Category Archives: Thoughts

Thoughts about Toronto’s Hwy 401 Traffic Problem

It’s an understatement that Toronto has some insane traffic. I got my latest taste of it this Sunday when I was stuck in traffic on the 401 highway while trying to get from Toronto back to Waterloo after visiting my parents. It amazes me that traffic is bad enough that it is terrible on a Sunday. Below, I go through several observations about why I think traffic is bad and offer a few pointers on how to fix it. I know this problem is far more complex than what I have listed below and involves a wide variety of factors including weather, demographics, psychology  economics, etc. I have simplified and abstracted away a bunch of things in this post so it does not turn into a novel.

8 Lanes each way don’t help

Any time I pick up relatives, who are visiting, from the airport and we merge onto the 401, they always comment on how absolutely massive size of the 401. They are right. It is 8 lanes wide in one direction, which means a total of 16 lanes both ways. That is a huge amount of lanes and I have yet to see it in any other city I have visited, except for Chicago. Despite the many lanes, traffic still slows to a crawl even on weekends. Mississauga, to the west of Toronto, is undertaking construction to go from 4 lanes in one direction to 8 lanes for their stretch of the 401. They are doing this in an attempt to battle congestion. If the rest of the 401 in the Greater Toronto Area is any indication, this is not going to help.

Some parts have a backwards design that needs fixing

By backwards design, I am mainly looking at locations like the eastbound stretch of the 401 starting from the 404 off-ramp to the Kennedy Road. If you get off the 404, onto the 401 and merge all the way into the left-most lane (about 3 lanes over), then about 2 exits later at the Kennedy road exit, your left lane is now the right-most lane. This occurs when you stick to the lane and never change lanes. Basically over the course of 2 exits, the two right lanes have peeled off and exited. At the same time, new lanes on the left hand side are opened up. This is a huge problem. Now, over the span of approximately 3 kilometres, the traffic needs to shift two lanes to the left just to stay on the 401. You know what happens when everyone tries to frantically switch lanes? Chaos, cars braking and traffic jams. It amazes me that no one has even thought of attempting to remedy this situation. It would go a long way to alleviating congestion because eastbound on the 401 at Kennedy Road is always guaranteed to be moving at a crawl whenever there is medium to heavy traffic.

Not Fast Enough Public Transit

The main reason that many people drive in Toronto during rush hour is due to the fact that it is still faster to drive to a location than take public transit there, even if you have to drive through rush hour traffic. Case in point? When I used to do co-op in Toronto, I travelled from my parent’s home in Scarborough to around Dufferin Road and Eglinton Ave. If I took public transit, this commute took about 1.5 hours of time. If I drove in rush hour to the same location, it took 45 minutes. So, public transit is about 2x slower than driving in rush hour transit despite the fact that half of my public transit time is spent on the subway. The fact that public transit is significantly slower than driving means that Toronto’s public transit is simply not fast enough to entice people to ditch their cars and take the bus/train to work. I am confused as to why there are no such things as express trains or buses from the suburbs to downtown or to other suburban centres. Such express routes, especially trains, which don’t have to deal with the same levels of traffic, would make commutes shorter and entice people to ditch their cars.

Not Enough Alternates to the 401

There are practically no alternate routes to the 401 that will take you across Toronto in an east-west direction. There is the QEW and the Gardiner Expressway, but they go through the downtown core and are more jammed than the 401. There is also the 407 ETR, which is not as congested and runs more north of the city. There is only one problem with the 407 ETR: it’s a toll road. The toll rates aren’t even close to reasonable. I have taken many toll routes through the USA and almost all of the rates there have been reasonable, but the 407’s rates are not reasonable at all. Of course that means that not as many people use it and everyone piles onto the 401, which means the 401 has traffic jams. Would making the 407 free help? Maybe. Recently, it seems like even the 407 is getting heavy traffic. The traffic is not heavy enough to cause major slowdowns, but it seems that even if we make it free, it will do little to address the problems of the 401.

