Monday, December 29, 2008

Ghajini


Where do I begin counting what went wrong with this movie?

Lets begin with the script. It was plain lousy. The concept was marvelous. There were some really strong characters in there. There was Sanjay, suffering from memory loss. Every morning he wakes up blank, disoriented. He has no idea who is he, where he is, what he is supposed to do. Every morning he spends reconstructing his life in bits and pieces, filling himself with rage, with hatred. And then he spends the day struggling against his handicap, trying to achieve that single goal that keep him alive – Ghajini's death. Then there is Kalpana, childish and mature at the same time, hot and sweet in the same instant. She is a girl to die for. And yes, kill for. Then there is Ghajini – the evil incarnate, someone who cares nothing about these small motes in his empire of crime.

But for some reason, the script writer focuses only on Sanjay. The first scene, where he gets up and goes through his daily routine of discovering himself and the last scene, where he forgets who Ghajini is and is duped by him, are well done. But other than that? Lousy writing throughout. There's too much of the deus-ex-machina in there. The police officer investigating Sanjay get conveniently killed in a road accident. Jiah Khan (she's a medical student) has clearly been put in only to provide help to Sanjay whenever the writer could not think of a better way. The internal logic of the film is lousy. There is just no end to it.

I really wish Ghajini himself had been played by a better actor. Good heroes are made by good villains. I mean, who the hell was that guy? Has anyone even heard of him? Imagine Irfan Khan, Manoj Vajpai or even Ajay Devgan in his place. Now that would have been a movie to watch.

The song and dance sequences are typical Bollywood. And I actually like that. The choreography is good, the music is nice and both Amir and Asin look stunning on screen. I also liked the fight sequences. The flamboyant exaggeration of South Indian cinema fits well here. For once the special effects blend in seamlessly with the rest of the movie instead of standing out like an elephant in Cannought Place.

In all, Ghajini is a could-have-been-great movie falling flat in it's face. The initial hype may have grossed it a lot of money but this is not a movie people will remember. If only the writer had burnt more midnight oil.

Rating: 1.5/5

Slumdog Millionaire


I watched Slumdog Millionaire last night and then slept over it to make up my mind whether I liked it or not. On waking up, I find that I like it, but not as much as the hype that has surrounded the movie. I think for this post, I'd go ahead and list what I liked and what I didn't like.

What I Liked
I like that the movie was not about India. Yes, it was set in India and played by Indian actors speaking Hindi and Indian English. However, the movie was not about India. The objective of the movie is not to tell the audience about India or how people in India live and behave. It isn't even to document the life of the slums of Mumbai. Instead, it narrates the story of a person from the lowermost strata of human society – that of a slumdog from a developing economy and the sheer irony of his life as he watches 2 Crore rupees being handed out to answer simple questions and his dreams wither away simultaneously. It is about how there are ways you can acquire insane amounts of money and yet that money can't really buy you what you want.

I like the way the movie uses Bollywood cliches and yet remains quintessentially a non-Bollywood film. Two brothers, born in poverty, orphans, fending for themselves, moving onto completely different paths in life and then uniting and one of them sacrificing for the other. Children captured and disabled for begging. Idealistic romantic love being crux of the plot. And yet, this is a movie that contemporary Bollywood cannot make. It needs Danny Boyle and the international stamp to carry it through. The likes of Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto cannot give a hit movie in Bollywood. A story centered around a gameshow can never be a success in Bollywood. It is a happy and a sad thing at the same time.

I like Irfan Khan. He has a small role, cut out in small little pieces which give him only a dialog or two every time he's on screen. And yet, he leaves a mark. After you finish the movie, you remember him.

I like Frieda Pinto. She does not have a face that can be successful in Bollywood. It is dark and sultry and not North Indian enough. It is good that the movie is not really a Bollywood movie. I hope she gets good work outside the country.

I liked how Indian the whole production was. The film was shot in India using Indian cast and crew. And according to the media, the entire production was done the Indian way. It gives a very distinct India feel to the movie. As an Indian, it may not mean much to me, but I can imagine the kind of impact the visuals will therefore have on a western audience. As far as I can tell all locations in the movie seem to be real locations. Just technically, I think it was very courageous of Danny Boyle to go ahead and make this film.

What I did not Like

I didn't like the way the game show host behaved. Kaun Banega Crorepati was not made in the same spirit. Amitabh Bachhan as a host was always polite and humble irrespective of the stature of the person in the hot seat. We got all sorts of people in the hot seat, from respected professionals to unknown housewives. And yet, Mr Bachhan was always the gentleman. Watching the movie, I found the kind of ridicule and contempt being piled on the 'chaiwala' highly irritating.

I didn't like Dev Patel's accent. Not that there is something wrong with it in itself. Just what with everyone around him speaking Hindi and Indian English, a wester English accent was grossly out of place. Danny Boyle should really have cast someone else. But then his argument was also valid. Actors seeking to enter Bollywood spent 6 hours in the gym every day. Those guys would just not have fit the bill.

I didn't understand why Jamal went to the game show at all. Yes, Latika would have been watching. So?

I guess I've ended up writing more good than bad. So maybe it is a good movie after all. :)

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds


The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds is a novel set in his Revelations Space universe. It narrates the story of Field Prefect Dreyfus and his two deputies as they begin investigating the death of over nine hundred people and end up fighting a system-wide emergency.

I didn't like this book as much as Reynolds's earlier books. It begins alright, and goes on well till about the middle. But somewhere around page 200 of this 400 page work, it begins to falter. One, it stops sounding like a Reynolds novel. I associate his work with high-concept space opera – with the story happening mostly in space dealing with largely alien characters. However, 'The Prefect' gradually turns into a security-agency drama with one character sitting ducks and not doing much for several hundred pages and the other one is too busy playing the only good cop in the organization. It really gets irritating after a while. And it drags. I think the book needs to cut down on at least a fifty pages.

Rating: 2.5/5

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a weird movie. I saw the movie last evening and have been thinking about it since but have not been able to make any sense of it. I think I will classify the movie as pseudo-profound – a movie that, on the surface, seems very profound but really is not. Another movie in this category is Donny Darko.

The movie is based on F Scott Fitzgerald's short story of the same title. However, the movie is heavily adapted and even changes the time frame of the original story. In the short story, Benjamin Button is born as an old man and goes on getting younger until he dies of childhood. His mental age in the short story is always equal to his physical age. However, he is forced by his father to do things more appropriate to his worldly age.

In the movie, however, Benjamin Button's mental age is in line with the time he's spent in the world. Only his body is born old and dies young. He is brought up by a loving and caring mother. I think the point of the movie was that 'age' is not a matter of what you look like but what you feel inside. But that's really a moot point, isn't it. I don't see why they needed to make a whole movie out of it. Also the mysterious clock scene in the beginning and towards the end does not seem to make any sense. A repetitive theme in the movie is that everything passes. That again is a moot point and while it might make for a good theme in an emotional drama dealing with old age, in this movie it seems somewhat out of the place.

76% critics at Rotten Tomatoes have give the movie a favorable rating. I wonder why. I do agree that the make up and CGI in the movies creates a rather believable post WWI world. But other than that. I don't know. I think I just didn't get it. If someone got the movie, please leave a comment and I'd try to understand what it was all about.

The movie was too long. It was nearly 3 hours long and everyone felt it could have done with some editing.

Rating: 2/5

Yes Man


Yes Man narrates the story of a man who attends a self-improvement seminar and decides to say yes to everything that comes along. Before that he had been stuck in the same job for five years, his girlfriend had left him and he had was slowly getting alienated from his friend. But after he makes the covenant with himself to say yes, things begin happening to him. He gets promotion after promotion at his job, meets with a wonderful girl and just generally has a good time in life. Until, of course, his girlfriend realizes that he'd been saying yes to everything, even them moving in together just because he had to and not because he wanted to.

I don't wish to spoil the climax for people who have not watched the movie. Not that the climax is spectacularly easy to guess or that the whole movie isn't childishly predictable. But I think that's what I like about this movie. You can walk into the theater in any mood and you'd come back feeling cheerful and a little more positive about life. And as Jim Carry said in an interview, at this point in the history of the world, it's a good thing to be able to feel that way.

