keeps increasing the with the number of people in the tree. And even for a small spread tree, like the above, which is called a binary tree - the number of people at each level d grows by 2^d. For a ternary tree, you would imagine this number to grow even faster- and yes, it does as can be seen below. 
This strategy is a version of the well known doubling the chessmen problem. Imagine if you actually took this as an opportunity to make money and initiate probably a hundred to operate for you! Yes, we are talking about minting some serious money in here. Sounds like a fair deal, isn't it? You are just making use of mathematics and smart marketing and hardwork (yes, you are expending huge amounts of effort to initiate people into the chain) to make money. It looks like a very fair opportunity for everyone, after all, you could always initiate more people and retrieve your investment. What is so unethical about it? Think.

Common sense says that there has to be some logical point where the growth has to stop - there are just finite number of people out there in the whole world. Therefore, there are people who end up at the bottom of the chain, but do you want to take a guess how many..? Remember, at each level in the chain, the number of people grow by a factor of n^d which is large, very very large. Believe me, I've been working for the past few months on a tree with the number n hovering about 25~30 and it takes a 4Ghz computer hours to even count the numbers! Come again... the number is large. Agreed. So whats unethical about it? Well, if you have understood this, it is simple - the more the number of people you initiate, the more the spread and growth in the chain resulting in a gargantuan number of people at the very end of the chain. A lot of people who will not be getting their value for the $100 card that they bought. They will end up losing a part of their money which travels to the ones at the top of the chain who make profit out of it.

As you can see, the higher up in the chain you are, the more money you make. Again, what is so unethical about it? I'm not cheating someone!! I'm just providing them with an opportunity to make money by initiating them into this program. With every person whom you initiate into the program, there are potentially thousands at the bottom of the pyramid. Hey! I know the math. So what? You still haven't told me what is so unethical about this?       Nothing.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Delaware Water Gap - A hikers delight!

It is that time of the year again, but a different location. Very different, almost half way across the globe from the one that I had visited last year. My last year has not been devoid of travelling footprints and it sure doesnt warrant such a long exile from writing a travelogue (my last one was on a visit to Warangal, AP, India). I had been to the Smoky Mountains(TN ,US) a few months ago, which is one of the most beautiful places I've hiked, but it is just too well known and too well documented for me to write something on it and make it useful for a potential traveller. But why bore you with my rationalization!

Late last month, we, a few enthusiastic (albeit bored) interns from the AT&T Research Labs decided to dust our running shoes and hike at a nearby place called Delaware Water Gap. The place was supposed to be one of the best locations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for hiking and one of the most scenic as per the authorities' website. And beautiful it was indeed. But why this travelogue? One, most of my friends are not aware of this place and I want to bring it to their notice. Two, a hiker's experience is usually different from 'facts' provided in the websites and provides a different perspective. Three, Google Analytics tells me that a lot of reading is being done on my travelogues. And four, I've been upto a heap of coding over the long weekend and it is becoming impossible for me to think straight without a break.

The Water Gap is at a little over an hour's journey from Morristown, NJ (a little sense of loyalty to the place :D ) and about two hours from NYC I'd imagine. There are a host of hiking trails in here - for all nC2 gradient and distances. Being researchers by profession and opting to go with the time tested 'law of diminishing returns', we decided to hike the toughest way up and climb the easier way down and yet not repeat trails and view points.

The climb was through the 'Red Dot' trail, which has got a higher gradient and hence the shortest distance leading up to the Mt. Tammany. The trail is half gravel and half rocky and lined with huge, shady trees lined up all around you. I am sure this trail has one of the best views of the water gap between Mt. Tammany and Mt. Minsi (on the PA front).  For the more adventurous, there are a couple of quick detours that one can take on the way up the Red Dot trail for a nice view of the water gap. It takes about an hour and a half of walk at a relaxed pace to climb the entire trail and at the top is a nice view point giving a picturesque view of the water gap in all its curve and glory.

The 'Blue Blaze' meets the 'Red Dot' at this point and we walked down the blue blaze that has a lovely gradient and a pleasant walk which is what exactly one needed after the heavier climb upwards. There aren't too many view points on this trail, but you get to see a lot of dense trees and wilderness all around you. When accompanied by a light breeze and fall colors I'd imagine this trail to seem like a path through heaven. Incidentally enough, we actually saw wildlife in the form of a bear (whereas we saw none in the Smoky mountains though  that is more reputed for its bear population) near a small rivulet. The stream marks the end of the descent and that we have joined yet another trail (the green blaze this time).

On the mid-way between the Green Blaze and the Yellow Blaze (if I remember right) was supposed to be a Holly Spring and surprisingly I believe we missed sighting that spot, despite walking the correct trail. (Though a parallel stream of thought says that the spring could as well have been the stainless steel pipes running a few drops of water from and undisclosed source). Nonetheless, that was the only place that wasn't well marked out during our 3 hour descent down the hills.

From then on, we took the more famous and popular Appalachian trail that goes to the Dunsfield Parking lot (from where we embarked on the Red Dot) . Though we walked this trail only because we had to, it was a very pleasant and easy walk along the trail which ran alongside the stream and it was clear why this was one of the most popular trails in the region. The entire hike took us about 5 hours at an easy pace and I would probably make an educated guess of about 5 miles about the distance we would have covered. The water gap is supposed to have water sports like tubing and rafting, but going by the amount rapids the river had (if at all it had any) I'm sure it would not be one of the more adventurous to navigate. While the place is close enough and reachable for a day hike, I'm sure camping at this place would be major fun too. There are a number of camping sites that you can reserve in advance if you plan on an overnight trip to these hills.

  • About two hours drive from NY/NJ. Not sure if there are public transit available (though we did see a train station on the PA front of the river)
  • Best time for visit would be Spring/Fall - but we hiked it on a warm summer day and the weather was still enjoyable for the most part thanks to the dense trees around.
  • Lighting is scarce at this place and campers be prepared for providing your own lighting sources.
  • Carry plenty of water and electrolytes - there aren't any available nearby once you hit the trails.
  • It is preferable to pack your own food from the city though there are a few dining options near exits 4A,B,C.
  • Though the trails are well marked out, do remember to carry a rough sketch of the trails that you plan to hike.

Some pictures in random order and no specific context: