The ability to not think

I have had this conversation on more than one occasion with different people in the past few months. The conversation pivoting on our ability to not think about something or someone. Essentially about the capacity to control and channelize our thinking.

The problem with thinking is that we cannot multi-think. When we think, we think of only one thing at a given moment. Whenever we think of someone we dislike, we are not thinking of someone we like. Whenever we think of something we abhor, we are not thinking about things we love.

Controlling our thoughts and focusing it on things we enjoy will enable us to be in a pleasant state. Not being able to do so and allowing our thoughts to flicker onto the undesired will result in discontent and unpleasant emotions. As simple as it may sound, it is rarely put to practice.

It should be loud and clear that we must engage our mental faculties to think of solutions, not problems. Think of friends, not foes. Think of desired, not undesired. Think of love, not hate.

Still, we think more about insurance. We fear failures. We discuss people we don’t like. While doing so, we don’t think about life. We fail to plan for success. We forget people we love.

It is said that the biggest gift of mankind is the ability to think and think critically. However, the ability to not think is equally important too.

One excerpt from Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ is apt to end this post.

Ellsworth Toohey: I’m fighting you and shall fight you in every way I can.
Howard Roark: You’re free to do what you please!
Ellsworth Toohey: Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me in any words you wish.
Howard Roark: But I don’t think of you!

Spend you time and energy on things that matter.

Get captured to capture

We spend so much time trying to capture the photo that we often leave ourselves uncaptured and unimmersed in the beauty of the moment. The problem here is the very reason for clicking the photos – to share and be appreciated rather than to appreciate the moment.

‘Share’ is an over-abused term these days. Whatever we do, we have been conditioned to develop an urge to share it. But do we really want to share it? Or rather is it a self-immersing pursuit to flaunt and show off in social domains? The answer is for each one of us to find within.

Clicking photographs for memories is a good thing, but when the worth of those memories is dictated by the number of like that the status message has garnered, the very purpose of revisiting the memories become a trivial affair.

As I said, clicking photographs is a good thing. But what makes a great photograph different from the mundane ones is the fact that before capturing a great image, the beauty of the moment has to capture the photographer. Without the photographer allowing himself to be captured, capturing a great image is impossible.

Himalaya 2014 – Basic mountaineering course, ABVIMAS and Lahaul expedition

My Himalayan sojourn, about which I am thinking of writing volumes in this post, began with an intention and purpose completely different from what it actually ended up to be. On second guessing, may be the purpose was same but the mean to its end was radically different. The purpose essentially was spending a length of time in the mountains, specifically the Himalaya. The difference was the fact that I initially intended to spend that time on a 20-day exploratory expedition, but it rather ended up being a 26-day basic mountaineering course at Manali, followed by a 8-day expedition with Bhramanti. Do note that not I am not saying that not being able to spend the mountain time in the planned manner did not mean I was disappointed; rather it was quite a serendipitous venture.

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Looking back, once everything is over and done with, it always feels great to bask in the nostalgic warmth of the seeding bits of the journey that has already unfolded. This journey is no different and so here it goes ..

It all began in an online conversation with Kaivalya, a veteran rock climber and mountaineering enthusiast from Mumbai, then an online acquaintance and now a good friend. Kaivalya had been to the Himalayas at least half a dozen times before and was planning for his next outing. I still find it surprising that based on just a few online conversations he would have invited me to join his team on his next expedition.  Usually any expedition is quite a time consuming and expensive affair with lot of sweat and blood going in to it. And even more intriguing is the fact that even with so much going into its preparatory and planning stages, how fragile and prone to failures it can be. And more often than not, it is the team chemistry and subjective mishaps that are at the root of the failure than real unavoidable objectives causes. Despite him being well aware of this fact, it was very surprising for me to be invited on this expedition by Kaivalya, primarily because he hardly knew me when he put forth the invitation then!

