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Monday, March 30, 2009

It Isn't Your Day Dear

Sometime in 2001, in LA, a couple of muggers tried to stick a gun into a touring van and asked them to get out so that they could drive it away. The van had a bunch of guys who were in town for a Judo convention. Very promptly, the muggers' arms were broken and handed over to the police. Well, at least these guys had a plan and it made an interesting story. Now, read this story about a guy trying to rob a bank:

But as terrified cashiers prepared to hand over a bundle of notes, Mr Stewart calmly walked up to the robber and said: "It's April the 1st isn't it mate? It's April Fool's Day".

When Davidson said to him "I've got a gun I will shoot you", Andrew replied "go on then shoot me" and grabbed the bag from his hands.

He opened it in front of staff and after seeing it was empty sat down and carried on reading his paper, Exeter Crown Court heard.

Davison fled the scene but was later arrested and has now pleaded guilty to affray.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Elegy

There's this brilliantly executed scene from Elegy.  The protagonist, fiftyish, a professor of culture, expert on art, a public intellectual, is having an affair.  Well, he isn't married, but he sleeps with two women and both of them think that he's non-comitally comitted to them.  So they would be enraged if they found out the existence of another woman.  And one night comes the estranged son of the protagonist.  He says that he's having an affair and wants to have a man-to-man conversation with his father.  

Now, I don't want to give away anything.  I've seen directors employ such techniques before where they use an extra to tell his/her story and suddenly that relates to our hero strongly.  It's a frequently used tool to explore the moral depths of the protagonist.  This scene just nailed it.  In fact, I recommed this movie for this piece of writing alone. (And Ben Kingsley's performance.)  

PS: I'm half-way through the movie and being blown away, I paused and decided to post about it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

UO

Stewie is highly literate and sophisticated whereas Goundamani is nowhere like that.  But Stewie's realization comes close to that of Goundamani's where the character says something irreverant and crude but those around carry on as if they didn't hear.

Bharath Bhavan

This is somewhere between stupidity and craziness. I was supposed to meet my friend at this Indian restaurant for lunch. Just before I leave, I check out their website which says that their main access road is being worked on and patrons need to take a detour. (The detour isn't straight forward, where you take the next exit and try to find your way back.. It's a bit long & wound). I make a note of the new directions thinking that I'll call my friend from my mobile on the way and let him know about the alternate route. My cell is out of charge. And I think that I'll call him from the restaurant. After reaching the place I ask the manager if I can use their phone. He politely nods 'no'. And then I explain to him that I'm expecting my friend and he's probably lost. He must have thought that I'm narrating a story that's in no way connected to the current situation. He doesn't react.

I wait in their lounge for 15 minutes. I step out of the restaurant a couple of times just convey the management that I'm expecting someone and if only they would let me use their phone they could get my business. No, they're unmoved. After 40 minutes I tell one of the servers again that may be he's desperately trying to get to the restaurant and he needs directions - no, it's as if somebody's trying to get somewhere, not their place. After 50 minutes of sitting, standing, walking and flipping through junk magazines when I said that I'll have to leave, the guy at the counter said 'Okay'. This was immensely infuriating. It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that if they had let me call, I would have guided my friend and they would have earned our business, not only this time, but subsequent visits too.

I've had bad experiences at many Indian restaurants in America. The most common complaint being the cleanliness of toilets - you're greeted with a smell that takes you back to some of the train stations in India. There's a marked difference in the way the servers treat Indians and Americans - smirk vs smile. They can't handle crowds - as the restaurant gets loaded, the wait time increases and the server snaps at your questions on how long it will be before you get your food. Sometimes I've had to ask multiple times for my water glass to be refilled. I've gotten my bill when I'm only half-way through my food. There have been cases where I was overcharged or given another party's bill. Of course there have been upset stomachs, loud TV, slippery floors without the 'Caution Wet' sign, buffet boxes that are empty... If only they could amend some of these complaints, the experience offered by an Indian restaurant would be richer.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Double-Game Players

