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.

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.

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?
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.

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.

Thrills & Messages

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

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


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

On Twitter

I'm on Twitter. I'll try to cut down on my just-quote posts (where I say nothing but just quote a block) and move them to Twitter. Of course, there will be much more. This will be an experiment for me as I don't quite know to work crispness and humor into a short sentence and at the same time say something meaningful.
This is quite scary:
During a year-long gambling binge at the Caesars Palace and Rio casinos in 2007, Terrance Watanabe managed to lose nearly $127 million.

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

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

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

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

Vaaranam Aayiram

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

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

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

But I'm happy the film is made. Surya is no better than Vijay for accepting such a non-commercial project for it all boils down to holding onto one's fort. While Vijay and Ajith have a strong viewership in B & C centers, Surya and Vikram with their flair for experimenting alternate between commercial and challenging roles to earn audience with sophisticated tastes. Nobody serves the art; every actor prostitutes their talent for money. But with the success of every Vijay/Ajith film we're traveling back in time. With the usual nonsense on how a woman should dress to crass comedy capitalizing disabled people their movies propagate virulent stereotypes. With at least 'Vaaranam Aayiram', we're going in another direction - it's progressive because there's no social degradation.
This is interesting:
A judge has finalised a settlement in which film studio Sony will pay $1.5m (£850,000) to film fans after using a fake critic to praise its movies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that I have rambled let me try to connect the dots and conjure a few points. Most people don't listen to critics. They have their favorite actors, directors, writers to decide if they should go to a movie. Those who read/listen to critics always take that with a pinch of salt. And they gradually educate if the taste of their critic matches theirs. But nobody I know ever respects blurbs behind DVD cases or newspaper ads. Those short sentences always have to be 'Brilliantly directed' or as in this case 'Another Winner'. Sony had to pay for something nobody would anyway have based their movie-going decision on and that's just dumb.
Leaders of two very significant democracies come together. And it's on the eve of the first anniversary of a terrorist attack on one of the countries. Obama is about to announce his Afghan policy today while India plays a crucial role in the stability and reconstruction of that region. And I repeatedly read and hear the Salahi's breach into the state dinner. Not just at this respected news daily, but all my news sources have home-page items on the Salahis. In this loud media fart I wasn't able to find a single piece from the top dailies (Times, Post & the Journal) on the immensity of Singh's visit.

The couple that crashed into the party are celebrity whores. They're famous now for trying to get famous. And they want to get a bit more famous so that they can be even more famous. But what about the audience who care about politics, war, economy, health care? They're now driven to focus-journals like National Affairs & Foreign Policy. The editors are not even emphasizing the breach as an indication of the holes in the security details for the leader of the free world - they're carrying profiles of the crashers and what they're up to. With the flurry of coverage given to nonsense like balloon boy, Levi Johnston and now the Salahis, they're ...
In Minority Report, set in 2054, Tom Cruise has transparent discs half the size of CDs which hold high quality video that can be projected. Spielberg consulted scientists from MIT ( and elsewhere) to visualize a futuristic home.

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

Did the MIT guys not see it coming? Or did Spielberg refuse because it would be a bland sci-fi prop to see a video clipping from the web compared to those cool mini-discs?
And I thought WPUJC Waas, the Srilankan blower, had too many initials. [Scorecard]

Living Within Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS: I know these observations are sweeping generalizations and over-simplifications, but they reflect reality at a reasonable level.
It seems like I'm on another spree of linkfest without any of my commentary. But I can't resist this nugget of wisdom.

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

We go to a movie to see something new, to enliven our minds and our brains. We do it for the same reason we read a good book — to know what we don’t, to transport ourselves into experiences that we have not known, to look through another’s eyes. A work of art, whether it is literature or cinema, attains a certain importance when it enables us to experience life at close quarters. Such literature and films surely give pleasure — real entertainment to their audiences.
This is tragic:
What's striking is the way young Chinese people can progress from first kiss to multiple abortions in a relatively short time. Take Hu and her college roommates, who all arrived at school as virgins. Early on, one roommate from Guizhou—a poor, rural province in the south of China—asked Hu and the others how she was supposed to kiss: with or without tongue? But by the time they graduated, all four roommates were sleeping with boys, and the girl on the bunk below Hu had had three abortions in one year.
John McWhorter writes about the death of languages:

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

But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the makes of Toyota. So our case for preserving the world’s languages cannot be based on how fascinating their variegation appears to a few people in the world. The question is whether there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a universal tongue.
Gladwell writes:
The statistician Stephen Stigler once wrote an elegant essay about the futility of the practice of eponymy in science—that is, the practice of naming a scientific discovery after its inventor. That's another idea inappropriately borrowed from the cultural realm. As Stigler pointed out, "It can be found that Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienaymé stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev's first work on the topic." For that matter, the Pythagorean theorem was known before Pythagoras; Gaussian distributions were not discovered by Gauss. The examples were so legion that Stigler declared the existence of Stigler's Law: "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer." There are just too many people with an equal shot at those ideas floating out there in the ether. We think we're pinning medals on heroes. In fact, we're pinning tails on donkeys.