I was very much excited for my first Himalayan expedition. I began by doing an inventory check of all the gear that I had and all the gear that I needed for the expedition. Scourging the Internet for online deals on gear is a time consuming yet very enjoyable affair. Ice axes, crampons, mountaineering boots, warm layers, and so on – the list seemed endless and very expensive. The check list was long, however over the period of new few months I could tick a lot of them off the list. I seemed to be very well prepared – at least gear wise.

While the gear was being taken care off, I also had to ensure that I have the ability to last and make proper use of the gear at high altitudes and in demanding conditions. I had been doing a lot gym climbing, which helped my climbing skills and local muscular endurance, but almost nothing for my overall aerobic fitness and endurance. And I was well aware of this fact.

To this effect, I started training, at first unplanned and unmeasured and later due to some dedicated reading in a very planned and meticulous manner. Living in the plains did not allow me easy access to hills and hence training to be in Himalaya-fit shape was the only option. I followed Steve House’s training methods and would recommend his book to every serious Alpinist looking to improve their performance and push their limits.

While I was training and collecting the required gear, I was very well aware that a small change in my academic schedule and commitments would mean that all my Himalayan dreams would go for a toss and I would be just pulling on plastics the next summer. Much like the weather window on some seriously high peaks, I had a very narrow window to fit my schedules without disturbing my academic and family commitments. I prayed and hoped. Albeit, due to some reasons the expedition dates had to be rescheduled and all my plans were in serious jeopardy of never making it past the pen and paper stage!

I had to send time in the mountains and when I realized that the expedition dates would be in conflict with my schedules, I started looking for alternatives. The basic mountaineering course came up as a very viable alternative. However, the two of the three reputed institutes, NIM (Uttarkashi) and HMI (Darjeeling) did not offer the course in the month of July and so the only remaining option for me was to register with ABVIMAS, Manali, which I did. However, missing out on the expedition left me slightly disappointed then.

But luck was on my side. Another iteration to the expedition schedule due to some unforeseen reason gave me a chance to be a part of the expedition for a few days – a week to be precise. I grabbed the chance with both arms and it seemed as if I could have the cake and eat it too. The plan was to join the expedition team at the base camp after completing my basic course and attempt at least one peak before I had to leave the mountains. Since, I would have already spend more than a couple of weeks in the mountains as a part of my basic mountaineering course, I would be adequately acclimatized and fit enough to join the team and attempt scaling the peak directly. The plan seemed very much feasible.

So, I came to India all eager and enthusiastic for my Himalayan sojourn. I spent some quality time with my family while being very much focused on the mountains. I was very much aware the basic course itself would leave my body in a tired and battered state and that a 6000-meter peak immediately after the course will be relatively demanding. Yet, riding on the back of my training and will, I thought I was in good shape and was confident, yet not complacent. With all the things leading up to this point, I left for Manali for my basic mountaineering course.

The course at ABVIMAS is a 26-day affair and enlisting the details of it commands a separate blog post of its own, which I am not planning to write. However, to summarize it in a few words, the course introduced us to the basics of mountaineering and taught us some vital skills in three domains – rock craft, snow craft and ice craft. Besides these three skills, it also covered a wide gamut of topics including first aid, mountain sickness, survival, mountain safety, etc. The course is definitely a good introduction into mountaineering and promises to be an interesting experience for everyone who enjoys being in nature. You can find more information about the course on ABVIMAS website.

Following the completion of the basic course, I set off on the much awaited expedition. Our base camp was to be at Killing Sarai and we were to explore a few peaks in the Lahaul region of Himachal Pradesh. Without getting into too much details about the expedition, I would give you the facts that matter -

The team managed to summit three peaks, two virgin peaks and Mt. Yunam successfully, a first in the history of Bhramanti. Kudos!

