Monday, July 13, 2009

Dhobi Ghat

A unique feature of Mumbai, the dhobi is a traditional laundryman, who will collect your dirty linen, wash it, and return it neatly pressed to your doorstep. All for a pittance. The "laundries" are called "ghats": row upon row of concrete wash pens, each fitted with its own flogging stone. The clothes are soaked in sudsy water, thrashed on the flogging stones, then tossed into huge vats of boiling starch and hung out to dry. Next they are ironed and piled into neat bundles. The most famous of these Dhobi Ghats is at Saat Rasta near Mahalaxmi Station where almost two hundred dhobis and their families work together in what has always been a hereditary occupation.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Petronas Towers

I have had the opportunity over my last 20 years in Kuala Lumpur to watch the rapid development of the city and the building of the famous Petronas Twin Towers on the site of the original horse racetrack. Even now, working downtown in the centre of the city, I still continue to admire these magnificent towers which have become a focal point for visitors to the city.

Petronas Towers were completed in 1998 and at that time became the world's tallest buildings, just surpassing Sears Tower in Chicago, albeit because of the large spires. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, spires count, but antennae don't. Spires do not contain floors, but they are counted in the world's tallest building race for one architectural reason: they're nice to look at.

Petronas Towers reflect a unique blend of religion and economic prosperity. The $1.6 billion towers contain more than eight million square feet of shopping and entertainment facilities, underground parking for 4,500 cars, a petroleum museum, a symphony hall, a mosque, and a multimedia conference center.

Each tower's floor plan forms an eight-pointed star, a design inspired by traditional Malaysian Islamic patterns. The 88 story towers, joined by a flexible skybridge on the 42nd floor, have been described as two "cosmic pillars" spiraling endlessly towards the heavens.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Completion Date: 1998
Cost: $1.6 billion
Height: 1,483 feet
Stories: 88
Materials: Concrete, Steel
Facing Materials: Aluminum, Stainless Steel
Engineer(s): Thornton-Tomasetti and Ranhill Bersekutu


Capercaillie are a Scottish celtic-folk band founded in the early 1980’s by Donald Shaw and fronted by Karen Matheson. They recorded their first album, Cascade, in 1984. Their 1992 EP, A Prince Among Islands, was the first Scottish Gaelic language record to reach the UK Top 40 singles chart.

Capercaillie have popularised traditional Gaelic songs and music by using modern production techniques and often mixing musical forms combining traditional lyrics with drum and bass.

In May 2008 Capercaillie played a dinner concert at the Hilton Hotel, Kuala Lumpur arranged by the Selangor St. Andrew's Society (SSAS). The evening was an incredible success and the music simply outstanding.

The crystal clear voice of Karen Matheson lived up to every expectation and also to the famous quote from Sean Connery who said she has a voice “touched by God”.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Heartache and Hope - Orphans of Cambodia

As a result of war, land mines, poverty, and prevalent diseases such as AIDS, Cambodia's orphan population continues to escalate. These Cambodian orphans are forced to beg or forage through rubbish for food and are often the victims of serial predators and violent assaults. Life for these defenseless children seems hopeless but luckily there are orphanages which provide love, shelter, food and education and allow these children hope and the chance of a new life.

Orphans are found in many of the poor and underprivileged Third World countries but Cambodia has a significantly high proportion of orphans and abandoned children. This disproportionate number of orphaned children is a result of around thirty years of war, foreign occupation, civil war and the infamous Khmer Rouge Regime which had some dramatic and deadly effects on the people of Cambodia.

In addition to the brutal events during those dark days one of the current ongoing problems is the continuing effect of land-mines on victims and the healing and rehabilitation of Cambodians who have suffered through land-mine incidents. Cambodia is a country with one of the highest occurrences of death by land-mines. In addition, deadly diseases such as AIDS, coupled with the scarcity of health care resources, compounds these problems into leading causes of death which all contribute greatly to the increasing orphan population in Cambodia.

Street Life
Sleeping rough, begging, scavenging the rubbish in the streets or local rubbish dumps is common place for these orphaned children with all the other associated dangers of crime, drugs and violent assault.

The tourist business is booming in and around Siem Reap due to the attractions of famous ancient temples such as Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom which brings much needed revenue to this poor country. In stark contrast to this influx of rich foreigners is the sad sight of these poor, dirty and under nourished small children selling postcards at the temple sites, begging by the roadside or scavenging the rubbish bags in the streets to find some meagre morsels to eat.

Orphanage Safe Havens

There are a number of orphanages in Cambodia set up to provide a sanctuary for these unfortunate children, providing accommodation, food, education and more importantly love and attention. One such orphanage is the Sunrise Children’s Village which was founded back in 1993 by Australian, Geraldine Cox. Geraldine visited Cambodia with a friend and was so moved that she was motivated to do something. Since that time the Sunrise Children’s Village has grown and now hosts locations in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Children come to the orphanage in a number of different ways: parents or other family members have been killed or injured by land-mines, died of hunger or disease and often targeted for murder because of their political affiliations.
When the children become homeless, local villagers may make an effort to care for them, but unfortunately, this usually results in the orphans being used as slave-labour in return for food and a place to sleep until their situation is identified by orphanage staff.

