Nov 26, 2010

"Choose your own adventure"

Why do 25 men (15 on active duty) cause so much disruption in the lives of some grown men and women? Some of the stories sent in to The Guardian's over-by-over coverage(OBO) of the 2nd day of the first Ashes Test in Brisbane:
"Choose your own adventure" says Jay Buckley, "You are at work, somewhere in Sydney. Everyone is watching the cricket. Australia are fighting back. A gripping encounter is unfolding before your eyes. Your wife is waiting downstairs for you to drive her into the city for a drinks function where no-one will be watching, nor listening to the cricket. Do you (a) be a good husband, go downstairs and talk to her about her day; or (b) man-up and watch the rest of the session?"
A Pom, clearly too lilly livered to use his own name, writes: "Live and work in Melbourne. To my eternal shame I dodged cricket training last night for fear of the repercussions of Siddle's hat-trick, combined with my pre-series arrogance. A happy Saturday depends on this last session – otherwise an afternoon of sharp wit and piercing, astute sarcasm from my Aussie teammates awaits...Cough cough."
At 168-5, England are in good shape" says Darren Paterson. "As is the lass sitting opposite me who jumps and jiggles in all the right places every time the Aussies score a four. So I am in two minds: I want to see wickets, but I love to "watch" the fours." Good grief.
I"'m in Brisbane, sadly at work, reading your commentary," says Will Straw. "Although I've been caught several times reading 'cause I keep yelling out "NOO!" everytime Australia loses a wicket. Sadly this has happened five times today." That's a schoolboy OBO error Will, though I appreciate that sometimes a man just can't help himself.
"As I excitedly shimmied out of bed this morning at 5am my missus squeaked 'you're obsessed'," says Stuart Wilson, another one like Millings. "She is, as always, correct, but she doesn't understand. Watching England play is an obsession, a rollercoaster ride and at the same time the most the most special and painful (clean) experience a man can have. I wouldn't have it any other way. Enjoy the coming weeks, Rob!" Actually, re: your use of missus, why don't women refer to 'my mister'? Maybe they do, and have the same jokey conversations with their friends. "Look, girls, I'd love to stay out and nail 12 pinot grigios, but I haven't got a pass out from the mister," and so on. Maybe not. I don't know what I'm talking about. It's been a long night.
TEA Andy is on now. Please send your emails to him at andy.bull@guardian.co.uk. Honestly, a man slogs through two all-but-fruitless hours and then Smyth waltzes in and sees four wickets in a session. It's enough to make you sick.
"It's 7.55am in Dubai and a clear, crisp 24 degrees," says Sarah Bacon. "Am watching the Channel 9 coverage via OSN Arabia but couldn't enjoy this properly without the OBO." Awwww. Actually, I am fascinated by people who have lots of different coverage on at the same time. I don't know how you manage it. The last I heard Naylor had TMS, Sky, Test Match Sofa, the Guardian Ashes blog, seven different OBOs and Channel 9 on the go - and he was doing unpaid work for all of them.
"I really thought the hat trick on day one and the duck from Strauss meant this series was set to unfold like most Ashes Down Under," says Jacob Geiger. "But seeing the Aussies collapse after lunch here has reminded me that maybe all their pre-series troubles were not a fluke. Thank goodness this is a cracker of a match, because I'm in a turkey-induced food coma here after celebrating America's Thanksgiving holiday here in Virginia. Cricket is a salve after a long day with the in-laws."
"My mate's Sky service failed a last-minute fitness test (who knew that interference from the alarm on the shop next door would render Sky Sports useless post-midnight?) scuppering our plans to watch all night," says Lee Rodwell. "I've ended up in the Shepherd's Bush Walkabout instead though which I think might be the only public space in London with all-night coverage? The atmosphere is surprisingly serene and civilised. Or at least it was... Some guy just got thrown out by the weary-looking staff.
"Evening, Rob," says Alan Cooper. "Following along from the USA. The BBC forgot to block TMS yesterday so I had a lovely time listening to the commentary. Today they remembered. I wish someone would explain why they do it — it's not as if anyone else is offering commentary, and I would gladly pay a reasonable fee to listen. Bah! Still, I always have you!! Sorry, did I ruin the moment there?" It's the most moving paean to the OBO I've ever heard.
"Unfortunately, I don't have a TV so it's illegal feeds all the way. What with TMS being banned in Canada (bastards) the only coverage I can get is apparently from India and I am getting insane advertising throughout. The pick of the bunch though, if you'll pardon the pun, is for Mango frooti juice drink (can you have a bunch of mangoes? Whatever). Here it is. It's like the Prisoner with fruit. Is that not some f****d up idea? What a way to scare the bejesus out of someone. Bit like a bouncer from Broad."
Test cricket, will you marry me? This is true love. It's just a perfect thing, the most magnificent, nuanced sporting format, and still with (for the most part) an oldfangled integrity at odds with almost everything else in top-level sport. A classical, elegant beauty. I adore the thing. And that's even before you factor in that special, sexy little outfit we call the Ashes. It's looking particularly good just now, because Australia are just starting to fight back after that traumatic half-hour. Finn is a bit too short again and Hussey swivel-pulls behind square for four. This is such good cricket. Hussey is a fiercely tough bugger. I don't trust his bad form at all. Even if he'd gone binary for 17 innings in a row, I'd half expect him to get runs. "Millings is indeed a phony," says Phil Sawyer. "I sit here divorced, alone, and in a flat full of comics (the printed variety - I'm not hosting Live At The Apollo). Now that's proper OBO credentials." When can you start?
Hallelujah! Up goes the finger. Katich is given out LBW. But the batsmen consult and decide to refer it. Oh mercy me. What have we done to deserve this? The replays show the ball was going over the top and the decision is overturned. Katich bats on. What a kick in the guts. And it gets worse. Katich flicks the next ball away for four to fine leg. I've opened the Moster Munch after all. They taste like defeat. "Over here in France I'm quite keen to go to bed," says Michael Plevin, "Can you manufacture me a wicket (or two) in the next couple of minutes? I've got a busy(ish) day tomorrow and it's getting a little late. I really have to go to bed soon." Would it be better if I just lied to you about all this?
While talking about cricket, the Indians squabble noisily, the Sri Lankans beat some drums, the West Indians are sarcastically blasé, the Aussies tell you how good they are, but only the English *suffer*, in the best traditions of true love.

Nov 22, 2010

Simplicity through Complexity: great information visualisation approach to problems

Eric Berlow, an ecologist, has a fine TED talk (or micro-talk) where he takes an example of how we could use information visualisation to get to grips with seemingly complex (and perhaps complicated) problems. The example features the notorious Afghanistan graphic that came in for great scorn (rather unfairly, I thought) and as an easy means of Powerpoint bashing.

The video is only about 3-4 minutes long, and Berlow makes his point very succintly.

Nov 21, 2010

Run Out at the Asian Games

Read today that Preeja Sreedharan and Sudha Singh won golds (10000m and steeplechase) with Kavita Raut finishing behind Preeja for a silver at the Asian Games. This news made the sports fan in me very happy - it's been a while since individual women athletes scooped up some medals at a major tournament. Not yet close to the 80s of course, but that these hard-working athletes could do it in an era of general Chinese domination is particularly heart-warming. (BTW, where are all the post-Ma Junren Chinese long-distance runners?)

Contrast this with the BCCI opting not to send any cricket teams to the event. This is particularly galling on the women's side: the team is ranked much higher than any of the two eventual finalists (Pakistan and Bangladesh) and a gold medal should have been as easy as taking a single after the ball was hit between Arjuna Ranatunga and Sourav Ganguly.

For the Indians, coming by gold at the 2010 Asian Games have been more difficult than looking for it in Bappi Lahiri's bank locker. The women's team say they were keen to go to Guangzhou (as it is, they have very few sporting engagements each year) but the BCCI didn't choose to send a team. Perhaps the BCCI is busy with the various IPL and WADA litigations. It is also too busy to understand that, after the various IPL fiascos and the match-fixing scandals to have hit the world of cricket, it has a PR standing just above the likes of A.Raja. A cricket gold medal could have been just the happy boost that the game could have done with in India. It is hard to spot any logic in the BCCI's actions unless this is part of a large conspiracy to undermine the inclusion of the sport in future Asian or Olympic Games. Very absurd, but seems very BCCI.