The movie gives a positive message – that of saying yes to life. To not shut yourself out and look forward to opportunities and what life has to offer you. I have to admit that I personally felt quite inspired after watching the movie. The only problem is, no one is asking me any questions to say yes to. :)

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Prominent Facebooker has Close Brush with Death

Aman, a prominent Facebooker, became a minor celebrity after his close brush with death last Tuesday. Fire broke out in his workplace after the popcorn he had put in the microwave burst into flames and caused a short circuit burning out the electrical wiring in turn.

"The fault was mine," admits Aman, "I put the popcorn in and went back to my computer and put my headphones on. I was so lost in music that I completely forgot about the popcorn. I didn't even hear the fire-alarm. I only came to know about it when I smelt something burning real bad."

By the time Aman reached the microwave, the fire had already burnt it out and the flames were spreading all over the room.

"It was amazing," says Aman, "I immediately got my camera and set it on the shelf on the other side so I could capture everything. It was going to be a chance of the lifetime. At that time, the topmost thing on my mind was the waves it would create among my facebook friends."

Aman's Facebook friends were not disappointed. Living up to his reputation of 'the most happening person on facebook' (as rated by 237 people on 'Rate My Friends', a facebook app), Aman not only took videos of the entire incident but also took pictures from his mobile phone.

"Pictures are usually clearer than videos," Aman told this reporter, "And I can blog them real time on my iPhone. The feed is linked to my facebook account so it immediately gets published to my friends. Some of my friends were already commenting even before I'd started putting out the fire."

But the fire was not that easy to put out, as Aman discovered.

"I was trying my best to put out the flames but they were all over the place. And it was really hot. And I had to keep in mind that if I did it too soon or without some struggle, the video wouldn't come out all that great. I mean, there are thousands of indoor fire videos on YouTube. This one needed to be special. I wanted to keep the fire-extinguisher for the very last so that the whole thing had a nice, you know, climax."

Things got much worse before Aman could finish with a flourish.

"I was updating my Facebook status all the time. As I ran repeatedly between the fire and my computer I had this sudden, brilliant brainwave. Why not get burnt a little bit? Now that would make for awesome pics, wouldn't it? all the sympathy comments I'd get from the girls," Aman says with a naughty smile.

So, determined to create the most spectacular Facebook even of all time, Aman jumped bravely into the flames. Little did he know how dangerous that could be.

"Have you ever been in a fire?" Aman asks, "I mean a real fire? The worst part is not that it's so hot. The worst part is that it spreads so quickly. I'd decided to burn my left arm. But as soon as I thrust my arm in, it was all over me. My t-shirt was burning all over me and maybe even my trousers, I think. I couldn't make anything out in the smoke. I suddenly realized that this was not going to work and rushed for the fire-extinguisher. But I didn't even know where it was! Imagine that! I have been working in this office for five years!"

The irony of it was, as Aman was frantically searching for the fire-extinguisher, his colleague, Shravan, who was following the entire incident live on Facebook had posted several comments telling Aman where the fire-extinguisher was.

"It never occured me to call him," says Shravan, shaking his head, "Aman is always on Facebook. And since he was tweeting the whole thing live on his facebook status, I assumed he'd get my messages."

"But I could not get to the computer while I was burning," says Aman, "It could have caught fire. And I didn't have a webcam either so I couldn't even set up a live feed. What use would that have been? It would just have driven me out of frame of the handycam I'd set up."

Shyam, the watchman on duty at that time, was the one who finally saved Aman's life. By that time he'd seem the flames coming out the window and knew Aman was trapped there. When he broke into the room, he found Aman rolling on the floor wreathing in pain.

"I don't understand why he didn't just rush out immediately and call me. I know these sahab-log aren't that good with these things, you know, things that require using your hands, running around etc. I could have taken care of the fire in two minutes. It wasn't a big fire."

While Aman thanks Shyam for saving his life, he has no real regrets.

"In the end it was worth it," he says, "It became the biggest facebook event of all time. I got 1026 comments in total and 527 wall posts. They even started a group for me -- "The Burning Man". More than 2000 people are members there. Even today I get friend requests from completely random people. I just tell them to join the group. I've become a celebrity!"

The smile on Aman face as he finishes his story is reassuring. All's well that ends well.

"It's about loyalty," Aman adds as an afterthough, "You owe it to the guys who follow you on facebook. They put in so much time to take an interest in you. You can't but not give them your best."

Indeed. Aman's sentiments and loyalty to his Facebook friends are commendable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi


The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi is a loose sequel to his earlier novel 'Old Man's War'. The novel narrates the story of Jared Dirac, a member of the Special Forces of the Colonial Union also known as the Ghost Brigades.

The Special Forces soldiers are genetically enhanced humans grown artificially. They are essentially emotionally immature children who have no morality and little inhibition. They are therefore prepared to carry out the most extreme missions in warfare.

Jared Dirac, however, is not an ordinary Special Forces soldier. He was created to house the copied consciousness of a scientist turned criminal, Boutin. However, the transfer was not perfect and Jared is left with bits and fragments of the criminals mind inside his own. In a fast moving and happening plot, Jared gradually discovers the motivations of the scientist-criminal and also his own and the meaning of consciousness.

A lot of Scalzi's narrative focuses around the issue of choice. In 'Old Man's War' he questions a lot of the right wing war mongery as epitomized in Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers'. But there his approach was to question the motivations of those who are fighting the war. He showed us that the ground troop often may have no idea about what or who they're fighting or why they're fighting at all. They might be fighting only professionally – that is, for money, respect or other benefits.

In this book, he questions the motivations of governments themselves. Do governments really launch wars for the good of their citizens? Even if they do, are they always successful in defining good in a desirable manner? Also, a war that is carried on only for a political purpose really justified?

The art of storytelling itself leaves much to be desired. Scalzi often launches himself into long monologues describing the colonial union politics and or the scientific principles of these hybrid humans. The dialog seems made up and artificial at a lot of places.

Rating: 3/5

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fearless by Jack Campbell


Fearless by Jack Campbell is the second novel in his 'Lost Fleet' series. It is a space opera with a military bend. It narrates the story of the legendary 'Black Jack Geary', a lost hero of a very long war who is discovered in deep cryogenic sleep, revived and is put in charge of the Alliance Fleet.

I've read the first part – 'Dauntless' – and have liked it. The narrative is fast paced and plot driven. The majority of enjoyment is derived from the very engaging descriptions of space duels in the book. A lot of stress is given on strategy and planning and the author manages to maintain surprise and suspense all through the book.

What I found amusing is that just when I was beginning to think that conventional space opera was almost dead and all you got these days were far future, high concept stories (like the ones by Alastair Reynolds) I ran into two contemporary series which are reviving the military space opera of the golden age. One is the series this blog is about and the second one is called 'Old Man's War' by John Scalzi which is a more direct tribute to Heinleins 'Starship Troopers'.

What I liked most about Jack Campbells writing is that it fits my view of show and tell. I have always been confused by the industry standards of show and tell. In writing workshops, you're always told that showing rather than telling is the mark of good writing. However, I've personally liked many books which are tell-ey, at least on surface.

Take this book for example. In one way, it is highly tell-ey. The story is narrated from the point of view of Captain John Geary and the readers gets clear insights into his thought processes and motivations. Everything is spelled out in great detail. For example, when Geary makes decisions of gives orders to his subordinates, the motivations are always explained in very simple terms. When some of this subordinates challenge his power and authority, their motivations too are explained. None of these things are left out to be puzzled out by the reader.

Such in the face writing would normally irritate most people. However, in this novel it doesn't. Because what Jack Campbell is trying to show is something on a different plane. He's trying to show how difficult decision making is and how even a very intelligent and sensitive person may not always make the right choices. It goes on to show how 'good' behavior requires ceaseless self-analysis, self-criticism and questioning. It shows how even the most spectacular heroes are fallible and questionable and in the end, merely human.

I rate this book 2.5 on 5.0.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Three Fun Links

1. Zubin Pastakia has a photography project capturing 'talkies' of yore in Mumbai. Very pretty, very nostalgic.

2. Anand Hingway has Monty Python humor for you. Here and here.

3. Arvind Kothari has this delightful peom about romance and shoes. (Yes, NOT romance and sex but romance and shoes. (Yes, I just throw in that word there to dupe the search engines.)) (In Hindi.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Vertical Space Conservation in Firefox

Why Conserve Vertical Space
With the advent of widescreen monitors, vertical space on the desktop is at a premium. That is, we have more space in the horizontal direction than we have in the vertical direction. Thus, the conventional layout of an application GUI is not very suited for these widescreen monitors. To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at the default Firefox screen.


