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Monday, December 28, 2009

Thrills & Messages

I saw No Country for Old Men yesterday and Unnaipol Oruvan today. Plenty of spoilers.

The chief among the many irritants puncturing 'Unnaipol Oruvan' is not its adolescent understanding of the political/judicial/social set-ups that define a country in dealing with terrorists but its horrible dialogs. When a 'terrorist' (Kamal Haasan) calls the chief police officer of the state (Mohanlal) to negotiate the release of imprisoned terrorists, Mohanlal asks "Is it true?" and "Who are you?" If you've read Forsyth's Negotiator you would have been better at dealing with terrorists. But on second thoughts, if you're dealing with a 'terrorist' bubbling with teenage-angst who demands instant justice such a negotiation doesn't seem like a bad idea. Stereotypes abound (a young geeky hacker, a good Muslim police officer, a Hindu arms dealer, etc), this movie is another in the line of disposable non-entertainment.
Tom Friedman has been writing for a while about the abysmal absence of rebellion among Muslims at the gross injustice perpetrated between themselves while they waste no opportunity to show up in unison be it a slanderous cartoon or a panda bear called Mohammed. So this movie has taken it up - a non-Muslim Muslim who calls himself a 'common man' tired of terrorists siphoning off the goodwill of the religion decides to call it even by killing the terrorists.
The repeated usage of kid gloves by Kamal in dealing with complex themes has resulted in a sharp drop in my respect for him. When half the Tamil film community goes gaga over Kamal's gamut of knowledge one expects that to be displayed in his films. (I know he's working on a borrowed script, but nobody stopped him from improving it). Even if he thinks the Tamil audience are not ready for something like Do the Right Thing he doesn't have much to lose. He's not at the peak of his career, he's well past it. All the thukda actors and writers have been singing paeans for more than a decade now. If he can't raise the bar, especially with such low budget productions where you don't burn your financial fingers, then Kamal doesn't get to complain about the quality of Tamil cinema.
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The Coen brothers' 'No Country for Old Men' is a stunning film. There's less dialog to be heard than most other films. The atmosphere Coens create is just damn immersing. For the most part it's a thriller and a very good one at that. A man (Josh Brolin) stumbles into a horribly gone drug deal where all the players are dead in the middle of a desert with the drugs and money sitting tight. He sets off with the money, which leads another man (Javier Bardem) to pursue him. Their cat-and-mouse misadventures leaves a trail of bodies which brings in another man (Tommy Lee Jones), the sheriff of the town, into the picture.
Javier Bardem portrays a chilling psychopath and I don't remember the last time I twitched my fingers at the sight of a villain before seeing his performance. There's a scene that would easily walk into my annals of best scenes - we already know that Bardem doesn't need a reason to kill when he walks in a small town gas station (in 1980, west Texas). A conversation that ensues between him and the store owner gets so creepy and tense that I wanted to go out in the balcony, get a fresh breath of air, and then come back a bit relaxed. I don't know if this piece of brilliance is right out of McCarthy's page or from the fertile brains of the twisted Coens, but the belt hanging behind the owner, a visual symbol for a hangman's halter, sure belongs to the brothers.
The final segment of the film is completely devoid of thrills and delves into the pathos of the sheriff. He's concerned at the rise in crime without any motives. He comes from a family of police officers and he has heard stories. But working on a case that involves a psychopath who kills for the sake of it (not the mention the first lines of the film where the sheriff recalls the murder of a 14 year old girl by her boyfriend, again, for no reason) gets him depressed at the cultural depravity encroaching the society. The best he can do in summarizing this descent is in these words: "I think once you stop hearing 'Sir' and 'Ma'am,' all the rest follows".
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There's a structural similarity between these two movies when seen from 50K feet - they both start like thrillers and end with a message. But that's as close as I can get to equating them. 'Unnaipol Oruvan' screams and yells I'm-a-thriller with its phone-call traces and pulsing music and then whams a 'message' to its audience in the last 15 minutes in an unabashed sophomoric style. 'No Country for Old Men' is so taut, visually and thematically, there's not a slight sag in the narration. Those looking for thrills to extend until the credit roll may be disappointed with the final 15 minutes. But it's a mature moral tale - a tale not shoved into my face, but I did the math to figure it on my own.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar

James Cameron is Hollywood's best special-effects-sentimental geek. From Aliens to Titanic, he's been covering new grounds in getting technology to further his stories featuring maudlin plots and clichéd outcomes but look very good on the screen. Avatar is in line with the era in terms of technology but sinks to new depths in a narration that's a juvenile bash against US foreign policies, corporatism and an anti-green lifestyle. Should someone should tell him that the pure-profit motif he decries in corporate America is responsible for all the technology that made the visuals of this movie so spectacular and the capitalism-believing studio executives funded his $300M project and chain theaters will make him millions as it has before? Well, who am I kidding here?
Here's a brief outline of the story: 2154. Earth is desperately looking for energy resources. A distant space body called Pandora has this rich mineral, funnily titled, unobtanium. Corporations and military send a force to study the natives of Pandora, negotiate a displacement to mine the mineral under their, wait for this, sacred tree. If negotiation doesn't work military might will have to be sought. (Why only the U.S military if the whole of Earth needs energy resources? China already bats towards imperialism. I would have appreciated Cameron if there had been a racial/geographical medley instead of just American soldiers. We see an Asian scientist, but he finally turns out to be a good guy).
I'm not a fan of good vs evil stories painted in broad strokes. You can make a movie appealing to anti-war and go-green activists, but this one is thematically immature to have a meaningful conversation about them when stepping out of the theater. (Ironically though, it has borrowed concepts from The Matrix, Dances with the Wolves and The Last Samurai, all of which do a decent job of getting the audience to delve into their worlds). Spielberg once said that visual effects should help the story, it cannot be the story. He also said that many give credit to Cameron for the technocrat he is but not the story-teller. I agree with the 1st sentence, not the 2nd one.
But go see it in 3-D for the visual orgasms it has to offer. This I like very much about Cameron - being able to realize the surreal imagery in his mind onto the screen. The world of Pandora is spectacularly vibrant, colorful and interesting. The middle segment is spacious and sets up the bond between the hero (a bio-engineered part human part native) and heroine. Cameron's not Michael Bay to throw up an action sequence once every 20 minutes. When there are no fights, there are adventures. We see new things along with the hero. This is a sample entrée in the banquet for my fantasy taste buds: the hero climbing up floating mountains to tame a flying dragon and claim one is a rite of passage in getting accepted into their community.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

On Twitter

I'm on Twitter. I'll try to cut down on my just-quote posts (where I say nothing but just quote a block) and move them to Twitter. Of course, there will be much more. This will be an experiment for me as I don't quite know to work crispness and humor into a short sentence and at the same time say something meaningful.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

This is quite scary:
During a year-long gambling binge at the Caesars Palace and Rio casinos in 2007, Terrance Watanabe managed to lose nearly $127 million.

The run is believed to be one of the biggest losing streaks by an individual in Las Vegas history. It devoured much of Mr. Watanabe's personal fortune, he says, which he built up over more than two decades running his family's party-favor import business in Omaha, Neb. It also benefitted the two casinos' parent company, Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which derived about 5.6% of its Las Vegas gambling revenue from Mr. Watanabe that year.

In a civil suit filed in Clark County District Court last month, Mr. Watanabe, 52 years old, says casino staff routinely plied him with liquor and pain medication as part of a systematic plan to keep him gambling.

It's scary because there were no signs of such behavior during Watanabe's early life. His fortune was not inherited. He joined his father's business when he was 15 and slowly built an empire. To transform a small toy store to a $300 million conglomerate requires not only extraordinary business acumen but also discipline and control - something that's not found in addictive gamblers. And then such a sudden descent in this manner, as if someone with no monetary orderliness won a lottery and decided to bungle it up, shakes me.

PS: Read the whole article, it's very good reporting.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Vaaranam Aayiram

When I decried the quality of Tamil films to a friend and how I can't get past 10 minutes of many that I've tried to watch in the recent past he insisted that I see 'Vaaranam Aayiram'. After watching it for 30 minutes I wanted to stop, but I persuaded myself because I haven't seen a Tamil film until the credits rolled since 'Dasavatharam' and wanted to sit through this one for the heck of it. Then I decided that in such circumstances I should go with my instinct and save myself some time.

While the usual formula contains part cleavage and part punch-dialogues, Gautam Menon, the director, in an effort to give the audience a 'non-movie' movie experience has stripped some of the ingredients. There are fights where the hero doesn't fly. The father is friendly, not fire-breathing. The hero falls flat after losing his love but picks up life with another woman and marches on. More importantly, there's no flow in the narration where elements of screenplay converge in the end for a grand denouement. But pretentious drab should not be confused with film art. 'Vaaranam Aayiram' is long and fails to engage. It's not cerebral and doesn't deserve delving into its themes.

