Pages

Monday, October 04, 2010

When the Best Is Bad

The Tamil blogosphere, 'critics' and 'pundits' are abuzz with Shankar/Rajini combo taking Tamil cinema to the next level. Wait a second, let me retract that: taking Indian cinema to the next level. And where has Indian cinema been all these days if 'Endhiran' represents the next level?

The movie is one big ad for a Rajini toy for all fanatics who puke on their Facebook wall that Rajini can make an onion cry and his gmail id is gmail@rajini.com. Too bad producers haven't thought of merchandising. By the time hundreds of Rajinis are stacked together to take the shape of a snake to gobble up cartoon police (near the end of the movie), I wished the snake to leap out of the screen and eat up most of the audience. They were all cheering. I don't know exactly what they were happy about - the very idea of a multiplied Rajini which was mind bogglingly stupidly executed or the 'special effects' which are notable because of their sub-par effects. Sensible people who hail this as a milestone must carefully choose their words - that this maybe a milestone for an Indian movie, in terms of special effects. But otherwise, the plot is badly conceived. The dialogues are bad. The special effects are pre-Jurassic Park era. The action (as in thespian, not blowing things up) and direction are plainly incompetent. I'm not a Rajini fan. But for a sensible fan, I'd recommend he get his fix from Annamalai.

The movie opens with the scientist Vaseegaran, played by Rajini (I know, it's hard to say with a straight face that Rajini plays a scientist) working on a humanoid robot. And by working, I mean he's literally working on it. He's screwing the stuff together, with the help of an assistant scientist and a deputy scientist played respectively by, wait for this, Santhanam and Karunas. These two wouldn't know the 'neural schema' (ooohh, a big word for a Tamil cinema) of the humanoid, and they primarily help with polishing and changing the dress. It just gets interminably boring from these first 2 minutes: Aishwarya Rai, the woman who's just dying to marry the scientist man and settle down, is pissed off that he hasn't returned her calls or replied to her emails as he's busy working. And after Vasee emerges from the lab, he goes on charm offensive and wins her over. Seriously, can it get any more clichéd? Bastards. I can't dwell on the storyline anymore; my IQ is dropping every minute I think of the story.

One of the guys said "machi, padam pattasu machi". Most of our (Indian/Tamil) movies and TV shows have been courting people who have a deep hatred for anything that is either intelligent or tastefully done. Shankar and Rajini have sound judgment. They know very well what makes their target audience go 'pattasu' and they get paid to flesh out their ideas which wouldn't pressure the acumen of a stupid 15 year old boy. (But there's a scene where Rajini converses with a bunch of mosquitoes. Anyone over 5 and has an attention span of 2 minutes would have heard their brain cells killing themselves).

One of the atrocities committed by the blogosphere is to classify this as a science fiction. It has to be, right? Because they use words like neural schema and humanoid and robotics. They obviously haven't turned a leaf of either Clarke or Asimov or seen '2001' or 'Solaris' or even something very commercial like 'Minority Report'. There's just not very little science in the movie, there's anti-science here. Artistic liberty on top of some basic science would have been appreciated. Every concept is either dumbed down or simplified or misinterpreted. The android is taught emotions and it falls in love. It's been done at least 18 times before with a decent scientific rigor. But what we witness in 'Endhiran' is a crime against humanity and humanoid-ity.

Hollywood is a medley. Titanic and Avatar, two mega-blockbusters feature maudlin plots with some horrible writing. But when they do special effects, they do it better than anybody else. The 'Men In Black' franchise is stupid, but it knows it's stupid and doesn't treat the audience like they're stupid. The Batman series by Nolan has a solid story and inventive action scenes. The independent film circuit here is super good. Darren Aronofsky has done 4 movies in the last 10 years and just look at how magnificently different the themes he's dealing with are. Alejandro Inarritu has done 4 movies in 10 years and though they have the same undercurrent, I don't think there's any other filmmaker who can do a better job of interconnecting multiple stories with this level of emotional impact. And there's Paul Thomas Anderson. Need I introduce Coen brothers or Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino? My favorite writers Aaron Sorkin and Charlie Kaufman excel in their own styles.

I'm not saying these guys are the best. Hollywood produces its share of trash every week. But there's something for everyone in every mood. I don't see that in our movies. Maniratnam, one of our best shots, directed 'Ravanan'. A movie that just goes nowhere, conveys nothing. And I have to say that I like 'My Dinner with Andre'. Just see 'Ravanan' for its dialogues. Kamal Hasan's 'Unnai Pol Oruvan' discounts the complexities of religion and politics and offers a 'thriller'. Well, Shankar and Rajini don't pretend to offer popcorn bites for the mind. But these guys combined are our front-runners and they all suck.

