Jul 25, 2008

Quizzes on Sunday

We have two quizzes coming up in Pune on the 27th. The morning quiz is "Interrogative", one of the two annual school quizzes that we are part of, while the second will be an Open general quiz. All details here at the BCQC site, with everyone welcome to participate.

Jul 18, 2008

Lovingly Smelly Phrases

Not sure if it is the lack of rain or something, but many of us are reporting Unusually Funny Objects. George picks up two instances from two classes of people genetically hardwired to generating vacuous material, film stars and politicians. Salil found Jack and the Item.

I, for my part, found this outside the IIT Souvenir Shop yesterday (it was the first day for a new batch) (quoting verbatim):

Free Gift for you at Souvenir Shop!*
*condition apply

Jul 16, 2008

I'm a Twit

Ok, don't laugh, but I'm "twittering" here. The answer to the why (if there is such a question) is that I wanted to try it, Harish seems to like it, and I realise I do want to micro-blog, but not clutter this blog with the excruciating minutiae of everyday life, which Twittering seems to massively entail.

Let's see.

Jul 14, 2008

The lasting laugh

The Knight finally comes out of the Dark this week. Some of us have been looking forward to it, especially since we are such big Christopher Nolan fans. Struck by not-so-jokey tragedy and possessing a cast sheet that promises to sock you in the solar plexus, I await the return of the most famous member of the cloud. Especially since my estimation of Batman Begins has gone up considerably since the first time I saw it.

But do we hold our breath? Will the film release simultaneously in India? Does anyone know?

Jul 13, 2008

Left pointing the other way

While using a mouse, I occasionally switch from a right-handed mode to a left-handed mode. Earlier versions of Windows used to call the relevant option under Control Panel -> Mouse as switch to left-handed mouse, but now they call it (confusingly, IMO) as switch primary and secondary button.

Which brings me to my point: software UI design, for all its comforts, still remains sinistral-unfriendly. On a typical GUI containing windows, there's no way to move the scroll-bar to the left (by default, the mouse pointer tends to rest on the LHS of the screen, but largely this could be a psychological perception of having to move to the right end of the screen). The minimise-maximise-close buttons will be on the top-right. Even the mouse arrow pointer continues to nod towards the north-west (IIRC, in earlier Windows versions, it would go north-east with a switch in mouse-handedness).

Here's an interesting little discussion between a left-handed user and a (left-handed) UI designer on the topic (look for the comment by "Sebastian").

And while on the subject, once again, all the main contenders for a US Presidential election are left-handed. The last time this happened was in 1992 when George Bush (the elder), Bill Clinton (the victor) and Ross Perot (the moneyed pretender) were on the ballot.

Jul 9, 2008

Roman Columns

The ancient Romans never thought men of the future would conjoin their words for 'many' and 'fold' to indicate an area where several people would gather to watch images projected on a white screen. Had they anticipated the modern need for the 'multiplex', they, in their infinite wisdom, may have come up with an equivalent of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? to ask: who reviews the reviewers?

Last month, Ram Gopal Varma decided to take the mantle upon himself, delivering a scathing summary of reviews of his last release 'Sarkaar'. In doing so, he sometimes falls prey to various other pitfalls (personal attacks, rhetorical responses, no benefits of doubt for viewpoints). But then, he does so on a blog (his own), so he is entitled to much more leniency than some of the professionals that he takes to the cleaners.

This is an old debate which takes on many forms: can you comment on a cricket match if you haven't played Test matches, can you react in print to a music concert if you have never performed in a 'kutchery', and so on. Just like all reviewers aren't good enough to make, all makers are not qualified to review. However, I'd like to focus on two specific problems that arise with mainstream film reviews in our part of the world.

First, most reviewers suffer from a credibility problem of their own making. For instance, Khalid Mohamed once played lead trumpet for the Bachchans, but now seems to toot a discordant horn when it comes to them. BTW, I don't consider his having made several unsuccessful films as disqualifying him from speaking about films. One may then trot out the fact that he wrote one of the better films of the 90s, the autobiographical Mammo. But what should concern us are his intentions while speaking about films. The problem is that they sometimes seem seasonal.