We see that the components of the window are laid out in a vertical stack. We have the menubar on the top, then the toolbar below it, then the bookmarks toolbar, then the webpage viewport and finally the status bar. However, when you’re surfing the web, the portion that you need to pay attention to is the webpage viewport. Especially with Web2.0 applications (like Facebook) the webpage itself will have a lot of controls which will take up a lot of vertical space. And on the other hand, a lot of horizontal space is wasted.

Would it not be nice if we can somehow shift all this controls taking up vertical space to occupy horizontal space? Unfortunately, that is not possible on Windows. (It is possible on KDE on linux but that going to be another post.)

However, in the specific case of Firefox, we can conserve some vertical space to our advantage.

Statusbar
The status bar has two cheif functions. One, it shows you a nifty little progressbar when a page is loading to show, well, the progress of the page load. It is good visual feedback when you’re waiting for the page to load. Second, when you hover over a link in the webpage it shows you the URL of the link so that you know what you’re getting into once you hit the link.

Now, there’s a great firefox extension knows as Fission. What Fission does is make your addressbar double up as a status bar. That is, the addressbar will show a progressbar when the page is loading and also the link URL when you hover. Voila, now you can hide the statusbar.

Menubar
When using Firefox, how many times do you really use the menubar? Once you’ve made the initial settings, hardly ever. Why not hide it then. Hide Menubar lets you do just that. It hides the menubar. In case you do need it, you can show the menu bar by hitting ALT. Easy, simple.

Bookmarks
This one is tricky and you may or may not like it. This is what it will look like.


What I did was – fireup bookmarks organizer and put all your bookmarks into a top level folder, called ‘Go’ here. Then right-click on the toolbar and customize. What many will be surprised to know is that you can now drag your bookmarks onto the toolbar. The bookmarks toolbar will appear empty after this. You can add separators around ‘Go’ to make it more distinctive. Voila, you can hide your bookmarks toolbar too now.

The reason that a lot of users will not like it is because it will now take an additional click to do anything. But again, in this Web2.0 age, you have to fireup a web application only once, don’t you?

(Alternately you can also drag the bookmarks onto the menubar. That way, you can have both the menubar and bookmarks visible and still use some horizontal space.)


That’s All Folks
Yes, we’re done. This is what firefox looks like now, with loads of extra webpage viewing space!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Was watching a video of Laughter Champions just now when I was thoroughly surprised to see a female contestant on that show. And suddenly I realised that out of the many, many performers I've seen on the show (and I must have seen at least a 100), this was the only woman I saw. And come to think of it, there have been absolutely NO women comedians in the Indian film industry. And if I'm not wrong, even in the US, there are no women who make you laugh. Why is comedy and humour such a male hegemony?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Old Man's War and Starship Troopers


I finished reading “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi. It was nominated for the Hugo in 2006. (Okay, I don’t believe that all good novels win an award but most that get nominated are good. At least with the various SFF awards. Personal opinion.) The novel is clearly a rewrite of the Heinlein classic, “Starship Troopers”. I have not read the book but have seen the movie so the comparison would be based on that. As far as I know, the movie is pretty faithful to the novel so it ought to be a valid comparison.

To me “Old Man’s War” appeared to be an opposition to “Starship Troopers” which is a pretty conservative, old school, extreme right wing work. The soldiers in Starship Troopers join the military because they want to be ‘citizens’ (at least our hero does) that is, they feel a responsibility towards the ‘nation’. In Old Man’s War, soldiers join the military for personal benefits and quite literally because they have nothing else to do. In Old Man’s War, the military takes people who have turned age 75 and gives them a new and young body to live in. The downside – you have to fight in a war where 75% of the soldiers die within 10 years of enlistment. But obviously many old people make that choice to get another shot at youth.

In Starship Troopers, it is made clear that the soldiers are fighting for their fellows back home. One of the turning points in the story is when the hero’s home town is nuked out by the bugs. That’s when he turns back on his decision to leave the military. In Old Man’s War, soldiers really have no reason for fight for ‘humanity’. Humanity itself is an ill defined term. As becomes clear at various places, the soldiers are fighting first as part of a bargain, and second for their squadmates who are the only friends they have in this new life.

In Starship Troopers, humans apparently have an upper hand in the war. They know what they’re doing. They have a clear idea of their place in the universe. In Old Man’s War, the humans think they know what they’re doing but as it turns out, they’re merely puppets in the hands of a more technologically advanced race.

Overall, I liked the novel.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Every meal is a celebration of hunger.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Love at First Sight



Do you believe in love at first sight? Neither did I, until I saw you. It was strange. I saw you, I said hi. We shook hands. Then we moved on to meet other people. And then some others and I forgot about you. But then I again caught glimpse of you in the crowd, from a distance. And I could not take my eyes off you. Your smile, your laughter trickling through the chatter. It fascinated me. Then you got lost in the crowd again. I forgot you. I met other people. Piling face upon face, name upon name, none of them really registering.

Then we all go home. Then it all ends. Tired, I sleep. I wake up.

And you're there. The first thought in the morning. That smile of yours. It's like a knife that's sliced through my heart. I spend an uneasy day, trying to recall every detail of that two minute meeting. I remember your name but nothing else. Not who you are, what you do, where you're from. All those details we show so much enthusiasm to learn when we meet a stranger. Forgotten in a whiff. But not your smile. Your smile lingers. It haunts. It hurts.

I dig the internet for your presence. I search you name. First normally, then in quotes. I search for you on every social networking website I visit. I search the college database for you. Nothing. You don't leave a trace, not on the internet, not in my head. Except for that smile. Bloody smile.

Something clicks. I find your email address out. I write to you. And I wait. And I wait some more.

Waiting.

You dropped by just to say hello. You didn't even talk to me much. But I wasn't listening. I wasn't thinking. I was just watching you smile that smile of yours. Drinking it in.

You made promises. Promises to come again. Promises to smile with me once more. False promises.

I know those promises are false. Knew the moment you made them. I even know why they are false.

And yet I wait. Eagerly. Desperately. With an aching heart.

Why is that?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Morals

Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing the right thing -- Isaac Asimov

I proclaim my right to be discriminated against!

While I'm not as much of a traveler as some of my other friend, I have lived in quite a few places. My family belongs to an area on the UP/MP border which is called bundelkhand. But I have lived in Indore all my life. Then for my undergrad I moved to the heart of UP – Kanpur. I have lived off and on in Hyderabad for about six months. I have visited several cities in my country – north and south, east and west. And now I have been in the US for more than a month. However, I strongly resent the fact that in the 23 three long years of my life, have I ever felt like an outsider. People have been very nauseatingly nice to me and I have never once been discriminated against based on caste, religion, race, gender or economic status.

Frankly, I find it disturbing that my 'real identity' should be neglected in this way. I am urban, elite, educated, north India, upper-caste, hindu and male and not discriminating against me on any of those bases is, to be very frank, highly offensive. Such a complete null and voidification of my true identity has left me hopeless in these dark and oppressive time.

My only hope is Raj Thakre who has finally realized that everyone's identity needs to be respected and there is no better way than to discriminate against them based on regional affiliations. Those countless Bihari's in Mumbai, who have now been living there for so long that they don't even remember the name of their original villages in Bihar, should be thankful to him. I mean, how could they even consider calling themselves Mumbaites and forget about their Bihari origins. Would that not be a big disrespect of Bihar and Biharis? Raj Thakre respects your identity and he wants you to always remember it. That's why he's burning and beating the hell out of you guys.

Raj Thakre is my true hero.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Humanities on Campus

"The theoretical broadening which comes from having many humanities subjects on the campus is offset by the general dopiness of the people who study these things." — Richard Feynman

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What Sets Religion Apart from Other Faiths?

In life we are governed by faith. We believe in a lot of things. I believe that if I push something it will move. Newton made a law out of it. We believe that the law is valid everywhere in the universe. But do we really know that? Have we pushed every thing in the universe with every possible force? We have not. Where does our belief spring from, then? It is a matter of faith.

Then there is religious faith. People believe that there is God -- with a capital G -- and he tells us to lead our lives in a certain way.

There is economic faith. Some believe free markets are the door to salvation. Others believe it's central planning.

What sets religion apart from other beliefs? It is the fact that religion is seen not as something man made but god given. Who asks you not to sin. It is not the pundit or the padri. It's God. Atributing a faith to a superhuman entity propels it beyond the realm of questionability. And it is this non-questionability that is problematic with faith of any sort.