While Menon wants to be appreciated for his bold vision for his tangential sub-plots in the second half, we can sense his turmoil to abide by some of the Tamil cinema's rules. Songs. There's a 10 minute episode on how the protagonist's parents fell in love in the 70s. Surya as a school boy? Give or take 20 years, the viewers won't notice! Although I'm annoyed by overacting heroines, Menon flashes his female leads with their underacting. Their stilted range of emotions is annoying too. The biggest downer is Menon's dialogues - in trying to be poetic he's managed sophomoric. Some may sleep through, some may scratch their heads and some may be wowed. I just didn't hate the picture.

But I'm happy the film is made. Surya is no better than Vijay for accepting such a non-commercial project for it all boils down to holding onto one's fort. While Vijay and Ajith have a strong viewership in B & C centers, Surya and Vikram with their flair for experimenting alternate between commercial and challenging roles to earn audience with sophisticated tastes. Nobody serves the art; every actor prostitutes their talent for money. But with the success of every Vijay/Ajith film we're traveling back in time. With the usual nonsense on how a woman should dress to crass comedy capitalizing disabled people their movies propagate virulent stereotypes. With at least 'Vaaranam Aayiram', we're going in another direction - it's progressive because there's no social degradation.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

This is interesting:
A judge has finalised a settlement in which film studio Sony will pay $1.5m (£850,000) to film fans after using a fake critic to praise its movies.

In 2001, ads for films including Hollow Man and A Knight's Tale quoted praise from a reviewer called David Manning, who was exposed as being invented.

He supposedly called Heath Ledger "this year's hottest new star" for his role in A Knight's Tale, said The Animal was "another winner" and Hollow Man was "one hell of a scary ride".

People who saw the films in the US can now get a $5 (£2.80) refund from Sony's pay-out, lawyer Norman Blumenthal said.
Sony did something enormously stupid. Their fictional cinema critic was just one Google search away from being exposed and still they went ahead. But the legal aspect of the outcome is interesting. So, if I saw the movie and retained the theater stub I'm eligible for a $5 pay-out. The judge thinks that it's appropriate the studio compensate half of the ticket price for cheating its audience. And 'cheating' here means misleading the common man by a fake positive review. I think the judge was legally bound to compensate the viewer somehow. But does it make common sense?

Shouldn't the audience who claim their $5 back be asked to prove that they saw the cinema only because of the fake review by the fake critic? No, because it's logically undecidable. This leads me to another question - how many cinema goers go to a specific cinema because their favorite critic recommended it? Before the internet, whatever newspaper/weekly you subscribed to and whatever critic worked for that publisher played a role. But now everyone has access to every cinema pundits' bytes. Rottentomatoes pools together reviews of popular critics. And IMDb has its rating for every movie - voted by the general public.

At the beginning of this decade, when my interest in cinema was at its peak, I devoured every review from every pundit. There was a phase where I allowed the critics to dictate what I should think about the movie. Wag the Dog is an example - I thought it was bland and predictable, but critics loved it. I read them all and taught myself to love it. This primarily came from the insecurity that I don't know enough, not mature enough, not culturally acclimatized enough to appreciate the product. It took a while for me to realize that I'll always be, heck, even some cinema pundits will be, inadequate and not always get the director's vision. Sometimes, it's just a cheap writer/director conveying something unworthy of serious interrogation. Sometimes a truly serious message is lost on me. But either way there's no need for me to hide my real thoughts.

I saw '2012' last week after reading Roger Ebert's review. For those who don't know much about film critics he's their equivalent of Brad Pitt. He won the 1st Pulitzer for film criticism (of only 2) and most of the times my likes and dislikes are in agreement with his. The cinema was such a disaster that I wanted to punch my fist through the screen (as if there weren't enough holes in the movie). If that's his only review some reads they'll think he has an IQ of the director of 2012. Since I've followed him over the years I know that's his guilty pleasure. He recommends some crazy products from time to time.

Now that I have rambled let me try to connect the dots and conjure a few points. Most people don't listen to critics. They have their favorite actors, directors, writers to decide if they should go to a movie. Those who read/listen to critics always take that with a pinch of salt. And they gradually educate if the taste of their critic matches theirs. But nobody I know ever respects blurbs behind DVD cases or newspaper ads. Those short sentences always have to be 'Brilliantly directed' or as in this case 'Another Winner'. Sony had to pay for something nobody would anyway have based their movie-going decision on and that's just dumb.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Leaders of two very significant democracies come together. And it's on the eve of the first anniversary of a terrorist attack on one of the countries. Obama is about to announce his Afghan policy today while India plays a crucial role in the stability and reconstruction of that region. And I repeatedly read and hear the Salahi's breach into the state dinner. Not just at this respected news daily, but all my news sources have home-page items on the Salahis. In this loud media fart I wasn't able to find a single piece from the top dailies (Times, Post & the Journal) on the immensity of Singh's visit.

The couple that crashed into the party are celebrity whores. They're famous now for trying to get famous. And they want to get a bit more famous so that they can be even more famous. But what about the audience who care about politics, war, economy, health care? They're now driven to focus-journals like National Affairs & Foreign Policy. The editors are not even emphasizing the breach as an indication of the holes in the security details for the leader of the free world - they're carrying profiles of the crashers and what they're up to. With the flurry of coverage given to nonsense like balloon boy, Levi Johnston and now the Salahis, they're ...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In Minority Report, set in 2054, Tom Cruise has transparent discs half the size of CDs which hold high quality video that can be projected. Spielberg consulted scientists from MIT ( and elsewhere) to visualize a futuristic home.

Now, even in 2002, we saw the beginning of the decline of personal storage tools with every digital content moving to the cloud. Although we have Bluray today for super-high-defintion content, in about 10 years when the information infrastructure is strong & deep and processing powers are manifold than what we enjoy today (when is Moore's law going to hit the physical limits and stop working?) every audio & video will be streamed from the cloud, it will be of supreme quality and there won't be any buffer time.

Did the MIT guys not see it coming? Or did Spielberg refuse because it would be a bland sci-fi prop to see a video clipping from the web compared to those cool mini-discs?

Friday, November 20, 2009

And I thought WPUJC Waas, the Srilankan blower, had too many initials. [Scorecard]

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Living Within Means

Occasionally I blow-off steam. Being raised in a financially conservative society makes you think 18 times before you start to shop around for a nice pair of shoes. But compare that with the all-you-can-eat cheap money made possible to Americans by conservative savers like Chinese:
When Michelle Patterson was laid off as an executive director of marketing for a publishing company in January, she figured she could subsist comfortably, at least for a while, on the $20,000 she had reserved from her savings and severance combined. She continued to eat out regularly and made daily Starbucks runs.

"It made me feel like I was still at work," says the 41-year-old resident of Newark, N.J. She spent as much as $250 a week on networking meals and drinks with contacts. Some days, she scheduled up to four coffee meetings a day, picking up the tab most of the time. She also spent $30 a month for pedicures and $150 on her hair.

The reckoning came in August, when she examined her finances. Her condo had been on the market for six months but she'd yet to receive a single offer. Her severance and savings were nearly gone.

As much as I'd like to go out there and live the moment, fiscal discipline is so ingrained into me (just as it is for a mass middle class who grew up in India before the IT revolution along with other money spinners arrived) that it's quite impossible to sign-up for something beyond my capabilities. But American culture as a whole has exhibited an acceptable risk that has pushed its limits consistently - it's okay to buy a new car, new house, send kids to private schools, dine out regularly, take that Hawaii vacation - even if it's not in your means.

My philosophy is that if I fail, it's my personal responsibility. But for a good chunk of the Americans the cause of a failure is packaged and handed over to someone else - the lending firm whose practices are predatory, easily available credit cards that charge 34% interest, pay $0 to drive out a new car while the finer print said something monstrous. This finger-pointing, though not completely unjustified, has give birth to a thriving law business. Everyone wants to sue someone. This in turn has made the credit card firms, banks, auto dealers, insurance companies, etc get super legal protection who lobby for bills in favor of them or at least for bills that aren't too favorable to consumers.

A few months back I quoted a NewYorker article about American food culture where an entrepreneur gradually increased the portion size; the general public don't want to drink 3 cans of coke but it's okay to drink from a mini-well of coke that wonderfully complements the mini-bucket of popcorn. The normal serving sizes of junk food today are up from a generation ago. The same goes for houses, cars, credit card limits (considering inflation)... Market sees that if the common man likes to go on binge-eating, he's going to need a bigger shirt to wear, a bigger couch to sit on, a bigger house to roam around, a bigger car to drive around and a bigger coffin to rest. Americans know capitalism much better than anyone else. The mass wanted to move from a producer economy to a consumer economy. And the market delivered it.