Or Subhash K. Jha, who seems to consistently take ordinary prose and applies a deep-fry coating from a thesaurus. Or Taran Adarsh, whose comments are strictly functional and as profound as a football scoresheet. Very few of these can write with any 'miThaas' (by which I mean an elegance of expression), which the likes of Ebert or Lane are able to consistently provide. In fact, Ebert makes it clear that he reviews it from a relative standpoint, and makes no hard claims on how an individual *you* may like it, which seems a honest way of approaching the craft. You don't have to agree with what he says, but tend to like how it's been expressed. In addition, our reviewers don't seem to be able to communicate their love for the movies to us, by placing the movie under the microscope in context. They fail to tell us what could be if you looked at the film in a different way, often substituting it for what it is, because they're watching with the same tired eyes.

Of course, the influx of films each week that can spur them to great prose would be highly miniscule, but that's a professional hazard that the best have somehow learnt to overcome.

The other problem is the audience, about whose choices we can add a corollary to that Hitchcockian idiom of actors being like cattle. Like herds, they make their weekend viewing plans almost solely on the basis of a rating by some (usually disgruntled or uninterested) reviewer cited in the paragraphs above. There is hardly any effort to calibrate the opinion against your own preferences and past experiences. Of course, for this to work, one needs to ask: why do I watch films? I say this because the amount of complaints that one hears on a Monday morning assume irritable proportions. If it mattered so much to them, why didn't they do a little more 'research'? In the end, whether the movie experience turns out to be sweetmeat or poison pill can only be fully known on biting the white tablet. If you don't like to waste money, then wait for the film to appear on lower-cost media.

(Though I do think that for most, movie-watching is fundamentally a social activity, topped off by popcorn. It's not the same for me, which is why unlike most, I'm perfectly fine watching a small film all by myself.)

If all the audience expects from a movie review is to know which horse to bet (and lose) their money on this Sunday, then they are getting the kind of content they deserve. When they demand more than just the bland scoreline, they might find life below the pond scum to be quite interesting. Anyway, enough condescension.

My friends have different ways of approaching the problem. Daemon has a high recall, low precision approach: he'd watch almost every film that shows up and has the heart to take both the bad and the good. George goes even further, like a gold miner who does not flinch from wading through utter filth, but with the knowledge that this can sometimes unearth the most unprepossessing of gems. I seem to have a low recall, high precision approach. I may miss out on some of the unheralded pieces, but I have an instinctive feel for what works for me, which is built upon a foundation of reading and listening to people around me, at least the ones whose opinions I take seriously. I am also old enough to take a bad choice on the chin :-)

The problem, as RGV shows, is that you can hardly take the opinions of any of the big name reviewers seriously. A superb exception is Baradwaj Rangan, but that's about it for newspapers. Perhaps it is time to begin each movie screening with something else the Romans said: caveat emptor.

Jul 7, 2008

Matchless for Life

I wanted to call last night's match gazookilaciplyditabinctionatious. I don't know what it means, but _you_ tell me if you have one legal word that can do justice to what we say yesterday, spread over eight hours. However, our vocabulary has been further graced: joining Federer-esque (adj. "carrying out something with exquisite finesse and supreme elegance") is Nadal-esque (adj. "unreasonably relentless")

Tennis needs draws. The first time I felt this sentiment strongly was in the Hamburg Masters last May, watching two men drill holes in each other, only to keep coming back for more. If yesterday's Wimbledon Gentlemen's Singles Championship Final (this is one occasion when you deserve to call it by the full name) had been a boxing match, one would have had to invoke the Geneva Convention. My head's as dizzy as it was at 2 am earlier today.

I suppose it's fair reaction to what was easily the best tennis match I have ever seen. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it was the best single sporting encounter I have ever witnessed in my life. One reason why was that there was no finite boundary, no final whistle, no ships to catch. This could have gone on for ever. It seemed we would be there until Tuesday, at 50-50 in the final set. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would have been squatting exhaustedly on the by now completely bald turf, serving underarm and breaking each other's serve just by the other making four double faults per game. If we didn't have draws, we'd all still be there.