Or is it just that for wise-old-BCCI, all that is gold does not glitter?

Nov 16, 2010

Facebook's new messages system

I've always wondered why, in the age of online handles and content-based routing and web identities, do we still need to have 8+ digit numbers for phones. Since it's painful to remember more than a handful of these numbers, we end up giving them useful aliases on our mobile devices or address books. Instead, why can't we simply have something like a "name telecom provider" interface?

Which is why I was intrigued to see that very same point being made in Facebook's announcement of its Facebook Messages revamp. It's very clever, it's very social, and it is likely to take Facebook to people who didn't care to be part of that ecosystem. When GMail brought in a fresh look at e-mail, it was typically Google: fast, usable, but geeky (tags instead of folders, email classification, attachment reminders). This, in comparison, is social-like-hell (for us not-so-social types) - separate inboxes for friends vs others (v. simple - why didn't others implement this?), the promise of replaying your interactions with a person over a lifetime, and convergence of email/IM/sms.

The announcement also suggests that they spoke to high-schoolers to understand what they thought about messaging, which is interesting. So Twitter is for the 30+ crowd and the hare-brained-celebs, GMail for those who discovered Google in their twenties, but FB will evolve with teens.

I don't use FB very much, but it looks like it's just arrived on my online doorstep. Especially if this is the vision:

Relatively soon, we'll probably all stop using arbitrary ten digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters to contact each other. We will just select friends by name and be able to share with them instantly. We aren't there yet, but the changes today are a small first step.
Zuckerberg's Social Network keeps getting wider.

(just a bunch of thoughts that struck me when I read the announcement)

Oct 20, 2010

Couple-springi premises


Such notices can be seen all around Chaturshringi Temple in Pune. Roughly translated:
Couples should not sit and indulge in indecent activities; otherwise they will be photographed and the photos will be handed over to the police.
By Order
Obviously, I have failed to capture the 'snappiness' of the original lines.

It's hard to say if there were sincere volunteers, armed with a camera, lurking around in the bushes, waiting for a chance to spring upon amorous pairs. It's easy to ask what I was doing there in the first place, but I shall not dignify that with an answer.

Oct 3, 2010

You, Me, aur We

I know a lot of people who watch football on TV. Usually, they watch the English Premier League, which is perfectly timed to give them their weekend excuse for not going out to meet relatives (at least the non-football-ones). The even more committed will stay up to watch La Liga and Serie A. The absolutely crazy ones will perhaps even watch Dempo vs Salgaocar on a Thursday afternoon.

But it is the first lot that I want to talk about - the ones that watch 20 English clubs in one of the world's most commercialised sporting leagues. Talk to some of them, and a curious linguistic-social oddity will strike you: they refer to their teams with pronouns such as "us" and "we". People have attained a curious level of self-identification that lets them attach a part of themselves with a team based in a place most of them would struggle to pick out on a map. Mind you, only the top clubs, nay marketing wonders, have managed these psychological feats - I have never met someone in my local circle who would use a "we" for Sunderland or West Bromwich Albion.

I recently stumbled upon a fabulous satire on the dependably hilarious show That Mitchell and Webb Look - to me, the definite summary of the nonsensical nature of this kind of feeling among some fans. Watch it even if you aren't a football buff:

Oct 2, 2010

"Infinite Zounds" - a new quiz blog

I've started Infinite Zounds - a new blog that features (at least) one new question each day. There are quite a few quiz blogs around, but what's different about this blog is that the underlying theme is what is usually known as "Current Affairs". Each question is about something that was in the news recently and is contemporary in attention. So no questions about the Harappan civilisation, film noir from the 50s, the books of Raymond Chandler, or the performances of Kumar Sanu - unless they were in the news recently for some reason.

(In fact, it is highly unlikely that the blog will have any questions on Sanu - you can stop hyperventilating now.).

If you visit the blog, you will see that each post also contains the answer below in addition to the question. The answer is hidden, to let you hazard a guess in your head if you so choose to. I don't like going back to a blog the next day to find the answer, which is why I've done this.

You can subscribe to the blog via its feed. Unfortunately, this feed may contain the answer as well - that's something I haven't managed to solve, despite setting the feed to publish partially. Based on how things go, I might change the feed to full. Until then, if you subscribe via the default feed, consider a general spoiler alert to be in issuance.

An alternative is to follow the blog via Twitter or Google Buzz (or use the email id 'infinitezounds[at]gmail').

So, inviting you to take a look at Infinite Zounds, and see if the questions take your fancy. Let me know if it does.

Aug 24, 2010

The music of Udaan

The soundtrack of Udaan should be properly introduced as being created by Amitabh Bhattacharya (lyrics) and Amit Trivedi (music). The duo, in their first full-length album since Dev.D, are clearly masters at exploring themes of angst. This collection of songs has a cohesion rare in most film soundtracks, with the tracks complementing each other in mood and thought. Restlessness and the optimistic desire to escape current orbits suffuse the songs.

Kahaani establishes the mood of Udaan with its whispered beginning slowly developing into a electric guitar-fuelled rock piece. The title song is more conventional, with a catchy riff and words of quiet rebellion. It is a little weak though, in comparison to the songs that follow. Geet... is wonderful - somehow the Amits manage to perfectly capture a sunbeam of naive optimism. The mood is upbeat and there's some very nice use of harmony and guitars. The two also have an interesting singing partnership - this is as far removed from Bandmasters Rangila and Rasila as you can get.

For me, Naav is the standout song from the album. I'm assuming Mohan (I don't know who he is!) is the lead singer. Though the diction is a little odd, the delivery is wonderful. The thought is age-old: a call to overcoming impediments, but the metaphor (of a boat struggling for breath) was new to me. You will scarcely find a more rousing song to listen to when you are sinking to the dumps. Compositions like these put the 'rock' in rock. (Here's a link to the lyrics for this song.)

Aazaadiyaan reminds me a lot of a previous Amit Trivedi song - "Ik Lau" (Aamir) - it has the same lingering start and perhaps the openings of are similar too, though the tempo is different. The sitar riff is very pleasing, and serves as a springboard for the rest of the song to take off (almost literally).

In contrast, Motumaster is quite out of place. To be fair, it has been designed as an 'arbit' ad-hoc kind of song (Anurag Kashyap's official debut as lyricist?) and is quite hilarious in parts ('kamar to naapte hai magar hum kamraa kaise naape?"). But it might have been better off being just in the film and not on the album. The concluding instrumental piece is reflective and appropriate.

One reason why Udaan's soundtrack works is because the story and treatment seem to be tailormade for the Amits. Amit Trivedi is very good at the rock-folk milieu and is able to bring his own bag of tricks to it. I wonder how he will deal with more commercial ventures. One of the pleasures of listening to his albums is to hear very new voices. Who are these Neuman Pinto/Joi Barua/Mohan/Nikhil D'Souza? Now we've heard them and of them. But if he goes more mainstream, how will this work out for them? But I do wish Amit Trivedi didn't feature on every other song s- he's got a raspy voice suited only for certain types, and he might be overdoing it a tad.

In short, listen to Udaan.


Image created using Wordle

Aug 20, 2010

Lamenting convocation speeches

Why don't we have good speakers at convocation ceremonies in India? Each year, a commencement speech or two from a US university will do the email rounds. Usually by a leading figure, the speech will be amusing, inspiring, interesting, and even personal. It's quite a good way to sign off a graduating year's stint in that academic institution. And some may finally learn something useful there!

In contrast, most convocation ceremonies at Indian institutions are boring affairs, with the chief guest's speech crowning the insipid cake with the dullest cherry of the day. It doesn't help that chief guests are often politicians, called to the ceremony because they are ultimately influential patrons of the educational system, or because the powers-that-be get a chance to rub noses with the ruling elites. On occasion, figures from business are invited, which is usually an improvement on the politicos. But oratory may not really be their strong suit. Forget diction or command, even the content is mundane and in danger of adding decades to Kumbhakarna's slumber.

