Dec 31, 2011

The Rahul Dravid of the year

December 31st is the Rahul Dravid of the year - everyone is waiting eagerly for the next guy to come in, about whom everyone is exceptionally hopeful about, irrespective of how great Dec 31st was. (Eventually they'll blame that guy for practically everything in their life that year, instead of realising that the days are different, but they remained the same).

December 31st is always overshadowed by the promise of the next wicket.

(Previous December 31st commiserations. Have a super 2012, but have an even better Dec 31, 2011!)

Dec 30, 2011

"Pune's Rosy Winters" - a re-post

The temperature across India has dipped as much as the Government's credibility, and Pune has slipped into trademark balmy-coolness. I wrote this article a couple of years ago for Jet Lite's in-flight magazine (no doubt, the first readers of this piece enjoyed considerably similar but totally artificial weather).

Thought I'd pull it out of the archives, to give you something to do when you're munching on kanda-bhajji and sipping a "speshal". Here it is.

Dec 26, 2011

Mood Indigo 2011 - India quiz questions

This December, like last time, I conducted an India quiz as part of the quizzing festival at Mood Indigo at IIT BombayThe questions (from the prelims and the two main rounds in the final) have been uploaded to Slideshare:

If you have a look at these questions and have any feedback, do let me know!

Dec 22, 2011

Paperback Raita

Paperback Raita

Dear Sir or Madam, will you tell my cook?
It took me days to ferment, will you take a look?
Based on a lactobacillus named Lear
And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback raita,
Paperback raita.

It's the saucy story of a dahi pan
And his non-fat wife doesn't understand.
His son is working for the Mishti Doi,
It's a steady job but he wants to be a paperback raita,
Paperback raita.

Paperback raita

It's a thousand boondis, give or take a few,
I'll be culturing more in a week or two.
I can make it minty if you like the style,
I can chill it round and I want to be a paperback raita,
Paperback raita.

If you really like it you can have it white,
It could make the menu for you overnight.
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break fast and I want to be a paperback raita,
Paperback raita.

With apologies to The Beatles, once again.

Previous Beatles apology is here ("All you need is Spam").

Dec 20, 2011

RMIM Puraskaar 2011 - Nominations open

Vinay Jain and friends run the annual RMIM Puraskaar, an effort to rate the best Hindi film soundtracks and songs each year. It is 2011's turn, and the process of nominating songs has begun. If you'd like to suggest a few songs, go to this link and put them in.

Links to previous Puraskaar awards can be seen at the bottom of this page. It's a fun exercise and the results are certainly more interesting than commercial awards.

The nomination page will be open till the end of this year.

Nov 28, 2011

Legend Before Wicket

If he was a character in the world of Asterix, Shane Warne's pseudonym could be "Climax" (no, not because of what you are thinking, even though this is Shane Warne we're talking about). I refer merely to his uncanny ability to, as they say, write his own scripts. Thanks to Gatting Ball, no one remembers the hiding he got at the hands of the Indians at home. He snatched World Cup glory in 1999, almost single-wristedly. Then came back from a dope scandal in Sri Lanka to take ten wickets, nose ahead of his great rival Murali to the 500 wicket mark, and eventually give Australia the series. Got a Test hat-trick. Made it to 600 wickets. Struck an appropriately purple patch leading a greenhorn side to the maiden IPL crown.

Hollywood, they called him for his blond locks and superstar attitude. Now, you could put it down to his irresistible sense of destiny. The Great Scorer above is in cahoots with the Great Scripter.

The other modern script-God was Brian Lara, what I call Lady Luck's own favourite love-child.

Meet Sachin Tendulkar, Mr. Anti-climax. No Hundred in his 100th Test. World Cup only in his 6th attempt. No Man of the Match in the final! No Chennai-Test-win.

I think what people demand of him and his guardian angels are the fairy-tales. He's done the long-suffering boy-on-the-burning-deck-act. But there's been a distinct lack of gold-dust, that ephemeral moment when destiny collides with opportunity, and bang! an aura that no amounts of botox or naughty-texts can mask.

That the gods would forget to sprinkle some love on the boy-genius seems strange, after the start he had in life: three consecutive first-class hundreds, that massive Shardashram partnership, and a bloody lip in his first Test.

Do you live like the Prince or as the King?

