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...