The three convocation speeches that coincided with my stint at IIT Bombay were largely uninspiring. The first was the then HRD Minister, Arjun Singh (2005), incidentally in the middle of his reservations controversy. Montek Singh Ahluwahlia (2006) followed - decent, but I can't think of anything memorable that he said. Invited to preside over the convocation ceremony of 2007 was industrialist L.N.Mittal. On paper, it seemed a decent choice - he was riding several waves of fame. But the hour-long speech was, sadly, one of the most boring that it has been my fate to sit through. If it wasn't the small matter of picking up a degree certificate, I might have succumbed to that most primal of social urges: of escaping from a boring colloquium, by hook or crook. What made it worse was that he repeatedly referred to the hallowed institution as "double-I-T" or even on occasion "double-I-I-T". Depending on which rules of association one applied to the latter, we wondered if we were taking leave from "I2IT" or even "I4T". (Incidentally, earlier that year, his namesake Sunil Bharti Mittal had delivered a guest lecture in the nearby School of Management, which was quite impressive in content and delivery.)

I note that this year's IIT Bombay convocation featured more science-oriented individuals: Dr. Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Prof. Roddam Narasimha as chief guests. (I was even more intrigued to find out that the convocation had been split into two sessions over two days - apparently, too many people graduating! The Convocation Hall is huge, so the space overflow must have been considerable.) I don't know how their speeches went, and it's not a good idea to automatically assume people like these will be any more inspirational than their predecessors.

It's a pity that most public function speeches in India are so poorly delivered, and that everyone involved has come to expect nothing more. The speakers don't do us listeners the honour of diligent practice, and the listeners in turn, do the listeners no favours of attention.

Some of the more famous commencement speeches alluded to in the opening of this post:

* Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005: video, transcript - probably the most famous of the lot
* J. K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008: video, transcript - titled "the fringe benefits of failure"
* Jon Stewart at The College of William and Mary, 2004: transcript - quite hilarious
* Atul Gawande at Stanford School of Medicine, 2010: transcript - interesting, cautionary, and thought-provoking thoughts for a graduating class of doctors

The inevitable top ten list is here.

Aug 18, 2010

Bus Ek Pal

I take the company bus to work in the morning and return by it in the evening. I am convinced these buses have bombs on them that will go off within 30 seconds of the bus reaching its destination.

What else explains the mad rush for fellow passengers to alight? As the bus nears its stop, people from the back storm to the front. As the bus stops, others will get up and into the aisle. The line to get down is clogged. But they don't mind standing uncomfortably, rubbing more than shoulders with people in front and behind them. All they care is that they be out into the open, where presumably, they will be saved (yet again) from the poisonous gas slowly filling their empty seats.

Me? I sit down defiantly. Some kind of sit-in protest that is doomed because, well, I do also have to get down at some point. Sometimes, I swing my legs out into the aisle. It announces to the hyenas behind me that yes, I want to get down too, but can't you see that people seated ahead of us must be allowed to get down first? And where are your manners? And do you have to get down in a group? Clearly, the signal is too subtle and packed with too much information, because they rush past me, stumbling and saying "sorry" without meaning it. I must be acquiring a criminal education in sparking off stampedes.

It's funny, this urge to dismount at the earliest. There's no visible advantage in having to wait for 2 more seconds. People who are supposed to get down don't stand in the middle of the bus discussing the Kashmir issue or whether P is not equal to NP. So what are the rushers afraid of?

That leaves only one explanation. But it can wait - it's time to go.

Aug 10, 2010

Stalk show

I've started receiving Twitter's suggestions for people I should 'follow'. I wish it wouldn't. For the most part, these are celebrities that I have deliberately chosen to stay far away from (the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, Chetan Bhagat, Lalit Modi). The suggestions seem to be deduced from my current social graph on twitter and popular Indian celebrities (probably based on number of followers or a list). Apart from these being shallow dimensions to suggest 'interesting people', shouldn't such an algorithm consider this: if I have been on Twitter for a couple of years and these people have been around for over 3 months, I would in all likelihood have heard of them? (if they are indeed popular enough to be tweeted about) Thus, if I have not followed them so far, it is out of choice and not of ignorance.

Probably they should stick to picking friends-of-a-friends and minor celebs (not in the top 100, say). Or just leave us alone to stumble in the jungle. Even better, is there someway to indicate (proudly) under a "Who Not to Follow" section, that I choose not to follow these people?

Aug 8, 2010

Lost in Austen -

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any article about Pride and Prejudice must begin with the line It is a truth universally acknowledged. But more pertinently to this blog post, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any schoolgirl who reads Pride and Prejudice, particularly in the company of fellow convent schoolgirls, must fall hopelessly in love with the plot, the milieu, and most importantly, with Darcy1. Even Hugh Grant (ex-floppy-haired-bookshop-owner and cor-blimey-was-he-PM-of-Britain-too?) couldn't unseat that juciest of all snooty Darcies, Colin Firth. And he tried.

The 2008 ITV Lost in Austen is a very interesting adaptation of the tale, which takes these very principles to heart. Amanda Price, 21st century Brit girl, looking for true love, is an ardent fan of P&P. One day, she finds Elisabeth Bennett, standing in her salle de bains, mysteriously transported from the world of Austen. They swap places, and the rest of the story is Amanda's 'sojourn' through that world.

Thanks to her presence, there are inevitable complications, such as pre-ordained partnerships going awry. Amanda soon finds herself trying to clear waters that get muddier with every passing day. In a sense, she assumes the role of that other famous Austen girl, Emma, having to steer relationships in the way they are supposed to, and miserably failing at them.

The series has its comic highs, especially in the first episode, but tends to go all sentimental as it heads into the second half of the four-part series. The ending is a little rushed, but overall, it's an entertaining excursion over well-known literary territory. The actors, being British and all, are quite good.

Coincidentally, this viewing comes the same week that India's (probably) first cinematic adaptation of Jane Austen released. I don't understand why people should remake a well-known classic faithfully, and would find the likes of Lost in Austen more appealing. But only if, as this New Yorker mention of Aisha remarked, it came without "zombies or sea-monsters". Or Gurinder Chadha. Brr.


1: applying induction from domestic evidence

Aug 4, 2010

A truth of inconvenience

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that

Talking to people in professional contexts, particularly in customer service, often makes you feel like you are Dave, trying to reason with a cold non-human (eventually, a bad idea). Neither do these people possess a super-brain like HAL 9000, nor (and this is worse) can they be bypassed or turned off. The idea of taking an axe to them to check for frontal lobe absence becomes more appealing by the minute.

Author Dan Pink writes about the use of 'professionalese' in this Telegraph article, calling it "a renter’s language". Talking about sentences like We apologise for any inconvenience, he says:

It doesn’t expect to be around for very long and has no stake in the long-term prospects of the neighbourhood.

Pink argues that people and businesses need not think of personal language as being weak and unsuitable in the arena of carrying out business. That people should try being more open and honest, and this is more likely to get customers to view you as being trustworthy and human.

I know this sounds right, but I really doubt this will happen on a sufficiently large scale. Working in a large company and living in a country famed for its bureaucratic attitudes, I encounter insensitive, uncaring, and non-human behaviour on a regular basis. The renter-owner comparison perfectly captures the problem. But I also blame such behaviour on individual laziness, the ability of an existing system to warp the minds of the average person working in it, and an inability to think independently. Look at workplace-verbiage such as "please reach out to me" or the infamous "touch base" (can I reach out to you to touch base?) rather than a simpler, more commonplace "please let me know"/"please contact me". Is this verbal camouflage? Do people learn to talk this way so as to meld into the ecosystem and not stick out too much?

Or, as I often suspect, they are just being idiots?

(from the archives: Billshot Bungle)

Aug 2, 2010

That's a wrap, Mr. Baswani

From what I can tell, the actor Ravi Baswani did not have a fan club or a Facebook page. And why wouldn't that be? IMDB lists fewer than 30 movies in his filmography, over a thirty year film career. Most of those movies never amounted to anything much. Some were nothing more than complete duds. Even his last public performance seems to be for a very unamusing ad for Mirinda.

Yet, to film-people and viewers of certain vintages and tastes, Ravi Baswani is a name that evokes several happy memories. Of chasing and being chased by Duryodhana. Of being turned into a chauffeur by Winnie Paranjape. Of losing a newly bought handkerchief in a girl-wooing scheme promoted by Amitabh Bachchan. Of being partly responsible for an entire generation both eating their cake and throwing it out of the window. And of being in a fabulous parody/tribute of ye olde hindi film songs.