Coming back from my little flight of absurd fancy, one would agree that if it came to a final coin toss of a point, Nadal deserved it. He broke Federer four times in the match, while the 2003-2007 champion broke the Spaniard just once. If there had been a last set tie-breaker, he might've prevailed. We need draws. I can't be pacing and bouncing up and down at 1:30 am again.

The parallels with 1981 were so striking that I half expected to wake up to Federer retiring. Whew. He's still got a lot to achieve, especially powered by that keen sense of history. Roy Emerson's 14 is easily within reach, even if not Sampras' Seven. It's easy to see this as a signal of Federer's descendancy - it may be so, but not by much. The man made two Slam Finals this year, and is playing (along with his vanquisher) at a plane that we're lucky to be able to witness, leave alone comprehend. Centre Court seemed to surreally expand in width and length each time one of the finalists wanted it to, a combination of intense will-power and a never-before display of skills providing the ductile force.

What does this mean for men's tennis and Roger's place in the scheme of things? Perhaps more interesting will be how Rafa deals with finally being at the summit (ATP rankings be damned)? I'm too scared to speculate. What we have in front of us is almost ethereal, and perhaps the spell is in danger of being broken by mundane meditation. Let's dwell on some of the geometry-defying angles, the gravity-embarassing retrievals, the traitorous net cords, the Riemannian down-the-lines, the passes of the seasons. My one line summary of the match: Federer had to keep coming back, while Nadal never left. That was the crucial difference. The good news is that surely we'll never be tormented like this next year. The bad news is pretty much the same: that nothing we ever see will be like this.

Perhaps in the year 2020, the BCCI will have, in its latest acquisition, have taken over both the ATP and AELTC. In its first order of business, it will display an uncharacteristic and rare sagacity and overturn the result of this match to a draw (a annual tradition that began in 2008). Do you have any challenges left to that?

BVHK is much more in control of his emotions in his reaction.

Three Two-times One

There were three of us in that relationship. I'm pretty sure the other two didn't even realise I was in it.

I'm sure because I'd never spoken to them, and because they never seemed to notice me. It's hard to notice me when I'm sitting two rows diagonally behind (always behind) in the bus. Actually, it's just very hard to notice me. I don't quarrel with the driver or engage neighbours in raucous conversation. I get in at the first stop, make my way to the back, and bury my nose in the Russian masters. The closest I had ever got to those two was when one day, the rain was so fierce that it blazed in through the cracks in the windows on my side of the bus. I had to stand behind them for the rest of the journey.

So how was it that I, a distant voyeur, consider myself part of that menage a trois, you ask. It's hard to explain, and I'm aware I'll come out looking like someone who needs less of an over-active imagination and more of a life (a pretty accurate representation, by the way). You see, the first time they spoke to each other, I was there. On the second day, when they wished each other, I was there. (All right, that doesn't quite work. I realise I better start elaborating.)

That day, she was wearing a red top. She had hair the colour of chocolate, the dark kind that is supposed to be good for you. Curiously, her hair was framed by one of those large and awkward headphones, instead of the sleek earphones everyone had these days. She was a little plump, but undeniably pretty. Of course, I had noticed this, but realistically, what am I to do about that? I go back to my gulags.

He, however, did something about it. I was already aware of his propensity to seek seats besides the ladies, even when there were entire empty 3-seaters available. He was a snaky little pinball, bouncing from slot to slot, trying to find the jackpot. I noticed how he, grey sweater and cargos, squeezed in beside her on a two-seater, and pulled out a book. "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". So at least he wasn't very effective yet, I mentally chortled. On the commune, Ivan Sergeyevich paused in annoyance for me to finish.

When I looked up again, the headphones were off, she had her head down and seemed to be (from where I was sitting) fiddling in her bag. I heard how it started.

"You want a pencil?", he asked.
She smiled: "Do you have one?"
"Sure. It's sharp, unlike me."