A Strong Car Culture

Despite Toronto having a reasonable transit system (even if it is not as fast as I want it to be), I think Toronto still has a very strong car culture. Almost every family I know has at least one vehicle. About a third of my relatives and friends have two or more vehicles sitting on their driveways. If people can afford it, they will buy a car and drive that to places instead of taking the bus. The reason? Most of Toronto’s residents live in the suburbs and things are spaced pretty far apart. Which means it is a pain to get anywhere on public transit unless you live near or on a major road that has frequent bus service. Subway coverage is not as extensive as other cities like London, UK, which means that most of the time, you take the bus to your destination. On most routes, buses take about 15-20 mins to arrive. So naturally, people prefer to drive than take public transit because it is much easier and saves time. Getting people out of this car culture is probably the only way to significantly reduce the congestion of the 401 and other roads in Toronto. The problem? This is a very hard and uphill battle to fight. It is not something that can be overcome in a few months of a year, one would have to do this over several years.

So what’s the solution here? I think it needs to be a combination of faster public transit (including express trains), more alternative routes (like a toll-free 407), and re-doing parts of the 401 so that traffic does not need to shift lanes in order to stay on the 401. These need to be done in parallel with pushing out the strong car culture of Toronto and getting residents to embrace public transit more.

The state of the Tamil film industry

I’m going to write down a few thoughts about the current state of the Tamil film industry. I am going to be commenting on a bunch of themes, but primarily I will be commenting on some of the things that have changed and what has stayed the same. I will be grouping my ideas into two categories: the good and the bad.

What needs improvement

Let’s start off with the stuff that needs improvement. This is done first because I think there is a big issue that is facing Tamil film today:

Gender inequality is a big, big concern

Now, I know this occurs in not just this industry, but in film industries the world over. However, I sincerely want the Tamil film industry to improve hence I am making this commentary with regards to this specific industry. The different roles that actors and actresses play vary starkly when you look at gender. Many of the roles that are played by men are the roles of heroes and villains. These characters are the main driving force of the story. In fact, most stories are shown from their perspectives. The heroines in a movie? Almost all the time, they are relegated to three roles: the damsel in distress, the love interest, or some sort of sexual object in a dance number. Note, that sometimes, a heroine will take on more than one role over the course of a film. But let’s take a look at these roles for a moment shall we? None of these roles serve a particularly important role in the film except for the damsel in distress. The dance number role could easily be removed from the film. The love interest role can be useful to a film, but in most Tamil films that I have seen, it’s kind of like a third wheel that has been bolted onto a bicycle: it serves a purpose, but its absence won’t be missed. Then there is the fact that strong-willed or independent heroines are kind of rare in Tamil films. When I try to think of exceptions to this trend, I can only come up with two. First, there is Bhavani in Bhavani IPS where we see the actress Sneha play a police officer in the lead role of an action film. The second exception is in a film I saw a while back where the main villain was a female crime lord. Other than that, the roles of the heroines are almost always relegated to damsel in distress or love interest. The heroine isn’t out there kicking ass and taking names. She isn’t the one who saves the day. Usually, she is some meek or shy person who is only interested in loving the hero and is perfectly content with sitting on the sidelines for most of the film. If that doesn’t happen, then she is treated as somebody that can be kidnapped by the villain and must be rescued by the hero.  This infuriates me to no end. Of course, Tamil film isn’t the only industry that is guilty of this. Hollywood does this to a large extent as well, but the difference is that in Hollywood, there is a much higher percentage of films that feature strong female roles. These types of strong female roles are severely lacking in Tamil films. Where are my Tamil equivalents to Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games, Ripley from Aliens, The Bride from Kill Bill, Sarah Connor from Terminator, and Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter?

Next, let’s examine the disparity between the career lengths of Tamil actors and actresses. The career lengths of Tamil actresses are MUCH shorter than Tamil actors. How is it that Rajinikanth or Kamal Hassan have multi-decade careers in acting but many actresses don’t? The main answer here is marriage. Once an actress gets married and has children, it is game over for them in the industry. They are expected to end their careers in order to focus on family and children. The actors? Nah they are good. Even if they get married and have a family, they are still free to continue their career. The actresses never get this chance. A good example of this is Jyothika who stopped acting once she got married, but her husband Surya still appears in films. Very few of these actresses ever come back once their kids are old enough that they can resume work. The only exception that really stands out in my mind is Sridevi.