You will notice that Baswani's reputation was built largely on his appearance in two movies. One is the much loved and much feted Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. The other is Chasme Buddoor, which according to me, has been the least watched of all the great Hindi films of the last 40 years. In both, he is in danger of being thought of a comic sidekick and a weakling. But it was never his place in the grand scheme of things to play the hero. To his credit, he always held his own: in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, trying to keep the moral compass in shape in a deeply immoral setting, while exhibiting shiftiness, jealousy and pusillanimity in Chasme Buddoor. In both senses, he was the guy next door - someone certain to lose out1.

As it often happens, we learned more about Ravi Baswani after news of his death (from a heart attack, after looking for locations for his directorial debut) came in (see 2). He was 64 - which meant his acting debut in 1980 was at the ripe old age of 34. That he was a highly regarded theatre actor (as most of these can-really-act Delhi-wallahs are). That he was straight-talking, even caustic at times, and said such things about movies like Jodhaa Akbar such as: It's like [Ashutosh Gowariker] said, "Bring me all the bad actors. I’m going to make cinema out of that.".. (And even that he was probably living a couple of kms away from my house in Santacruz (E), long ago!)

On one hand, Ravi Baswani never did much else that rivalled his two most famous films in terms of attention. On the other, in those, he achieved much more than many in Bollywood ever do in an entire life. The length of a career is never a good measure of anyone's work, and there are several people both inside and outside film industries that this could apply to. Perhaps he was too hemmed in by the nature of his comic success, the inevitably stereotyping, and for being a thoughtful person in a time and place that made such people go extinct very soon.

Still, as with most obits, this made me evaluate the place such a person had in my life, and I'm surprised to know that it was significant, even if brief. And what better excuse to pull out Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Chasme Buddoor once again, to marvel at the writing and the little touches, and the people that chipped in to make our little lives worth living.

More
* His last known interview; another interesting interview (from 2003)
* Ravi Baswani played the moderator on an Indian version of Whose Line is it Anyway. He also did a fair bit of TV during the heydays of DD, and perhaps his last major TV role was in the slightly offbeat Just Mohabbat
* The latest film I've seen him in was in Naseeruddin Shah's debut directorial venture.
* I've read obits mention that his name in Chasme Buddoor was "Jai Lakhanpal". They might be wrong. One, to my ears, he says 'J. Lakhanpal' ("brother of B.A.Lakhanpal") and not "Jai". Second, I always thought he was making the whole thing up, because it was obvious he had no such brother. (Incidentally, a man named Dinesh Lakhanpal was an assistant director on the film in real life.)

The wonderful parody/tribute song sequence from Chasme Buddoor:


footnotes
[1]: In a post called Who's playing the lead, I used Jomu's un-heroic inability to start his motorcycle to wonder if we would be the heroes of our films. It seems strangely appropriate to RB's life.

[2]: See an interviews with Kundan Shah and a post by Sudhir Mishra

Aug 1, 2010

The software has nothing to do with it

It's an old ploy - newspapers put out headlines or take angles in a story just to grab our attention, but without considering the facts. And who does it better than The Times of India? Today's newspaper reports the unfortunate murder of Darshana Tongare, a recent COEP grad and IBM trainee, who was stabbed by an unknown figure. Apparently she wasn't robbed, so the motives aren't entirely clear yet.

The Times of India takes the view that "The safety of women techies in Pune has come into sharp focus once again". So far, nothing suggests that the profession of the victim had anything to do with the incident. The safety of every woman in the city, professional or not, traveling at night could be called into question. In fact, the general safety of the populace at large. What's more shocking was the lack of response from the police control rooms, when passer-bys tried to report the incident. The ToI buries that deep into the report.

Many newspaper articles, particularly in headlines, report incidents of crime with the profession of the victim embedded. In most cases, this is incidental. "Techie" is now a cliched and obnoxious word - and not everyone working in a software company is a technologist. Cases of suicide caused by overwork may qualify. But to papers, just 'man robbed' isn't sufficiently eye-catching, I suppose.

In fact, the same ToI report lists 7 other cases from the last 2.5 years where Pune women associated with the world of IT-BPO have been assaulted. In four of these cases, the suspects/assailants were known to the victims, and were crimes involving personal disputes. Nothing to do with being in the software profession. But yes, at least two of the remaining three could be said to be directly related to the nature of the industry, involving late working hours and being situated in poorly connected/lit/policed areas of Pune.

Such a lack of perspective affects the city and the industry as a whole, and dilutes the focus away from such issues such as better policing and systems that could both prevent and solve such issues. Incidentally, the ToI's sister publication (to my mind, the more reliable and less hypocritical of the two) Pune Mirror takes the angle of the emergency number "100" being unmanned. The Indian Express report is expectedly sober. From a non-Pune-paper view, The Hindu largely report the facts, editorialising only in the end (which is their prerogative), quoting the appropriate earlier cases.

One hopes the case is swiftly solved and that the right lessons are learnt by the police. Might we dare to hope for the same for India's most selling newspaper?

Jul 23, 2010

Re-versioning 'revert'

I had previously written about my aversion for the reversion i.e. the use of 'revert' in e-mails to mean 'reply'. But the inevitable march of the very forces that make language fluid and nimble have had their first major victory in this matter. Linguist Ben Zimmer (he replaced William Safire in the New York Times' popular 'On Language' column) wrote on the topic, noting that this sense of the word has finally made it to a dictionary.

The 8th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary notes the (still obnoxious) usage, marking it as having originated in Indian-English. We are seeing, at first-hand, an example of the mutation of language, and some part of me wants to celebrate that. So I suppose it is time to put the pitchforks down, but that doesn't mean a change in my conservative attitude. The likelihood of me embracing this word-meaning combination is the same as that of a Khap panchayat sending a gift certificate and greeting card to the latest set of Jat elopers.

Aren't you glad that the madmen of Indian villages didn't spent as much time protecting language?

Jul 4, 2010

Coraline

Neil Gaiman wrote Coraline for his little daughter Holly who liked scary stories about little girls getting mixed up with witches. The book can even give a mild shiver or two - well, let me confess here - and make them check the back of their closets and their eyes. Just once. Just to make sure. Especially when things are too good to be true.

Everyone loves a good scare from time to time, especially when conjuring up the scarescape in our own heads. Gaiman's wonderfully paced writing and characteristic fancies gives us all the help we need. The story is set in England where, as everyone knows, ghosts play cricket in the autumn dusk and witches go shopping at the neighbourhood Castle Tesco. Besides being doughty in the best traditions of 'oh well, let's not make a fuss now and set about battling the dragon', Coraline, the young heroine of the tale, has an active curiosity and imagination that literally opens doors for her. Among the neighbours, the humans are batty and the animals are wise. The others are just plain sinister.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly. If you dismiss this book merely as children's fiction, think again. Like some great writing, this works for everyone. And if you are a parent who thinks they can fob off their children with distractions so that they'll let you work, you must read this book before something happens. To you.

Coraline was made into a well-received stop motion animation film in 2009 by Henry Selick. There are a few changes to the characters and settings (sadly, perhaps keeping the box office in mind, the story moves to the USA). But the movie is lovingly made, and the translation from word to image is magical. The animation is seamless and it's hard to pick out the fact that the movie is a stop-motion one.

And after you've seen the film, go back to the opening credits.


image courtesy: http://vindicated13.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/coraline.jpg

Jul 1, 2010

The Accidental Click

You're busy. Or you've been on vacation. You're depressed. You are detoxing from information overload.

Result? The little unread monsters pile up. One by one, they show up at your door - the door you left open for them (well, you did feed them that invitation in big, bold 'blog' letters). And they wait in your living room (they are polite) for you to have a look at them.

They are like the Squeeze Toy Aliens from Toy Story - they are irritating in their eternal gratitude that you showed some tiny long-forgotten interest in them. Even before they were created.

When you finally have the strength to look at your RSS feed reader, you realise the slow poison that's accumulated in there. You can't read the group with 100+ unread posts, so you resolutely look at the ones with just 1 new post. Soon, the law of exponential unreadness kicks in, multiplying like rabbits descended from Gandhaari. It's outta control already.