  • 5975m (Virgin) on 31-jul   (Rohan, Prashant)
  • 5920m (Virgin) on 3-aug   (Kaivalya, Rajan)
    • Base camp for the two virgin peaks was at 4640m
    • Advanced base camp for the two peaks was common and was at 4960m
    • Camp 1 of 5975m was at 5430m
    • Camp 1 of 5920 was at 5275m
  • Mt. Yunam (6130m) on 7-aug (Ravi, Rajan)
    • Advanced base camp of Yunam was at 4960m
    • Camp 1 of Mt. Yunam was at 5260m

I would also like to note that the expedition would not have been successful the way it was without the competent services of the support team including the porters, guides and the cooking staff. I would specifically like to mention the names of Bhola Thakur (Shikhar Par), Diler Kapur (Cook), Pyare ji (Guide) and Gyani ji (Guide).

Uncropped

The beautiful thing about cropping is that it makes a part of the whole stand out conspicuously. The part that one wants to be flaunted is often focused upon and everything else is cropped out. Beautiful and effective, isn’t it? Alas!

Cropping is a wonderful tool to eliminate the unwanted and focus on the things that matter. To add to it, cropping is extremely easy to use. So much so that it’s utility is now over-abused.

However, cropping being a corrective tool, there are two thing that makes it very dangerous.

One, we lose the ability to stay in context and focus on things that matter.

Two, inappropriate cropping can shift the things in focus completely out of context and make them completely irrelevant.

Let’s look at the first one. Over-reliance on cropping, makes us forget the very essence of framing and composition in the first place. We tend to do things sloppily and then rely on the corrective cropping to eliminate the waste and bring into the context the things that we want to flaunt. Repeated cropping diminishes our ability to stay in focus and we often waste our time and energies on things that do not matter. Focusing on things that do not matter mean that we have inadequate resources to do justice to the things that matter and stay in the correct frame of mind.

The second one is exactly opposite of the first. Once we get used to, and resort to cropping for pretty much everything we do we tend to focus only on things that we want to flaunt and want others to see and appreciate. We get used to eliminating pretty much everything else. We trim the corners. Even those that gives meaning and context to the things we want to flaunt. So much so that we take the things in focus completely out of context. We narrow our focus so much that we overlook the bigger picture.

To overcome these trappings, it is important to remember that as a creator of the image, we must focus on things that matter, while at the same time having just enough background to keep things in context. It is the white background that makes that black dot conspicuous.

As a viewer, one must remember that the photograph is just a part of a larger canvas that extends well beyond the frames!

Big time failure!

I came across a very interesting article that had just enough anecdotal evidence from the likes of Google and Amazon to suggest that failing big time is directly linked with bold accomplishments and inventions. The article states,

What Bezos learned at Amazon is that “failure comes part and parcel with invention.” When you’re innovating, failure isn’t optional, it’s part of trying something that no one has ever tried before.

Read the complete article at http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/236026

Michael Fatali photography

If you love traveling and have an eye for landscape and nature photography to an extent that it often leads you to associate it with a disassociated spiritual zone, then you should browse through this website - http://fatali.com/

In his own words, “Fatali’s elegant eye for spirit and light has become his unique signature on the world of photography.” Personally, I am very much inspired by his work and the music on his website leads me into a zone, which is characterized by an inward association, but an outward disassociation.

I believe the music on his website is created by Nicholas Gunn, a master at his craft who easily slides you into a spiritual realm with his magical tunes.

Individualism, collectivism and the blanket generalization

One of the article titles that I stumbled on my Twitter feed today from HBR blogs read, “Children Get Educational Benefits from Having a Parent at Home”.

The immediate few questions that popped up in my mind were;

Which children? Whose children? Who comprise these collective term that we call as children? Whom do they represent? Where are they from? How were they sampled? And so on ..

As I clicked on the link and delved deeper into the article, my curiosity was extinguished by the fact that the article just lasted 6-lines. Ok, it will be unfair to call it as an article. It was more of a news report on some survey done by some xyz organization in a small subset of a population of some Norwegian province.