I believe the contents of this piece would have infuriated CIA: ISI is in constant contact with Taliban and helps them with money, military power and strategic planning. And when Taliban runs out of man power, ISI agents hunt madrasas to fill their ranks. Everyone knew that ISI is a spoiled uncontrollable brat. But this revelation has the potential to jeopardize the political equations between Pakistan and America.
Pakistan is sinking. Sunnis & Shiites don't get along well. The past decade has numerous cases of deadly attacks by these two sects that go back to the death of the prophet. Baluchis in the north want autonomy. The west is controlled by the Taliban. Jihadis in the east in the name of freedom have at best plundered the resources. There is a yawning gap between the rich & the poor. The economy is in tatters. President Zardari recently went begging around the gulf region to feed the starving economy and came back empty handed. There is a monstrous gap between the rights enjoyed by the men and the women. CII, a constitutional body, denounced the country's women commission's call for 'gender equality'. CII blatantly called it un-Islamic and impractical thinking. Scientific temperament among students is alarmingly declining. Madrassas are better funded than state-run schools. Add to this a sky-rocketing inflation and unhealthy unemployment rates.
Even when a democratic government ruled, military spending ranked one in their budget. Military officers have political clout and good houses. Economic development at the grassroot level has been treated as a nice-to-have feature, never a priority for them. America by this time will have realized that they can't bribe Pakistani presidents to do them favors. ISI is almost an autonomous body, unquestionable by the government, unquestionable by anybody. And since the foreign aid never reaches the man at the bottom of the pyramid, America will never earn his/her good will.
Ever since Obama took over, the strikes inside Pakistan have intensified. I have wondered if that's in part to appeal to the war-mongering right wingers who've looked down on Obama as the commander-in-chief without any military experience. But no, I believe he's a supreme pragmatist who weighs the pros and cons of his military decisions. (Though his financial and fiscal policies, which are to the left, I'm afraid are going to drive down the value of the dollar). Now that the evidence of Pakistani intelligence's official involvement with Taliban had gathered strength and with the toothless civilian government lost in its own cocoon of petty political turmoil standing aside helplessly, Obama will be forced to step up his military actions in the region.
So, a fraction of American tax-payers' money goes towards Pakistan's military establishment in the form of financial assistance and a part of that goes to Taliban and they launch missiles at American troops. A different kind of vicious circle, huh? There's a funny and sad paragraph in that NYT article linked above. British government officers are openly asking the ISI to request their Taliban friends to scale down their militant activities until the Afghan presidential elections due in August. Imagine what they might have conversed:
"We really have no long-term interests in the region. Really, believe me. Okay. We just want to score some political points. Okay. If the elections are free of violence, we can trumpet to the world that as an achievement of our intervention. That's all. And we will be gone in no time. What do you say?"
"Insha Allah."

I'm waiting for Nitin's response.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Life & Times of Common Man - Now Available in Hardcover

James Bridle, a twitterer, has published two years worth of his tweets into a book. He writes:
When Twitter is inevitably replaced by something else, I don’t want to lose all those incidentals, the casual asides, the remarks and responses. That’s all really. This seems like a nice way to do it..
One of the comments:
This is a brilliant idea. I have some old family diaries and love reading them - the loss of ephemeral daily information about life passing, not for me (or even my children) but for grandchildren is one of the things that worry me about the way I use sites like this..
Clive Thompson, a blogger observes:
Every tiny piece seems daft or meaningless, but -- when you add them all up you get a curiously rich sense of someone's existence.
This reminds me of the Up series:
The 'Up' is a series of documentaries that have been following a group of children who were seven years old (in 1964) for every seven years. It seems like wishful thinking for an average film enthusiast to be able to voyeur a handful of lives at periodic intervals.
I'm not lamenting that the volume of our private spheres has shrunk and spilled into the public spheres. Of course, by blogging I'm opening up myself - I'm telling you all what I think of this and that. Twitter is the next level in exposure - what I'm eating now, where I went last night, etc. There's a strange sense of heaviness I feel.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Moral Financial Responsibility

As I saw 'House of Cards' yesterday, a documentary produced by CNBC about the sub-prime mortgage crisis, one theme kept recurring in my head - moral financial responsibility. The participants were home owners who are now foreclosed or are on the verge of losing their homes, officers who eagerly sought these people and offered loans, Wall St executives who packaged those loans and sold it far far away, institutions that bought those financial derivatives and finally Alan Greenspan, the ex-chairman of America's central bank.