Coming back to the above quote, two factors come to my mind - instant gratification & peer pressure. Going to a Starbucks and spending $3 on a coffee makes a statement about the person to the rest and that should make them feel good. The same goes for the car they drive, the dress they wear and the TV in their house. It's hard to dismiss them as having no foresight. Unemployed ones can't sustain this lifestyle and it doesn't take a Nobel prize in economics to see that. But they feel the need to continue the way they live so that they're respected. As behavioral economists would say, such acts aren't cold logical decision making sessions but are largely influenced by friends and neighbors and colleagues. And when an unemployed family continues to burn their savings to continue their way of living, they set a new standard for future unemployed persons.

PS: I know these observations are sweeping generalizations and over-simplifications, but they reflect reality at a reasonable level.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It seems like I'm on another spree of linkfest without any of my commentary. But I can't resist this nugget of wisdom.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Calling this Adoor Gopalakrishnan's piece bad would be an understatement. I'm having second thoughts about seeing his movies. [Emphasis mine].
A director of popular films in Malayalam recently said that the farther his films were from the realities of life, the better their chances of becoming commercially successful. But I think filmmakers should have a responsibility to their audience. They should not cheat the people, ignore them or assume they are intellectually inferior. Filmmakers need to have a lot of respect for their audience. Only then will their movies become worthwhile works of art. Most popular filmmakers take their audiences for granted. This is the most important difference between the makers of popular films and those of better films.

We go to a movie to see something new, to enliven our minds and our brains. We do it for the same reason we read a good book — to know what we don’t, to transport ourselves into experiences that we have not known, to look through another’s eyes. A work of art, whether it is literature or cinema, attains a certain importance when it enables us to experience life at close quarters. Such literature and films surely give pleasure — real entertainment to their audiences.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

This is tragic:
What's striking is the way young Chinese people can progress from first kiss to multiple abortions in a relatively short time. Take Hu and her college roommates, who all arrived at school as virgins. Early on, one roommate from Guizhou—a poor, rural province in the south of China—asked Hu and the others how she was supposed to kiss: with or without tongue? But by the time they graduated, all four roommates were sleeping with boys, and the girl on the bunk below Hu had had three abortions in one year.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

John McWhorter writes about the death of languages:

The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic. The click sounds in certain African languages are magnificent to hear. In many Amazonian languages, when you say something you have to specify, with a suffix, where you got the information. The Ket language of Siberia is so awesomely irregular as to seem a work of art.

But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the makes of Toyota. So our case for preserving the world’s languages cannot be based on how fascinating their variegation appears to a few people in the world. The question is whether there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a universal tongue.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gladwell writes:
The statistician Stephen Stigler once wrote an elegant essay about the futility of the practice of eponymy in science—that is, the practice of naming a scientific discovery after its inventor. That's another idea inappropriately borrowed from the cultural realm. As Stigler pointed out, "It can be found that Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienaymé stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev's first work on the topic." For that matter, the Pythagorean theorem was known before Pythagoras; Gaussian distributions were not discovered by Gauss. The examples were so legion that Stigler declared the existence of Stigler's Law: "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer." There are just too many people with an equal shot at those ideas floating out there in the ether. We think we're pinning medals on heroes. In fact, we're pinning tails on donkeys.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A few years back there were deadly car bombs going off in Iraq every week that casualties became a back-burner news item. Every network treated it as "yeah, yeah, one more bazaar explosion.. we were expecting it". Is Pakistan next in line?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pre-Mid Life

I'm planning to buy a car. After a ton of research a desi usually narrows the options down to 'you can't go wrong with this' Honda or a Toyota. It sickens me - not to drive one of those but to conform to a set of rules where value for money precedes comfort, driving pleasure. Not just in the matter of choosing a car but almost every decision in life is calculated to yield maximum value, choose the least risky route thereby optimizing for a mediocre life. Not just financially, but also in terms of experience, the richness of life. Bull shit. For once I want to buy a sports car. I want to drain my savings by taking a week long vacation in Paris staying in a good hotel, enjoying great cuisine, visiting wonderful museums, operas, ballets, smyphonies, tennis matches. I want to go see a cinema on a Wednesday evening. Sometimes I strongly feel like I want to quit my job and become a full-time blogger. Or write a novel. Or become a high school math teacher. Or educate myself in a field like history or anthropology. Clinging onto a monthly pay to take care of the bills is fucking poisonous.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kandhasamy

Saw bits and pieces of Vikram's Kandhasamy. The casting director should be shot for casting Krishna as a CBI officer. And the writer should be hanged for writing him Tamil lines. There's no reason to alienate his fanbase.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Jacob Weisberg writes:
That Rupert Murdoch may skew the news rightward more for commercial than ideological reasons is somewhat beside the point. What matters is the way that Fox's successful model has invaded the bloodstream of the American media. By showing that ideologically distorted news can drive ratings, Ailes has provoked his rivals at CNN and MSNBC to experiment with a variety of populist and ideological takes on the news. It's Fox that led CNN's Lou Dobbs to remodel himself into a nativist cartoon. It's Fox that led MSNBC to amp up Keith Olbermann. Fox hasn't just corrupted its own coverage. Through its influence, it has made all of cable news unpleasant and unreliable.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Promised Podcast Debuts

Here's my podcast. Varahasimhan, a friend, collaborates with me on this. This is our first. There are grunts, groans, pauses, stutters, grammar errors, repetitions, poor audio quality in parts, etc. Let me remind you: this is our first podcast. We both were quite the tight-asses that we usually are not. Recording our conversation made us slightly conscious of ourselves, I guess. When we discussed the final topic I had a lot to say but came across quite incoherent. I hope to get better with time.



You can download the podcast here.

This one's in English. Here's the timeline:
0 - 5 mins: Introduction, Why Podcast?
5 - 21 mins: FTC's new regulation for bloggers.
22 - 25 mins: Marge Simpson's Playboy Centerfold
26 - 42 mins: Is our society compromising ethics by liberalizing?
43 - 44 mins: Goodbye

We'll be doing one in Tamil quite soon and I'm hoping we'll be our relaxed selves joking around. We greatly appreciate your feedback.

Update: The audio quality is poorer than I expected. I used Skype to call, Powergramo to record the call and Audacity to clean up the background noise. I realize that I should have subjected the audio file to some volume-even process because for a good part my voice level is low. If you have any alternative technologies to suggest, please do. I want my second podcast to be very very clear.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Markets & Models

This is bad reporting. I'm not expecting NewYoker's level of depth from every daily or weekly, but I read the whole piece (surprisingly through Slatest) and felt bah at the end. On top of conveying nothing, it's plain vanilla stupid. This is the capsule: Filippa Hamilton, a model for Ralph Lauren (RL) was fired because she's fat. She said "They fired me because they said I was overweight and I couldn't fit in their clothes anymore". Hamilton's photo was published after digitally doctoring making her look unbelievably slim. "I think they owe American women an apology, a big apology," she said. "I'm very proud of what I look like, and I think a role model should look healthy." And this becomes news? Rolling-eyeballs, scratching-head, plug in your favorite cliche, but wasn't she getting paid for her figure, skin texture, bust size, etc?

I'm not a fan of models. They look anemic and there's no life in their eyes. Though I find some of them beautiful their expressionless ramp walk makes them all look like cold-hearted robots. But that's just me. The market's requirements are different. Cultural conditioning goes a long way in defining beauty. And it is such culture codes embedded unconsciously that dictates RL to hire or fire models. Men in west dream of slim, smooth skinned and sharp featured women which makes women want to have those attributes. Jared Diamond once wrote in an essay that men in Papua New Guinea thought western women were sexually unattractive, "look at their pale skin, small breasts and weak arms, they're not fit for raising a family" they would say. (Had it been Papau New Guinea she would have been fired for not being plump enough).

Hamilton's second statement can be interpreted as opportunistic if only it weren't so moronic. She has had a contract with RL since 2002 and all the while she must have passed their metric test. Now that she's put on some flesh she's suddenly proud of her looks and demands an apology - not to her - but American women. Her implication is ludicrous. Any advertisement for a personal adornment feeds to a dream. Somehow their product makes you feel good, improves your productivity, adds class. Even a silly deodorizer transforms you from a office geek to a babe magnet. Women's clothing being such a big market and RL being such a premier they have high standards of the dream they want their customers to experience.