The next thing that came to my mind was the classic fallacy of collective terms, which the laissez faire economists swear and live by. To keep it terse, Mr. Lawrence Reed, an eminent economist, explains the fallacy in simple terms as follows:

Examples of collective terms are “society,” “community,” “nation,” “class,” and “us.” The important thing to remember is that they are abstractions, figments of the imagination, not living, breathing, thinking, and acting entities. The fallacy involved here is presuming that a collective is, in fact, a living, breathing, thinking, and acting entity.

The good economist recognizes that the only living, breathing, thinking, and acting entity is the individual. The source of all human action is the individual. Others may acquiesce in one’s action or even participate, but everything which occurs as a consequence can be traced to particular, identifiable individuals.

The very nature of Reed’s articulation explains that these collective terms will cease to exist if the individuals comprising it were to be released from the fictitious boundaries of these collective terms.

To get back to the HBR article, it should be clear what I am trying to get at. The title of the article is seriously misleading. The article clumps together every child under the collective banner and offers a blanket inference for all. However, the study was conducted in a small subset of population and its extrapolation to include everyone is unfounded. What is true for a small Scandinavian subset, or rather I should say Norwegian subset, may and will not be true for Asians, or for that matter even Americans and other Europeans. Even in the same subset in which the study was conducted, there would be significant number of people who will deviate from the stated conclusions.

To be clear, I am not blaming HBR and I do not expect them to write a title reading, “X number of children were benefited with better GPA’s because at least one of their parent stayed home, than some other Y number of children whose parents did not in a study conducted in a random sample of Z number of people staying in the xyz province of Norway”. Do you really think a 5-line title for a 6-line article would be sensible? I don’t!

In fact, in perfect contradiction to this blanket inference, the next article that I read on HBR blogs was about the perils of collectivism and suggested a more measured and cautious approach while assessing a collective cultural profile.

In essence, even the most collectivistic societies, as classified by Geert Hofstede,  are made up by individuals. Each of these individual traits and position make up the collective and not vice-versa. Still, the mass publications and media tend to place more emphasis on, and appeals to the collectivistic attitudes rather than deciphering the nuances of individualism.

In today’s context, coming from a highly collectivistic country such as India, and then  having experienced to some extent the highly individualistic culture of the U.S., I have come to, may be, understand  the fickle nature of the collectivistic attitudes when confronted with individualistic interests.

In general, we use the term ‘going with the flow’ and accept collectivistic values over individual characteristics and preferences. However, when the friction between the individualistic and collective  traits begin to increase and the threshold is reached, even the highly collectivist mind resorts to individualism.

An individual’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether the individual’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.” And as they say in economics, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’, everything has a price. Similarly, there is a threshold defined by resources and constraints and the price one has to pay to go along with either individualism or collectivism.

I prefer to stay on individualistic side of things even when the friction between individualism and collectivism is very low and the price thresholds could very well favor being collectivism. Still, as someone who is influenced by Rand’s objectivism and Hazlitt’s individualism, I sway in their molds.

As someone has very precisely articulated, “Values are agent-relative, and the person makes his choices by seeing how the value impacts his life. It is the individual that ethics is concerned with, and collectivism just obscures this point.”

Day hike to Peb (Vikatgad) – June 2014

We did a quick day hike to Peb, also known as Vikatgad (Bikatgad) adjacent to the very famous hill station of Matheran, near Neral.

With a 15 kg (33 lbs) load carry and around 2000+ feet elevation gain and descent, it also served as a good practice hike for me before my month long Himalayan sojourn (basic mountaineering course and an expedition in the Baralacha La region).  This was my third practice hike in one month and I must say the most tiring one as well.

Although it was very cloudy, the rains evaded us and humidity was at its peak, but the strong winds atop made for a wonderful outing.

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Milky Way at Osceola National Forest, Florida

My first milky way shot at Osceola National Forest, near Jacksonville, Florida. It was not a spectacular night and the visibility was not at it’s best and there were more than a dozen of astronomers / photographers at the site with their light painting torches and cameras blazing around, so the foreground had to be adjusted for it. However, it was worth the attempt. This is a panoramic image composed of 11 vertical frames.

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