Nov 14, 2011

"Half Ticket" - my article on some children's films in India

I have always felt that making films, writing stories, or composing songs for children is harder than many other creative endeavours. Think children's films and the Disney boilerplate animations is what comes to most people's mind, until Pixar tore that notion apart. Unfortunately, the genre of children's films in India has been criminally under-served so far. But a few have stood out.

I wrote an article two years ago on Children's Films in India, and thoroughly enjoyed revisiting some of these films. Today's a good day to point you to that:

1. Previous blog post with a scanned copy of the article (has images): at this link.

2. Plain text version:

Nov 7, 2011

An archaeology of Pune Landmarks

Human culture evolves in many ways, and is often more apparent than other forms of evolution. Trends in language, for instance, or fashion. This is also true of the culture of a place, and cities like Pune exemplify this evolution.

The Punekar has always been famous for his complaint/lament that "Pune was not like this earlier". Some of it can be blamed on the "Rosy Retrospection" effect, but much of it emerges from drastic (and tangible) change experienced within even a generation. Obvious markers of such changes are evident in population growth, traffic patterns, and the rise in cosmopolitanism. A subtle indication of these can be seen in what are perceived to be landmarks of the city.

Someone asks you where Manney's bookstore is. A decade ago, you'd say: "near West End or Dorabjee's". Today, you might say "opposite SGS Mall". Or you are issuing directions to Aundh. You suggest the driver "take the flyover above University Circle" only to be met with a puzzled stare. "What Circle?". At a school quiz, when trying to mentally place the statue of Rani Laxmibai on J.M. Road (the answer to a question), the nearest landmark that came to a participant's mind was the nearby Pizza Hut, and not Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir or Sambhaji Park.

Only time will tell if the likes of SGS Mall, Pizza Hut, or Wadeshwar on FC Road, will some day evoke the kind of nostalgia as some of the old places. Many of these 'landmarks' are eateries or retail outlets, so it is inevitable that the march of time and economics consumes and produces new winners. What's boring is the sameness of many of these new landmarks: they tend to be malls or franchise outlets. A city needs some character in its landmarks, which often comes from being remarkable for what it can offer or for its quirks. Pune's old city landmarks still retain most of these traits, while the newer, often posh-er areas, are maddeningly homogenous.

For the discerning and the inquisitive, there is perhaps much to gain from an archaelogy of landmarks in a city: a lot is happening below the facade, even if it isn't 'happening' by modern standards. So the next time you give out directions to help your newly migrated colleague, perhaps you should slip in the odd reference to an odd place. Then direct that puzzled stare into a meaningful insight about the city.

Some older and newer landmarks

    University Road: Rahul Cinema vs E-Square
    Nehru Memorial/Dorabjees/West End vs SGS Mall
    University Circle vs the University Flyover
    Cafe Goodluck vs Wadeshwar

Oct 31, 2011

Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige"

Manorama, six thumbs up - the sequel

Update (31 Oct 2011): WOGMA, the film review site is running "The Reel-Life Bloggers contest" on occasion of the site's 5th anniversary. Since the prizes are tempting and it gets me to pseudo-update my long-forgotten blog, I'm entering some of my reviews there. WOGMA is organising this with Reviewgang. Go visit them, and if you are the reviewing type, send in an entry.

This is about the time I went to see the desi noir Manorama 6 Feet Under the evening India was playing Pakistan in the inaugural World Twenty20 Cup. That meant a near-empty hall, an eerie suspense drama, and listening to an old couple discussing the movie. Read on.

Ho yaa Huu!

Update (31 Oct 2011): My last entry in WOGMA & Reviewgang's, two review sites who are organizing "The Reel-Life Bloggers contest" on occasion of the WOGMA's 5th anniversary. This is my last entry (for suffering readers' sake). Hope these posts do no harm to their Page Rank.

Khosla ka Ghosla is definitely a classic; if I may say so, in the Golmal league. Which is we will recommend it to the next generation and brush aside any objections they may provide as piffling trifles. A middle-class portrait of great quality.

Oct 30, 2011

Freshly "Pre-owned" stocks

First it was "pre-owned cars". Now its "pre-owned video games" (seen at Landmark, Pune). Further proof that the world of marketing is often in bed with the dictionary of euphemisms (this last phrase was a metaphor, by the way).

Suddenly, no one wants to say it like it is: the car is second-hand, the game was sold to us by someone else, that is just something the previous diner threw up. "Pre-owned" simply sounds corny. Before it was owned, it was manufactured, assembled, retailed, distributed, displayed, packed, thrown-away-at-never-before-seen-rates-at-export-material-reject-sales.