Ten minutes later:
"I usually start with each 3x3 block and then move to the rows", he said.
"Really? I take each row, then put down each remaining possibility".
"I'm sure you get messed up with the numbers. There's hardly any space in the margins. Instead, why don't you... um, can I show you?"

She handed him the pencil and the newspaper. She was smiling. You can look at the outline of a person's cheek in profile and easily tell if they're smiling.

This is how all little love stories begin, I said to Anna Andreyevna, as I closed the book and looked out at the drizzle.

The next day, to tell you the truth, I had forgotten all about them. I had had a late night and the Russians stayed in their dachas that morning. My eyelids only opened when the driver braked hard at the ineffectual's stop. This time, the space next to her was occupied, but - note dear little Petra, note Cupidski's little intervention - she was on the aisle side, and the 3-seater to her right had exactly one place left. He swung in on the edge of that seat, pulled out Covey (merely for cover, no doubt, he'd remained on page 3 yesterday), and turned ever so slightly to his left. I looked up at her at that moment, she (headphones on) serendipitously turned right, he looked right into her eyes. They smiled at each other, spontaneously. I did so too. It was a moment of pure romance-in-a-chance.

I don't know if it was that lucky threesome, but I felt I had been appointed guardian angel to the pair. So what if he needed self-help off a shelf? Or passionately sniffed out empty seats next to girls? Eros had left me in charge. Clearly, I was to play the appreciative referee at love-all.

Tatiana, I must confess. In between reading how Vladimir and you raised three fine children in the taiga, I tried to keep an eye on them, I really did. But then it looked everything was going well. For several months, a diet of sitting together, followed usually by a dessert of coffees in the company cafe, seemed to work wonders. He got her a pair of Sennheiser earphones, they plugged it in each morning, one ear per partner. I even heard her teaching him the lyrics to "Norwegian Wood". So I didn't quite realise when it was that they unplugged the music. I only noticed when one day, he plonked himself beside me, even though she had a vacant seat next to her. Her gawky headphones were back on. She looked out at the people outside fighting the puddles as it began to thunder down. Thanks again to the broken panes, he and I had to stand. I moved ahead to be by her shoulder, while he receded further into the bus.

I swear Pyotr, it wasn't a lost drop of rain spray. It sprang from her eyes and fell on her "Large Book of Sudoko Puzzles".

When you intern with the love gods, you have to learn how to handle liaisons going sour. How bad are we supposed to feel bad? I had to think what I could do under these circumstances.

It took me a while to make up my plan of action. It involved some shopping, but soon, I was ready. So Kolya, until that day, there were three of us in that relationship.

The next day, it was raining hard again. He came in, and purposefully ignored the vacancy next to her, sliding deep into the window seat on the opposite side, opening the long neglected Covey, resuming page 3. At that point, I bid farewell to the cossacks and arose.

"My seat's wet. Do you mind if I sit here?"
She shook her head and gestured to the seat beside her.

My bag was open and as I sat down, a couple of books fell out.
"Oh, your bag's undone".
"Ow!" I had hit my head on the handle in front of me as I bent down.
"Oof. Let me help you". She pulled up "An Illustrated History of The Beatles" (I hoped she wouldn't notice it was just a day old).
"Here. Are you OK?"
"I am, thanks for asking". I rubbed my forehead.
"And this." She handed "Sudoku for Dummies" (one day old). This time she was smiling. You know, it's far easier to tell when someone's smiling if they're looking at you.
"Thanks again."
"Don't worry, we all need a little help from our friends, don't we?", she said, with a twinkle. "Who's your favourite Beatle?"
"You're a Beatle-maniac too?", I asked, incredulous.
"And you need to throw that Sudoku book away - it's useless. See, what you do is, you start with the 3x3 blocks and..."

As I gave her my pencil, I couldn't help turn and look at him, wet and shivering (with cold? with anger?) by the window, glaring at us. Not everyone is fit to be a Guardian Angel, I suppose.

So babushka, now there was just the two of us in the relationship. Believe me, it's much easier to keep count that way.