Religion is not the only non-questionable faith. The theory of racial supremacy espoused by Hitler was one such faith. He attributed to aryan supremacy to genetics: something that was beyond human control . It was just something that mother nature, God, whoever did. It was not changeable. It was not questionable.

Other faiths can succumb to unquestionability too. Just a few days back I was talking to a friend who insisted that capitalism was the “most natural” manifestation of human “nature”. It was unquestionably the most natural system of economics. She could as well have been reading out from the scriptures.

Moral of the story. Faiths that are unquestionable are dangerous.

PS: I wonder if the concept of questionability links to the concept of falsifiability in science. If yes, then questionability becomes a fundamental principle of what is called “rational” thought. Please note, however, that questionable does not mean false. It just means that there must be a method to “test” an assertion. Anything that is not testable is irrational.

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Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

The reason I didn't like the book is that it appeared unfocused and even immature to me. The film is a lot sharper and more focused. Of course, the theme of the novel, like all Palahniuk books is breaking the status quo, questioning the system, taking more responsibility for you life, etc. etc. You can imagine why I like him. In Fight Club, he is doing the same thing but he's not clear on it. Which makes sense because this is his first novel. For example, the scene where Tyler and Marla have sex, Marla says - “I want to have you abortion.” Now that makes no sense at all in the context of the story. It is just thrown in, for the sake of shock and awe. And it's a politically offensive thing to say. I mean, you can't just throw out abortion that lightly, can you? I think his later novels are more restrained in that sense. He is fond of using shock as a tactic and throws out a lot of gross stuff at you but makes a lot more sense in his other novels.

The second reason why the novel does not work is that the whole split personality thing does not come out very well. In the film, the visuals support the whole build up. When you watch movie for the first time and your realize that Tyler really is a fictitious person, it hits you like a brick. Suddenly everything starts making sense. Many of the scenes have been done brilliantly; I think all of them have been done brilliantly.

Also, the protagonist comes out a lot more as a hero in the movie than in the novel. I can't bring myself to like the protagonist in the novel. In fact, I kind of hate him for being this sick, perverted bastard. In the movie, I love him, being from the same class (very nearly) I can identify and sympathize with him.

Interesting

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Magyk by Angie Sage


Magyk by Angie sage is a fantasy novel for young readers. Although it is not remarkable in any sense of the word, it really is a very good for light, fun reading for young adults.

Magyk seems to be a delightful mix of Enid Blyton, J K Rowling and Terry Pratchett. In that order. Set in a purely magical fictional universe it narrates the adventures of young wizards and witches who do nearly adult stuff.

Rating – 2/5 (Time pass)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

To be or not to be

A very interesting article/news report from the Indian Express about how Ahmedabad schools insist on mentioning caste on the kids's report cards.

This report is another example of the strange dilemma that India faces.

1. On one hand knowing caste leads to discrimination. Yes, it does.
2. On the other, not knowing, deprives the so called lower castes from getting the benefits that the govt. gives them.

To be or not to be, eh?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

I'm at the Ohio State University

I wonder why everyone is thinking I'm studying at Purdue. I'm not. I decided to join the Ohio State University instead.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nagraj: Nagayan: Varankand and Grahankand


Nagayan is a limited series of the Nagraj franchise which retells/adapts the Ramayan into the Raj Comics universe. However, Nagayan does not happen in the 'contemporary' Nagraj time line but in the future in year 2023.

The artwork for this series is done by Anupam Sinha and is what Nagraj fans have come to recognize as quintessentially Nagraj. The drawing is imaginative and full of detail but does not render human figures realistically. If I were to describe it in one word, I'd call it 'bulbous'. There is an abundance of roundness in the artwork.

The plot also is quintessentially Nagraj. Nagraj plots have a template. It is this – Nagraj is faced is some sort of a supernatural foe. Nagraj spends his time dueling with this unworldly monster and uses all his powers one by one. But obviously the monster doesn't die. But in the process, Nagraj is able to discover the 'rules' according to which the monster functions (it may be made of ice and hence can be killed by fire) and subsequently thinks up a flaw in these rules. Nagraj then uses his powers to kill the monster. Nagayan follows the same template.

Where Nagayan differs is in trying to retell the Ramayan. So in Varankand and Grahankand, we see Nagraj (Ram) and Dhruv (Lakshman) being trained by Baba Gorakhnath (Vishwamitr) in use of divine arms and ammunition. Then they go to the swayamvar of nag-princess Visarpi where they defeat Kroorpasha (Ravan) and Nagraj marries Visarpi. In between we also have Mahatma Kaaldoot getting angry at Nagraj destroying the divine sword and we have the Dhruv-Kaaldoot samvad, a counterpart of the Lakshman-Parshuram samvad.

But the comic follows Ramayan only loosely. Nagraj is not loyal to just one wife but ends up marrying two women by a quirk of fate. Visarpi is not the subservient Sita but an assertive and powerful nagrani. Overall, the women characters are much more independent (although still stereotypical) and this is to be appreciated.

I also liked the way the character of Ravan has been interpreted. Nagpasha, Nagraj's arch rival is split under the effect of Black Powers into three. Kroorpasha – pure evil, Suptpasha – pure laziness and Bheerupasha – pure fearfulness. Clearly the analogy is to Ravan, Kumbhakarna and Vibhishan. I had never thought of these three as aspects of the same psyche in Ramayan but now that Raj Comics gives us that pov, it's worth a thought. (cf. The four hobbits and gollum can be seen as aspects of the same psyche in LOTR.)

I would have liked these stories more if the artwork was better. On my Raj Comics scale, I rate them 7/10 mostly because of the plot.

Principles of Usability

I have written earlier about intuitive uesr interfaces. In that article I argue that a large amount of human behavior is learnt and there is nothing intuitive about it. Hence we should drop the notion of intuitiveness when we design user interfaces. Instead we should design interfaces based on the principles of efficiency.

A user interface is more usable if it allows the user to accomplish the desired task:
  1. in minimum time possible
  2. with least effort. Effort can be measured in the following ways:
    1. Physical effort: clicking, typing etc
    2. Mental effort: a) Searching (less is good) b) Memorizing (less is good)
Related:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Nagraj: Atank-harta Nagraj: Teen Sikke


Teen Sikke is the next comic in the Atank-harta Nagraj series of the Nagraj franchise. It continues the tale of Nagraj as he tours Europe on a mission to clean world terrorism. This time Nagraj is in Italy.

The artwork on this comic is dark and gritty. Lalit Sharma's penciling makes it a wonderfully noirish and sinister work. I like his new Nagraj. He looks far more young, more believable and a lot more dependable than Anupam Sinha's. Also this Nagraj and his snakes are far more sinister than ever before.

Raj Comics continues to be confused between crime and terrorism even in this comic. Nagraj is trying to eradicate the mafia from Italy. The fact that mafia is a crime ring and not a terrorist one escapes the writers.

As has now become the norm with the Atank-harta series, characterization is strong, which makes these comics readable. I really liked the character of Jhappi Singh, who is a voluble Punjabi taxi driver in Italy. His loud-mouthedness leads to a lot of amusing situations in the storyline.

It is useless to rate Raj Comics on my personal scale since all of them will get lumped together on 2/5 (time pass). Hence, I will rate them on a new Raj Comics scale from 0 to 10 which is a lot more quantitative than my personal one.

Rating: 7/10

Related:

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dharm


Banaras, Varanasi, Kashi – the oldest seat of the mighty Hindu Dharm. In that holiest of cities resides Pandit Chaturvedi, true to his dharma, strict of his rituals, he is the epitome of sanatana dharma in the city. Other pandits fear and envy him, people in power respect him, his word is the law. All because there is not one more steadfast in religion than Pandit Chaturvedi.

Then one day, the pandit's daughter brings home an infant, who she claims to be a Brahmin's son, abandoned by his mother. The pandit's wife is overcome with love for the child and manipulates Pandit Chaturvedi into adopting him. The Pandit has doubts, about the birth caste and origins of this child but as the child grows up in his house, he becomes extremely attached to him.

And then, another day, they discover that the child, named Kartikey by Pandit Chaturvedi, is actually a Muslim's son. The pandit casts him aside like a torn rag, and does penance for this ghor paap committed unknowingly by him. He cleans his body through rituals but is not able to clean his heart which reverberates with the sounds of the childs laughter day and night. Troubled, he embarks upon the most difficult Chandrayan vrat. Religious riots break out in the city and there is fire and blood all around. Panditji successfully completes his vrat but purity of heart remains an unachieved goal.