*

Slate, an American online magazine I visit daily, carried an article on Rajini and introduced him thus:
If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth.
Seriously? Is there a universal rule that if you like Rajini you'll have to write nonsense?


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Isabelle Huppert

Once in a while you see a movie which features a stellar performance that you don't know what hit you. Isabelle Huppert's role in The Piano Teacher stabs you in the heart and twists the knife a bit. It's a wonderfully calibrated performance about the deleterious effects of sexual repression. The movie is supremely engaging and disturbing at the same time. I will write about the movie, which will entail a frank and detailed sexual exploration, in a later post.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pricing a Book

This book by Praveen Swami - India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The Covert War in Kashmir, 1947-2004 (Asian Security Studies) - boasting one of the most boring titles I've come across, costs $160. On the top of my head I can think of a few parameters that determine the price range of a non-fiction book. The perceived value of the content is obviously on top. Research scientists and anthropologists spend decades gaining knowledge which they summarize succinctly in an understandable manner. (A topic like Guns, Germs and Steel pops to me). We pay for their years of experience and analytical skills. Another determinant is the genre - an exploration of counter-terrorism, though important, doesn't sell as much a biography of Oprah Winfrey (pandering to the masses). And then the popularity of the author - Obama's earnings from his books last year was $8M.

But no common-sense approach would okay a publisher setting the price at $160 for a 272 page book. (I know there are businesses that pay a lot for slim reports. But this doesn't fall into that category. I bring in the number of pages because that's an indication of the extensiveness & depth of the treatment. A 57-year history can only be put in a nutshell in less than 300 pages; to dive deep and dissect would consume considerable volumes). Unless there are any state/jihadi secrets, which there obviously can't be, it doesn't make sense to price it out of reach of a common man interested in understanding the history. It's hard to put a price tag on any book and the value a good book delivers can never be measured in dollars. And this book might very well open eyes to many; it might very well contain many seminal ideas. But such an expensive price tag in most cases will work against the propagation of the author's knowledge; it may turn out as the prime means to ensure a reduced readership.

Monday, May 10, 2010

David Brooks writes a column that I wanted to write about Elena Kagan, Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. Here are the final lines:
What we have is a person whose career has dovetailed with the incentives presented by the confirmation system, a system that punishes creativity and rewards caginess. Arguments are already being made for and against her nomination, but most of this is speculation because she has been too careful to let her actual positions leak out.

There’s about to be a backlash against the Ivy League lock on the court. I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.
It makes theoretical sense to have someone in the judge's seat who can impartially listen to and make a fair judgement. But nobody is impartial. The school they they went to, the friends they had, the community they grew up, the crime rate around them (or the lack thereof), born to educated parents, educated in a Ivy League institute, marital life (or the lack of it), being a woman... A judge may claim to be impartial in their hearings but still all the arguments have to pass through their collective background filter and by virtue of growing up they would have lost their neutrality.

We'll know quite soon where Kagan stands; after all, she's replacing the liberal lion of the court and Obama wouldn't possibly nominate someone who's going to tilt the court towards right. But as the pragmatist conservative columnist David suggests, it is intellectually dishonest to not express your position on various issues that concern the society and play it safe all along for the sake of professional growth. It is ironical that she had criticized the senate confirmation process for not being insightful enough, while all along she has been preparing herself for such a process.

There's an episode from the melodramatic 'The West Wing' where the president initially leans towards a very centrist judge for openings (two) in the Supreme Court. But then he listens to an extremely liberal and an extremely conservative fight each other inside the Oval and he decides to go with them. I'm glad that Sonia Sotomayor called herself a wise Latina.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Sitting Duck or Bait?

Faisal Shahzad bought a used SUV from someone nearby in a face-to-face transaction, did not scrape the VIN off the engine, loaded it with Home Depot grade explosives and left it near Times Square without properly setting off what could have been a ball of fire. The level of clumsiness he has exhibited will put any 15 year old Forsyth-reader to shame. And he's just back from Pakistan after a 5-month visit after alleged contacts with fundamentalists there. When the border police boarded the flight (he was trying to escape to Dubai, and possibly back to Pakistan) he said "I've been expecting you. Are you NYPD or FBI?"