PS: I was very reluctant on writing this post because what I have to say seems so obvious. But I had to persuade myself into posting this because it must not be obvious to a few who think it's news worthy (NY Daily, Slate).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dawkins says:
"[My biology teacher] came into class and asked: 'What animal feeds on hydra?' We didn't know. He went right around the whole class asking. Everybody was guessing, and then, finally, we said, 'Sir, Sir, what animal does?' And he waited and waited, and then he said, 'I don't know. And I don't think Mr Coulson does either.' He burst into the next room, got Mr Coulson and dragged him out by the arm, and he didn't know either! It was a wonderful lesson, I never forgot it and neither did anyone else: it's OK to not know the answer."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Podcast in the Offing

I was reading some of by earlier blogs posts - the ones I wrote about 8 years back. It was sickening to my stomach and strongly felt like throwing up. There were some generous people who said "You can write". Wow, talk about humanity. Anyway, I was reading these cringe-worthy posts and then I thought about the ones I had written in diaries even before that which nobody knows where they're now. Though it comes as a relief, there's some distress. I don't remember how bad they are. In other words, I'm trying to measure my evolution in terms of my thought process. Not just my range of thinking but also my skill to express those ideas coherently.
And then I thought 10 years hence I'll have a bunch of blog posts, but why should I restrict myself to the written word. With such posts I always have the freedom to edit & update a number of times. But with a podcast I don't think I'd have the willingness to rerecord whole sentences, edit the old one out and plug the new one in. Polishing a podcast would be painful - and that's nice because that would be a raw and faithful representation of my thoughts. Moreover, to be able to know about my thoughts through my own voice has a strong fingerprint element to it than written words.
All pumped up, I started recording using the software that comes with the machine - and the quality was awful. Well a part of the credit goes to my timbre, but the technology is to be blamed too. I'll research a bit, download a proper audio software, buy a microphone and post my first podcast by next weekend. But here's the thing, though each of my posts hardly take 2.5 minutes to be read the podcasts will be quite longer. Of course there'll be some rambling but I plan to include stuff that I would usually have exorcised from the post. I consider it a success if I can publish a podcast every month.
Hmm, I'm thinking way ahead of myself. Let me publish my first podcast and see how it all works out.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize And the Academy is Asked WTF

The Nobel committee sent a bouquet of roses to the White House today morning and sent tins of black paint to 204 other individuals and organizations that were nominated for this year's peace prize. The nominations for 2009 peace prize closed on Feb 11, just 21 days after he was inaugurated. His success at the international level can mostly be narrowed down to stellar speeches which strove hard to reshape the image of America. But that's not in any way adequate to even consider him for such a reputed international prize.

I'm a huge fan of Obama as a personality. He embodies personal responsibility and effuses charm. His speech-making skills are supreme. And I don't doubt his intentions - he wants the world to reduce their nuclear arsenal, he's encouraging greater co-operation between nations to fight climate change and he's taking human rights seriously in countries like China & Myanmar. I think the prize for all of his qualities and vision was given by the American electorate when they elected him the president. Now it's time for him to restore the confidence of American public and project diplomacy & pragmatism, which his predecessor lacked, in the world arena.

Many say that this could be interpreted as a work-in-progress and could be validated for the actions the man will take in the years to come, but that's such a weak argument. The MacArthur genius grant does that - they choose accomplished personalities and give $100000/year for five years with no strings attached, providing artistes and scientists a much needed financial freedom so that they can continue their great work and contribute to the society. But to be shortlisted for the genius grant one should have a solid record, not just noble visions.

Nobel prizes are usually awarded to personalities who have made ground-breaking changes in their field of work. The peace prize has been quite wobbly - you don't see a Ph.D student starting research on a promising technology nominated in the physics category. In this light it is surprising to even think about Obama's nomination, let alone his victory. If the committee were hell bent on giving some prize, they should have given him the literature prize. As an author of 2 best selling books, his literary resume is a bit heavier than his political one from an award perspective.

Update: And now to why I like Obama. He said the following today morning:

Let me be clear, I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.

To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize, men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

Hero

The camera is placed in a horribly out of control swing that goes hither and thither - aimed at the general direction of the south Asian man who's emerging from the waves, without a shirt but with a pant, but wait a minute, there are 11 white girls in tightly stitched bikinis that their nipples pierce through.... where was I, yeah, what are they doing running their hands over the chest of this clueless man person who hasn't shaved in 2 days and why is the cameraman cranking in and out the zooming functionality of the lens so as to go from an excruciating panoramic shot with everything-in-the-frame but no fucking detail to another excruciating water crashing water molecule freaking hydrogen-oxygen bond shot and while it's a breezy balmy day at the beach what the heck was the costume designer thinking when he gave those sun glasses to what now seems to be the alpha male and now why is he moving his hands and legs crazily in the streets of London while those waiting for their bus watch this retard with a mix of pity and disgust and now he's driving this red convertible through the lush green pastures of Switzerland and there are cows, big ones, in the background.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Why hasn't Salman Rushdie Won the Nobel Prize Yet?

The Academy will announce the winner of Nobel Prize for Literature for 2009 tomorrow. I read 'Midnight's Children' when I was 23 and went haywire why they still hadn't given Rushdie the prize. This FAQ is for such young men (and women of course).

What? Yeah, yeah I'm still a young man.

Why didn’t/doesn’t Author X get it?

A lot of people claim to know exactly why certain authors get or don’t get the prize. Which is funny, considering the aforementioned confidentiality. Truth is, until 50 years have gone by, we usually have no way of knowing if they were even nominated.

Pick a reason:
  • There’s one award to give out each year, and on average, more than one deserving author. New books are published each year. Do the math.
  • The people who decide on it are a bunch of literary snobs. They’re not necessarily politically conservative (by US standards) or raging communist revolutionaries (by European standards). They’re just snobs, elected by other snobs for the specific task of being anal about language and literature.
  • Not everyone is a prophet in their own lifetime. See: Kafka, Franz; Proust, Marcel; and others.
  • People, on a whole, read an awful lot of crap and keep expecting the Academy to validate their reading habits. Not gonna happen (see above under snobs, literary).
  • The Academy has really boring taste sometimes. Fortunately, the older members are dying off.
  • People like to speculate, and they seem to think that the longer they speculate about an author, the better his/her chances of getting it. Whether the Academy gives a damn about how often a certain author has been mentioned by people who are not them is unknown.
  • Authors die. The Nobel can’t be given out posthumously. Good thing, or they’d have to start with Homer and Gilgamesh.
  • Authors live. Not getting it one year doesn’t disqualify you from getting it next year or 20 years from now. See: Lessing, Doris.
And so some writers, for various reasons, end up without a Nobel prize. Funnily enough, we keep reading them despite their non-Nobel status. Putting it succinctly: if Tolstoy, Woolf, Joyce and Twain didn’t get it, there can be no shame in NOT getting a Nobel prize.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Polanski Affair

If you don't know anything about the Polanski news item, here's a brief recap: Polanski, at the height of his Hollywood celebdom in 1977 took a 13 year old girl to the actor Jack Nicholson's house saying that he's going to take pictures of her for the French edition of Vogue. He gave her drugged champagne and once her senses were quite numbed he performed oral sex, sexual intercourse and sodomy. Before each act she had resisted by saying 'No' and he had forced his way through. To escape conviction he fled the U.S. He was arrested last week in Zurich. He was on his way to the Swiss Film Festival to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. At the time of this post, there's a good chance that he'll be extradited to U.S and sentenced.
About 8 years back when my movie hormones were pumped up I tried reading an unofficial biography of Polanski. The tone dealing with his crime was romanticized. It talked about how as a boy he had a rough ride under the Nazis in the Krakow camp, his mother was killed in the ghetto, how his fully pregnant wife was murdered - all giving him a turbulent state of mind. And to top it all, the author portrayed the girl as having features that were well older than a 13 year old, which might have confused (rather invited) him about her real age. It was morally repulsive to continue reading a book that cheaply defended a criminal and I put it down.

But to my surprise, it was not just that author who seems to be enamored with Polanski as an artiste, most of today's France is. It is one thing for a group of cinema directors (Scorsese being one of them) to stand united behind him and ask for the charges be dropped (as repugnant as it may be). But for politicians to call the arrest "Absolutely horrifying" and "Judicial lynching" is plainly preposterous. They have an obligation to say at least the politically right thing, not just reflect popular sentiment.
Some defenders claim that even the victim has forgiven and moved on and why should the law authorities continue to pursue. That the victim has moved on shows her grace and maturity. If anything, that's how one copes with her life - by treating every new day the first day of the rest of her life. But the idea of the justice system is to ensure fairness by assuring the common man and his teenage daughter that those with powerful connections don't escape through cracks. A good artiste does in no way translates to a law abiding person and as much as good art is necessary for society, strong law enforcement is even more vital for the functioning of a society.