You tip-toe around the reader, trying not to set off a minefield of will-read-ness. Here a click, there a click, everywhere a click-click.

And one day, when you are not paying attention it happens. It's like visiting the Tomatina festival. You click on a folder by mistake. Blast! All the feeds open. But one ohnosecond later, it's the best thing that happened to you. You know you can't read all of these posts, and there was probably nothing useful in them anyway.

As you sip sour wine from these grapes, you close the browser tab.


Images courtesy: Squeeze Toy Aliens, Tomatina

Jun 10, 2010

One rule to ring them all

“Why on Earth,” said JK, “would any sane person do something like that?”

MX wiggled his shoulderoodles in a gesture of dismissive revulsion. “You know how thae people here on Earth are like. It doesn’t surprise mae much. There is nay no sanity here, if yae ask mae.”

“No, Iae believe there must be some good in thame. But what utter waste of time. A sub-optimal solution such as this makes nay no sense to mae. And then there’s the inconvenience to everaeone participating, on and off the action-fields.”

“Well, those were the parameters thae play by. Asked mae minions on the outside.”

JK got up and surfed to the vista, where he could see the usual bustle around the Embassy fe Celestra buildings. Earthers were busy at work, mowing the lawns, taking their buggies to work, manning the inter-rues, causing routine commotion.

“This is nay no good. MX, get mae a official copy of all the parameters. Then get mae thae President fe Association.”

The decision to relocate JK from Celestra to Earth for three years (at least) had been unanimous. The Cabinet had charged him with envisaging a comprehensive re-education programme for Earth, providing the best policies that Celestra could offer. But the truth was that they were fed up with his constant meddling as Minister fe Recreational. Messing around with the two thousand year old pastime of slaying dinotaurs by making the animals wear armour had been the last straw.

They soon agreed with each other in private that their weekends were at risk. For a society deeply wedded to the idea of the double-solar-siesta, this had gone too far. So the Emperor’s eighth son by marriage (also his third son by ritual adoption) found himself Celestral Overseer on Earth. The itch to modify, optimize, and butt in, had lain dormant due to shuttlelag. But it was well rested and had gently begun to resume work on its most promising host.

The rule changes were made in time for the tournament. JK and MX felt the implementation had gone reasonably well. There had been only three Earth-wide riots, and the five teams that left the association to begin a rebel league on Sirius were swiftly replaced by some more provinces from the British Isles.

Thus it came to be that every football match in the 31st World Cup began with a penalty shootout. As rightly predicted by JK, 9 out of 10 matches ended in the first fifteen minutes, allowing the hard-working (though under-productive) Earthers to learn the match results without having to wait for two hours. Sometimes, by accident (some claimed it was the glorious uncertainty of the beautiful game), the match remained tied after penalties and went into extra-time. The astral configurations had to really be crisscrossed in unfortunate ways if a match ever went as far as to reach normal play.

JK proudly gazed outside his vista, basking in the cheap glow of the local sun that illuminated his first success. A dispatch had already been waved to Celestra, where unknown to him, it had been promptly erased by relieved Cabinet mandarins. MX stood beside him, and emptied his gillophagus.

“Maistre, are yae aware of this monstrous recreation that takes five days to conduct, sometimes without decisive resolution?”

JK let out a Celestral sigh and turned towards his newest task. An efficient administrator’s job was never done, especially among such naifs.

His itch sent out fresh pleasure sensations to his encephalic-centres.

written using a Caferati Fiction Fixation month cue (more here)

May 30, 2010

Three men of the stage from B.J.Medical College

Until I saw an interview of his today, I didn't know Dr. Shreeram Lagoo was an alumnus of B.J.Medical College, Pune. This means that the college has produced three of the most renowned Marathi names of the stage - Shreeram Lagoo, Jabbar Patel, and Mohan Agashe (who also taught at the same institution).

Given this, one wonders what the college did (or does) to provide an ecosystem for such people to emerge. The Pune college circuit for plays is rich and well-established with theatre groups and competitions such as Purushottam Karandak and Firodiya. COEP too had a couple of students who later turned pro - Ravindra Mankani and Girish Joshi, for instance, but no one of the heights of the BJ trio.

May 29, 2010

Why Zen monks don't use Twitter

There are no Zen monks on Twitter - have you noticed that? You would have thought it was the ideal place for them - literally minimalistic, encouraging of pithiness, and an inbuilt set of organic metaphors about birds and cetaceans. Despite that, there aren't any twittering Zen-izens.

It isn't difficult to see why. In the wired world, a zen monk can orally issue a koan or two without worrying about how many times he gets re-koaned. His followers have come from far and wide, casting away their social nets to listen to a wise man who often doesn't make any sense. His followers repeat what he says without prefacing it with snide comments. The Zen Master never has to block anyone even when they are caught asking each other 'youprefer padme hum or padme lakshme?'.

On Twitter, alas, many a distraction exists. Thanks to incessant tweets, it is difficult to devote yourself fully to the construction of mindful, yet funny, sutras in response to a hashtag (despite its fundamentally ephemeral nature). During meditation time, an itinerant bee in the form of that perfect rejoinder to @buddydharma's latest pun buzzes in the otherwise silent garden of the mind.

Some practitioners have argued that since Twitter's stream of thought is paradoxical to the 'live in the moment' philosophy, it is in fact the perfect spiritual vehicle for the practice of localised mindfulness. Attention hops-skips-jumps the waves of onrushing tweets, without leaving any kind of neurological imprint. If there is no trace of tweetrivia, argued the pro-twitter camp, could we even say there was any tweetrivia to begin with? Unfortunately, this was whispered deep within the Lotus Forest, where no one heard it, thus rendering the point unsaid.

The Zendarmerie of the Shaolin Temples must have forbidden monks from onefortying, fearing failure on an epic scale. They have observed the corruption among secular members of society, who prefer to talk of facing their palms and not their books. They silently wonder why people talk so much, where they invent the time to be addicted thus, and why it takes 140 when it could take just 40.

On these, the masters contemplate, which often keeps them from paying their broadband bills on time.

May 18, 2010

फूल खिले थे गुलशन गुलशन

Why do florists love this blog? I ask this question each time I get comments from some of my most loyal readers. These are people like "Rony M", "Raya Manna", "Tanmoy Sarkar", "Soni', and "Poulami". Sometimes, like 'expressflowersmumbai', they are just too shy to reveal their real name.

They usually tell me that they liked reading the content of this website, that it was very informative, and now would I like to show my kindness and appreciation for my special ones in places ranging from Antananarivo to Znamensky by sending them stuff? The interesting thing is that they are usually florists. They also have cakes and other gifts, but they always begin with flowers.

I am not really in a position to really take advantage of their services, which makes me feel bad. So I have tried telling Google & Blogger several times not to let them waste their time telling me how much they love my blog. But Google doesn't seem to be sympathetic to their plight. Therefore, I'm writing to "Rony M", "Raya Manna", "Tanmoy Sarkar", "Soni', and "Poulami" via this blog (which they so obviously relish and hopefully will read) to visit other meadows where other drones may be more sympathetic, unlike me.

Also that, in an attempt to (for want of a better term) 'de-flower' my blog, I've enabled comment moderation. So from now on, your paeans to me will remain strictly private. Wink, wink.

May 17, 2010

"Half Ticket": My FlyLite article on Children's Films in India

Last November, FlyLite, JetLite's in-flight magazine, brought out a "Children's special" issue commemorating Children's Day. For this, I wrote an article on Indian films made for or featuring children. You can read a scanned version here on Google Docs (it's a .pdf file, ~1.2 MB).

It is by no means a comprehensive history of the topic :-), so if you see any notable omissions, do tell!

(The magazine is produced by Spenta Multimedia)

May 16, 2010

Prelims questions of the Pune Brand Equity Quiz 2010

Questions (highly 'data compressed'!) from the prelims to the Pune Brand Equity Quiz (Answers will be posted in a comment below.)