Another thing that also needs much more improvement is the progression of the romance subplots that occur in movies. In many films, the romance goes something generally along the lines of the following. The guy sees a beautiful girl somewhere and falls in love with her at first sight. She does not reciprocate or is unaware of his feelings. The guy then becomes a creeper and follows her to various places, maybe even standing outside her house. Usually, the girl develops mutual feelings if she sees the guy doing something nice like helping some neighbourhood kids. The important thing is that she sees a few acts of kindness, not the guy persistently being nice. She falls in love based on a narrow sample set of kind acts. On the other hand, if the girl does not reciprocate when the guy confesses his feelings, the guy seems to think that this is a license to keep stalking, bothering and sometimes harassing her until she likes him. The baffling thing is that script writers think that this is what it takes to win the girl: if you harass and stalk her enough, she will fall in love with you. Personally, I am fine with most of the general structure of the romance subplot except for the stalking, constant badgering and harassment until she falls in love with you parts. This is not the type of thing you want to legitimize in films especially when there are reports stating that this often happens in real life to women in India. Romance structures need to be improved to a point where there is much more respect towards the heroine.

Then, there is the other stereotypes that most heroines need to fall into. The main ones I am talking about are: light skin and high pitch voices. Apparently, if you don’t have either of these qualities, you are not cut out to be an actress. Of course, I acknowledge that everyone wants to see a beautiful actress on screen. I do too. But I have seen tons of beautiful Indian women who don’t have light skin and who don’t have high pitch voices that look attractive enough to be actresses. Related to the above is the disparity of requirements for looks between actors and actresses. My sister summed this one up pretty well when she asked my mom the following question: “Why are Tamil actresses always so pretty, but Tamil actors are always so damn average looking?” She raises a good point. Young, new, aspiring Tamil actresses are expected to be: well proportioned, light skin and a good looking face. Heck most of the time, all you need to be is thin and light-skinned to land a job as an actress! Now let’s look at many young actors: any skin colour counts, any body shape counts, and as long as you don’t have any scars or deformities, any face will do. This disparity is quite something isn’t it?

What has improved

If after the above rant, you are still with me, let’s take a look at the improvements in the industry. There are many things that have improved  from the late 90s until now (2013).

More Diversity in Plots, Settings, Genres

Plots, genres and settings have diversified greatly. It used to be that most, if not basically all, Tamil movies would take place in India (particularly the state of Tamil Nadu) and follow a basic story structure: there is a hero who squares off against some villain. The hero always has a love interest and there are two plots: how the hero defeats the villain, and the romance between the hero and the heroine. Often, the two plots are either interwoven with one another such that one influences the other, or they run in parallel with minimum impact from one plot to the other. Of course, you throw in some fight scenes and dance numbers into the film as well. Now, I am not saying that all films were like this, but most had this structure. Recently though, I have noticed that films are getting a lot more diverse in their settings, plots and even genres. Let’s start off with setting. Over the past few years, I have started seeing an increased amount of films that are set in places like New York (and some other parts of the USA) and Europe (particularly London, UK). These films have some or all of the characters as Indians living abroad. This is such a wonderful thing to see. It allows films to show people back in India how Indians abroad are living and it gives Indians abroad some connection to the films. I’ve also noticed fantasy settings as well such as Aayirathil Oruvan, which takes place in an expedition in a more exotic, mysterious part of India. There is also Raavanan, which takes place deep in the jungles of a national park in India.

We are also starting to see much more diversification in plots and genres. There are new genres being explored. For example, there is Enthiran which involves an Android as one of the villains and is a great foray into the science fiction genre. There is Naan-Ee (where the hero is reincarnated as a house fly) and Aayirathil Oruvan (a very Indiana Jones style film), both of which are fantasy films. Then there are the plots. They are becoming much more diverse and have started diverging more often from the plot structure I highlighted earlier. I remember watching a couple of films where the heroine was absent completely and I remember a few films where they did not have any dance numbers. The names of these films don’t come to mind at the moment, but I recall that they came out in the last 5 years or so.