After 9/11 Bush urges everyone to go shopping. China has been buying U.S treasury bonds left and right, the Federal Reserve has a relaxed lending standard all in effect making credit dirt cheap. The banks just wanted to dole out loans to anyone who would nod their heads. And nod, many did. A black woman from Southern California said "As I stepped out of church, these two guys came to me and said 'Your home loan is approved'. And I thought 'Hallelujah, it's a miracle' ". She bought it. One Mexican immigrant said it was his American dream to own a home and he didn't have to produce his tax papers or salary certificate. Just state his income and his loan was approved. Another family with 4 kids wanted to jump early on the home-owner bandwagon as the prices were skyrocketing.

The going was good. As the house prices kept going upward, these people refinanced their loans and built a swimming pool, bought furniture, paid off credit card debts, refurbished their backyard….. Had anyone sane seen this footage in 2006, it would still have been obvious that this was an accident waiting to happen. Buyers just assumed that their home equity is a balloon that'll never pop and they could live a comfortable life by not moving their butt, but by just refinancing their home loans. Wall St was ravenous, because small credit unions and municpalities and city mayors all over Europe who fully didn't understand what a CDO is or how safe/risky they were, just eagerly piled them up. As long as someone was buying, why stop selling, thought the financial engineers at Wall St. Eventually, sub-prime guys and the CDO buyers were slapped. As their house value collapsed and their mortgage loomed they realized they can't make their ends meet. The fine prints in their loan agreements were now emboldened - they had signed on to conditions that they weren't aware of previously.

This bubble and the growth associated with it is based on magical mathematical models. Nothing was invented or produced that could sustain growth. It was pure consumption made possible by the Chinese & Fed on the assumption that home values can only go North. Alan Greenspan said that he believed banks would regulate themselves in their own interest. As we now know, they were blinded by greed. He said that if he had raised the interest rate thereby choking the flow of credit, it would essentially have killed the economic engine and brought the unemployment rate to 10%, to which the Congress would definitely have not agreed. The SEC was on the sidelines when it should have been an active player monitoring and regulating. And the rating agencies stamped AAA on almost any derivative.

The black woman said "I'm stupid, but they (lenders) are guilty". No dear, you're not just plain stupid, you're humongously stupid, monumentally stupid, criminally stupid. Spend less than you earn - is that so whacky? Borrow money only if you can repay - is it nonsensical? If you're making the biggest investment of your life, like buying a home, why not read the fine prints in the mortgage document? The Wall St executive said, when asked if he felt guilty for making money on stupid people "No. Nobody put a gun to their head and asked them to sign the papers." That's right, but that also spotlights his moral blackhole. It's like raping a woman who is blind, deaf and mute.  'If you can easily get away, why not do it?' was his attitude.  Technically, he can't be blamed as what he was doing was absolutely legal.
I'm no economist and reading the contradictory opinion pieces in the business section scares me.  The market has lost trillions of dollars in just a year.  The U.S government along with many European governments have intervened to stabilize their financial institutions.  One school says that we haven't printed enough money to get us out of this mess.  The other school says that we should have allowed the correction to happen and by artificially injecting cash we're trying to give birth to another bubble.  One economist says this is a great time to set course for innovation in green energy, revolutionize health care, reform education and that's precisely what the Obama administration is doing.  Another economist says that we're going to inflate ourselves into a worthless dollar.  In the middle of all this, the Chinese premier said that he's a little bit concerned about the value of his colossal foreign reserves.  If China decides to dump them for it's infrastructure development, the world will be sloshed with U.S dollars that could lead to a currency collapse.
This severe crisis not only haunts those like the personally irresponsible woman and the morally irresponsible Wall St executive, but also Mr.Joe who has always lived within his means and made prudent decisions. Because of the credit crunch, he has lost his job and he's forced to default on his home loan.  Growing up in a middle class family in India, my parents included me in financial discussions when I was 15. Since I knew what my dad brought home and how much we spent a month, many of my dreams that my friends were living remained a dream to me.  I learned to say no to myself.  Knowing that I will have to live with the consequences of my decisions drives me away from driving home a Lexus though my savings and income and credit history allow me.  I hope one of the outcomes of this crisis is that those who had plans for their future paychecks will now take it slowly and start doing something that every American a couple of generations before did: save.