1. An industrial township completing 100 years this year
2. Chairman of Afras Ventures in 2007
3. Saris that take their patterns from the Ajanta caves
4. Biggest charitable donations in history
5. Howard Shultz worked as a Xerox salesman, later moved to another company, which he ended up buying after 4 years. Which co?
6. What did Chef Caesar Cardini create
7. Brothers in Arms in 1985 - first album of which group
8. Properties for the 1st UK edition of this was decided by the MD who sent his secretary on a tour of London in a bus. What?
9. Nokia's Hindi SMS version is called: Saral message ___
10. Hierarchy of what has things such as underboss, soldiers, capodecima, associates
11. Andras Graf better known as?
12. Two pronouns in the Rasna ad campaign tagline from the 80s
13. Fellini's La Dolce Vita gave which term
14. In Firozabad, what do Gulliwalas & Belanwalas make
15. NY Governor David Paterson proposed a tax on downloaded music, calling it an __ tax.
16. Products made in Ulhasnagar have what tagline
17. Warren Buffet said the secret to good investing is: a. Luck b. Temperament c. Intellect
18. V. Anand sports whose logo on his shirt
19. "Tired of Politics" Party created by
20. First rupee introduced in 1540-1605 by
21. visual (ad with the word 'mammogram')
22. Indian one Rupee from the 80s - signature of Fin Min Secretary:
23. visual of a crop
24. Automobile logo
25. A seafood dish
26. what term originated after a spontaneous parade in NY City to welcome the Statue of Liberty?
27. what word originates from oikonomia (household management)
28. Biblical apple is from which garden?
29. In Apr, India Post recently introduced a stamp series on a. months b. Tagore c. Astro signs
30. 1st postal mail from St. Louis to Chicago

Answers will be posted in a comment below.

May 14, 2010

Om-no-science

From The Language Log and The Guardian, a magnificent specimen of a 2008 'journal paper' about the sound that is "Om". Titled Time-Frequency Analysis of Chanting Sanskrit Divine Sound "OM" Mantra , the paper 'proves' that the mind is calm and peace to the human subject and its principal conclusion is that steadiness in the mind is achieved by chanting OM.

You will find a rousing (and ROTFL-ing) discussion of the paper's scientific content (or lack thereof) at The Language Log, which writes:

"The first step seems fair enough: ommmmmm chants are analyzed using standard transform techniques, that represent signals as superpositions of wavelet forms. The second step is… well, there is no second step."

"Perhaps the pictures mean more to the enlightened than they do to me. The article is so bad that I can't see it as anything other than a spoof. And the premise is amusing enough. But I don't know enough about the IJCSNS article genre to really get the joke. If there is one."

Given the details in the paper, I fear it isn't a parody. The original Guardian article (written by one of the organisers of the Ig Nobel prize) says:
"The important technical fact is that no matter what form of Om one chants at whatever speed, there is always a basic Omness to it."

"No one has explained the biophysical processes that underlie this fetching of calm and taking away of thoughts. Gurjar and Ladhake's time-frequency analysis is a tiny step along that hitherto little-taken branch of the path of enlightenment.

(I have no stand on the significance or lack thereof of "Om". But I do stand laughing at 'science' so bad that it seems to have emerged of Rajkumar Kohli's 'consciousness'.)

Scientific pot-shots apart, there are several linguistic gems (or maNiis, in keeping with the theme). Such as this runaway adverb-adjective train:

"Highly sensitive expressive experienced people are more probable to be satisfied and efficient in their life in recent days."
Or you could wonder at this buffet of a scripting language, a proposal, and a quest:
People have been heading for their gawk inwards in propose to attain peace of mind, since they are not capable to locate steadiness in the external world.
And finally, eventually, at-the-endly:
As a final point, we have confirmed scientifically the accomplishments of OM chanting in reducing the stress from the human mind.
Or not.
(image courtesy Philip Lutgendorf)

May 13, 2010

General Synod's Life of Christ

"Not the Nine O'Clock News" was an early 80s BBC satire about news and tv programmes in Britain, featuring among others, the talents of Rowan Atkinson, David Renwick, Howard Goodall, and Richard Curtis. Many of the sketches are still funny to watch.

My favourite of the lot is "General Synod's Life of Christ", a debate on 'a controversial and scurrilous film' that seems to mirror the 'Pythonist religion' and has far too many parallels with 'The Comic Messiah'. Monty Python fans should find this quite brilliant:

While you are there, also look at Gerald the Gorilla:

May 12, 2010

Pop goes NYT

If you visit any article page on the New York Times recently, you would have noticed a relatively new navigation 'pop out'. Let's say you were reading this news article. As you get towards the end, this is what you are probably seeing at the bottom of the page: Now, when you get to the end of the article text, a box springs out from the right (quite disconcertingly, I found, since the appearance is quite swift and abrupt). The box points to another related article in the same site category: From a web design point of view, this is interesting - a tiny addition that tries to keep the reader on the site. It attempts to catch your attention by appearing out of nowhere. But it can give you a surprise (a slight spike on the fright-o-meter), which is perhaps why I wonder if they would have been better off with something that fades-in instead of the horizontal jack-in-the-box. Incidentally, Forbes India's Business.in site also has the very same navigation pop out, albeit one that grows diagonally. However, the site gets it very wrong on paginated articles (see this article for example). Even if you are coming to the end of page 1 of an article (and not the end of the article itself), you still get a link suggestion box. Surely they don't want me to leave this article by the wayside? NYT doesn't make this elementary error.

May 5, 2010

India's Got Tortured Genius?

There's no formal classification of talent, but biographies often throw up phrases to describe their subjects. One of the most intriguing ones is the notion of the "tortured genius". A tortured genius is one whose talents are far beyond our understanding, of the sublime and the ridiculously easy, coupled with self-destructive tendencies that often derails said genius' own talents. Kind of like a woodcutter so talented that when he cuts down the branch on which he's perched, the resulting pattern causes crop circles below. (This didn't make sense? Ah, you mere mortal, you).

Despite its rarity, there are enough examples of tortured genius, the most visible being from sport or the arts. Vincent van Gogh was the epitome of the phrase. Diego Maradona or George Best of Paul Gascoigne. The bizarre Howard Hughes or the tortured souls housed in John Nash Jr. Ronnie O' Sullivan. (The British seem to produce an excess of sporting TGs - or perhaps they are just very good at spotting and anointing them as such.) Gregory House, of course. With genius, can drugs, sex, music, alcohol, and psychedelic teddy bears be far behind?

But the thing is - I can't really think of any TGs from India. Our sportsmen have been an endless series of nice boys or just muscled morons. Our filmstars just got old and fat, or began blogs. If only Salman Khan was a half-decent actor. After a lot of thinking, the only ones that come to mind are the likes of Mukul Shivputra or Ritwik Ghatak. But where're our pill-popping, fisticuff-flying, call-the-curfew-on-your-child's-senses assaulting genius who can do magical things during the day to have his every sin erased off the charts?

There's many a show with a genius for torturing the masochistic bunch of viewers that can't peel their eyes off them. But finding our own tortured genius? - now that ought to be a talent show waiting to happen.

May 4, 2010

By other means, minus the shooting

Do students of the Political Sciences study sports federations? They should. To my mind, these associations exhibit a purer form of politics than that seen in conventional politics of state governance.

Several limiting constraints are eliminated in such an arena. Chief among these is no longer having to adhere to a delineated ideology, which allows free rein to individual preferences. One is therefore not restricted in choosing partners just to remain on the right (or left) side of a House. There are no whip-py actions which ease the process of floor-crossing. There is no need to publish a manifesto with manifestly unattainable goals of progress. A "horses for courses" policy can be applied to trading of allegiances. In fact, you could think of it as a market free of any artificial friction.

This state of affairs is not restricted to India. For long, the conduct of FIFA's top echelon has come under fire, with the likes of Sepp Blatter having demonstrated a slipperiness and an appeasement policy of certain federations (in return for voting support) that mirrors some of our best coalition tactics.

I have long felt that the members of the BCCI are best equipped at the sport of sport administration, rather than the sport of cricket. Politicians of all hues mix there to form a kaleidoscope of changing alliances that are trickier to sort out than the holdings of an IPL team. Perhaps there could be an upper limit of say, 50, to be a BCCI office-bearer, and the gentlemen currently in charge could use the BCCI as a sort of a junior (under-19?) league to groom their 'scions'?

