Friday, April 17, 2015

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is funny that I read Robinson's Red Mars almost back to back with Andy Weir's The Martian. Red Mars is pretty much the antithesis of The Martian. One is a tale of survival. The other is the tale of settling down, making a home. One is about a single person overcoming overwhelming odds. The other, about a hundred trying to overcome their own limitations. One is about the individual, the other about society.

It is this last aspect of Red Mars that most attracted me. The novel starts off this the idea that if Mars was to be colonized, we'd have to send a sizable population to setup an outpost. And almost immediately, this population would form a society with it's own internal social structures and politics. The first half of the novel spectacularly develops this idea. Robinson's command of character is flawless. We hear the story from the point of several members of the 'first hundred' - a group of highly talented and able people sent on a colonizing mission to Mars. We learn about the different agendas and priorities these characters have about Mars and by proxy what humanity feels about their own planet Earth.

You can escape earth, but how can you escape humanity? This seems to be central dramatic tension of Red Mars. Human frailty travels with us wherever we go. The hunger for power, jealousy and fanaticism travel with us. How will humanity deal with it's own fallibility?

Robinson doesn't have any optimistic answer to this depressing question. The only answer is - humanity manages to function and even achieve something despite these limitations. Perhaps that is real hope.

The second half of the novel veers off from these, more philosophical, musings. It focuses instead on some Orson Scott Card like near-future socio-political speculation. Robinson predicts Transnational corporations which he seems to think is what multinational companies would develop into. There is north vs south politicking going on back on earth over oil and resources in Antarctica. India and Pakistan are going to nuclear war against each other.

Frankly, this part of the novel is not only hard to buy but also seems a little dated given the novel was published over 20 years ago. World geopolitics has changed in drastic and rather unpredictable ways since then.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for Programming Languages

An interesting article but flawed, IMHO.

The central thesis seems to be that programming languages shape the programming culture. But even going by the examples cited in the article, the author gets the causation all wrong.

Both Facebook and Twitter changed languages when they grew too big and their needs and possibly the corporate culture changed. Culture change caused a shift in languages not the other way around.

I also find it interesting that tactics that work well in the early stages of a startup (Move Fast and Break Things) do not work well as the company matures. So much for people wanting behemoths such as Microsoft or Google to move faster and be more innovative. Not going to happen. And if it does happen, it would make this companies implode overnight.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! by Dibakar Banerjee

It is hard to live up to nostalgia. Byomkesh Bakshi is nostalgia distilled and concentrated by time. The story is immensely popular among native Bengali speakers. But even in the Hindi belt he has been immortalized in the Rajat Kapoor led Doordarshan series of the 90s. Thus, the expectations the 2015 adaptation by Dibakar Banerjee faced were of Himalayan proportions.

How do you live up to nostalgia? By not catering to it at all. Right from the opening sequence, the movie upends all expectations. Sushant Singh Rajput looks nothing like Rajat Kapoor. Kapoor's Byomkesh was poised, mature and in command. Rajput's is young, excitable and bumbling. But that's that point.

The film narrates the journey of a young Byomkesh who is bored with his life to the point of playing carrom with himself. There's a fledgling love interest which isn't really panning out. Perhaps all this has to do with his terrible social graces. In this state of utter loser-dom, he is approached by Ajit Bandopadhyay (who will later grow to be the Watson to his Holmes) to solve the case of the disappearance of his father.

Byomkesh embarks upon the investigation with gusto. He is driven in part by the prospect of getting handsomely paid - enough to marry the love interest that's soon going to get married to a (presumably rich) doctor. But mostly he's driven by his own obsession. Byomkesh cannot resist a good mystery.

And eventually his becomes his foil. Without giving too much up, the audience discovers that Byomkesh is ultimately being used by men much more powerful and cunning than he is. The plot spans multiple themes - drug trade, femme fatales, politics, WWII and freedom fighters. Byomkesh finds himself in deeper and deeper holes but manages to save the world in the end (of course!).

And over the period of the movie, he grows. I really liked the development of the chemistry between Byomkesh and Ajit. Byomkesh' growth as a detective and a person is also well done. One shortcoming of the movie was that there were too many peripheral characters which get introduced but aren't put to much use later on. The film could also have used tighter editing.

The soundtrack, besides being absolutely delightful, is also one of the way audience expectations are completely turned on their heads. Gone are the surreal tones of the 90s TV show. We are hit hard with a blood pumping heavy metal score recorded with independent artists and giving a much needed voice to the upcoming Bengali rock scene.