Was he desperately trying to be apprehended? Is he throwing the intelligence resources a dummy trail behind his back? Was it a ploy to see how responsive NY's counter terrorism cell is in responding to such emergencies? Investigators say that he's talking freely; terrorists either blow themselves up or play hard to get. Is he a loony easy catch or is there anything more to this case?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Regional Affinities

As I grew up and opened up to a variety of experiences I gradually lost my affiliations that made what was me during my formative years. I'm not a fan of Maniratnam, I don't love India, I don't think bisibelebath is the best dish ever conceived and arguably there are better writers than Rushdie. But during the IPL, I found myself supporting the Chennai cricket team, my city, though it's not my city anymore. And now the world cup has commenced and I'm back to my indifference, not caring much for India. And to think that I rooted for a team that not only had non-Chennai players but also non-Indian players and don't feel bothered by a team comprising all Indian players is... not unsettling, just a tad puzzling.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Writing is like hitting the gym (what a flimsy metaphor to begin with). The more you do it, the better you get at it (and the nonsense continues). And if you begin to take breaks and are happy to be sitting home watching sitcoms, you get cozy with your laziness (a light-bulb moment!). I'm going through one of those phases - neither hitting the gym, nor writing amidst not doing many other things and am strangely happy with my lack of initiatives. And since any act, when not practiced or projected, loses its sharpness, I'm struggling a bit to put my thoughts in writing coherently, not to mention the ability to prioritize on which topic to write about. Like getting on a bicycle after 15 years, I'm hopping on it again...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Other News

.. blogging will resume this weekend. Thanks for checking.

Friday, April 16, 2010

What's Illegal in India?

Human sacrifice, BBC says (emphasis mine):

The head and the body were found at the local temple to the goddess Kali near Chotomakdampur village in the western district of Birbhum.

Police say they have detained a tribal villager for questioning.

Human sacrifice is illegal in India. But a few cases do occur in remote and underdeveloped regions.

The shock value of such a news piece has slowly subsided since every once in a while I bump across the same headline. But what is BBC saying about the state of Indian polity to the rest of the world by including that line? The fact that we still have to deal with dangerous fools is another matter.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Supreme Court threw its weight behind live-in relationships on Tuesday, observing that for a man and a woman in love, to live together is part of the right to life, and not a “criminal offence”.
The Supreme Court of India decriminalized homosexuality last year. Now they've approved pre-marital sex between a man and a woman. What next? Pre-marital sex between gays. Whatever happened to our moral fabric?

Update: A friend asked what was up with me. Of course, satire doesn't come to me naturally. I thought the label 'Oddballs' would give it away.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I had CNN on for almost 3 hours yesterday to see the final minutes of the health care reform bill pass the House. It will now go to the Senate and soon the White House where it eventually becomes a law. If I find the inclination & time I'll write about this historic bill [1]. But now I want to point out something else - the remarkable narrowness of politicians.

For the sake of the uninitiated, U.S is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. In a country like Switzerland which practices direct democracy, decisions are made by the assembly of citizens. Most policies (be it at the level of a town or country) are in the hands of the public - the recent vote to ban minarets being one of them. Whereas in the U.S (and most other democracies) the general public elects officials who are entrusted to make decisions concerning their welfare - from their county to the country. Essentially, the elected officials are believed to possess a sharp long-term understanding of what's good and what's not for their societies.

Watching the debate yesterday was quite appalling because the representatives of the House were just echoing the popular opinion of their constituencies. Every Republican and 34 conservative Democrats voted against the bill. (It passed 219-212). As a representative, not of the lower House of the U.S Congress, but of the U.S democracy, their job is to evaluate the bill and vote based on the what they think is right. But what happened was everyone bowing down to the political pressure of pleasing their constituents and pitching for re-election. All Republicans acknowledge how screwed up the health care system is, but they're just not happy with the bill tabled (although it has close to 200 suggestions from their party members). They want reform, but not in this format which is going to result in record deficit.

Obama joked a few weeks back when talking to members of the Congress: "When Americans say they're concerned about jobs, they mean their jobs, not ours". Only that he wasn't joking.

[1] Here's my very brief take: I support this bill in spite of being a fiscal conservative. The bill is watered down and doesn't actually reform. And though the budget office estimates that over a 10 year period the government will save $140 billion with its Medicare cuts, I highly doubt that. Taxes inevitably are going to go up and people are going to dislike that. Once people get used to a welfare scheme it becomes politically impossible to revoke (like reservations in India). And the right-wing would be quite right in fighting government expansion only if it weren't for health care system. But I believe any great nation should have a great health care system, where one doesn't go bankrupt in the process of taking care of one's family or is dropped coverage when one develops an expensive illness. It is a moral issue not a money issue. Good health coverage should be ahead of good education and good military for a developed nation.