Better Visuals

The Tamil film industry has been a bit slow on the uptake of HD in my opinion. Without a doubt, they have been shooting in higher resolutions than HD already and have been using digital for a while now, but HD has not trickled down to consumers. Almost all films are still released exclusively on DVD. However, there are signs that change is coming. There are a bunch of films, both new and re-releases of old films, that are being released on Blu-ray so that audiences can watch them in full HD. There is still a ways to go until all films get Bluray releases, but at least they are making an attempt to get there. The other improvement that is the most noticeable in the visuals department is the huge improvement in the technical quality and frequency of computer generated imagery in Tamil films. I used to cringe slightly whenever I saw the greatest and latest Tamil film use visual effects that Hollywood thought was new maybe 10 years ago. But today, it seems that the visual effects industry has matured greatly and the computer generated imagery in modern Tamil movies is almost on par with Hollywood. There is still a noticeable gap between Tamil films and Hollywood, but the gap is much smaller today than it was 10 years ago. Some examples of the great work produced by the Tamil visual effects industry are Enthiran and Naan-E, both films who rely heavily on computer generated images that are almost on par with what Hollywood has to offer.

Diversified Sound

The songs used in Tamil films have always had a number of genres, but recently I have noticed that there are more genres being used. Electronica sounds are becoming a lot more prominent and as a big fan of electronica, I am ecstatic about this. It’s great to see music composers start playing with even more genres. Even the underscoring that occurs in scenes to highlight emotions has diversified in terms of sound. It used to be that if there is a sad scene or one that is heavy in emotions, the underscoring relied heavily on some sad, distant voice to create the atmosphere. Today, I see films using more diverse instruments to create that atmosphere without relying on that distant voice

Conclusion

I think overall, the Tamil film industry has improved greatly over the last 10 years or so. Yes, some major issues exist, but I think recent films (last 3 years or so) indicate that these issues are becoming overcome (albeit slowly). I am hopeful and I look forward to seeing how the industry changes over the next 10 years.

Thoughts on a Facebook search engine

Today, I spent a good chunk of an hour trying to dig through various friend profiles to find this single video that one of my friends made that had a bunch of graduation-related photos. I was on a nostalgia trip and I wanted to dig it up again. However there was one major problem, Facebook’s Timeline layout (at least as of now) is a mess when you are trying to find this one specific photo or video. First, you cannot filter out everything but videos, nor can you filter photos/videos by the people who are tagged in them. This makes looking for this stuff a nightmare and eventually I just gave up. Also, this is not the first time I have had to dig up something old that was buried on my timeline or on some friend’s timeline. Once, I was digging up a post on my timeline, and the best I could do was to scroll down and hope I would eventually find it. I knew who posted it, but I couldn’t remember the date of the post, which made it difficult. I did find it eventually, but it took about 1.5 hours.

This got me thinking. The thing about Facebook’s layout is that it is currently optimized for the most recent items to have the highest visibility. This is evident when you look at the Timeline’s chronological ordering or your News Feed’s chronological ordering. (Note: the News Feed is not strictly in chronological order since it does also sort by how important or popular Facebook’s algorithms determine a post to be. That means an older post with a lot more activity in terms of comments would appear higher than other things. But for the most part, it is safe to assume that it is indeed chronological). For 99% of Facebook’s use cases, this is the optimal way of laying things out. Most of the time, one logs onto Facebook to check the latest updates from their friends, not to go digging through old content.

But there is a problem here. Currently Facebook is relatively young. In a few years, say 4-5 years, people are going to start wanting to look at their old content. Examples include photos, links and status updates. But, Facebook in its current state is incapable of serving those use cases. The best way to go about it would be to take a Google search engine approach. Why not be able to search posts, photos and videos using things like keywords, tagged people, location and date ranges? Of course, one does not need all of Facebook to be searchable. Many users would probably be content with being able to search their own content and perhaps that of their friends. Facebook can implement privacy controls so that people can control what content from their timelines shows up in search results. Of course, like most major features that are added to Facebook, you can bet there will be a huge privacy outcry, which is something that Facebook will have to consider.