But before it was owned, it was never owned.

Try saying: "Oh, this is my post-owned car. I've had it for three years now. I'm thinking of selling it to a new post-owner and become a proud owner of a pre-owned car".

Soon everything will achieve new pre-ownership. The raddi-wallah, previously mistaken for a mere recycler, is actually an enabler of pre-owned items, a mobile purveyor of modern antiques. If information from 'trusted sources' is first-hand then grapevine data is no longer rumour, but 'pre-owned' gossip.

Try saying: "Oh, these undies are not second-hand, they are merely pre-worn".

We have an old car at home - we are its 3rd owner. That makes it a pre-pre-owned vehicle. It also sounds like a spiritual guru.

I suppose there is no point in continuing these rants; after all this is the land that also gave "prepone" to the world. I will wait to recycle them another day. Maybe the day I see matrimonial ads for "second marriages" claiming:

"Dynamic, fair, 42 (looks 30) /5"8', IIT-IIM. Innocent, issueless pre-married."

Till then, this is just pre-post-erous.

Oct 28, 2011

Say no, Rita (a review of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara ...)

(...with brief cameos by DCH and Aranyer Din Ratri)

Zoya Akhtar's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, on the face of it, trades similarities with her younger brother's debut film Dil Chahta Hai. Both are about three friends finding insights about their life and their dreams. One of the many things that is common to both is the idea of a road-trip; while in DCH, it is just a pleasure trip, a great way to introduce a good song that lays out the attitudes of its characters, in ZNMD, it is the entire film (i.e. "the journey", lit. and fig.)

ZNMD is everything people initially accused of DCH of being. We took offence to DCH's nonchalant in-your-face affluence and its carefully coordinated blue-white hues. But as sense and time have prevailed over strangely moral indignation, we recognised in it something deeper: that life can often be complicated; it's not just the poor that have a monopoly on loss, sadness, and the obligations of relationships; and that poor little salad-eating rich slacker boys are human after all. (And it had *that* misdial scene.)

I doubt sense or time will be that kind to ZNMD.

ZNMD is like watching 3 hurdlers preparing to run a race, jostling for position, unsure of whether their legs would be up for the straddle. And then finding all the hurdles missing and the race reduced to a stroll through a lovely park.

ZNMD is a "for loop" of simple computations; where each character is allowed to iterate through his choice of lit. and fig. adventure, with a 100% guarantee of meaningful insight (or the storyteller will refund the money for the trip). In DCH, everyone loses something in their gain: Akash his pride and self-assurance, Sid his lady love, Sameer (presumably) his less complicated self. In contrast, here things unravel themselves in such technicolor hunky-dory-ness that you think that had they continued in Spain or gone to Greece for another week, the Eurozone debt crisis would have resolved itself with a shower of gold from the heavens.

Great plots demand conflict; they demand that its characters suffer. By all means, fling resolutions at them in the end, but put those hapless story puppets through the wringer. In ZNMD, even the potentially embarassing and revelatory meeting with a lost dad ends up being highly underwhelming. Hearts are purged of fear all too easily, love is discovered and conquered with ease, embarassments dissolve at the first sight of daylight. In short, the day is short and begging to be seized without a fight. So why should that interest me?

ZNMD is a visit to the nearest convenience store, where distress turns out to be the inability to find fresh Shiitake mushrooms, conveniently resolved (or your money back, remember) by finding it in the hands of a pretty girl in the neighbouring aisle, who decides she is willing to walk with you into the sunset (or out to the parking lot) forever.

And there's not even a queue at the payment counter. Cease the day.

Post Script: Earlier the same week, I saw Satyajit Ray's "Aranyer Din Ratri". Strange as it sounds, there are parallels to be drawn between these two films. In both, a set of friends decide to escape into less familiar, more natural environs. There they have experiences that change them fundamentally. Both sets find and lose love, and both are principally character-driven plots.

But see how, in the hands of a master, the characters are deeply revealed to us, how life is revealed to be complex but worth engaging with, where loss is balanced with insight. All this without, IMO, being any less entertaining.

All images from Wikipedia

Oct 25, 2011

The Tamil Diwali - a SiNi-matic experience

Many people ask me why is it that the Tamil Diwali (or Deepavali as it's more likely to be called in the land) starts at 4 am with an oil bath and ends at 6 am after some crackers. This is not the case and I will attempt to undefame this (possibly North Indian) defamy.