Whoa!

From Andrew Sullivan, on a retired U.S General's testimony before Congress:
SHEEHAN: The case in point that I’m referring to was when the Dutch were required to defend Sbrenecia against the Serbs, the battalion was understrength, poorly led. And the Serbs came into town, handcuffed the soldiers to the telephone polls, marched the Muslims off and executed them. That was the largest massacre in Europe since World War II.

LEVIN: And did the Dutch leaders tell you it was because there were gay soldiers there?

SHEEHAN: It was a combination –

LEVIN: Did they tell you that?

SHEEHAN: Yes.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tony Judt writes:
My generation was obsessed with the distinction between theory and practice—I knew a man in California whose doctoral dissertation was devoted to “Theory and Practice in theory and in practice.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Here's a sentence from 'Fashionable Nonsense' on epistemic relativism:
But the numerous discussions we have had during which the theory-ladenness of observation, the underdetermination of theory by evidence or the alleged incommensurability of paradigms have been put forward in order to support relativist positions leave us rather skeptical.
This quote appears in the 50th page - a point where the authors can safely assume that the reader is well in tune with the context and subject matter of the book. I was, in fact. Even then I had to read the sentence twice to understand what the authors are trying to convey. I've read books by professors written for mainstream audience and I've found most of them strikingly clear in getting the message across. Richard Feynman once said that however a difficult a concept may be, if you understand it thoroughly you should be able to explain it to a 17-year old satisfactorily. The authors of this book (Sokal & Bricmont) are professors and from what I've read of the book I can say that they know their stuff. But frequent sentences like this where the reader is expected to perform vocabulary gymnastics can be tiresome.

I understand that authors sometimes are so deeply immersed in writing journal articles for elite societies and keep talking among themselves when evolving ideas for a book which might result in chapters that are jargon loaded like this. But it should have been the responsibility of the publisher to make the authors' ideas more accessible (without diminishing or simplifying) - if at all their target audience are general public. I'm going to try to continue reading, but if I find myself rereading frequently I'll have to shelve it for there are many more in my wish list.
I've seen many discussion board comments like this: "Do you have the required expertise to talk about the Narmada dam issue?", "I've worked in the election commission for 15 years, what rights do you have to question me on election fraud in rural India?", "I have a masters degree in journalism, don't teach me how to report riots"... I understand this style of argument because I've been there myself. This is mostly the result of reaching a point where they realize that they cannot satisfactorily progress (based on logic/facts/etc) a discussion because of their half-baked understanding of the issue or a realization that the other guy has brought valid points to the table that cannot be refuted and instead of conceding the discussion in an honest manner they hide behind their credentials.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Green Zone

I'm a huge fan of Paul Greengrass' Bourne movies and a very huge fan of his 'United 93'. His camera techniques (jerky movements, small takes, rapid transition between long & close-up shots...) in the Bourne movies created a sense of immediacy and tension which with a good story and a solid actor like Matt Damon generated genuine thrill. 'United 93' is the first (I think) 9/11 movie and by keeping it completely non-political and non-commercial Greengrass delivered a punch to me that's been equaled very rarely in probably the thousand movies I've seen [1]. In Green Zone he has tried to conflate politics and thrill and history. It succeeds moderately as an action movie, but the naive treatment of the political dimension takes away any seriousness a thinking adult may invest here thereby boiling it down to a popcorn story for teenagers discussing politics.

As pointed out by Anthony Lane of New Yorker, even a google search and subsequent clicks made by a warrant officer (Matt Damon) comfortably sitting inside his room is shown to the audience with the cameraman's acrobatics where the monitor is zoomed in and out and focusing on just the words that the director wants the audience to read. This is precisely my fuss when dealing with movies based on real events: just show everything - politically - and let the viewer decide where he should stand instead of the writer/director cherry picking actions, events and decisions to suit their needs. I know Hollywood's political affiliations (Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, Stone and many other bigwigs are on the left-wing) and I understand it is not their job to inform the general public on political matters in a non-partisan manner, especially when it comes to wars. Does Greengrass, the creator of a masterpiece like 'United 93', realize that presenting a simplistic story ignoring the political complexity [2] results in a shoddy cinema?