The movie is one of the most powerful I've ever seen. Of course, it is not dealing with a new topic. However, the plot point that it hinges it's message on, is really powerful. It drives home two points very effectively. One, there really is no difference, by birth, between a Hindu child and a Muslim child. Two, no amount of ritualism can bring real purity to your heart if you're drowning in violence and hatred and doing nothing about it.

Pankaj Kapoor is one of the best actors India has seen. He is natural in his role as a Kashi pandit in this movie. He is stern, powerful, respectable, yet caring at the same time. When the rioting mobs stand down even at one stern gaze by Pandit Chaturvedi, it is believable.

Cinematography is exquisite. I never knew Kashi could look that beautiful. The visuals are very powerful and the music aptly supports the screenplay.

My rating: 4/5 (Recommended)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Movie Watching Experience at Maratha Mandir Mumbai

In case you're looking for the schedule or show timings or something -- they don't publish it on the net. Maratha Mandir is NOT a multiplex. So enjoy the real retro movie going experience, locate show timings on your local newspaper and drive all the way to the theater wondering all the time if the show is housefull. Yeah, no advance booking either! (Added after noticing and a lot of people were landing on this post looking for show timings. :) )

For those who don't know what Maratha Mandir is, it is the famous movie theater in Mumbai, near Mumbai Central, that has been running DDLJ for nearly 13 years continuously now. The day I went there, the movie was in it's 370th week. But sadly, I was not able to watch this legendary movie in this legendary theater. Instead I watched Bachna Ae Haseeno.

The whole movie watching experience was extremely nostalgic. Maratha Mandir still sticks to its roots. The ticket counters (khidki) are literally windows in the wall with the the ticket vendor sitting in a small cabin behind it. The balcony ticket cost 65 rs. The ticket itself was an unintelligible piece of newsprint in orange color. Other tickets were deep blue in color. The insides of the theater were decorated in the style of rich 70s movies. Glass and wood instead of the modern plastic and aluminum one sees at multiplexes.

As I walked into the hall I realized that they still had those old style seats, the ones which the theater staff folded up after each show. The ticket was so unintelligible that I actually HAD to go to the attendant to know where my seat was. He looked at the ticket with his little torch and then targeted the beam towards my designated seat. I promptly went and sat there. The cinema hall was air conditioned and CLEAN. The national anthem was played before the movie and everyone stood up for it. Then the movie began. People actually whistled when Bipasha Basu came on the screen. Gradually the movie proceeded towards the interval. People came out and had chai, samosa and popcorn. (The samosas sucked big time, by the way.) When I came in I noticed couples in the corner seats. No points for guessing what they were doing when the lights were out. :)

In all, it was a wonderfully nostalgic experience. I don't think I've been to a conventional cinema hall in over four years. (We did that in the first year at college when multiplexes were still a novelty.) I think multiplexes are just too bland and don't offer the rich movie going experience that cinema halls of old used to.

Getting Visa at Mumbai Consulate

As many of you would know, I recently went through the visa experience. Except for intense moment of irrational panic, the process was smooth as butter. Of course, I was applying for a student's visa and there is not much that can go wrong there.

The visa day began early in the morning at 5:30. I did my morning routine and checked out of the hotel at around 6:15. The reason I had to check out was that Mumbai hotels have a check out time of 10:00 AM and I was not sure I'd be back by this time. I then took a taxi to Mumbai Central where I put my luggage, including my cell phone into the railway cloak room. Cell phones are not allowed at the consulate and you have to make your own arrangements to leave yours out.

I then took a taxi to the consulate which is only a 10 minutes distance from Mumbai Central. I reached there a little before 7:00 AM. The first set of interview letters indicate 7:30 as the start time but there already was a huge crowd at the consulate. This included not only the applicants but also their family members. The atmosphere was tense, and everyone appeared slightly frightened.

I joined the queue. There were two students standing in front of me. A girl and a boy. The boy was dressed all in formals and even wore a tie. I suddenly became very conscious of my own t-shirt and jeans. I looked around. Everyone was dressed in formals. My own screwed up reasoning (this isn't really an interview, just an appearance at a govt. office to get something done) had led me to my casual attire. I wondered for a moment if this would jeopardize my chances of getting a visa.

The girl in front of me had a three page print out in her hands titled “Frequently Asked Visa Questions”. She was busily cramming these up. Again, I wondered if I was under prepared for the interview.

They started letting people in at 7:15 but it was a long queue and I got in only at 7:40. Went through the security check and the fingerprinting. Then waited patiently for my token number to be called. Fortunately the waiting area was air conditioned. :)

My number was called at 8:20. Four people had been called together at the same counter. The person in front of me entered with a subservient “may I come in sir” and spent a lot of time animatedly explaining himself as the consular officer became somewhat agitated. This scared me. No good to have the consular officer in a bad mood.

I myself entered without any formalities and just said a polite 'hi'. The officer started with the usual questions. “Why do you want to study in the US?”, “Which university are you going to?”, “What are the other universities you'd applied to?”, “What degree is this going to be?”, “Where did you do your bachelors from?”, and “Who is going to pay for this?”.

I don't see why those questions would require any sort of preparation. He didn't even ask me if I was going to come back or not. (I guess with Indian students they just assume otherwise.)

I was out at 8:40. Called up people at home to tell them I'd got the visa.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Atank-harta Nagraj


Atank-harta Nagraj is a special series featuring Nagraj in the Raj Comics universe. The series outlines the adventures of Nagraj as he travels around the world on his mission to end terrorism. The series is being published as a sequence of two part stories. The first of these happen in Spain and the next ones are set in England. I think these comics depict cataclysmic changes that are happening with Raj Comics in particular and Indian comics in general.

Much Improved Artwork
Raj Comics has clearly switched to computer assisted inking and coloring. They have also started publishing on smoother paper used by the American comics industry. The result is a much better artwork from a technical point of view. The whole feel is that of a glitzy, professional work. But that isn't all, the artwork has also improved in a non-technical way. The artists are playing around more with frames. They seem to have learned that comics should never text what it can draw. For example, the fact that Nagraj keeps an extra change of clothes in his belt is now shown though pictures and not dialog.

The anatomy of the characters has changed. The bodies are not that exaggerated now. Faces are better drawn and it is actually possible to tell them apart at places. There is a lot more 'style' to the whole production.

Change in Genre
Nagraj comics were, till now, largely superhero fantasies. In each comics Nagraj was faced with a villain with supernatural powers. And in each comics he was able to defeat them by outwitting them in some way. However, Atank-harta series brings back the detective Nagraj. Some Nagraj comics were written in detective style very early on in the franchise. This series revives that. Nagraj is following crime in Europe and follows clue after clue to unearth the various terrorist groups. The villains are criminals or terrorists and there is nothing supernatural about them.

A Lot more Character
Raj Comics has never really concentrated on character. True, the recurring characters do have their quirks but characters that appeared only for a comic or two were merely voiceless monsters. This changes with Atank-harta Nagraj. The characters of his villains are developed in detail. Lot more dialog is involved in developing the storyline.

More than a Plot
Raj Comics was largely about the plot. With this series they are coming out to address several other issues. These comics on terrorism actually have a moral – that not all members of a community are terrorists just because some of them are. Combined with enhanced character development these stories become a lot more lasting than the usual ilk.

Indian Superiority
These comics have an easy sense of Indian superiority. No more are we trying to copy the west – we already have. We can now settle down to tell our own story. Nagraj, the sole Indian character in a European setting is morally superior to everyone around him. The foreigners look up to him for leadership. Instead of the usual exoticisation of the west prevalent in Raj Comics, this series is at ease with the foreign setting. Foreign places and customs are depicted as matter of fact rather than as spectacles. A lot of Indianisms are thrown in. For example, a Spanish girl reminisces about her grandmother applying oil to her hair – a stereotypical bollywood image. When the Big Ben gets into terrorist trouble, someone in the crowd wonders if they should hand 'nimbu-mirchi' on it. :) Signboards and notices appear in Hindi where ever the reader is supposed to read them. The skin color of all characters is the same, irrespective of nationality – brown.

Overall, I was very impressed with this series. It is a huge leap in quality from what Raj Comics usually published both in terms of writing and artwork. In fact, it is actually at par with or better than many of the America comics I have read. (I would rather read Nagraj any day than, say, Witchblade.) I personally think Raj Comics has a lot of potential, if only they'd get the right exposure. Good luck to them for the future.