History is replete with abusive, unstable, socially graceless artistes who have gone on to produce masterpieces that have stood the test of time. I try to see Polanski and his works as separate entities. If we had to judge a song or a movie or a painting based on the moral highness of the artiste producing it, we'd have a lot of empty galleries, silent airwaves and crappy movies. Polanksi, as a director, has been handed the lifetime award by cinema fans long before. I don't think his notoriety will surpass his artistry. Picasso was never faithful to his 3 wives, but we don't remember him for that. With that in mind, Polanski should surrender himself without posing legal challenges and in the process make himself a real man.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Seeds of Objectivism

From Jon Chait review of a couple of books on Ayn Rand:
Anne C. Heller, in her skillful life of Rand, traces the roots of Rand's philosophy to an even earlier age. Around the age of five, Alissa Rosenbaum's [Ayn Rand] mother instructed her to put away some of her toys for a year. She offered up her favorite possessions, thinking of the joy that she would feel when she got them back after a long wait. When the year had passed, she asked her mother for the toys, only to be told she had given them away to an orphanage. Heller remarks that "this may have been Rand's first encounter with injustice masquerading as what she would later acidly call ‘altruism." (The anti-government activist Grover Norquist has told a similar story from childhood, in which his father would steal bites of his ice cream cone, labelling each bite "sales tax" or "income tax." The psychological link between a certain form of childhood deprivation and extreme libertarianism awaits serious study.)
I'm an eloquent man, most of the times. When questioned or in need of an explanation I put forth my thoughts quite clearly that the listener doesn't need a rephrasing or a repetition of my response. But with the missus I'm another man. Today morning at 5 there was a barrage of accusations that I don't wake up enough times to put my child to sleep. God knows how many tons of hours of sleep I've sacrificed; alas, there's isn't a god. And today morning as usual I was stuttering, marshaling my argument skills with no effect while the lady shot point by point, instance by instance, quoting date and time leaving me wanting a glass of water. Had it been another person in a different setting, I'd have shot back too, but this time I was merely repeating the same thing again and again which she incorrectly discredited.
And this is not the first time nor am I the only husband. What happens to our skill to logically progress an argument with the wife in tight family corners?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Look at the evolution of a blogger. Amit Varma, author of IndiaUncut, the most popular Indian blog used to write some decent pieces for Mint & Cricinfo. After winning the Bastiat Prize for online journalism, competing with serious writers like Clive Crook, he's now the most popular media-porn columnist in India. He now writes this & that about India and Indians, mostly nothing of substance. Clive was not a push-over when he lost to Amit, but since then he's grown in stature. He writes lucidly on matters of importance to the general public. Anyone who writes on serious stuff is never going to be as popular as the gossip columnist or the frivolous writer flaming conspiracy theories. Did Amit intentionally steer clear of writing 8 paragraph columns about what's ailing the Indian polity and settle on picking snafu headlines from tabloid? Only he can answer. But I still don't understand his popularity - the blog was nominated for the best Asian blog award (came in an unbelievable 2nd) and he's now on the panel to judge this year's Bastiat winner. Where is this all heading?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Watching Federer battle Del Potro is like watching Tendulkar and Dhoni on two ends of the pitch. While Potro can get the ball across the net effectively it's clumsy to watch, especially when you have Federer on the other side performing a ballet.

Update: I spoke too soon - Federer's unforced errors in the fifth set exceeded what he's committed in this whole tournament. Kudos to Del Potro.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I wonder if there are any atheist or even agnostic musicians from India in the last 50 years (post-Darwin, generally speaking) whose legacy is half as impressive as that of Ilayaraja's or Rahman's or Balamuralikrishna's or M.S.Subbalakshmi's. I wonder if there's a direct relationship between submitting oneself to the divine and creating divine music.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Truly a useless observation but I have to point it out: After Federer won his first set and was walking to his chair, he took the optimum route so that the towel boy from the court corner didn't have to cover a few extra steps, which also means that Federer didn't have to wait a few extra seconds to grab his towel. Interestingly, he won the set without breaking a sweat.
After beating Robin Soderling 6-0,6-3,6-7,7-6 to reach the semifinals of the US Open, Federer said "It was cold in the beginning and I felt at home. After a couple of sets it was even cooler and he must have felt at home."

For those scratching heads - Federer's from Switzerland and Soderling's from Sweden.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Arrow of Love

My feedreader is overflowing with unread pieces. My Netflix documentary remains unseen for weeks. The weekly magazines are barely skimmed. I don't know where my library check-outs are. Personal time and space are lost. But the loss has flown into something more beautifully indescribable. When I wake up at 2 in the morning to sing a boring song without a hint of scale or tempo, my daughter listens as if that's the only sound that will put her to sleep. And the tiredness and frustration resulting from hours of sleeplessness melt away at her smile. And when she pulls the hair off my forehand when she cries, it isn't really painful. The disappearance of her blissful smile as soon as I focus my camera isn't that disappointing.
All the things that my wife and I do to keep her happy, healthy, safe, comfortable, asleep & active have heigtened my respect for my parents. I never realized the amount of work involved in caring for an infant can be done with such eagerness. I'll never be able to reciprocate the emotional investment my parents have made in me. Same way, I'll have to accept that my daughter will be able to unconditionally give all of herself only to her children (if & when) but not her parents.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Brilliant reporting & analysis from Steven Brill in New Yorker about incompetent New York teachers and the rigidity of teachers union in protecting them. Sample their attitude:
I asked the woman for her reaction to the following statement: “If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances to improve but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

“That sounds like Klein and his accountability bullshit,” she responded. “We can tell if we’re doing our jobs. We love these children.” After I told her that this was taken from a speech that President Obama made last March, she replied, “Obama wouldn’t say that if he knew the real story.”

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Afghan War

Diplomats and pundits and statesmen and politicians and professors and military men and reporters have written, spoken, argued, decried, urged, lauded and warned about the U.S war in Afghanistan. I earnestly add my share of bytes.

Obama has said a few times that the war in Afghanistan is a 'war of necessity' as against the 'war of choice', the one in Iraq. Few columnists recently delved into details of what actually constitutes 'necessity' and declared that this war cannot be called one such. (Briefly, a necessary war is when your security is threatened or when you can't pursue other options to resolve a conflict). But political speeches are such that complex ideas that require hours of explanations in thorough detail are conveniently simplified into understandable snippets for the common man. In that sense, what Obama implies is that the war in Afghanistan is more significant than the Iraq invasion which was launched on flimsy grounds and was executed without understanding their view of democracy.

But how necessary is this war, what are the stated objectives, how far are the U.S (and the International Security Allied Forces) in reaching them? After September 11, George W Bush decided to invade Afghanistan to root out Al-Qaeda and the Taliban that were harboring them. Presently, security analysts agree that there are very few pockets of the terrorist organization operating within the borders of Afghanistan. Most of them have moved east to the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan, some to Yemen and even as far as to Somalia. Understandably they seek Muslim countries with a weak state (and there are quite a few) and the U.S forces cannot keep stepping into these countries. And Al-Qaeda cannot forever hold a special place in the Pentagon/CIA/Whitehouse triad. If protecting American land and subjects is the point of 'war on terror', they should be lessening their focus on Afghanistan and adopt a zoomed-out view. (There are other forms of threat from grassroots terror camps that can easily target American embassy or personnel).

Two of the stated objectives after the fall of Taliban and driving away the Al-Qaeda is to institute a democracy and create sustainable conditions for nation-building. Theoretically, there's a democracy. Karzai was the democratically elected president in 2004 and as that term was coming to an end they had another election a week back and in a few weeks a winner will be announced. But how indicative are the subjects exercising their right to vote the vibrancy of their democracy? The government controls only one third of the area inside their political borders. Their army is poorly trained. The policemen demand bribe even if they're to do their part of the job. Money has to be pushed in almost all government offices - right from setting up a school to constructing a bridge. In spite of world's non-military assistance, it remains one of the poorest countries.

The U.S & allied troops are greatly outnumbered by the growing insurgents. There are approximately 29,000 US troops and 65,000 ISAF. The country's population is close to 40 million and for any adequate security, considering at least 1 armed person for 100 (such a ratio is not needed in a land of strong law enforcement) there needs to be 400000 troops, just to ensure that boys and girls can go to school and the lady can go to the market and the man can go to his office and all return safely. This is a whopping number. At this point, the international forces are not pitching in any personnel and U.S is the only active contributor. The chief of military operations there, Gen.McChrystal said that the current strategy is not working and it needs to changed radically. His aides suggested that he may need 40,000 more troops to plug the security holes. Considering the growing dissatisfaction at home at the way the war has evolved, the members of Congress may not approve for what could turn out to be another Vietnam.