[1] Here's a link to my half-ass review of United 93. Talking of raw punches, Irreversible is another movie that hit me very hard.

[2] At the risk of sounding redundant, but to emphasize my point, I'll say it again: The director has great artistic license in the case of fiction. A soldier can even sing a song and dance when bullets whiz past him [3]. But when you base your story on a real and ongoing war, you have a moral responsibility to not dilute the events. This movie is inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's critically acclaimed, politically dense 'Imperial Life in the Emerald City'. By calling the screenplay an inspiration, the screenwriter has disabused himself of that moral responsibility. I understand that there's only so much that can be crammed into 120 minutes, even if you're shooting a documentary, but this movie is shamelessly one-sided.

[3] The semi-fictional semi-docudrama Waltz with Bashir actually features a scene like this - a soldier waltzes in the middle of the road in a war zone in Lebanon. If you get a chance see it just for the brilliant visual style.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mornings With Infant

I was in the shower and my wife was all tied up getting our daughter ready for daycare.
"Can you get me a soap?"
"There should be a body wash."
"There are bottles of moisturizers and shampoos. No body wash."
"Okay." *Brief pause* "Use them."

Monday, March 08, 2010

Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness

A few years back I read a book called Millionaire Next Door which when distilled had 7 or 8 bullet points which go like spend less than you earn, make a budget and stick to it, choose a profession you like, don't show off your wealth, etc. At the end of it, I thought, wow, this must not be hard. Then I realized that my parents and relatives and many of my friends' parents all have practiced most of the attributes mentioned in the book for most of their lives but they're nowhere near half as rich as the one's in the book. It wasn't hard to deduce - the authors of the book just looked at what the rich guys were doing; they weren't social scientists investigating the financial health of all of the cross-section of the society that had those millionaire attributes. While you could be persevering, smart, living well below your means and materialistically modest there are still pretty good chances that you could end up not becoming a millionaire. And I thought at that time what if a book dwelt on this aspect - where the author exposited in great detail that you could be doing all the right things successful people do and still remain not successful[1] enough all your life - the book would bomb at the marketplace. Who'd want to read a dejecting theory? Apparently, many. Taleb's Fooled by Randomness does exactly that and much more.

Taleb is a Wall Street trader and a professor in risk engineering in addition to many other things. He's well read and the range of references he makes here almost make me wonder if he were simply showing off his diverse education. The crux of the argument he makes in this book is that blind luck or chance occurrence is discounted by most, especially the successful people. His area of expertise is in the markets and he extensively draws analogies from the life in Wall Street to pound the idea home. He talks about the human nature to fit everything into a seemingly logical order and hence we fall into a narrative fallacy of explaining rare events (he calls them black swans) after they've occurred. Taleb effectively informs us that random (or rare, if you will) events will always be part of the human cycle and our historians and journalists should stop glamorizing them by fitting them into a logical flow and establishing a fake order retrospectively.

Once you accept that not everything follows a pattern, at least when it comes to the world of finance, then the expertise of a successful trader is called into question. That's what the author does - he claims to not know the how or where or what or when of markets - and in openly expressing his ignorance he also claims his superiority over many other traders who think they've somehow struck a golden forumla whereas in reality they're just deluded. Taleb even writes about a trading company that had Nobel prize economists[2] but crashed spectacularly in spite of their knowledge of the markets. Funnily, it looks like these economists referenced Taleb's papers on black swans after they went bust to absolve themselves - another attempt by these people to explain their losses and successes.

I'm terribly uninformed of what goes on a trading floor and I'm willing to take most of Taleb's theories at face value. But he extends most of his theories to life and I'm not too comfortable with his condescending tone here. Of course the rich and famous and successful guys did some right things at the right time - they either sat next to a venture capitalist in a long flight or were experts in a social phenomenon whose time has arrived because of technological breakthroughs or were married into a business/political family that had connections.... This interpretation of doing the right thing at the right time is something only time can confirm. It is appropriate to acknowledge the role of luck in making big. But Taleb gave me the impression that hard & smart work doesn't get you anywhere without luck and I don't warm up to that idea. In fact, he uses the example of dentistry as a stable profession through most of the book, and explains the low stress associated with a steady growth as opposed to a fund manager who is invariably stressed every minute of the day and has a high risk of crashing down. But he doesn't seem to imply dentistry as a successful profession by itself.