The simple and practical purpose behind getting your Diwali chores out of the way is so that we can indulge in the Sun TV Deepavali 'sirappu nigazhchigal' (i.e. 'special programmes', as you unentangle your Northie tongue after an ill-advised attempt to pronounzh that). In fact, some dispassionate but misguided anthropologists have even been led to believe that this communal partaking of the dawn-to-dusk Sun TV feast is the true essence of the Tamil Diwali. (Some rascally fellow has also submitted a thesis saying Naragasuraa, was misheard on his deathbed: he wanted us to do 'videos', not 'vedis'. This is just more defamy.)

In reality, this is how things unfold. A week before Diwali, Sun TV will begin announcing its line-up of this year's SiNis (Ed.: carpal-friendly abbr.; its similarity to "Cine" is purely coincidental).To make sure each and every viewer of Sun TV is able to by-heart the schedule, the kind souls in charge of programming will show this lineup every 15 minutes. This often means that the 9 pm nightly soap will start the next day at 6 am, instead of 10 pm the same day.

One of Sun TV's core beliefs is eternal consistency ( which is why they only recently began accepting the helio-centric theory of the solar system), so each year, the SiNi line-up is the same:

  1. Nadaswaram (a.k.a. Nagaswaram) performance
  2. Devotional Carnatic song (preferably by siblings)
  3. Spiritual guidance (depending on judicial status of seer's police cases)
At this point, Sun TV will lean heavily on our rich (5000+n)1 year-old cultural heritage i.e. 21st century Kollywood. The schedule becomes:
  1. Interview with Tamil Music Director
  2. Interview with reigning Tamil comedy superstar (i.e. Vadivelu)
  3. Interview with the super-talented cast of a about-to-be-super-hit Tamil film releasing today

At this point, we will have one hour of the 'paTTi manDram'.

The 'paTTi maNDram' is literally 'the debate forum' in which several Tamil professors will humourously discuss serious topics such as:

  • Who watches more 9 pm nightly soaps: daughter-in-laws or mother-in-laws?
  • Is the use of soap by daughter-in-laws antithetical to our (5000+n) year-old heritage?
  • Mother-in-laws are more likely to break-up the home after watching the 9 pm soap: True or False? Comment with references to 9 pm soaps (one 8 pm soap rebuttal allowed)
  • What is the correct spelling: mother-in-laws or mothers-in-law?
One hour of lively debate by the professors with humorous interruptions by the Chair (a gentleman called Solomon Pappaiah) ends with victory for the mother-in-law or the daughter-in-law (ever since records were kept, the scoreline has been 37-32 in favour of the m-i-ls). Just how wildly popular these debates are can be judged by shots of wild laughter from the audience in the debate hall (even after an ad break) and that the speakers and the Chair often get to have wild cameos in Rajnikanth films. (See example paTTi maNDram video

After such cerebral sparring, the rest of SiNis are:

  • Afternoon Film (from two years ago, which was aired last year)
  • Interview with star (not superstar, mind you)
  • Recitation by superstar poet (i.e. Vairamuthu)
  • Interview with reigning heroine (who speaks one of Punjabi, Tulu, Gujarati, Marwadi, Czech, or Dogri)
  • Evening Superhit Film (that flopped last year)
  • Interview with editor/sound recordist/art director (the South takes its technicians very seriously)

    An important note about the film is that it is never just a film, but a <dramatic>"Film that is being telecast on TV for the first time in this universe or any of its parallel universes"</dramatic>

    And there are two in a day. It really must be Diwali.

    The great thing about Sun TV is, as we have already remarked, its remarkable and secular consistency. To ensure people aren't put off balance, it follows this same template for Pongal, for Vinayagar Chathurthi, for Christmas, and other festive days. For Tamil New Year day, it gets even special: by interviewing A.R.Rahman, Vijay, or Dhanush. Or if we are very, very lucky, Vadivelu twice.

    And people say the Tamil Diwali ends at 6 am.

    1. (the linguistic constant 'n' is introduced to ensure that Tamil remains older than Sanskrit or Proto-Aryan or Trans-Elvish).
  • Oct 13, 2011

    "A cricketing theory of Indian quiz groups"

    In which I make unwarranted comparisons between two domains of personal interest. At the BCQC blog.