I would implement this myself as a side project. However, there is a very real possibility that such a project would be in violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service because I would have to scrape and index content that is not accessible outside the Facebook platform. Not to mention that I would have to deal with the issue of storing the indexed data. Facebook most certainly would not be pleased if I stored it on my own servers, nor would any of my users be please because there are legitimate privacy concerns here. These are problems that will probably take a lot of time and effort to navigate around. Honestly, it is not worth it for a side project. Perhaps I can just implement it to index only my own timeline data? This means that I would have to create a dedicated search website, which would need to be hosted on my own servers. A Facebook app would probably be able to dodge some of these concerns, but I would still be unable to cache indexed data without violating the Terms of Service. I would have to do live queries to Facebook as I am returning search results, which would be slow and bandwidth heavy. The third option, which skirts around this issue though it probably is a legal grey area (see FB Purity case), is to create a Google Chrome extension or Firefox plugin that would store the indexed data on the user’s local machine. This means that there are no queries going to a third party service. Now, the data is being kept on the client machine, which means I would have to encrypt it. Also, performance is bound by the client machine. These are two problems that make implementing something that exists the grey area of Facebook’s Terms of Service, a not worthwhile endeavour.

So the remaining option is to wait for Facebook to do it. Now why wouldn’t they have done it by now? Search engines, crawling and indexing data and extracting useful metadata out of data is a very challenging technical problem to solve and it requires a lot of resources. Google has hundreds of thousands of servers to digest, store and serve the data that powers their search engine. It’s a very expensive system to maintain and would require a lot of developer resources to build. Let’s be honest, this would serve about 10% of the current use cases of Facebook. The cost-benefit trade-off here does not look very appealing. Now mind you, it could be a lot more appealing once it is deployed because people might actually want to use it. But for now, it definitely does not make sense for Facebook to commit enormous resources to such an endeavour.  But, I remain optimistic that they will do it eventually. After all, I’m fairly sure they already have a bunch of the infrastructure and technology necessary, to do the search engine, already powering their business intelligence and advertising systems.

Eureka Seven: Ao…. Umm, what just happened?

So I just finished watching the final two episodes of Eureka Seven Ao that aired yesterday. Let’s just say I am stunned. Not stunned in a good way mind you, I am stunned in disbelief. There is only really one sentence that can sum up my feelings about this show: “Bones! What was the point of this whole series?” I am totally baffled as to how this series turned out considering the fact that the director of this series is the same one that did such a stellar job on Eureka Seven. It’s like he forgot the great job he did on the original.

Let’s start off at the beginning shall we? When Eureka Seven Ao was first announced, I was bouncing off the walls. Its precursor series, Eureka Seven, is easily one of my most favourite animes that I have ever seen. Heck, it’s one of my most favourite TV series that I have ever seen. When the first couple of episodes aired, I was a bit let down. The series got off to a fairly rocky start. However, I ignored the rocky start because let’s face it, the original Eureka Seven also got off to a rocky start as well. However, the premise and the characters showed enough potential that I hung on after those first few episodes.

So after about a dozen episodes, the series really did not pick up. This should have been the first warning sign for me. I was still just as confused as ever about what was going on, the show did not do much to explain things and the writers were still throwing new plot lines, characters and concepts at me. I still kept watching though. Why? Well it really seemed like the plot was starting to pick up. Some of the characters were being more fleshed out, major players in the show’s world were moving and interacting, and the show’s animators were delivering some great action sequences.

By the last few episodes, things did not really improve. Most of the major characters were not as fleshed out as the characters in the original series were. Some of their motivations were still baffling (and this was when there were only like 3 episodes left). People were constantly switching sides without much thought. Hell even sides were switching sides. Plot lines, problems and character relationships that were introduced were not developed or closed at all. In fact, almost all of the things that the writers of the show introduced were practically just left dangling by the 24th and final episode. In fact, looking back, it feels like the writers just tossed in as many things as they could to see what would stick and did not spend much effort to think about how they would resolve all these things that they introduced.

The ending was absolutely abysmal. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say that the ending undoes and basically cancels out everything that has happened in the show thus far. It left me in disbelief and wondering, “What was the point of watching those past 23 episodes when the ending just makes it all void.” Now I know some of you readers (if there are actually any of you reading this blog) who are thinking that its more about the journey than the ending. That would be fine and all if the journey wasn’t confusing, underdeveloped and generally feeling lacking. Even if the journey was good, the ending is just so deus-ex machina and so poor that it negates all the positives that could have been gained from the journey itself.

So my final verdict about this show? Skip it please. Also, skip the Eureka Seven Pocket Full of Rainbows movie. Just watch the original Eureka Seven TV series then go on your merry way. I want 12 hours of my life back.