At some point I wanted to drop the book because it was getting redundant. He was just providing different use cases to illustrate his central theme; but at least he kept issuing nuggets from diverse fields such as philosophy, poetry, history & mathematics which kept me going. (With all that, I read only 13 out of 14 chapters). If you have a pragmatic view of life this book is not going to enlighten you - you already know that chance does things that smartness alone can never do. But that degree of unpredictability in our markets, as painted by the author, unsettled me a bit. In spite of its redundancy it's not a bad book. It was like having a cup of tea with your well educated, well traveled uncle - he repeats some jokes, but he tells them interestingly. So you sit and listen without fussing.

[1] Success in this context is mainly by money. The author cites a scenario where constant exposure to the ups and downs of market arrows takes a high toll on health and then goes on philosophical introspections on what good is money without good health.

[2] There's no such thing as Nobel prize in economics. The award is presented by the Swedish Central Bank and doesn't come from the Nobel fund. Taleb repeatedly points this out. He somehow can't get himself to place economists who predict and create patterns along with scientists.

PS: I'll take a 10 day break before I start my next book - Alan Sokal's Fashionable Nonsense.

Oscars 2010

My morbid curiosity for watching the Oscars live (and unedited) has come to an end. It's really a test of human endurance to watch people go through their laundry list of thank yous. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin should be spanked for hosting one of the most boring most-watched prom nights. I was glad that 'Avatar' didn't win anything big* and 'Hurt Locker' did win the top categories. At the risk of generalization and simplification I'll say this - it's interesting that James Cameron did the most womanly of the movies I've seen in a long time (and a crappy one at that) and made a ton of money while Kathryn Bigelow made the manliest of movies I've seen in a long time (a very good one) and has until now remained relatively obscure. In a world where cinema audiences are increasing men (especially teenagers), I've got to give it to James for breaking successive records with maudlin movies featuring horrible dialogues.

I liked Sandra Bullock's speech and I'm happy for Jeff Bridges.

* Avatar won for cinematography and now I'm really confused. In a movie like 'Hurt Locker' the viewer is made to recognize the vastness and emptiness of an Iraqi desert, a bustling market, the sweats on the face of a soldier. There's a whole lot of special effects in Avatar and the cinematographer still guides the view through his lenses - but it all seems a bit fake to recognize such a movie with the highest Hollywood honor. When most of a movie is shot inside a room with a monochrome background and movements aided though software and sensors, it somehow seems unworthy of Oscars to me. But then who said that Oscars should always go to the worthy.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Two articles on the future of U.S solvency:

Eternal optimist Fareed Zakaria is being politically naive:
So, [deficit] problem looks unavoidable, but also insoluble. Remember, though, that America has a $14 trillion economy that was, until recently, growing quite fast. We can find ways to address even this challenge. Here are three simple proposals that would defuse the debt bomb, with money to spare... Each of these policies could be phased in so that the timing is right. They could be pared back, especially if other savings and reforms are enacted. (Currently, tax breaks and deductions cost the government $1.1 trillion a year.) But just these three fixes would place the United States on a firm fiscal footing, leaving it with ample resources to invest in research, education, infrastructure, alternative energy, and whatever else we want.
Niall Ferguson's ominous words:
Neither interest rates at zero nor fiscal stimulus can achieve a sustainable recovery if people in the United States and abroad collectively decide, overnight, that such measures will ultimately lead to much higher inflation rates or outright default. Bond yields can shoot up if expectations change about future government solvency, intensifying an already bad fiscal crisis by driving up the cost of interest payments on new debt. Just ask Greece. Ask Russia too... Washington, you have been warned.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rushdie - I'm not a fan, but

Yesterday I was at the Emory University for a speech (interview style) with Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and Deepa Mehta. As I entered the campus my days as a student at ASU flashed back. There's an indescribable energy in the air that I was able to reconnect. Students were walking fast, talking on their cell, browsing.. even the one's sitting idle somehow gave the impression that they're enjoyably wasting their time. Interestingly I was never part of that energy when I was a student - my days were quite uneventful. Of course, like everyone I scrambled before the deadlines and stayed late before the finals, but the zest that's usually associated with an American student (or an Indian student in America) was colossally missing. Well, I developed a healthy taste for movies, but that's that[1]. To be back in such an environment tingled a bit of nostalgia.