Jul 6, 2008

Why the world doesn't acknowledge I'm a genius

Because I'm fiddling about at the wrong place and time, and this modern age allows no one the luxury to slow down and discern the maestro (i.e. me) standing amidst them.

Ok, I admit: that argument works only for violinist Joshua Bell.

Some interesting viewpoints on this experiment from Freakonomics. Link courtesy Niranjan.

The dividing line

On the same day that Vcat sent out a link about Americans trying to see the positive sides to indigestible gas prices, Ajay blogged about how life around him seems to be changing: neighbourhoods show a tendency to shrink (to walkable sizes) as are per capita home sizes.

As yet, we don't quite seem to be hearing such stories here. Based on anecdotal evidence around me, if at all, the problem seems to be worsening: lots of cars, cars, cars (diesel is still subsidised, but is no longer exclusively a poor man's fuel), relative affordability of 4-wheelers, lots of executive-level people use their cars (along) instead of taking company buses out to the IT parks, roads aren't wide enough or smooth enough to allow cyclists a real chance in the traffic ecosystem. I can't see any larger signs that our culture-specific habits are changing in any way in response to the environment or the prices.

Incidentally, several Pune roads now have dedicated cycle tracks marked out on the fringes. In some cases, these are demarcated using an outer fencing, rather than just a paint marking or those tiled paths that are becoming so common. This is a welcome arrangement, but there are a few gaping holes, sometimes literally. For instance, in Model Colony, some of the tracks are punctuated by intersecting lanes that allow vehicles to abruptly enter the road - the cyclist has to, every 5 minutes, watch out for these. In other places, there are no cycling lanes at all, so using cycle tracks is safe only in very limited areas. Add to this, the manic jungle-like look in the eyes of most motorists, and you're scared to pull the old velocipede out during the day.

Baner Road, perennially under siege, seems to be nearing the end of this current stage of repair. It now is concretised and wider. But there is no divider. Crossing the road, whether on foot or on pedal, is like wading through croc-infested water while the critters set out "Welcome!" mats alongside their gleaming canines. How can you build such a big road, invite everyone to race at what seems to be a minimum of 50 kph, and forget the bloody divider?

Jul 5, 2008

Kamalhassan's Dasavatharam - Aviyal Fiction

Before I went to watch "Dasavatharam", I had the good sense to watch one of Kamalhassan's interviews. "It's out and out entertainment for the audience", he said. Since I trust the guy, I repeated it to myself each time the word 'T-A-C-K-Y' spelt itself out in front of my eyes, especially between minutes 20 and 40 of the movie.

"Dasavatharam" is undeniably tacky, but it's oddly entertaining too. There's hardly a slack moment. This is a disaster movie that could so easily have ended in one, but as it lurches from action sequence to comic interlude to philosophical filibustering, it never completely comes off the rails. I certainly didn't mind losing three hours of my life to that film (ok, except for that one minute when Mallika Sherawat (or her voice-over) avers that, of course she can speak Tamil - and does so in a badly dubbed voice ).

That Kamal Hassan is over-indulgent is a common accusation thrown at his face ('mask' may be more appropriate), but he is undeniably gutsy. Not because he spends more money on bad makeup than Shahnaz Hussain, but because who else in India would be crazy enough to cook up a hodge-podge involving an ancient Iyer-Iyengar conflict (we come off looking badly, btw), inconvenient truths about the environment, bio-war-sci-fi, atheism, the great Tsunami of 2004, chaos theory (casting credit: stereotypical digitally mixed-in butterfly), mixed with some political body-doubles that wouldn't make the cut at a school fancy dress competition. Heady stuff to unleash on the populace, which had earlier rejected some of the other cocktails (the need to have an opinion on M.K.Gandhi, matricide, communism+atheism, to name a few) that Kamal Hassan has written. Perhaps the lesson he's learnt is: be not so subtle that no one realises you're being something.