Nation building is an abstract term. For the sake of this piece, let's say that it means building roads and bridges for effective transportation of men and materials, building and maintaining schools for the effective long-term growth, building & training a strong army that can defend itself, instituting an honest police force to resolve and contain civil conflicts… A diplomat recently said that 10 agricultural experts are more powerful than 100 soldiers in building a country. But when the nation's political entity itself makes money by cultivating poppy (for opium), there's not much one can do. And in areas where the corrupt police don't have much voice, there are warlords who wield their power over their tribes or cities. For a fee they resolve disputes; for a fee you can run your own mom-pop shop; for a fee you can build an office so that they don't blow you up; for a fee they'll return your son safely after kidnapping; for a fee they'll not disrupt your business; for a fee the international aid workers can continue to help the locals…

Afghanistan has been a place of constantly quarelling tribes. A unified leadership for the whole political entity cannot command respect and power, even if the leader is worthy of it. Hamid Karzai is clearly not that material. People are now longing the benign rule of Taliban. American officials say that they have to fight the kleptocracy, not insurgents, to create pockets of safe zones. Karzai recently brought in an exiled Uzbek warlord from Turkey to appease and win the votes of Uzbek tribes. Even during this election, local warlords and tribal leaders congregated and decided who they all should vote for. (In some areas, it is reported, a delegate of the local leader will walk into the polling booth and vote for everyone in the town). When power is distributed in this manner the U.S cannot dream of building a nation, instituting a democracy and happily flying back.

Should the U.S gradually withdraw its troops and call it a day? What if the Taliban from Pakistan heads back and wrests control of major provinces? Would that increase the threat level to America? Is it time to ditch the Bush doctrine of preventive/pre-emptive war and focus on protecting citizens like other countries do? After 8 years into war, is Afghanistan moving towards peace and stability? Do Afghans really like the presence of foreign troops? Do they feel safe or anger at the sight of a humvee? Should Obama consider cutting down on war expenses to prop up his starving economy and help finance his mammoth health care bill? (Taking a breath) If Obama were to pull out, what would happen to America's credibility? Is creating a monster there to counter Soviet expansion in the 80's not enough, need they create another one by leaving before the job is done now? Wouldn't American absence from the region embolden the militants in Pakistan in advancing and destabilizing the nuclear state? Would revising the military and political strategy (currently underway) reduce the pain? Can understanding and respecting their religious/regional affiliations of the populace and including their 'tribal leaders' in a bottom-up, 'you-have-the-power', decentralized approach be effective?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

WTF?

Respected film critic Andrew Sarris writes the following in his review of Knocked Up:
Knocked Up isn’t going to help change the world or anything, but at the very least it may help take one’s mind off the relentlessly dismal headlines. I don’t know what greater service a mere movie can perform these days.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Conservative Tributes

Two conservative columnists pay sublime tribute to Ted Kennedy. This is why I like George Will and David Brooks. Though I disagree with these two wonderful analysts sometimes, they present their views with great decency and force that it's hard to turn away. It's as if they demand respect for their opinions through the means of presentation.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Rule for Bill Maher

Bill Maher should stop inviting Ashton Kutcher as a guest on his discussion panel for Real Time. He gobbles data and anecdotes and opinions, possibly from newspapers or podcasts or may be they're even his own and then regurgitates them. He stacks his words as if to ensure he doesn't miss any that he had studied for the show. That's not how a discussion evolves. You contribute, contradict or complement a point made by the previous speaker in an interesting, insightful or a funny remark. But he often digresses and tries hard to impress. To go on driving in your own track is not fun to follow. You can say a mundane truism, if that's all you have to offer. You can say "I didn't know that". The pressure to impress and get the audience to applaud when on TV is understandable. But when flanked by smart people, not diluting the standard is important.
I sometimes wonder what I'd be saying if were a part of a discussion that I'm watching or listening to. Some podcasts are by stalwarts - they're razor sharp in their observations. I'd just sit on the sidelines and listen, and if allowed I'd ask them to elaborate on a few points they've made.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lucid Dreams

When I was a young boy I'd often have dreams where I would fall off from tall structures - temple towers, buildings, mountains... As I was falling off I'd paddle my arms and legs and the sound I made because of kicking my blanket was enough to wake me up. That essentially killed the dream. Later, when I was in high school or even after I graduated from my engineering school I would have dreams where I would be late for an exam or utterly unprepared and would hurriedly flip through the pages. The timeframe of these exams were years before the dream. As I would sit to write the exam, suddenly my conscious side would kick in and reduce the level of panic. It would say "hey, you already wrote that exam, you graduated, this is just a dream". But the interesting thing was I wasn't awake yet. I was still partly asleep.
In the past few years, my dream-consciousness has evolved. If I find myself in a tight corner, as often they're the themes of my dreams these days, my consciousness doesn't step in right until the crucial moment when I'm about to be caught/revealed/slapped/exposed. But exactly at that scene of the dream, something inside me is activated that not only assures me "hey you aren't in this situation really, this is all fake", but also starts taking control of the situation and guides through events. I'd like to say that it's me writing the story of the dream, but they're so brilliant, the dialogues spoken are so deep and touching and funny and sharp if I were asked to write them in a wakeful state I'd only draw a blank.
A couple of days back I was dreaming of this guy dancing amazingly and guess what, I'm the one choreographing. I don't know a from b when it comes to dancing fundamentals, but I'm the one directing his dance steps. Now, I don't recall any of the steps other than the fact that it was exhilarating to 'see' him perform. I had never thought I was alone in going through this phenomenon (appropriately called Lucid Dreams), but didn't know it was such a well established area of psychophysiology. Here are a few links if you interested: [1][2][3].

Inglourious Basterds

Allow me to indulge, for this is not a review, only a ramble. First, let me get this off my chest - Time's Richard Corliss is an asshole for revealing the final scene in the first paragraph of his review. I usually read the first and last paragraphs of reviews from people I respect (Corliss not being one of them). I was just flipping the pages of Time and read the first paragraph a few hours before stepping into the theater. Imagine the bitterness in my mouth. But then he says something sensible in the last paragraph, and I quote here: It's just possible that Tarantino, having played a trick on history, is also fooling his fans. They think they're in for a Hollywood-style war movie starring Brad Pitt. What they're really getting is the cagiest, craziest, grandest European film of the year. The Europeanness Corliss means is that the action is in the words. And sometimes the simmering tension between conversationalists is so hot that when they finally pull out their guns the atmosphere seems to cool down.
*
Every review I've read is head over heels with Christoph Waltz's performance as the smooth Nazi criminal. He's good. But not all of them are talking about Melanie Laurent's portrayal as Shosanna Dreyfus. In one of the trademark QT scenes where dialogues and photography and acting skills come together: Laurent and Waltz sit together in a restaurant in Paris; he's a Jew hunter, she's a Jew under an assumed French name; he hints that he knows her identity by ordering a cup of milk (she was raised in a dairy farm). The talk is plain but we can feel her pain and fear. I've seen such control with other European actresses like Julie Delpy, Kristin Scott Thomas & Emma Thompson.
*
There are five chapters in the movie, all loosely related but contributing to the final chapter's momentum. The first chapter is titled 'Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France...' - lending a fairy tale feeling and totally quashing anyone who expects historic authenticity. The second chapter is not titled, it simply says 'Chapter 2'; this is Tarantino's symbolic middle finger, somewhere between casualness and lazy arrogance to even name his film segments. And even when he comes up with a title, it doesn't make much sense. The final chapter is called 'Revenge of the Giant Face' or something like that, but has no significant meaning.
*
The beauty of individual sentences doesn't always add to the beauty of the scene as a whole. This is mostly the fault of the editor, not Tarantino, for he can't distinguish between the goodness or mediocrity of his dialgoues as they all are his children and he loves them equally. There's a scene where random German soldiers play a version 'find out who I am in less 21 questions'. And then the same game is played by characters of interest to the screenplay. This was a stretch. There's another scene where a German-speaking British soldier with a special interest in pre-German-war movies is picked to play a spy. The scene bothers us with details of German cinemas now and then. There are a few other examples of such sag and it would have been a taut experience had they been edited out.
*
We know that Tarantino is self-indulgent and sprinkles his works full of references to other movies, mostly B, sometimes parodying, sometimes celebrating. Another quote, this time from TNR's Chris Orr's review: Inglourious Basterds is far better than those films, but it is still, in some fundamental sense, less movie than "movie." And if Tarantino hopes to reach his full potential as a filmmaker, someday he's going to have to find the nerve to work once again outside the quotation marks. I can't agree more with the sharp Orr. Tarantino is a serious filmmaker and his talent cannot and should not be wasted on borrowing and punching classics and exploitation flicks. Though his 'Pulp Fiction' paid homage, it was ultra-refreshingly original. 'Kill Bill' is in a sense a Hong Kong kung-fu dance and 'Inglourious Basterds' in that same sense a spaghetti Western.
*