In the last few years I've been able to strip myself of being a fan[2]. I used to be a 'fan' of Rushdie, Tendulkar, Spielberg... I still admire their works but not with a filter where I'd defend them even if they delivered a shoddy product. A few years back I would have been greatly excited to be seeing and hearing Rushdie, but not yesterday. He's a literary genius, but that compliment should come from someone who's far better in dissecting his literature. My appreciation skills are rudimentary. But so far Rushdie is one the best fiction writers I've read and I didn't want to miss an opportunity to see him in spite of the speech scheduled in a work day.

Rushdie didn't deliver a great speech (or great answers to the questions) but he made the session absolutely interesting by plugging in wonderful anecdotes. Sample these (a) Muslims in East London were offended by his 'Satanic Verses' and took to the streets in an organized march. A policeman notices a book shop on the protest march's path that displayed the book prominently and he gives a friendly warning to the shop owner to take the book down and save his glass windows. A journalist browsing books inside the shop hears this. This journalist comes back later in the day to the shop and finds that the book is not back on display and annoyed he asks the owner about it. The shop owner responds that all the copies of the 'Satanic Verses' are sold. (b) When his 'Shame' was published Pakistan banned it for obvious reasons. But all the foreign embassies thought it was required reading on Pakistani political climate and sent copies to their diplomats stationed in Islamabad. Once they read it they passed it on to embassy staff who later pushed it into the general public and thus almost all who ever in Pakistan wanted to read 'Shame' was ultimately able to read it.

These two anecdotes came up when he was talking about the effects of banning a book. Whenever there's attempted censorship, it certainly piques the interest of the public making it hard to actually ban the work. Nothing insightful, but the way Rushdie narrated these events (also explaining how those who protest/attack actually haven't read the work) was engaging and funny. At the end of the session he recited at a good speed a charmingly silly poem that ran for a full 5 minutes. Somewhere in the middle he forgot a couple of lines and without hesitation he simply explained what actually happens during those missing lines and continues from where he can remember. This is also the kind of quirkiness I enjoy in his writings.

[1] My movie discerning skills started when I first came to the US. That's a natural progression of the way things work - the more exposure, the less conditioning. As I saw more foreign movies my impressions of Indian stalwarts started breaking down. But it has taken a while for me - I gave a positive review to 'Sivaji' excusing myself as a true fan of Rajini. When I'm in front of a mirror a strange sense of shame engulfs me for not growing up even so late.

[2] Although I don't call myself a 'fan' of anyone, Charlie Kauffman is dangerously close to pulling me into his fan base.

Update: This is the 2nd half of the symposium, Rushdie is the primary speaker.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reading? Yes. Book? No.

I'm spending as much time as possible on educating and informing myself. Through blogs, columns, articles, podcasts and documentaries. But the sort of satisfaction derived from turning the last page of a book is missing. Books, supposedly, provide depth & breadth on a subject. The author's years of experience and expertise on the subject is juiced, bottled and ready for the reader to be consumed. That satisfaction is usually not derived from any number of 500-word pieces featured in Time.

When it comes to making a choice, I've been choosing articles and podcasts over a book because at the end of the said time, I'd know quite a bit about a lot more topics than a lot more about just one topic. And the advantage with these new media outlets is that most of the time they're dealing with trendy topics - be it the Toyota recall or Tiger Woods or the dysfunctional nature of U.S political culture - in addition to being in the know, they also contribute for a good lunch time chatter.

This instant gratification has come at a cost. Reading books was one of the main instigators of my thirst for knowledge. That cannot be comprehensively quenched by what is comparably a twitter feed to a New Yorker article. A great book does great service to the mind. I have a huge list of books in my wish list and I just realized the pointlessness of it. To think that that would always be my wish list instead of serving in my knowledge arsenal is so depressing.

So today I'm making a public promise of sorts to read at least a book a month, and provide a decent... I don't want to call it a review... but what I take home from the book. As with movies, I will not sit through something if I think it will not be worth my time. To begin with I'll try Fooled By Randomness by Taleb. I've tried his much acclaimed Black Swan and I found his tone a bit domineering and preachy. Irritated, I closed the book. Since then I've heard the title referenced at many places by people I respect. As I decided to reopen, I was told to reach for his first book and the Swan would just start flowing easily from FBR.

Part of making this book-reading an announcement is to apply that extra pressure on myself so that I cut down on some of my useless browsing. Any of my three loyal readers can feel free to ask for updates after a month. So, here's to re-establishing my dying habit.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Making It A Habit

There are a few things that I do on a regular basis. Blogging is obviously not one of them. But I've promised myself many times to do at least a post per week. There were times when I wouldn't have anything to say and it's better I didn't update with a empty post that reads like a Facebook comment. And there were times when I was tightly occupied that I just wanted to close my eyes when I had a free minute. And I don't want too many quote-posts punctuating my page making my blog a link festival. (I thought I'll move them to Twitter but I haven't been active there. I tried podcasting and after an edition the stars aren't aligned to favor the next one).

