April 16th, 2006


Weather forecasting...

What is being user-friendly?

We have our weather report on the radio or TV or newspaper, which gives the max and min temps, and the humidity and the rainfall.

Now look at the headings under which the weather is given for a city in the US:

Saint Louis, Missouri, United States Specialty Forecasts:
Aches & Pains | Air Quality | City Guide | Cold & Flu | Events | Fitness | Home | Lawn & Garden | Miracle-Gro Garden Advice | Rush Hour - Live Traffic | Mosquito Activity | Picnic / Grilling | PetCast | PollenCast | Scenic Drives | Schoolday | Scotts Weekly Lawn Update | Skin Protection | Sports Events | Your Holiday Helper

THAT's being user-friendly.

Going up!

One of the features of apartment living which no builder talks about, but which is an everyday occurrence, is the interaction of the residents, not in the clubhouse, swimming pool, gym or lawns, but in the lifts.

Every apartment building has three types of residents: the "Push-the-Button-Even-to-Go-Down-One-Floor"ers, the "I-Avoid-Lifts-Look-How-Healthy-I-Am" ers, and the general majority, who use the lifts and go to the stairs when the lifts don't work. While in the process of going down or up in the lift, it is, to me, a microcosm of life....there are sometimes strangers and sometimes friends, sometimes people from the workforce whose space coincides with your own for just those brief few minutes that you share the lift.

Sometimes people feel awkward about even these few minutes...should they smile at the other person in the lift? What if s/he doesn't smile back? Where should one look while the lift is in motion? Stare into space? Often one has to stand facing the other person...avoiding eye contact is sometimes raised to an art form, until one or the other attains the blessed nirvana of the desired floor! What a strange intimacy it is to be for a few minutes in a completely closed space with a total stranger!

Sometimes, too, one may be the only outsider in a group of people using the lift; here, one is privileged to listen to tantalizing bits of conversation that never get finished, leaving one speculating about what it was all about. If you hear scraps like "You know, it was that operation that he didn't like", or " I always prefer it toasted, you know!", or some totally random comment like that, as you get off, your mind keeps wandering back to the remark and wondering what the context could have been!

Lifts in several buildings make excellent physical specimens of the residents by working erratically. If you live on the 6th floor and the lift has a tendency to stop at, say, three-and-a-half floors, you will walk the rest of the way up...and on later occasions, you may actually start walking up all six floors! In the same way, stranding of the lifts in between floors fosters goodwill in ways never envisaged by the builder...as you stand there, wondering why the alarm bell didn't work, and yelling for help, you feel very friendly towards the neighbour you never knew before, who helpfully went and brought the security guard who ultimately helps you out!

A lift would give a very accurate picture of what has been happening in the building in the immediate past. There are the drops of milk from the morning's delivery bags. Yes, you nod to yourself as you spot the leaves, the "Soppu" seller has been by today as well. Debris from the flat on the third floor, whose occupants have gone to San Jose( like twenty three other couples in the recent pas)t…you wonder how much the rent will be hiked up for the new tenants!

Lifts also seem to bring out the artistic, and less-than-artistic self-expressions of their users…who has not seen the ubiquitous "Pooja loves Kumar" messages as well as drawings that rival anything the ancients thought of in Khajuraho, before an exasperated residents' association have the graffiti erased or painted over?

Writing about lifts reminds me of the cub reporter who was told by his editor to be as terse and to-the-point as she could in reporting on someone's death. His news report read: "Mr Swami looked up the lift shaft to see if the lift was coming down.It was. Age 48."

Think of me when you step into the next Otis or Johnson lift...and may your spirits get a lift as well as the rest of you!

This was inspired by a post in yodha's LJ about lifts..thanks yodha!

Birdwatching and me

I went to attend a Naturalists' Training Course where the focus was on birdwatching. Great, I thought, birdwatching is much better than trying to spot mammals...especially big cats in the southern part of India. For over 30 years I have gone to south Indian wildlife resorts and I have yet to see a south Indian tiger. Birds would be MUCH easier. They are not to be found only in the distant--and expensive--wildernesses; they are all around us; it doesn't take much effort to go and watch birds.

Or so I thought, until I went on the first nature trail. Karthik, who was conducting the course, told us to spot the bird, observe its colours, flight patterns and behaviour carefully, and then, instead of having him help out, to look the bird up in the book. Fine, I thought.

Then came the first rude awakening. We were in the early morning light, and there was this bird flying against the face of the rising sun. It was a black blob. This would not have been so bad it had been a black blob to everyone else taking the course, and they had all identified it as the Black Blob-bird. But no....they all yelled, "Coppersmith Barbet!" practically in unison. I looked again at the black blob...and it had already disappeared.