The Sports Minister1 has set about putting in barriers to people being BDPLs. (Ironically, the Minister is a man of a vintage higher than the retirement age he has proposed for heads of sports federations.) Not surprisingly, the various presidents have spoken in unison against the move, which restricted their tenure to twelve years. That's right, twelve years. That's Six Olympics, Three Football World Cups, Twelve IPLs, and at the current rate, 12 World T20s. Clearly, these guys are insatiable.

Expressing gratitude to the sporting gods (who have otherwise clearly abdicated all responsibilities and are partying in one of Allen Stanford's beach resorts) for the lack of a Quizzing Federation of India (no, this isn't the one) we end with a trivia question:

Which pair of brothers respectively head the Federations of the largely unrelated sports of Table Tennis and Boxing?

1: To his credit though, M.S.Gill has been a keen mountaineer and patronised that sport in India

May 3, 2010

Feelin' Frisky

Almost every large hotel or shopping complex in Pune has installed metal detectors at its entrance and has security personnel carry out body and baggage checks (usually very perfunctory and ineffective). This is yet another aspect to our outdoor lives that we have slowly come to accept. Despite the 'nobility' of the aim, this only causes minor annoyances to the 99.999% of the populace that seeks to demolish nothing but a three-course meal.

Last week, I was at the Landmark store in Pune. Visitors to the store will know the first display after the security checks and bag deposit is that of the latest music & movie releases. I was standing there, when a couple and their son, who must have been about five, walked in. I looked up because the son began to cry.

The father asked him what he wanted and the child pointed outside. It seemed as if he wanted to go elsewhere and not spend a morning in a big bookstore. The father didn't protest and took him towards the exit. Where he spoke to the guard there who smiled and bent down.

The guard then proceeded to give the kid a once-over with his metal detector, immediately at which the boy stopped sobbing as if obeying the PMC water supply regulations for the day.

One could wonder if the guard had been amiss earlier not treating a kid without the complete suspicion that should be his professional stock-in-trade, or to begin with, whether the trio had not been frisked properly because they were white foreigners (for that they were). Or just realise that there well could be two sides to each bomb detector experience.

May 1, 2010

Nut Rang

I cannot help but feel that these dry fruit makers missed out on the opportunity for a pun in their brand name.

Apr 28, 2010

On the loss of sleep and the sleep of loss

All Nighters is a collection of vignettes at the NY Times site on the subject of insomnia. The articles in this section are often thought-provoking, and the ailment seems to afflict too many people than seems tolerable.

Fortunately, I don't suffer from sleeplessness, but have had fleeting brushes with it during periods of illness. Those among us who sleep like careless infants perhaps do not know how fortunate they are. The whole cliché of realising what we have taken for granted when it is taken away from us is of no solace if you are up at night, tossing about after having numbered the entire sheep population of New Zealand.

The latest installment in All Nighters was particularly moving. Bill Hayes, a writer (of even a book on insomnia, called Sleep Demons: An Insomniac's Memoir1), writes about losing his partner who passed away, nay 'disappeared', in his sleep. In a grave irony, Hayes, a life-long insomniac, slept through it thanks to sleeping pills.

The blog post isn't just for insomniacs - it is for anyone who has lost someone or (dare I say it?) for everyone who will. Hayes writes:

[...] it was a long time before I was able to take his pillow from his side of the bed. I did not dare. The night after he died, I found that a sliver of light from a streetlamp shone through the blinds just so and cast a single yellowy tendril across his pillow. It was the opposite of a shadow. Which is as clear a definition as I can come up with for the soul.

With morning, the light was gone, and I found the days empty and agonizing. It would take about three years for this feeling to pass — a thousand days, give or take — people who had been through this told me. As it turns out, they were right. What no one said is something I discovered on my own: A thousand days is a thousand nights is a thousand chances to dream about him.


1: Hayes has also written a book on the two men behind Gray's Anatomy, which from what little I know of it, is an interesting story.

Apr 27, 2010

Death by Bulletin

They say it is evil. They say it can be put to macabre ends. They say the Devil uses it in his daily briefings to the hapless denizens of the Elysian Fields (ok, I made this up).

Yes, that's how much people hate Powerpoint.

This image, from a Pentagon press briefing, has been doing the rounds in the interweb (is there a unified term for the blogosphere and the twitterverse, btw?). This NY Times article describes the surrounding peals of cynical mirth, as people tell each other - I told you, Powerpoint sucks - before going back to making their next 'deck' (need to brush harder tonight to get the taste of that word out!).

The problem has never been with Powerpoint as with the people using it. Even Edward Tufte, the Grand Duke of all things visual and a man who never hesitates in throwing his punches, criticizes the cognitive style of making slideware more than the tool itself. That the software makes it easy to throw out verbose texts and incoherent fragments in no time does not mean it has been spawned by Beelzebub himself during one of his ghoulish afternoons. This is one case where you should shoot the messenger (preferably with bullet points), and not the medium.

Take the above image. For one the resultant spaghetti has nothing to do with Powerpoint - it is at worst, a failure of depicting the information. In fact, one could even argue the image brilliantly depicts the hopelessly tangled web that is the Afghan situation! The choice of colours & clustering makes it a lot more palatable than some of the simpler images I have had the misfortune of seeing in several business presentations. We do not know how this slide was used and whether it was used to make a larger point of the complications, followed by diving into specific regions of this dense map.

The basic problem is that people gravitate towards using slideware as a communication medium even when it is not required. Hence, ppts show up in routine meetings merely as a visual notebook substitute for the presenter. Or they are used as means to document information. Hardly any presenter is taught effective use of a tool by way of the right techniques for narration, outline, slide & chart design, or using it as a complement to the presenter rather than a body double.

Fortunately, there's a ton of material available these days from which to learn. Garr Reynold's Presentation Zen is an excellent place to begin; there are many examples & contests on sites such as SlideShare; TED contains a wide ranging collection of different presentation styles; these are just a sample of resource map of people, ideas, and content devoted to telling better stories and sharing information effectively. If you are really serious about exploring an alternative to the entire philosophy of Powerpoint, try the awesomeness of Prezi. It provides a non-linear way of arranging your content, backed by some very pleasing frameworks for transition and narrative structure. In fact, this is so cool that it forces you to completely alter your way of thinking about presenting.

So put down the pitchfork, take your mouse away from the Add/Remove Programs, and take a deep look inside your slides before you get booked for cognitive murder.

Apr 20, 2010

A babel fish for irritating voices

My office workspace is, unfortunately, in some proximity to people who make a lot of telephone calls. They (and there is no nice way to put this) have very irritating voices or patterns of speech. Various options present themselves: I can choose tinnitus leading to some form of deafness, do a van Gogh (but I wouldn't know any ladies of the night to give the item to :-)) , or just take the easy way out and retire to a Trappist monastery.

Wouldn't it be great if there was a device that could either filter out certain voices, or perhaps transform them into more pleasing sounds? So suddenly you have someone saying "so, shall we touch base on Monday as regards the scheduling?" in the voice of say, George Clooney. (Some people think Clooney is the only person who could make you want him to do that to you.)

Apr 18, 2010

Jaspal Sandhu haazir ho

Lalit Modi may look like Ravi Baswani, but his actions have always smelt of Tarneja. Both Tharoor & Modi are two high-flying, speed-racing individuals whose words and actions are just wonderfully designed to evoke jealousy and annoyance in many, and as can be seen right now, there's no dearth of people queuing up to yank them down.

Meanwhile, some lament the future of cricket as a sport and business, fears which I find unfounded. Like in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, someone will whisk it off saying: न पान्डव द्रौपदी के लायक है, न कौरव| इस लिए द्रौपदी हमारे साथ जाएगी|

हम होंगे कामयाब एक दिन?

Apr 15, 2010

Re-creative thinking

A couple of weeks ago, Scott Berkun tweeted something that I found quite interesting:
Many adults haven't *made* anything in yrs - giving them legos/crayons would help more than reading books on creativity
I wonder if this state of affairs is by unconscious design - reading creativity books seems like a proxy for action to its readers. It is immensely easier than picking up lego blocks or crayons. Children are not (yet) intimidated by a blank canvas or a vacuum, and not so scared about being told off for colouring outside the lines. So to those who want to be more creative, especially to those who know that there are answers in books, the first instinct may be to read about how to be creative, than to practise being creative. It makes you feel you are planning your steps towards that cherished goal without having to dip your toes in the cold water.