Some critical reactions that bemoaned the tackiness (that word again) of the film almost always made comparisons with the likes of Anbe Sivam and Hey Ram. But it's not as if Kamal didn't make bad movies before. From what we know of him, he's usually taken an active interest in the plotlines (even without official credit), so you'd be insulting his intelligence if you thought he didn't know what he was getting into. He's taken an almost gleeful plunge into lots of rubbish - one senses a need to get the silliness off his chest from time to time, in addition to the money needed to make the other stuff that he wants to.

Anyway, back to the movie. The film is almost hopeless in its rendition of events set amongst a laughably stereotypical American setting, but there is an instant quality upgrade when proceedings move to India. Kamal shows an instinctive feeling for dialogue, accent, placement, and scenery in local settings. As we weave our way to the end, the proceedings become madcap, the characters multiply and multi-sect, and there are homilies. Strangely, for a film that is so sympathetic of the need for science and reason, there is also a moment straight from the Mithun-Rajanikant textbook of post-modern medicine.

It's a fitting sign of the surreal nature of events that I found myself doing something I had never dreamed I would: watch a film whose soundtrack was scored by Himesh Reshammiya. Largely forgettable, the only saving grace was the devotional Mukunda Mukunda which in addition to serving as Asin's re-entry point, accompanies one of the more elegant and clever moments in the movie: the shadow theatrical play about the Vishnu Dashavatharam. There was a strange depth to the 12th century sequences as well (despite some of the CGI), which once again serve as testament that the man is good at depicting history.

And closing with the ten. At times, you're beset by the uneasy feeling that the whole of Madame Tussauds' is on the loose, there are so many pale, waxy outlines. I think there are some interesting allusions with the names of the characters which I haven't teased out fully, perhaps except for the execrable 'George Bush'. 'Balram Naidu' was nicely done (reminscent of the mayor in Indrudu Chandrudu), but perhaps the best of the lot was the tough-talking environmentalist 'Vincent Poovaraagan', in both dress and demeanour.

In all, Dasaavatharam is no six-course meal, but perhaps Kamal Hassan never intended it to be so. Of course, for all that money, it'd have been good had they hired better cutlery and not just painted it in. But as far as cinema-as-aviyal goes, it's not such a bad mix.


Apparently, it's International Free Hugs Day today (I'd say it's probably more catchy than Bug Busting Day). Arnold is the nearest we have to a Rasta-quizzer that I know of (I mean it as a compliment), so it's not such a surprise that he has decided to do something about the comparative lack of free hugs in contemporary Puneri society.

As clearly described in a front page article in today's Pune Mirror (don't think it's available online), Arnold will be providing "free hugs" on M.G.Road from 6 pm until "boredom, tiredness, or hunger" intervene. (I was particularly happy to see that it was only under duress that he revealed he works in IT - bravo!). Since, unfortunately, I can't be there to watch and report, I thought I'd at least give him a little blog plug - so if any of you is reading this today, stop, and get out to Camp, somewhere near Wonderland.

(I must admit that it's a tough Saturday for Punekars: JM Road is almost off-limits thanks to a function involving the President of India, and on M.G.Road, you risk being accosted a strange man offering hugs for no compensation in these inflationary times.)

Still, all the best to the newest Chipko. This is exactly the kind of thing that the much vaunted (but ultimately colourless, IMO) Walking Plaze could have done with more of (ironically, the Plaza has just been suspended because of the monsoon). Hopefully, Arnold has perfected his technique and may even demonstrate a range of moves (an illustrative list here). He may even come up with an Arnold-ian varation of a new kind. Hold tight and don't let the bed bugs bite!

Jul 3, 2008

Spinning a Yarn

Amit Varma was kind enough to pick up some fragments of mine for an interesting article on quizzing. Serious quizzing still remains very niche, a masonic sub-culture of sorts, but it takes a quiz-geek to know there are three ways of looking at every intersection, even if it only seems to be a straight road.

Anyway, as Amit mentions in the end of his post, check out Niranjan's primers (1, 2, 3.) on setting quizzes (to which I've made a small contribution). Perhaps they need a little touching-up, but they're perennially relevant.