The visuals are impeccable. Every frame a painting indeed. The atmosphere is immersive - transporting the audience to 1940s Calcutta like no film has ever done. This alone is the biggest strength of the movie. The sound editing is impressive. Despite sitting in an American suburban movie theater, I couldn't help but feel like I was back in India at moments.

The dialog, though, was weak at times. I don't know why but I had the feeling that at least some of it was written first in English and then translated to Hindi without much thought. However, the script was very solid. Usually I often have trouble following detective fiction plot but that wasn't an issue here. And the final threat that Byomkesh had to face felt really big and credible. The backdrop of WWII was a clever ploy that lend sufficient gravity to the dangers our protagonists had to face.

People are going to get very upset with me for saying this but I think Dibakar Banerjee has managed to do with Byomkesh Bakshy what Guy Ritchie failed to do with his 2009 Sherlock adaptation.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

I have always been a big Asimov fan. I've read almost all of his work. (He has been extremely prolific so it's hard to be sure.) Or at least all of his science fiction work. Recently I decided to revisit some of the old classics.

Pebble in the Sky was a big disappointment. The writing is clunky and full of old writing styles that make it hard to read. The casual sexism bothered me. I thought it wouldn't bother me because I know that it was written at a time when such sexism was acceptable. But it does bother me a lot. There is one single female character in the entire book and she has no agency at all. In fact, she actually asks the man she's interested in to 'put his arms around her' to protect her in case of trouble. The man is question is constantly talking about bashing someone's teeth in if they threaten to disrespect her in any way.

The book is also a stark reminder of how much our world has changed because of the internet. People in this novel still carry paper money around even thought it's 50,000 years into the future. Books have to be read on book projectors. Of course, Asimov couldn't have predicted the internet in the 50s. Still, it makes the books strange to read. Which makes me wonder if most science fiction would age this badly.

Monday, February 02, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir's The Martian must be the most exciting book I've read recently. It delivers the kind of edge-of-your-seats action that can only be expected from the latest summer blockbuster. Indeed, the film is being hastily adapted into just that - a big budget Hollywood spectacle starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, directed by veteran Ridley Scott.


I really, really hope Ridley Scott doesn't mess this one up, like he did with his recently movies. I'm so in love with the novel that I would never be able to forgive him. Although, ostensibly, all that the main protagonist, Mark Watney, is doing is fixing one thing after another in a desperate attempt at survival. There isn't one single page of The Martian that's boring or superfluous.

The Martian reads more like a film script or screenplay than a novel. But that is not a bad thing. The format is perfect for the story that it is trying to tell. The words are visually evocative, bringing the alien world of Mars alive in the viewers mind. The humor is sharp and riotous which provides welcome relief from the grim-dark reality of the survival tale.

There has been some criticism of how cheerful Watney remains through his year and a half long ordeal on Mars. But I totally bought it. For one, he's an astronaut. They are selected specifically for the hardiness of their characters and the exuberance of their spirits. Second, it is human nature to not give up if there is even a small credible change of survival. People don't just up and die, even in the most dire of circumstances.

But more than a tale of survival, the novel is an ode to the scientific method. There is hardly any technobabble in this story. Most of the technology depicted already exists or can be easily conceived to exist in a couple of decades. And against the backdrop of this almost realistic technology, the author weaves a story out of one science experiment after another. Using high school chemistry to make water from rocket fuel. Using high school botany to start a jury-rigged potato farm on the Martian soil. Crisis after crisis is solved with aplomb using simple math and common sense. As an engineer, it is hard to not break into a cheer every time Watney averts yet another near-death scenario by remembering the basic laws of physics.

Of course, this is exactly what the folks back on Earth are doing as they voyeuristically watch Watney using imagery from satellites orbiting Mars. As the story progresses, millions of dollars are spent to rescue the stranded astronaut and great sacrifices are made by everyone involved. And even though the author doesn't ask it, the uncomfortable question inevitably arises in the readers mind. Is it worth spending all this money on saving this single starving astronaut  when millions are starving right here on earth? Weir briefly comments towards the climax of the story that yes, it is worth it because being human means never leaving a crew member behind. There is some truth to it but I'm afraid it's not the whole truth.

All in all, The Martian is a must read for any aficionado of the recent rise of hard SF stories. If you loved Gravity and Europa Report last year, you're going to adore The Martian.