And sometimes (who knows) it might not turn out to be that cold!

Apr 13, 2010

Save our saves

I have been using Tomboy, a note-taking application (based on a recommendation by Harsh. (I'm not quite sure why it has that name.) It is simple to use. There is a tiny problem - it is excessively simple to use.

In essence, I have only one problem. Thanks to instant and automatic saving, I don't have to hit CTRL-s or its equivalent here. But I am so used to saving my work while working on a text editor that I end up doing that often in Tomboy. Unfortunately, that's a shortcut to turn the 'strike out' formatting option. Which means I begin to cancel all my forthcoming words (yes, that does allow me the happiness of hitting CTRL-s again to toggle :-))

It's like the story (not sure how true) of how phone service providers had to add a little background noise during a call even though they can completely eliminate it. It feels correct, since we're used to it, and habituated to using it as reassurance of the call being live.

So, though I know my work is being saved, I miss the comfort of having tactile proof of that fact. Just another example of how we get so used to something and that even the tiniest of things can matter to a wholesome interface-experience.

Apr 12, 2010

More terrible than terrific: do we have more negative words than positive ones in English?

One of the common approaches to the problem of sentiment analysis (a field under text mining & natural language processing (NLP), where programs try to detect opinion in natural language texts) is to build a dictionary of 'opinion' words. The words are classified as negative & positive. Given words from a sentence, a program can look up the dictionary to see if any of these words appear in dictionary, and then use the positive or negative category as an input in detecting sentiment for that sentence. (Of course, this is a simplified explanation of what actually happens.)

We work in this field and so, in one of our approaches, have built such a lexicon. Our's is a small list and hence not comprehensive, but sufficient for our purposes. Now, I noticed that I had a lot more words tagged as negative rather than as positive. Stated in numbers, there were 434 words marked positive, and 1348 marked negative. I had initially built a much smaller list by hand, and then expanded the lexicon automatically by (partially) using an approach (pdf) described by Italian researchers Andrea Esuli and Fabrizio Sebastiani.

They had also created SentiWordNet. This extends WordNet, which is a popular language resource used in natural lanuage processing and in essence, is a dictionary-thesaurus on steroids (the good kind :-)). WordNet contains over 150,000 words and arranges them 'conceptually', by grouping together synonyms that make up unique 'senses' (these groups are called 'synsets') (it may be obvious why I didn't the word 'sensually' to describe the arrangement). SentiWordNet augments this by attaching a positive and a negative score to each synset. (Here, I won't discuss why a synset can have both a positive & negative score.) Words like 'horrible' or bad have a high negative score, while awesome and pleasant are very positive.

Coming back to our question. Seeing the difference in my list, I wondered if this was a possibly valid observation, or if my lexicon was just poorly constructed, or a consequence of applying the expansion technique in part. So I counted the number of positive & negative synsets in SentiWordNet (again, not going into details here). I found 14134 negative synsets and 12720 positive ones. Perhaps not a significant difference, but still the negative side is a little greater in number (and I haven't actually counted words, only sense groups). So it could just be that I chose or generated more negative words.

This is all anecdotal and perhaps some fun for language geeks to talk about when they're stuck in a long queue and haven't brought a book along :-)

Apr 11, 2010

How many cancer patients will it take?

How many cancer patients will it take for us to be fully inspired? And stay that way? You could read about the ones that died, like Randy Pausch, or the ones that survived, like Lance Armstrong. Is there now a full-fledged market in cancer stories (sort of like with death row inmates)? Do publishers & movie-makers sift through them, rating cancer stories, so that we may remain inspired? Is testicular or brain cancer better than lung or skin cancer? Is a bald patient with better than one who's still got a fair crop? Are readers recommending these to others based on how much they cringed during the accounts of IV drips, chemo sessions, and supportive wives?

The essential difference between the inspired and the need-to-be-inspired is that the former did, or at least tried to. While the latter read and forgot and went back to not doing. And then came back to be re-inspired, like tyres needing more hot air even after days of inactivity. But these wheels don't spin too much. Pity. If those that inspire us with their real deeds had even a fraction of the lives that we waste, they'd probably have become even more inspirational.

But it might have all been wasted on us, anyway. Put down that book, stop being merely inspired and go do something.

Apr 10, 2010

Glengarry Glen Ross & Frost/Nixon

By coincidence, the last two movies that I saw were both adapted from plays. Both films were highly spoken of, but both didn't satisfy me entirely.

Glengarry Glen Ross is (roughly) 24 hours in the lives of four real estate salesmen whose already tough professional existences become threatened by a sales contest that will result in half of them being fired. How this drives them in different ways is the plot. It takes very little time for desperation, capitulation, changes in fortune, and even crime to show up.

This is a story told using a firehose of dialogues and reaction. The opening acting credits spill over with a massive overdose of acting prowess which help translate this to screen. Jack Lemmon in particular is put through the blender. Sometimes, I wonder if its worth seeing even fictional characters stripped down to their basic forms, bereft of any respect.

However, the film never shrugs off its dramatic origins, and is infuriatingly static in location. The atmospheric stuffiness caused by the rain is both useful and distracting. The high profanity rate may put some off (Wikipedia notes that the film was jokingly titled "Death of a F***in' Salesman" :-)).

Recently, a memo written by David Mamet (the playwright and screenwriter for this movie) has been doing the rounds (and reached me thanks to Sud). An interesting viewpoint on the construction of a dramatic piece of writing, it finally made me get hold of Glengarry Glen Ross, probably his most famous work.

Frost/Nixon is a peeling away of a different kind - of one of the most controversial politicians of the last 40 years. Richard Nixon, a tricky customer of the highest order, disappeared into Air Force One after a defiant wave that left many Americans annoyed. Through a conjunction of commerce and contrivance, British TV presenter David Frost (perhaps only seen on Indian TV as the host of The Guinness Book of World Records once upon a time, and now suitably snow-haired and knighted) interviewed the man who never showed any regret for the Watergate Affair.

The movie prefers to focus on the personalities of the two 'adversaries' rather than treat it as the cross-examination it supposedly was. Frost comes across as a pop-presenter desperately wanting to be taken seriously, while Nixon is a lumbering old man whose self-inflicted guilt weighs down his shoulders. Therein lie the problems with an otherwise engaging movie about just a bunch of interviews.

My own perception of Nixon, even post-Watergate, was of a man who never grew out of being a canny politician who knew that people were out to get him. Towards the end, Frank Langella (playing Nixon), with his excessively deep rendition of the Nixon baritone, reminded me of Martin Landau's portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood - a once-great performer who had finally accepted it was all over. Michael Sheen's Frost is that of a lightweight who has to be taught how to control his intellectually superior interviewee, which is at odds with whatever little I have seen of the real David Frost. Perhaps years of television imaging has permanently and irreparably imprinted their respective brands inside my head!

Wikipedia and some clips of the actual interviews online remind us to view the movie as a piece of creative content that may not entirely coincide with reality. But there is much in the movie to watch. A favourite moment was when Nixon tells Frost that given the need of politicians to be liked by people, it would have made more sense for Frost to have been the politican. Of course, Michael Sheen - the man who seems to glide with ridiculous ease into parts calling for a charming Englishman in crisis - played slick Tony Blair in The Queen. Tony Blair, who was everything Nixon wasn't, and ironically, found himself in a similar sort of pickle at the end of his career at the top.

Mar 23, 2010

e-ntroductions

When you 'meet' someone for the first time over something as anti-septic as email, how much are you allowed to judge them? I seem to pay attention to their speed of response, their level of apology if they have taken time to reply, the attention they give your email's content (assuming you have taken every care not o intrude on their time and energy), and the thin line that divides curtness from concision.

However, the first time recipient of an email may not even be aware of being judged in this way. Being conscious that your writing styles evokes intangible qualities such as gentleness, enthusiasm, interest, annoyance, bite, and engagement would help. Eventually, treating one as you would expect to be treated by another is the easiest of thumb-rules to apply.