    Might as well use the blank space on this blog to tell you that we at the BCQC quiz regularly at COEP (for whose Boat Club it is named). There are informal quizzes almost every weekend (such as this Saturday, at 1:30 pm) and formal quizzes once a month, to which there are no fees or major restrictions. We're on Twitter, on Facebook, on a blog, and are getting our site up back again from its Van Winkle slumber.

    It's a good place to learn new things, revive old memories, watch some silly people talk, and have a weirdly interesting time without illegal stimulants (at least during the quiz; what happens afterwards is not official).

    Oct 2, 2011

    The 1Z Quiz

    As some of you may know, I've been running a daily quiz blog called "Infinite Zounds". It's been exactly a year since the blog began, and so, to mark this milestone, I'm also running a trivia contest for about a week.

    If this sort of thing interests you, head here to know more.

    Sep 23, 2011

    Prelims questions from the Brand Equity Quiz 2011 Pune round

    Unlike last year, I was a professional spectator this time at the Pune round of this year's BEQ (results here). Questions (answers in a comment; Prabhakar has the finals ):
    1. who owns a farmhouse in khadakwasla, sai service petrol pump
    2. deutsche welle gives the BOBs awards. Best of?
    3. longest reigning monarch, also has a large fortune
    4. batata wada, what does batata mean in eng
    5. which former employee of ad dept of GE worked with Al Ries for over 26 years
    6. victorian author worked at warren blacking factory for 6 shillings a week -
    7. bcos they were constantly touched by hands and feet of ppl, which mughal ruler did away with the quranic kalima from coins
    8. which tight-fitting trousers and short riding boots shares its name with an indian city
    9. which prog topped last week's TRPs on Indian TV
    10. how many vincent van gogh sell in his lifetime
    11. mark zuckerberg is on google+ (y/n)?
    12. which org did gandhi praise as medium of unparallele
    d immediacy, intimacy, and power
    13. tax on which edible item did naoroji refer to as: most cruel revenue imposed in any civilised country
    14. on a qwerty keyboard, the keys for typing which of these currencies (euro/yen/dollar) appear on the same row
    15. in 2010 who earned the most among female tennis players (out of sharapova, li na, serena)
    16. which refrigerator brand named after the person who developed the concept of absolute zero
    17. which fruit is the 4th most valuable food after rice, wheat, milk? (choices: apple, banana, mango)
    18. who painted his 1st cinema hoarding for v shantaram's prabhat studio
    19. in which 2011 film does the air hostess Sonia agree to deliver a package for Vladimir Dragunsky
    20. liverpool has an airport named after which Beatle
    21. (v) identify the advertiser: 'passion to perform' tagline
    22. (v) id the person
    23. (v) logo for what ipl team
    24. (a) which entertainment co's brand identity
    25. (a) id the voice
    26. the word ___ originates from goldsmith's hall in london where articles were tested and stamped with such a mark
    27. on whose death on nov 29, 1993, was parliament adjourned for a day in India
    28. 1874, a british bakery created which biscuit to celebrate marriage of Maria Alexandrovna to Duke of Edinburgh
    29. which e-commerce co's logotype is an arrow leading from A to Z representing customer satisfaction
    30. which painkiller also marketed as Panadol in other countries, is the leading paracetamol brand in India
    Highest score by a team was 29, cut-off must have been 26 (after tiebreaks) or above.

    Last year's prelims

    Want more daily quizzing? Try Infinite Zounds, my daily quiz blog on events in the news

    Sep 17, 2011

    Yeh hai dungistan ka wow

    The only thing keeping pace with inflation is the sales in pet dogs. Each morning (and doubly so on weekends), the streets are filled with pooches attending to nature's urgent calls, while their masters (or more commonly their slaves) remain on call waiting. Observe these masters and you will realise that to them, the pet dog is a true member of the family. As the humorist Pu La wrote, they talk to them in intimate tones and adamantly claim the pets can understand them.

    But I have never seen pet owners lead their kids or any other equally prized members of their family out to relieve them in the middle of the roads. The morning constitutional belongs not just to them, but to us as well, but we are forced to slalom past remains of their privileged motions. The yellow road is not one that leads to Oz, but to public nuisance.

    Of course, one can claim that pets are merely following citizens in a country long used to treating outdoors as the natural repository of the insides. When can we expect that owners don't take our streets for granted and teach both pets and children the value of the commons? Perhaps it is time to raise an equal and opposing stink of some kind.