Before taking in an orphan Sunrise has to comply to Cambodian Government regulations, which require investigations of abuse or neglect and agreement by the village that they wish Sunrise to care for the child. Papers are then lodged with the Ministry of Social Affairs, and Sunrise is then permitted to take the children from the village and become their "guardians" until they are 18 years old.

In each case this requires the orphanage staff go to the villages to assess the situation on the ground to ensure that the need is a realistic one. It is sad but there are situations where children, claimed to be orphans, are not; the children’s parents trying to make use of the facilities of the orphanage and the chance for free food and education for their child.
Orphanages such as Sunrise provide the children with love, protection, accommodation, food, medical and dental care, clothing and importantly education to ensure that appropriate skills can be learned and hopefully used when they leave the orphanage to start a better life. Classes at Sunrise include English, Khmer, sewing, carpentry music, dance, fine arts and computer skills.

Self Sufficiency
Given that the orphanage’s existence is totally dependent on donations initiatives have been started to assist the orphanage become self sufficient in a number of ways. One project started in 1999 was the design and creation of the Sunrise Farm, following land being given by the Government. Inside the 10 hectares of the farm are vegetable gardens, fish ponds, an orchard and a variety of farm animals including chickens and ducks.
The plan with the development of this farm is the ability to introduce renewable energy resources, use organic production methods and produce many of the basic vegetables and rice to feed the orphans.
Community Work
Some of the older children participate in a community aid project where they assist poor families with their daily chores, including planting and weeding the fields, cleaning the houses of the elderly or helping the monks at the local pagodas. The purpose of this programme is to help local communities but more importantly teach the children to understand poor families and realise that in life they must give as well as take.

Future Hope
What does the future hold for Cambodia’s orphans? Apart from the continuing need for the kind donations of many people who, like Geraldine Cox, have been touched by the plight of these orphans, there is a hope that perhaps with the increasing tourist business in Cambodia some of this much needed revenue can be directed to the needs of such establishments such as Sunrise Children’s Village.

Cambodia has suffered many terrible years of war, foreign occupation and violent dictatorship and it’s amazing that through all of this shines the people’s beauty, good nature, tenacity and incredible desire to learn. Given their horrific past, they certainly deserve this.

The children, more importantly, deserve some basic necessities and the chance of education to give them some hope of doing something positive to give back to the country.

Perhaps the tourists in their their 5-star hotels, visiting the grand temple complexes in air-conditioned tour buses, should spend a moment visiting establishments like Sunrise Children’s Village and appreciate what fundamentals these children really need and what they themselves take for granted.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Got Noise?

Even using a high end SLR with a large sensor digital noise can occur at high ISO settings causing pinkish, pixelated speckles which can detract from an image. 

There are a number of sources of noise:

  • Heat generated might free electrons from the image sensor itself, thus contaminating the "true" photoelectrons. These "thermal electrons" give rise to a form of noise called thermal noise or dark current.
  • Another type of noise is more akin to the 'grain' obtained by using a high ISO film. When we use a higher ISO, we are amplifying the signal we receive from the light photons. Unfortunately, as we amplify the signal, we also amplify the background electrical noise that is present in any electrical system.
  • In low light, there is not enough light for a proper exposure and the longer we allow the image sensor to collect the weak signal, the more background electrical noise it also collects. In this case the background electrical noise may be higher than the signal.
So why is using a larger image sensor better? Each photosite on the sensor itself generates electrical noise that can contaminate its neighbor. In a larger image sensor, the photosites can be physically further apart and thus be less affected by that contamination. A larger image sensor also means that the photosite can be larger, thus have a larger light gathering capacity. It is therefore able to generate a larger signal to noise ratio. That is why a digital camera with 6 million pixels crammed into a 1/1.8 in. image sensor has more noise (especially at high ISOs) than a 6MP digital camera using the much larger half-frame (APS-sized) image sensor.

Let's look at an example. The photo below was taken in a very dark internal room of the Preah Khan temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia where I came across a lovely old lady praying. Using only available natural light I shot this image at ISO 3200.

Although the image is still good, especially given the poor lighting conditions, there is visible noise in the image which is more obvious when zoomed in as shown in the image below. You can see the pixelation particularly around the background pink coloured jos sticks just to the left of the lady's face as well as in certain areas of the lady's face.

Noise Ninja is a very effective and productive solution for removing noise and grain from digital photographs and scanned film images. It is a must-have tool for anyone shooting in low-light or fast-action situations -- including news, sports, wedding, and event coverage -- where high ISO photography is required and the resulting noise compromises the image.

Noise Ninja often yields a two-stop improvement in effective image quality, while preserving important image detail. In addition, it can produce cleaner, smoother enlargements from low-ISO images.

Noise Ninja can be used as a plug-in to Aperture or as a standalone application. Using simple slider controls as shown above you can adjust the luminescence strength and the colour (chroma) strength plus carry out sharpening whilst visualising the results of these adjustments on-screen. The picture below shows the original photo above and the noise reduced image below.

The final noise reduced full size image can be seen below.