Autowalas in Ahmedabad

The Benevolent Autowala Strikes Again

Had some really nice experiences with autowalas in Ahmedabad. Autowalas in most Indian cities are like vampires – they will dig their teeth into you and drink your money until you run dry. Not so in Ahmedabad. Here is a blow by blow account.

1. Autowala Number One: I walked about of the railway station and was not mobbed. Demurely, one autowala approached me and asked where I wanted to go. I told him and asked him how much he would charge. He told me he would go by the meter. He also explained the metering system. Ahmedabad autos have a very strange variety of meter. I'm not sure I have figured them out.

Anyhow, it was drizzing lightly and he made me walk as far away from the station as he possibly could. Then he began to search for his auto in the long line of parked vehicles of the same make. Slowly he grew more and more bewildered. When it became unbearable to stand in the rain anymore, I asked him what had happened. In a disturbed voice he told me that his auto had disappeared.

2. Autowala Number Two: So I hailed another autowala who promised to take me to the VFS centre in about 30 rs. From the map I knew that the center was about 4-5 KM away (and it was) so the price seemed reasonable to me. When we reached the place, it turned out that I could not locate it. The autowala immediately took command and asked around. Some people guided us to a passport center nearby. There people told us the location of the visa center. The autowala finally dropped me there.

Needless to say, he had to do quite a bit of extra running around in all this. Yet, he charged me only 30 Rs. He told me he felt satisfied only if the customer got to the right place. I thanked him as he went away.

3. Autowala Number Four: Why am I leaving out the third one? Because his story is the most interesting. I will narrate that in the end. Autowala number four I hailed as I came out of Sabarmati Ashram and wanted to go to ISCON mall. This one also decided to charge me by the meter. As we moved towards our destination the rain became really heavy. Soon we encountered a patch of road which was difficult to tell apart from a river. The autowala stopped, wondering whether to go across or not. I asked him if there was an alternate route possible. He thought a little and turned the auto around. We went round and round for a long distance and then encountered another patch of road which was indistinguishable from an ocean. I gave up at this point and asked him to take me back to City Gold, a multiplex near Sabarmati Ashram. At this, the autowala became suddenly talkitive. He thanked me many times for asking to turn back, saying that if I'd persisted he would have attempted to cross that ocean and would most definitely have got stuck or washed away. Then he began narrating anecdotes about how vehicles get washed away in heavy rains. Then he thanked me again.

He charged me only 60 Rs for a really long distance. In any other city I would have lost at least a 100 for nothing.

4. Autowala Number Five: This one I hailed to go from City Gold to the railway station. Nothing special about this one except, when it came to pay I just asked him how much (he said 30) and paid him. He apparently took offense at it and insisted (in fluent gujrati) that I take a look at his meter before I left. Well, what could I do, I took a look. :)

5. Autowala Number Three: Now he is the only one who duped me and that too in such an innovative manner that the entertainment was probably worth the cost. I got into his auto after coming out of the VFS counter on Ashram Road and asked him to take me to 'Sabarmati Ashram'. He drove for a few minutes and then asked me if I wanted to go to 'Bapu's Ashram'. Obviously, I said yes. He drove, and drove and drove. I began to get suspicious as Sabarmati Ashram is supposed to be ON Ashram Road (hence the name). Anyhow, after a REALLY long journey, he deposited me at the gates of, guess where, 'Asaram “Bapu” Ashram' :P

At this point I didn't even know whether to laugh or to shout at him. I asked him to take me to the right place and grudgingly sat through a rattle of profound apologies as he pretended to be embarrased of the whole incident. He swindled off a 100 from me this way but, I guess, left me with a story to tell. :)

Overall I liked Ahmedabad. They write a script I can read and speak a language I can vaguely understand. The city is much cleaner than I'd expected and the autowalas don't try to fleece you. The little amound of local food I had was good too. The only thing I missed were those infamous Gujju chicks who are rumored to be drop dead gorgeous and take only 5 minutes max to be pataofied. Didn't even catch a glimpse of them.

Wanted


Wanted is an action movie loosely based on a comic book of the same name. I have read the comic book before watching the movie and frankly, the movie does not live up to expectations.

For one, the movie deviates too much from the source. Now, that itself is not a bad thing. However, the ways the movie deviates are aweful. I hated the whole concept of the loom of fate. I think the original comic book idea of a secret society of super villians was much better. Second, the movie kind of fails to deliver the original message which, in short, is that the youth should be anti-establishment. The whole curving bullets idea was very corny and became ridiculous in the final scene. Also, it the movie doesn't deal with the protagonist wanting to go back to his former life at all.

My rating: 2/5 (Time pass)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Despite the bandwidth crisis currently going on in my life (I have only 60 MB of bandwidth left for this month and I have to make it last 3 days), I absolutely have to link to this lovely article by William Deresiewicz. William has taught English at the Yale university for ten years. What struck me most about his article is that except for the America specific paragraph (the one about living comfortably as a school teacher) the rest of it applied directly to IITs and IIMs in India.

The most disturbing was the sections about forced socialization and loss of solitude. I've written earlier about suicides in IITK and that section seemed to ring a bell.

Linux Revolutions

Big things are happening in the Linux world these days. In fact, what is happening in no less than a revolution. I would like here to point out three key developments that are going to shape the computer desktops in years to come.

1. Ubuntu: Before Ubuntu came along, Linux was by the geeks and for the geeks. It was written by people who were computer experts and used by people who were computer experts. These geeks were, no doubt, very passionate about FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and wanted others to use it. However, they made no effort to make it possible for normal humans to use it. If you wanted to use Linux, you'd have to raise yourself, slowly and painfully to the exalted status of geekdom.

Enter Ubuntu. With it's motto of 'Linux for Humans', Ubuntu began serious work towards making the Linux desktop simple. After over four years of development, Ubuntu has become as simple to use as any other OS - Windows or OSX. In fact, I tried out the latest version of Ubuntu a few days back and I have no reservations in saying that I recommend that every informed layman try it out. You can now recommend Ubuntu to your mothers and girlfriends.

2. KDE4: Before KDE4 came along, linux desktops (be it Gnome, KDE3 or XFCE) were merely copying the apple user interface. Windows too was copying the apple user interface. So, all of them had a start button, desktop icons, system trays, taksbars and desktop widgets. Of course, the exact nitty-gritties of features available changed from one DE (desktop environment) to another. Linux was always a lot more flexible and customizable than Windows or OSX, but at its core, in its philosophy, it was still copying the OSX.

Enter KDE4. With it's motto to 'bring a breath of fresh air' to the linux desktop, it completely revampled the whole desktop metaphor. Out go the desktop icons and taskbar and everything became widgets and containments. Although KDE4 is still very much a work in progress (despite the rather misleading version number of 4.1), even in its infancy it promises a radical desktop experience, completely different from the OSX model that the entire world is familiar with.

What's more, KDE4 actually promises that it will become a lot more easier to port Linux applications to Windows or OSX. I can't wait for Amarok to slaughter all other media players on Windows.

3. Open Document Format: Before ODF came along, computers users were caught in the myriad world of proprietary file formats. If you used MS Office, you had to save your files in the native file formats (.doc, .xls and .ppt). If anyone else wanted to view your documents, the absolutely had to install MS Office. In a way, Microsoft ensured that if one person used Office, at least one other had to use it too.

These file formats were proprietary and Microsoft was under no obligation to release their documentation. As a result, other applications could read office files, but poorly. Formatting would go off, things will not work in exceptional cases and like.

With the recent adoption of ODF as the worldwide standard for documents but the ISO (International Standards Organization), I would no longer be forced to buy MS Office if I don't want to. ODF is an open format and anyone can develop applications to read it. A lot of applications on Linux already read it. What this means is that even if you professor insists on using MS Office, you don't have to buy Windows and Office to read his assignments. You can do it only any OS - Linux or OSX.

The above three developments are, in my opinion, key to the rapid adoption of Linux desktops in the future. The road ahead seems well lit and smoothly paved and I'm eagerly looking forward to the journey.
Those who think that fact is stranger than fiction, have never read the right kind.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What is a Story?

I love literary debates. For one, there's no point to them. Most of them aren't trying to prove anything apart from the superiority of the speaker. Second, they usually lead nowhere, a place that I find delightfully refreshing in ways.

So, what is a story? How do we define it?