    The last word belongs to that great philosopher of our age, Jerry Seinfeld, a citizen of a city where they make you clean up after your pet:

    On my block, a lot of people walk their dogs, and I always see them walking along with their little poop bags, which to me is just the lowest function of human life. If aliens are watching this through telescopes, they're gonna think the dogs are the leaders. If you see two life forms, one of them's making a poop, the other one's carrying it for him, who would you assume was in charge?

    Sep 16, 2011

    Faaaast and slw

    From The Economist's column on language, an interesting pointer to a study paper in the "Language" Journal on why certain languages sound faster than others. Japanese is one of the fastest, and curiously Mandarin is on the slower side.

    It's got to do with syllables, number of available sounds, and information density. Fascinating stuff. See The Economist for a summary and this TIME article for the details..

    Sep 15, 2011

    Be there, be square

    Each Saturday, when I receive my copy of the Indian Express, I turn, not to the sports pages or the Page 3 party news (this being the IE, there is none of course), but to read Mihir Sharma rip into the Indian TV news media. I derive a nasty form of pleasure from it, and I'm sure I'm not alone in it. In recent times, spurred by what we saw, heard, and winced during and after L'events D'Anna, his tone has become as militant and mocking as that of some Kejriwal-Bedi offspring. And this is one campaign I wholly support.

    Take for instance Sharma's take on the ever increasing panel sizes of 'experts' on Times Now. There were days when the 9'O Clock show looked more like a set from Hollywood Squares: there were many boxes on screen and each box had someone answering questions, sometimes simultaneously. But unlike that TV show, the responses were not funny and the viewers never got any answers at the end.

    Indeed, I call upon Mihir Sharma to go on an undeclared, unwarranted, infinite fast against such news programmes. For that is what the Nation Demands.

    Incidentally, I have been on a zero-TV diet for the last 2 weeks. And realised it's very easy to achieve an immediate improvement in one's life.

    Aug 18, 2011

    "One Serving Moon" - a story

    A little story that I wrote last year. Thanks to Harish, George, Vinay, Aditya, and others for suggestions and criticisms.
    No sooner had the car left to take its owner to his early morning tennis session that a buggy rolled to a halt outside the house. The driver, a pale and sweaty man, peered outside. He was blessed with a natural talent in looking like the kind of person you did not want appearing outside your house, especially early in the morning. This was fortunate for Kato, for it contributed to his successful career as legal summons executive (recently promoted and now on overseas assignment).
    Kato was not a morning person himself, but he had a long list of people to confront that day. This town of plagiarists, copyright-violators, and inspiration-thugs slept late into the day and was most likely to be at home at dawn. It was also a good idea to let the young intern with him know that in this job, comforts such as a leisurely start to the day did not exist. But there were compensations: for instance, the satisfaction of personally delivering bad news to the doorsteps of reprobates.
    "This seems to be the house of 'Singh, S', said Kato, looking around. "You got the papers, kid?"
    Aftab, the intern, nodded. He pulled out some papers from a cream envelope, and appeared to be checking that he had everything. But he continued to fiddle with them, unwilling to step out.
    Kato had seen this before. One of the perils of seniority was being saddled with namby-pambies, of having to "show them the ropes". Such phrases always made Kato feel like a master executioner. He found himself drifting into a daydream involving a pair of gallows and some unknotted nooses, but snapped himself out of it. It was the heat, he reminded himself. He longed for some tranquility instead of this noisy, sun-lit city.
    "See, kid, it's just as they tell you in training. You walk up, you knock, you ask for the guy - in this case, Mr. Singh. You serve him the papers. If he has any questions, you tell him the answers are in them. If they press on, you point to the toll-free helpline number. If they begin to sob, you simply walk back, without leaving yourself vulnerable to an attack from the rear."
    Yeah, the agency had got it down to a business process.
    "I've heard other agents have had things thrown at them. Just last week..."
    Kato cut in. "That happens, yes. But these war stories are often exaggerated. Get going kid, we got lots of other places to go to."
    He watched Aftab reluctantly pull himself out of the buggy, and drag himself down the walkway past the gate, and to the front door. Kato looked at the print-out in his hand, trying to figure out the route to the next villain in fake-town.
    Even before he could finish, he heard footsteps and looked up to see a relieved Aftab.
    "Done already? Good start, mister."
    "No, no", said Aftab, trying to catch his breath. He's fled back, thought Kato. There were no signs of blood, so perhaps whatever was thrown at him had missed its target.
    "I couldn't deliver the notice - he wasn't there. Mr. Singh, I mean. Oh, he's not Mr. Singh. Gulzar sir has gone to play tennis. I mean he must be Mr. Singh, but he's not there."
    The scaffolds, the blindfolds, the last meals...the images came flooding back into Kato's head. The guillotines and electric chairs patiently awaited their turn.
    "Rubbish! What are you talking? - sober up, fella. Explain yourself."
    Aftab was a roly-poly law school graduate whose fifteen-plus years of formal education had rendered him unskilled in presenting a cogent explanation of anything outside the syllabus. Yet he tried.
    "Sir, what I am trying to say is like this. Gulzar sir lives in this house. I saw a photo of him inside. In the living room, behind the person who answered the door. That person who told me 'sir is not there, he has gone for tennis'."