Friday, August 21, 2009

I'm not sure if there's anyone in Hollywood who enjoys writing and listening to dialogues more than Tarantino. And the way he places them in his meticulous script, every scene grows a personality of its own. Be it the talk about tipping waitresses in 'Reservoir Dogs', or the foot massage before getting into character in 'Pulp Fiction' or explaining karma to a little girl whose mother is just murdered in 'Kill Bill'. They don't add much to the flow of the screenplay and the movie wouldn't be diluted without those scenes, but it is these little pearls that make the movie glitter. And then there's his boyish delight in shocking the audience and ignoring it altogether - the accidental killing of a man in a car from 'Pulp Fiction' elicits the response "may be you went over a bump or something". This is the real fanboy Tarantino. I can't wait to absorb 'Inglourious Basterds'.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Raja Kaiya Vecha

I was 11 years old when the movie Aboorva Sagotharargal was released. I was in a remote part of Gudiyatham at that time and on a typical day parents with their kids will sit in their broad verandahs with piles of mini wooden planks for lining up safety match sticks (one side of which will be immersed in a chemical compound and later dried) and weavers would occupy the roads to work on their blue & white thread rolls and the third major chunk of populace will be rolling beedis
What I strikingly remember is that almost every house would have their radios blaring because a good chunk of the household is outside working. Add to that tea shops, who have since the invention of radio abused them. And barber shops. And there's the 'audio' shop which would proudly display their black speakers as tall as me. And the bunk kadai. Even medical shops had them on in a low volume. On my daily commute to the school, I would get to listen to the complete song in varying volumes, with varying degrees of clarity with rare bits of silence.
And this one time - sorry about the much needed digression - I was sent to some shop to buy something and the song 'Raja Kaiya Vecha' was broadcast. The song starts with a bickering between a mom & son, I stand in front of a house to listen, and then onto the hero's talent as a car mechanic, I stop in front a tea shop, and then onto an irrelevant comparison between women and cars, now I'm in front of a barber shop. I had to grasp the song because one of my classmates had hyped up how inventive this song was in terms of sexual connotations and I had to illustrate my coolness and contribute to the discussion by what I made out of the lyrics the next day. After listening to the song I remember brainstorming about what word implied what and trying to come up with interesting theories. All this came back to me as I watched this song today.


China's Respect for Intellectual Property

An NYT report on WTO's ruling that China had violated international free trade rules by limiting imports:
Ron Kirk, the United States trade representative, praised the panel’s legal finding. “This decision promises to level the playing field for American companies working to distribute high-quality entertainment products in China,” Mr. Kirk said, “so that legitimate American products can get to market and beat out the pirates.”
Mr.Kirk knows pretty well that this is just a baby step of a diplomatic pressure. When Harry Potter books and DVDs are available for less than 1/10th of the marked price, only the insane and the high-on-ethical-pedestal will be paying a visit to the original showrooms. The U.S producers have long whined at the possibility of missing the huge Chinese boat and have constantly engaged in soft nudging since the Clinton days. You can't blame the Americans - when they're the Chinese's largest consumer, the U.S fiction writers and movie producers and software coders and chip manufacturers expect the potential Chinese consumer to return the favor.
Respect for intellectual property is not big in developing countries. The general public wants to enjoy the fruits at a much cheaper cost. There's an Asian edition by the original publisher for a lot of products which are quite less than what their western counterparts pay. But that pales in comparison to the bootlegged version available at the mom & pop store. In countries like India where law enforcement itself is weak, one can't do much but whine. But China has an iron grip on what its subjects can see and buy and can effectively enforce what should and should not be available for consumption. Their current lax ethics seems like an open policy of negligence to what the west has got to say.
China's stronghold is manufacturing and it's not easy to pirate and make them take a plunge. Of course you can manufacture a lesser quality shirt or a cheaper toy, but obviously it doesn't make business sense to 'copy'. Where as most of the western economies' export revenue is knowledge based which can be duplicated with relative ease and hence made money or gotten free. For China to take this issue seriously most of state's revenue should be earned through companies and institutions that are knowledge based. When the treasury coffers aren't getting filled because of shady deals under the tree, the police will wield its baton.
And China is morphing itself away from manufacturing. There are English classes held in football stadiums. It is luring Americans who can't find a job because of the recession. With trillions in foreign reserves, they have started to invest substantially in R&D and communication technologies. They just executed a mass transfer of their population from lower class to middle class by taking advantage of the rapid globalization; even the recession has not bitten them hard - in fact their stimulus package is touted by economists to be the most effective. The government has stepped up investments in sceince and technology studies & firms.

But their opaque bureaucracy has its drawbacks. The state recently instituted a policy where every computer bought will come with a software installed that's supposedly designed to filter 'inappropriate content'. Not just pornography (what's wrong with that?) but any foreign site that riles the Chinese action & policies. Youtube and blog sites are banned on whims and fancies. The press is not free; the judiciary has its limits; one needs permission from the local authorities for a peace protest march. Add to this other social problems like the imbalance in male/female ratio because of their one-child policy (which obviously leans towards a male progeny) and an educated middle-class that has been clamoring for more information and freedom.

China has had and will have a hard time trying to transform its huge young population into knowledge force and at the same time checking their tweets and facebook status (figuratively speaking). If the state loosens its hold and unleashes the power of cooperation in every sense, I believe they'll command a bigger piece of 'services & innovation' pie. Until that happens, their markets (not so black, they're quite open in the streets) will continue to support pirates. Of course, there will always be some sort of violation - copiers, scanners, video tools will be put to use. But it wouldn't as flagrant as it is today.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Humor is Hard

Hawkeye writes:
If aliens were observing social patterns of earthlings, their report would read something like this - the younglings discard waste products from their intestines, which are emitted out through fissures on the back of their bodies. Curiously the male's social standing among other human beings is determined by how many times, how quickly and how desirously he cleans the youngling's intestinal discard. Cleaning the backside of younglings and removing intestinal waste with passion and love shows that the male is progressive, sensitive, caring and responsible.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is without a doubt the best movie I've seen this year, and probably will for the rest of the year. From a script by Guillermo Arriago, who is best known for his collaborations with Inarritu, Tommy Lee Jones simply sparkles as the lead actor and the director. I think I've written about this before - I see Jones in drabs like 'Fugitive' and 'MIB' which hardly leave an impression and then he blows me away in In the Valley of Elah. In a scene from this movie, we see him sitting in a jeep doing nothing. He doesn't twitch his lips or shake his head or play with his eyeballs; but somehow we can sense his pain and anxiety with that still look. Now, that's just terrific acting.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

My friend Varaha wrote:
As the suicide bombers killed the infidels and went to heaven, they were not unhappy that the virgins were not veiled.
I've been writing for quite some time now. And I don't ever remember using a double-negative. I would frame the sentence in a different way. And this guy uses a triple-negative just like that.

Treating Kids

I went to a book shop in a hospital recently. As soon as I entered I saw that the lady behind the counter was preparing to close down the shop. Even before I asked (it wasn't lunch hour yet), she told me that her grand daughter is graduating from pre-KG to KG and her daughter had her invited to the graduation party. This reminded me of a line from the movie 'The Incredibles' where Mr.Incredible says "We keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity" on the occasion of his son's 'move' from the 4th to the 5th grade. I wouldn't go as far as to call it mediocrity; after all there's some effort involved. But call it a graduation party?

I grew up in a drastically different environment in India. I was slapped in school by the teachers, at home by my parents. And I was a good student and quite obedient. The general understanding was that the teachers and the parents wanted to discipline their children and the stick did the trick. And this was normal as almost every kid was treated similarly. Growing up in a lower middle class family, my mom borrowed money for my monthly tuition. I didn't buy those 'group photos' clicked every year with all the students of the class. Most of the time I didn't even bother to inform my parents of it as it would cost them. The family of six slept in 2 rooms and my prized possession of a table lamp came in when I was 13.
The rise of the middle class is not merely in terms of finance but also marks the level of cultural liberty. My 5-year old neighbor goes to a special class for math & reading that costs a little over $200 every month. Her parents sit with her to help her. When she goes wandering they softly but firmly pull her back and ask her to focus. After every mini assignment she's showered with 'good job'. Needless to say, new dresses and toys and restaurant visits are perks of good behavior. And this is not just my neighbor for she is representative of the new normal. Not just the U.S but also in India. As both parents are educated and employed, money is a lesser problem and spending 'quality' time with the kids becomes a priority.