We walked on, and suddenly the whole group stopped, staring intensely into a nearby tree. I looked too. And looked. And looked.Thankfully the bird moved, otherwise I think I would still be there, looking. "What were the colours?" asked Karthik. "There was a crest!" cried one. "The vent was red!" said another. As far as I was concerned, it was the Moving Peepul Leaves Bird.

Things improved slightly over the next trail...I actually saw a bird (well, it was sitting on a dry branch and there was no way I could not have seen it.) I noted all its attributes carefully, and looked at the book...blankly. Where on earth was I to look in the book? Was it a shrike, a shikra, or a swan? (Something told me it might not be the last-mentioned.) Karthik took pity on me and opened the book to the right page. Huh! ALL the birds on the page looked pretty much the same to me! "Warblers do look alike," said Karthik kindly, and as usual, a kid less than half my age helpfully identified the bird for me.

Another bird. This had an easily identifiable red head, a white body.....but I had no clue what sort of bird it was. I had to have the book opened at the right page again. The only bird on the page that matched the one in the tree was the wire-tailed swallow. I looked at Karthik, who nodded. "But..but..." I said. "That bird doesn't have that long tail at all." "It's fallen off...that happens," Karthik said. How would I identify a wiretailed swallow without the wiretail? The others reuqired a camera, a pair of binoculars, and a bird-book. I required, in addition, a bird-book opener.

Then came the problem of the names. We saw a tree full of birds, and as usual, I seemed to be the only person who looked, and was, ignorant. All the rest piped up, "Rosy Starlings!" and "Rosy Pastors!" Apparently, both were names for the same birds, and I stopped looking for two different birds.

I spotted a bird with plumage that looked quite, quite different from its illustration in the book. "The feathers are growing out right now", explained one of my fellow-students. How did he know that? I didn't. Every bird that was being spotted was being identified by me...about twenty minutes after the others had moved on to the next bird. Why didn't God populate the Earth with only mynahs, sparrows and crows? Things would have been simpler.

I learnt about eclipse plumage, and this depressed me even more. I also found in my bird book such arcane, esoteric stuff next to the illustrations, as: "non-br", "br" and "imm". I am yet to muster up the courage to ask what these are. I am sure they are techniques birds adopt to disguise themselves from me. "imm" , to a bird, probably means, not "immature", but, "immediately change feather colours so that the lady below can't identify you".

When I thought I had spotted another bird, it turned out that it was the female of the last bird, or the male. Little rings with arrows and crosses on them began to dance before my eyes.

A couple of successes spotting the Pied Kingfisher and the Purple Sunbird led me on to further traps. "Look up!" said a youngster, at the birds swooping up and down. "Yes?" said Karthik."What colours do you see?" Colours? I thought it was the Black Silhouette Bird. "It has a red rump," said my co-students with great ease. As far as I was concerned, I was BENEATH the bird. How on earth could I see what colour its rump was? Unless it was going to fly upside down for me? Did these others have eyes on stalks that went out above the birds and spotted the colour of its feathers under and below the wings?

Then came the double names. The Drongo Cuckoo. The Magpie Robin. I started dreaming up my own combinations, like the Mynah Hawk, and the Swallow Woodpecker.

To top it all came the information that names of birds keep changing....and quite often, people name a bird the way they choose. But somehow I *know* that if I call a bird the Unfamiliar Plumagebird or the Lesser-Known Lookslike Atreebranch, those names are not going to be accepted by the birding community.

And the worst of these creatures is that they all seem to be Swifts, Swallows and Splits...that is, they are Swift to disappear, the sky or the greenery seems to Swallow them up, and they are gone in a Split second. I am just left standing there, with the open book in my hand and the usual huge question mark hovering over my head.

I now call myself the Utterly Green Bird-Spotter. I may soon give up birdwatching and go back to spotting trees, which at least don't suddenly flit off, and are there when you come back the next day with a friend. It might even be better to get back to south Indian tigers, which are at least never there for me to see. That's much less frustrating than these birds, which, "at a clap of our hands" (and in fact, even when I am standing stock-still trying to identify it) suddenly "lift into the air and vanish in their own natural world" where I, for one, cannot see them.

That's it. I am going to give up birdwatching. These creatures are too smart for me. But meanwhile...ooh, that lovely purple plumage! Is that the Purple Moorhen? Ah...well, then, maybe just ONE more attempt at spotting the next bird....! (1160 words, all of them copyright)