Usually such discussions would start out with a standard definition and then go on to give counterexamples of how that definition does not hold, a revised definition, counterexamples to that and so on. I will not do that. I will just give you my definition.

A story is a text that starts somewhere and goes somewhere. That is, development is the key concept that defines a story (for me). Development can happen at various levels.

1. The plot. This is the most common way of telling a story. Things happen. And yes, I would still call it a story if there is no proper climax. If you write about what you did all day, it would still be a story. It would be a rather uninteresting one, but still a story.

2. The character. The characters in the story learn, discover, realize something. They divine the profound truths of life. Again a very popular device in story writing. Generally these kinds of stories would be considered more literary than plot stories although I see no reason why that should be.

3. The idea. You start from some basic assumptions and then develop, challenge, refute, redefine then to their logical conclusions. This is perhaps even more literary than developing characters but opinions may vary.

Personally I like story that combine all three. Such stories tend to be most powerful of all.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Characteristics of Chaotic Systems

Disclaimer – this is not meant to be a definitive article on chaos. This is merely to set in order the definition of chaos I've gathered from reading James Gleick's book.

The Lorenz attractor. Three simple equations produce a path is space that never repeats or intersects itself. First discovered by Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who first studied such systems, this figure has become the universal symbol for chaos.


Traditional Thinking
The traditional thinking in science favors linear systems. The science we study in schools and colleges is essentially linear science. Linear means that the equations we use to describe phenomenon don't have powers of variables. For example, if some quantity depends on the temperature T of the system, we like to express this law in the form of some function of T but not T squared or T cubed.

This is because linear equations are easy to understand, easy to solve and easy to teach. They give our graduate students problems that can be clearly stated and solved and hence ideal to earn their PhD degrees in.

Thus, non linearity is usually the last chapter in any science textbook and even then, the attempted solutions to the problems are to reduce the non-linear equation to a linear one using some clever trick.

This hegemony of linearity in science has led us to believe that nature itself if linear and behaves in certain ways. There are two significant characteristics of linear systems that people start taking for granted.

1. Small changes in initial conditions mean small changes in the final result. If you were traveling 40 kms at the speed of 10 km per hour, you will reach your destination in 4 hours. If you travel at 11 km per hour, even without doing the math, we say that you'll reach in a little less than 4 hours. If you travel at 9 km per hour you will reach in a little more than 4 hours. No one in his right mind will claim that you might take a 100 hours to reach, if you vary your speed by 1 or 2 km per hour.

2. Systems tend to be monotonic or periodic. Linear systems are either monotonically increasing or periodic. If you heat a cup of coffee and leave it be, it slowly cools down to the room temperature and that is all there is to it. If you swing a pendulum, it oscillates at a steady, periodic rate. Scientists are habitual of looking for monotonic or periodic laws.

3. Simple governing equations lead to simple behavior. If you system is complex, the underlying math should also be so.

The Reality
The reality is that nature is non linear. In fact, even the term non linear is funny because the bulk of natural laws are non linear. We study a small set of natural laws, the linear ones, make them canon and then use the negation to define the most wide ranging phenomenon. (This reminds me of a discussion at Alfaaz. Fiction is only a small part of written texts. However we define this bulk of written stuff as non fiction.)

Thus, some of our 'intuition' about nature doesn't really hold.

1. Small changes in initial conditions can have very large effects on the final outcome. Everyone's heard of the butterfly effect. That's what I mean.

2. Nature can be non-periodic and non-repetitive. Take weather for example. Meteorologists keep on looking for repetitions in the weather. However, the weather each day is something we have never seen before. There are infinite combinations possible.

3. Simple equations can lead to complex behaviors. Chaos theorists have shown that even simple non-linear equations can show behavior that is infinitely varied and hence infinitely complex.

The Consequences
Thus, chaos theorists have shown that while non linear behavior may be complex, the underlying mathematics may be simple and by consequence, simple mathematics may underly complex behaviors such as weather and turbulence. The key idea is to get rid of this impartial affection for linearity and start looking at nature in another way. It is a paradigm shift, in Kuhn's words.

Related Posts:

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Night of Weird Dreams

Had some really very weird dreams last night.

1. I want to buy a bike. Brother comes home with the news that they are selling them real cheap somewhere. It is the cheapest deal that we can get at the time. I withdraw money from my bank account but that's not enough. I take some from the heap that mummy has stashed away in her almirah. We go and buy the bike, for some forty thousand rupees. When the bill comes, I remember to check the specks of the bike. It's a real stupid deal. The bike isn't powerful and and the mileage sucks.

Next, my mother and I are riding behind someone (who I think is my uncle) on a very steep road. I mean very steep, something like seventy degrees. The bike speeds and then the tires lose their grip. We fall into the valley below, straight down.

I wake up.

2. Some sort of alien bugs have attacked the city. They can fly and they sting. One of them has stung me in the lower abdomen. For some reason, I'm washing the spot with water and it starts becoming white and there's a circle marking the spot on my skin. Someone says that the water is making it grow. Suddenly the spot pops out like a flower and glob of white flesh pops out. It's the cocoon in which the bug is growing, I guess.

I suddenly find myself in an outhouse with giant windows. A grown up bug, nearly as big as a human being is outside and we are desperately trying to close the windows as the bug moves from one to another, trying to get in. In the end, we just run out the gate and enter something that resembles a temple courtyard. People are running out through a doorway decorated with bells etc. We turn to look and a truckload of giant spiders is moving towards us.

I wake up.

There was another one about a close friend being accused of committing communal violence but I don't remember that one as vividly.

Freud fans - would you care to try your hands at these?

Social Issue Adverts

These days there seems to be, on television, a slew of advertisements having a common thread. And this thread is that the 'protagonist' of the advert is rallying a social cause. And the product being advertized is helping him/her in working for tha social cause. I'm trying to compile here a list of such advertisements and we will later see if there's a trend involved.

1. Idea ad featuring Abhishek Bachhan in which he educates people in remote villages using mobile phones.
2. Crocin ad in which the protagonist is working with blind children and keeps working despite ill health using Crocin

Can you suggest more?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Who am I?

When I look around myself, these days, I feel a loss of identity. There is nothing around me that I can connect to, nothing that I can relate to. I systematically dislike religion and maintain that it is a load of bullshit. My culture, I have come to disrespect. What is there to respect in a culture that is full of discrimination (caste), exploitation (gender inequality) and conformism (patriarchy). Even ideas that Bollywood movies tout as tenets of Indian culture repell me. Respect for elders, that's just a load of patriarchal bullshit. It prevents people from taking responsibilities for their lives and making free and independent choices.

My people do not produce any science or technology. We borrow all of it from others and use it. Whenever we are faced with problems we do not sit down and solve it, we run to find instances of the same problem in another nation and then try to implement the solution that they have implemented.

I do not wear clothes that my ancestors wore or variations thereof. I do not speak a language that my ancestors spoke or variations thereof. I do not read books that are written in my own country. I do not watch films made in my own country. I do no believe in ideologies that have origins within my nation.

Who am I, really? What is my identity? Will I ever feel a sense of pride in what I am?

Chaos by James Gleick

Chaos is a popular science book by James Gleick which traces the development of chaos theory, a broad reaching scientific development impacting various disciplines.

Popular science writing can be broadly divided into four types.

1. Explaining scientific principles to layman in a language that he can understand.
2. Bringing out the 'human' aspects of science, the emotional ups and downs that a scientist goes through in making his discoveries.
3. Putting scientific discoveries in a historical perspective analysing the historical causes and effects that led to the discovery and beyond.
4. Analyzing the philosophy of science and how the scientific principle fits into the framework of philosophy.

The beauty of Gleick's writing is that he weaves all four types of writing into one text. The reader gets acquainted with a new kind of science, experiences the joys and sorrows of the scientists that worked at that science, understand why, historically, that science came into being when it did, and gets to mull about the philosophical implications of this new science.

I recommend this book for general reading.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Quota for IIT Faculty?

This news article from TOI tells us that the HRD ministry is about to implement quota for IIT faculty too. I quote the article -

MUMBAI: Buoyed by its success in pushing through a quota for OBC students in higher education, the government has now ordered IITs to introduce - with "immediate effect" - quotas in the teaching faculty for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and OBCs.

IIT directors, not surprisingly, were livid with the decision, though none of the four TOI spoke to were willing to go on record. The high quality of IIT faculty has built the institution into a globally respected brand. Said an IIT-Delhi professor: "It is hard to imagine that even teachers will now use the caste flag to get in."