Friday, March 13, 2009

In Bruges

In Bruges features a great screenplay. The darkness of the comedy doesn't quite come close to 'Snatch' or 'After Hours', but to be able to compare with those two gems itself is a testament.

I'll borrow the services of IMDb's memorable quotes for this movie to relive the pleasure of the dialogues:

Ray: Murder, father.
Priest: Why did you murder someone, Raymond?
Ray: For money, father.
Priest: For money? You murdered someone for money?
Ray: Yes, father. Not out of anger. Not out of nothing. For money.
Priest: Who did you murder for money, Raymond?
Ray: You, father.
Priest: I'm sorry?
Ray: I said you, father. What are you, deaf?

I've heard such lines in other movies before, but the 'What are you, deaf?' is a part of characterization. Ray, brilliantly played by Colin Farrell, is doing his first job as a hitman and he's annoyed at having to answer him victim twice.

Here's another scene, this time Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and Ray are in a shootout and there's a pregnant woman in their middle. Now, since they both are men of principle, they wouldn't want to shock or harm her in any way. This is what they exchange

Ray: Harry, I've got an idea.
Harry: What?
Ray: My room faces out the canal, right? I'm going to go back to me room, jump into the canal, see if I can swim to the other side and escape.
Harry: All right.
Ray: If you go outside around the corner, you can shoot at me from there and try to get me. That way we'll leave this lady and her baby out of the whole entire thing.
Harry: You completely promise to jump into the canal? I don't want to run out there, come back in ten minutes, and find you fucking hiding in a cupboard.
Ray: I completely promise, Harry. I'm not going to risk having another little kid dying on me.
Harry: So, hang on - I go outside and I go which way? Right or left?
Ray: [upset] You go right, don't you? You can see it from the doorway! It's a big fucking canal!
Harry: All right. Jesus. I only just got here, haven't I? Okay, on the count of one, two, three, go. Okay?
Ray: Okay.
[long pause]
Ray: What? Who says one, two, three?
Harry: Well you say it.

Oh, it's brilliantly black.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Comedy IQ

Germaine Greer observes on women & comedy:
The greater visibility of male comedians reflects a greater investment of intellectual energy by men of all walks of life in keeping each other amused. It is now a truism that men never talk to each other about things that matter. Most of what takes place when men are together is phatic communication, intended to build fellowship rather than intimacy. This kind of communication is sometimes derided by women as meaningless, but it is actually functional, because it draws the group together. Men who drink, play and joke together are boon companions, who hang together for fun. He laughs loudest who laughs last; one joke kicks off another. The man who cannot hold his own in repartee will even learn other men's jokes off by heart, so that he can fill a void in the general banter. Women famously cannot learn jokes. If they try, they invariably bugger up the punchline. The male teller of jokes is driving towards his reward, the laughter of his mates. The woman who messes up the same joke does so because her concentration is not sharpened by that need. She is not less intelligent, simply less concerned.
Though sense of humor is innate, boys, well before they become men, work on creating and polishing jokes - making up situations, delivering them with a certain flair, one-line quips and sometimes even slapstick. Not generating laughs could be taken as a failure of one's execution, which is why men assess the humor level of the audience in a party before they delve into their lines. When they find someone else on a roll they just don't barge into the joke-fest, but instead play a wait & watch game starting with a few 'accompanying lines' that acknowledge the other person's quality of humor. If a joke doesn't click on live performances, stand-up comedians make fun of those bad jokes and ridicule themselves as a form of saying sorry.