The fact is that after a few busy weeks, where I didn't have an opportunity to post, when my calendar eventually started giving me blank stares I had eased myself very well into a non-blogging state that I was okay with sitcoms, documentaries and reading. I don't treat writing lightly. In fact it's one of my means of thinking. Even if I'm reading Wired, to be not able to express my ideas and reactions to the article is to wallow in lethargy - because when I sit down to write my ability to critique is put on spotlight; whereas if I don't write (or get into a discussion) I'm just a passive consumer of news & opinions. Here, allow me to smash my slump.

*

China is the new bully in the block. We have G7, the UN Security Council, BRIC, etc. But the two countries that mean a lot - both economically and militarily are the U.S and China. And China's behavior these days, either in Copenhagen on climate talks or arms sales to Taiwan or Obama meeting the Dalai Lama or refusing to revalue their currency to cushion trade imbalances or addressing human rights in their own back yard - is to give a symbolic middle finger to the U.S.

China's huge surpluses are contributed by the manufacturing sector, not the knowledge processing industry. There are many well thought out arguments on the web about how curtailing the power of web to their citizens could be disastrous for China's ambitions to become an economic giant. Well, this can be treated as a domestic affair. But its business deals with countries that aren't stable or repressive or politically against the U.S or all of these is worrisome: China's arms deal with Sri Lanka in their recent war on LTTE (should I say Tamils?), oil deal with Venezuela thereby propping the ridiculous Hugo Chavez, oil deal in Sudan filling Khartoum's coffers to kill more Darfuri women, not imposing sanctions on Iran as a member of UN council fearing a spike in oil prices.. going back to their reactionary help to Pakistan with nuclear technology in order to maintain their geopolitical supremacy.

For all its high-rises and solar-powered technologies and bullet trains and great malls there's not much to life if there isn't freedom. In spite of all its shortcomings India has a sense of humor, the press is free, they talk about politicians and the politicians talk back (sometimes with a stick), there are riots against the government, guys watch porn in the comfort of their room and some couples have 4 kids. When it comes to freedom the U.S is even better - I'll just say that late night comedians poke at presidents all the time and one fine day they step into the comedian's studio as a guest for a chat and a jab. Can you imagine the Chinese Premier sitting down for a cup of tea with a Chinese Leno?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Today morning as I woke up, my 7 month-old girl was sitting next to me in my bed, babbling. As I hugged her she started licking my cheek. These moments make life easier in the middle of busy work & home weeks.

I'm expecting to resume blogging at the regular frequency (whatever that is) sometime next week.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reflections by Tony Judt

As I was getting my hair cut today a strand of hair slided into my ear. It was itching a bit but I didn't want to distract the hairdresser by asking him to stop so that I can clear my ear. Or so I thought. Within a minute the itch grew strong and all of my mind was completely focused on how to get that strand out. I then asked him to stop and shook and scratched my ear until I thought I was all set.

Now read this passage from an essay by Tony Judt, a professor and historian who's paralyzed from neck down:
Ask yourself how often you move in the night. I don’t mean change location altogether (e.g., to go to the bathroom, though that too): merely how often you shift a hand, a foot; how frequently you scratch assorted body parts before dropping off; how unselfconsciously you alter position very slightly to find the most comfortable one. Imagine for a moment that you had been obliged instead to lie absolutely motionless on your back—by no means the best sleeping position, but the only one I can tolerate—for seven unbroken hours and constrained to come up with ways to render this Calvary tolerable not just for one night but for the rest of your life.

My solution has been to scroll through my life, my thoughts, my fantasies, my memories, mis-memories, and the like until I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased. These mental exercises have to be interesting enough to hold my attention and see me through an intolerable itch in my inner ear or lower back; but they also have to be boring and predictable enough to serve as a reliable prelude and encouragement to sleep. It took me some time to identify this process as a workable alternative to insomnia and physical discomfort and it is by no means infallible. But I am occasionally astonished, when I reflect upon the matter, at how readily I seem to get through, night after night, week after week, month after month, what was once an almost insufferable nocturnal ordeal. I wake up in exactly the position, frame of mind, and state of suspended despair with which I went to bed—which in the circumstances might be thought a considerable achievement.