The government diktat dated June 9, which has been sent to all the IITs, lays down 15% quota for SC, 7.5% for ST and 27% quota for OBCs in teaching positions. IITs currently have reservations for backward category candidates for
administrative posts - from attendants to the level of deputy registrar. However, there is no reservation for faculty members in these premier technological institutes.

The order signed by Seema Raj, director of technical education in the HRD ministry, read, "I am directed to say that the matter relating to reservation of SC, ST, OBC categories in recruitment to teaching (faculty) posts in the IITs was considered in the second meeting of the SCIC (Standing Committee of IIT Council) held on 11/2/2008. The recommendations made by the SCIC have been accepted by the chairman of (the) IIT Council. Accordingly, it has been decided to implement reservation for SC, ST, OBC, in recruitment to teaching (faculty) posts in IITs with immediate effect."

For subjects in science and technology, posts will be reserved for lecturers and assistant professors. In areas like management, social sciences and humanities, reservations will be applicable up to the professor level. The ministry allows IITs to dereserve the posts after a year, if they do not get filled "despite all efforts".

Insiders feel that merit, on which brand IIT rests, would be shaken by the decision of the government.

The order specifies that in departments dealing with science and technology subjects, "reservation shall be applied to the extent possible at the school or broad branch of engineering, at least, if not at the individual department level."

The IIT directors TOI contacted, who were yet to convey the order to their faculty members, said they are shocked by the decision.

"Some of the finest people have given up top positions and fat cheques that were offered to them in other parts of the world to come and teach in the IITs, despite the low pay scale that the government offers. With reservation in faculty positions, I see a day, not far from now, when the IITs will crumble," said one director.

Another director said that there had been no bias against hiring backward category candidates to teaching positions if they were found meritorious. "Till now, if a backward category candidate was found on par with another candidate, the former was given preference, but reservation will change the atmosphere on campus," said the director.

All directors agreed that such reservations for faculty posts would mar the quality of education at the institutes.
The lecturer’s post in the IITs is a contractual one and the basic salary is Rs 10,000 per month. Usually, fresh PhD candidates are taken in at this level.

If their services are found satisfactory, they are promoted to assistant professor and get onto the permanent rolls of the IITs. But now, almost half the posts - 49.5% to be precise - will be reserved at both these levels.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

July 06 2008

1. Desi pulp fiction is here. From today's Hindu.

2. Excerpt from Paulo Coelho's interview. To put it on record, I thoroughly dislike The Alchemist.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Why Linux Sucks

Chatting is one of the most basic activities that you do on the net. Let us compare the two activities on Windows and (Ubuntu) Linux. We will chat using Google Talk.

1. Windows – I download Google Talk chat client. It is a small download (less than 2MB) and takes less than a minute to download. I click the executable. The installer prompts me a couple of times. I press next, next, next and at last see the Google Talk screen. There are text boxes for me to enter my login and password in. I do so and start chatting. I can change my status using a single click and typing. I can see popups whenever a new event occurs.

2. Linux – I install Pidgin using Adept. I start Pidgin. I go to accounts setup and create a new Jabber account. I visit the internet and look up the documentation for setup Google Talk on Pidgin. After a couple of tries, I manage to get that right. I activate that account and the buddy list appears. I start chatting and realize that there's no popup notification. I open adept and install guifications. I open the plugin setup in Pidgin and activate guifications. I start chatting and realize that guification shows me a popup for every possible event – even when a buddy has started or stopped typing! I open the plugin setup again and turn off most of the notifications. I then also realize that the popups are supremely ugly. I search the internet and locate a dozen nifty themes for guifications. I download four or five and see what fits into my desktop. Finally I settle on one. But now, the text on the popup is too big and I can't see the message properly. So I open the pluging setup again, and change the font sizes. Ah, now all is set. The entire morning is gone and I can go have lunch. So I click new status in the pidgin window and whoa, I'm confronted with this overly complex dialog wherein I must create a new message complete with a title and all, save it and then use it as my status. The whole issue of statuses gets me interested in my buddies' statuses and I read them one by one. Oh wow, an interesting link. Can I click it? No!! I can't even copy paste it in the browser. And to top it all, file sharing and voice chat doesn't work either. I'd better go have that lunch.

I hope I've made my point.

July 4 2008

1. Vivek Reddy analyses the recent arrests of Andhra Jyoti reporters under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. A very well reasoned post, I believe. However, given the fact that the arrest has been made, what does it tell us?

2. Gary Markus on how unintelligent the design of the human body is. The question of creationism aside, I am once again amused at the human habit of assuming that we are the epitome of perfection in every way.

3. Brian Proffitt expresses bafflement at the opposition KDE4 developers are facing. Truly, I don't understand it either.

4. And my won opinion is that all Bajrang Dal activists that held the country on ransom yesterday should be shot publicly.

Arkham Asylum


There are some artists whose work is just so beautiful that it doesn't make sense to say anything about it. A R Rahman is one such artist. I can't tell you why his music is so awesome, it just is. Dace McKean is another such artist. He is the Rahman of the visual world. I can't tell you why his work is so beautiful, it just is.

McKean makes each frame of Arkham Asylum an exquisite masterpiece.

I haven't read much stuff my Grant Morrison but it this is a representative sample then I'm impressed. He manages to take the Batman metaphor and turn it upside down. In other Batman stories, Batman is the hero. In Arkham Asylum it is the villains who are the hero and Batman is the oppressor. When the inmates of Arkham Asylum manage to break free and take the personell hostage, Batman has to go in alone to rescue them and in the process face his worst fears. In a confrontation with arch enemies such as the Joker, Two Face, Clayface and Doctor Destiny etc., Batman learns the bitter truth about himself – that he is as mad as any of these formidable foes.

I enjoyed reading a comic book after a long time. This is one is definitely recommended.

Distraction Free Writing for Authors on Linux

There is much talk on the internet about distraction free writing on the computer. The argument mostly given in this context is that the myriad tools and options offered by any modern word processor are distracting to an author. The author is constantly tempted to try out the various features of the word processor and his attention is diverted away from the real work that he set out to do – that is, writing.

To some extent I agree with the argument and can see merit in various creative writing oriented software that I encountered on the net. WriteRoom and DarkRoom are two of these. Unfortunately, when I set out to locate some such software for Linux, I turned up a blank.

Most people suggest using any standard text editor on linux. However, all text editors on Linux are made for programmers and none for creative writers. It was surprising that the Linux community has not catered to such a simple demand.

However, worry not because most things on Linux are so configurable that it's very easy to modify existing software to your needs. I will hereby outline two methods by which you can achieve distration free writing on Linux.

1. Use nano on a console – Yes, this is the most simple and basic solution. I tried out vim and emacs on the console but what I finally liked was nano. When nano is run, it presents a blank screen for you to type. The bottom toolbar lists shortcuts for saving files, running spell check and closing the program etc. The reason I prefer nano over vim or emacs is because nano's keyboard shortcuts are very simple. Vim and emacs are much more difficult to operate. Plus, if you're computer savvy then you'll actually find vim and emacs to be distracting too. While they don't have a gui (I'm talking about console versions here) they do offer so many choices using command line that it's tempting to try them out. Use nano, it has nothing to offer and there's nothing to try out. :) Use it on fullscreen mode in konsole or better still use it on a CTR+ALT+F3 terminal. :D



The problem with nano, however, is this. You can't italicise words for emphasis. And there is no on the fly spell check. True, there is a spell check available which will highlight wrongly spelled words once it is run but it will not highlight the wrong spellings as you type like MS Word or Openoffice.org does.

This, in fact, can be seen as a boon by many authors. I personally find it very irritating to be bothered by spelling in my first draft. I good proposed workflow is this. Write out your first draft in nano. Then copy paste the text in a modern word processor for subsequent revisions. Here you can correct spellings and make other second draft changes.

2. Use Openoffice.org Writer in fullscreen mode – Yes, in fullscreen mode, Openoffice.org Writer offers only one button (to exit the fullscreen), a scrollbar, an empty page and a blinking cursor. The fullscreen mode can be accessed from the View menu. You can even turn off the spelling underlining before you enter the fullscreen mode to reduce distraction. All the standard shortcuts (ctrl i,b,x,c,v etc) work. The commonest feature are accessible by right click.



Personally this is the method I prefer. I like to see my text in italics and my paragraphs justified. And I usually turn spell cheking off. We can always do that on second draft. :)