I'm a strong advocate against force, be it verbal or physical towards children. It took some maturity for my emotional bruises to heal and see the love of my parents. But when compliments are used like 'pass the salt', what actually will the child think of itself? By treating every reading session an achievement, aren't we inflating the actual effort involved and thereby boosting the ego of the child? Do they even evaluate if their accomplishment is age-worthy? What would happen to their self-confidence when they're competing with much smarter kids later in life and there's nobody patting their backs?
With the passsage of time, almost every aspect of our culture has become liberal. This has prompted parents presenting a friendly face to their kids (they don't call their dad 'Sir' anymore). But this new degree of freedom shouldn't absolve them of their responsibilities. While every step is progress, I believe kids should be instilled in them a sense of humillty; parents and teachers should show them the long road they need to travel; they should expect no cheerleading just for trying things. As a parent I can understand how protective and over-cautious one can be. But may be it's time to take off those training wheels in the kid's bicycle and let him/her fall once in a while. After all, falling is progress.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

This space has become a link festival in the last couple of months. Though my commentary appears alongside, it's very minimal and essentially asks the reader to head to the link. At this point I'm not forcing myself to 'write' articles and I'm going with an impulsive flow of this-can-be-blogged. But I don't want ScreenAct to become a bouncing pad where regulars come only to go to another page. I plan to strike a balance by curtailing the number of quote-posts and adding more of my thoughts about the topic. This will also help me to evaluate my thought train over a period of time.

Why?

When an article starts with packed confusion like this, there's not much incentive to proceed. Is that an attention-grabbing technique? I was more put-off than curious to know what the heck the author was blabbering about.
Sometime after the 14-year-old retired actor and chimpanzee Travis Herold was shot and beheaded by Stamford, Connecticut, police in connection with an aggravated assault against 55-year-old Charla Nash, but before former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick finished serving a federal prison sentence for conspiring to violate the civil rights of dogs, South Korean scientists announced the birth of a beagle that glows in the dark.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Gladwell dissects the character Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mocking Bird) and the interplay of race and law in the south before desegregation. I found this excerpt interesting and shocking in equal parts:
One of Dorr’s examples is John Mays, Jr., a black juvenile sentenced in 1923 to an eighteen-year prison term for the attempted rape of a white girl. His employer, A. A. Sizer, petitioned the Virginia governor for clemency, arguing that Mays, who was religious and educated, “comes of our best negro stock.” His victim, meanwhile, “comes from our lowest breed of poor whites. . . . Her mother is utterly immoral and without principle; and this child has been accustomed from her very babyhood to behold scenes of the grossest immorality. None of our welfare work affects her, she is brazenly immoral.”
The reference to the mother was important. “Though Sizer did not directly impugn the victim herself, direct evidence was unnecessary during the heyday of eugenic family studies,” Dorr writes. “The victim, coming from the same inferior ‘stock,’ would likely share her mother’s moral character.” The argument worked: Mays was released from prison in 1930.
The superior Economist observes the state of Arab countries. Plain words, crisp observations, thorough coverage, unbiased, readable lengths* all make it a great choice for news & opinions.

Democracy is more than just elections. It is about education, tolerance and building independent institutions such as a judiciary and a free press. The hard question is how much ordinary Arabs want all this. There have been precious few Tehran-style protests on the streets of Cairo. Most Arabs still seem unwilling to pay the price of change. Or perhaps, observing Iraq, they prefer stagnation to the chaos that change might bring. But regimes would be unwise to count on permanent passivity. As our special report in this issue argues, behind the political stagnation of the Arab world a great social upheaval is under way, with far-reaching consequences.

In almost every Arab country, fertility is in decline, more people, especially women, are becoming educated, and businessmen want a bigger say in economies dominated by the state. Above all, a revolution in satellite television has broken the spell of the state-run media and created a public that wants the rulers to explain and justify themselves as never before. On their own, none of these changes seems big enough to prompt a revolution. But taken together they are creating a great agitation under the surface. The old pattern of Arab government—corrupt, opaque and authoritarian—has failed on every level and does not deserve to survive. At some point it will almost certainly collapse. The great unknown is when.

* I don't have anything against long articles. If anything, I have a tiny bias towards them for they usually explore a topic in great detail. But when it comes to current affairs and observations, there's usually a lot of stuff going around and it's better when the word count is limited to 500. And The Economist does it superbly without losing any depth or clarity.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Slamming Open the Door

One of the cruelties of life is a parent made to bury his/her child. American poet Kathleen Bonanno talks to NPR's Terry Gross about her collection of poems, Slamming Open the Door which are about her murdered daughter and how she deals/dealt with it. I was struck by how gracious Kathleen was in opening herself to difficult questions. Though it has been a few years since her loss, I don't think any parent can fully 'recover', for the lack of a better word, from such a devastation. I don't remember being moved so forcefully in such a long time.

Cinema Liberties

There are cinemas that are very firmly rooted in the real world and picture images and sound words seen in our homes and our neighbors. That fraction is negligible; the majority of the movie goers don't want to see a 'Pather Panchali' or a '21 Grams'. It's quite the opposite where they want to escape from their daily realities and see a dinosaur chasing a car or a 800-pound gorilla destroying a city. Almost every story told takes a certain amount of liberties - be it physical, political, biological, psychological.... heroes fly, doctors cry "what a medical miracle", judges reach verdicts the same day they hear trials, presidents achieve political solutions after make-believe negotiations.... And a somewhat intelligent viewer doesn't dig deep into the process, he just knows these are the means to tell a story and decide to play along with the writer/director. But this ploy of over-simplification on part of the film-maker takes a beating if the story itself sucks or has glaring holes.
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I saw 'Public Enemies' recently, the story of John Dillinger, a famous bank robber during the depression era. He's touted as, obviously, a public enemy by the bureau of investigation (before it went federal, and thus becoming FBI), his posters are out, he's shown in news reels before cinemas begin and the common man (& woman) know how he looks like. But guess what, this John Dillinger guy is always in open - at a race course, cinema theater, restaurant... without any make-up at all. In a hard to believe scene he even walks into a police office dedicated to hunting him down and converses with one of them. Michael Mann's movie, is very good in almost every dimension - action, direction, production design, costumes. But this aspect where he's just walking in the park but nobody nabs him is irksome and bring down its believability.

'Ice Age 3' posed another problem. We have dinosaurs at the end of ice age - which is a scientific impossibility. But apart from that, there's a whole range of species from which you can draw a forest food chain and they're walking and talking together as friends. This is not only rosy for kids but also incorrect. I wanted to ask my 10-year old niece with whom I watched "Did you ever wonder what they all did for lunch?" And then there's the impossibly horrible 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' where there's a whole world in the core of our planet. The story takes colossal scientific liberties which grind chillies on viewer's eyes (an Indian metaphor) over and over again.

But I don't have complaints when a 78-year old ties up thousands of balloons to his home and flies it from somewhere in USA to somewhere in South America without any GPS in 'Up'. It's a beautiful movie with a subtle message for adults, nice humour and a gentle touch of love throughout. Nor with 'Kungfu Hustle' which has no shred of logic and takes pride in its supreme lunacy. There's this little known Tamil film 'Thedinen Vandhadhu' which I find hilarious - a low budget 'B-center' offering which just fires on all humorous cylinders. It's my guilty pleasure, no doubt, but it has huge legion of cult following like 'Kadhanayagan'. Where 'Public Enemies' and 'Ice Age' failed 'Up' & 'Kadhanayagan' succeeded because it had my attention. I liked the what the characters said and did. The story is fantastic (as in unbelievable) but I lent myself to the story-tellers completely without any questions.
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Grabbing the audience's attention and holding on to it for most of the running length determines the commercial worthiness of a movie. Such a silly point to make, but I wonder why many writers, directors and producers miss it. To simply state that my taste didn't suit a movie or the audience are not mature enough to appreciate it is a bad argument. These products don't make any money for their bosses. Then why do the studios green light such projects? The truth would be close to 'studios are experimenting tones and styles and stories to see if this clicks with the audience'. You wouldn't know that a series like Austin Powers would take off until they're made. I think 'American Idol' is horrible, but I don't question the studio's judgement. But sometimes they overestimate the stupidity of audience and create what everyone equally considers to be a great bummer. A good way to cull them out is to check IMDb ratings which are broken down by sex and age - there are cinemas that have dismal score in almost all the categories.
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