I've met some funny women and they all were naturals. They weren't keenly bent on making me laugh, but it was just the way they spoke that carried us into a funny situation. Germaine affirms my belief that women aren't as funny as men because they simply don't care much about the success of their jokes. Just like any art, humor is improved through practice. And men practice. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view: men with a good sense of humor are perceived to be socially adept by women, which in a twisted way translates into the man's ability to make a living and hence a stable relationship. This is one area where emotional investment from a man is generally greater than that of a woman.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Medical Technology Vs Empathy

Eric Fischl writes for Edge:
Ah, Death, you son of a bitch. You and your brothers, Disease and Aging, have tormented us since we became aware of Time. And we have worked like crazy trying to develop ways of extending Time so as to hold off the inevitable.

..scientific advancements focus on rapid repair of malfunctioning parts...

Lower forms of this techno-wish are what fuel the beauty industry.

If the body can be made better by robotics will it enhance our ability to experience empathy?

We fetish-ize the idea of systemic and technological developments geared towards dealing with the problems of fixing our bodies but have only managed to obscure the emotional and psychological underpinnings.
By likening the human body to a collection of cells Eric Fisch states that we have lost, or rapidly losing, our emotional and psychological faculties. We don't empathize anymore, he's afraid. I agree with him that the human body is a biological machine and the clock starts ticking the moment an egg is fertilized. But scientific advancements in the field of medicine have not merely delayed death but reduced suffering, prevented diseases thereby improving the quality of life. Technology has not only extended our stay, but made it more enjoyable.

I think of our emotional and our physical capabilities as somewhat mutually exclusive. Fixing the body has definitely not killed our ability to enjoy the sunshine, appreciate a movie, hate a pedophile... if someone were capable of these to begin with, when they step out of a hospital in a better physical condition, they should still be capable. Eric's ultimate accusation is that technology has made robots out of humans, which I think is baseless. You think of a kiss as a collision of lips and an exchange of saliva? Are love and hatred just electrochemical reactions inside the brain? Did you say that that girl acting crazy is just responding to hormonal changes?

Eric's thought that we should embrace disease, aging and death without any resistance is nonsense. Death is inevitable, but why is that we move away from a speeding car? His aversion towards the beauty industry (propped up by medical technology) is in logical progression. I don't know if he has only boob jobs in mind or also the 10-year old boy who suffered a third-degree burn and needs skin transplantation requiring the services of beauty industry. Does Eric realize that what people think about their looks affects their confidence, in turn their emotional faculties?

I was really surprised to see such a piece published in Edge - which aims for a third culture, an integration of scientific and literary intellectuals. I have no idea of Eric Fischl's accomplishments as a painter/sculptor. But this piece shouldn't stand beside Dawkins' and Dennett's.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Wired & Slate

Slate, one of the few entertaining and informative online magazines ran a piece on the best way to break your leg. This is after the news item where a Chilean smuggler fractured his tibia, fitted a cast made of cocaine and tried to get past the security. (Of course, he was stopped by the Barcelona airport officials). Though totally useless to most of the readers, I appreciate Slate's editor in getting this article written as an answer to those who go "How in the hell did he break his leg?" and then move on to browse/surf other tidbits without bothering to spend a few moments on that question.

There are so many questions, right after watching the CNN (What are mortgage backed securities? What's currency manipulation? Who is Keynes?) And there are answers on the web if a topic is perceived to be important. But there isn't much material online for questions that linger after watching Jay Leno. Funny & weird news items aren't taken seriously enough by the mainstream media. Slate & Wired are two among the handful of portals that are attentive to such marginalized audience who enjoy short, clear and easy to read articles on current affairs and culture.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Stupid Speakers

I tried resisting posting this very much, after all this would be my third straight entry about movies after I closed ScreenArt. But I have to say it - I've been watching a felicitation ceremony for A.R.Rahman for his Oscars by south Indian cinema musicians. I've seen so far about 20 celebrities praise him - and what a load of crap comes out when they open their mouths. It really can't be that hard, to say something commonsensical, coherent. But no, these stupids are in a freaking competition where they outwit each other for the most boringly idiotic speech. That's everyone from Deva to Ilayaraja.