Monday, December 28, 2009
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
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
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
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.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?
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.
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
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
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
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
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.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.
"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.
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
Friday, November 06, 2009
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
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
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
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
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
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
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
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
"[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
Friday, October 09, 2009
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.
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
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.
Friday, October 02, 2009
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.
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
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.)
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
For those scratching heads - Federer's from Switzerland and Soderling's from Sweden.
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
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
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
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
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Monday, August 24, 2009
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
Thursday, August 13, 2009
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.”
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
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
Thursday, August 06, 2009
As the suicide bombers killed the infidels and went to heaven, they were not unhappy that the virgins were not veiled.
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.
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?
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
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
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.
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.