    The rest of the story continues (on page 3) below:
    Can't access the document above? Download a pdf from here.

    Aug 8, 2011

    Mood Indigo India Quiz questions

    Last December, I conducted an India quiz as part of the quizzing festival at Mood Indigo (IIT Bombay's annual college fest, for those not in the know). The questions (from the prelims and the two main rounds in the final) have been uploaded to Slideshare:

    I also have another quiz of mine (called "Balls, Ballots, Bollywood") in the same account. It can be accessed here.

    If you have a look at these questions and have any comments, do let me know!

    Jul 10, 2011

    A review of "Biz World" - a book for business quizzers

    Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book gratis with a request from one of the authors to review this book.

    Nothing divides the Indian quizzing community as much as the wedge of "Business Quizzing". This genre emerged in the last decade to become the most lucrative of quizzing sub-cultures and perhaps its most controversial. People who can't stand it claim that most business quizzes (and in particular the ones with the highest profiles) are boring and mundane, encourage cramming, have very fixed templates, and very little to offer in terms of intellectual entertainment. Clearly, that has not dented the allure of the biz quizzing scene, which continues to flourish, and each year a new batch of participants, especially from B-schools, try their luck at challenging some of the well-knowns in the field.

    So it helps to know what your quizzing sensibilities are before considering "Biz World". The book is very clear on who most of its likely readers are: candidates preparing for B-school entrance tests and those taking part in business quizzes. As a result, the book centres around providing the usual suspects: prominent facts about well-known firms, etymologies of names and terms, and a miscellany of other trivia that is likely to show up in your average biz quiz. There is a short section with more traditional Q&As at the end. Think of a Malayala Manorama yearbook for common business trivia and this book is it.

    If you're the kind that looks down upon such collections of data, you might not want to pick this book up. However, if you're a pragmatic preparer for such events (especially a newbie), this book might work for you. It may not be comprehensive in coverage (I couldn't see a geographical spread beyond India, the US, Japan and Western Europe) and it certainly could have benefited by breaking the monotony of lists that dominates the first half of the book for more engaging content. The authors do provide a fair number of tips (no doubt gained from their experiences as participants and tutors) on dealing with both business quizzes and entrance exams. The quizzing romantic will point to this as being evidence of the commodification of what should be a pursuit of pure knowledge, but it is debatable if such a utopian state of affairs ever existed.

    I'm not a biz quizzing enthusiast myself but I can see the utility of this book to a certain segment of Indian quizzers. If you're one of them, it's very likely that this is a book you'd want to try out.

    Jun 16, 2011

    Why sum ppl rite lyk this

    Are more people engaged in writing today than they did a decade ago? Definitely more than they did two decades ago, right? Let's see now.

    Earlier (i.e. when I was a teenager), the most common or important reasons to write were:

    • Academic: Exams, notes, reports
    • Official: applications, memos, forms, files etc.
    • Personal letters, letters to newspapers
    • Creative and professional writing (fiction and non-fiction)
    But in recent times, with digital devices and sites, we add:
    • SMS texts
    • Social media posts and comments (blogs, tweets, comments etc.)
    • Online forums
    I can't think of anything significant in the original list that has died out; some have just been replaced by a digital alternative, and the likes of "letters to editors" were always a fringe activity. Also, note that the new additions are mostly of the casual writing variety.

    If my thesis is right, then it may explain why so many people publicly use "modern" spellings (i.e. sms-ese) even on channels that don't call for it. So you have people going "u hv ppl gng" even on Facebook when you might expect only a tweet or an sms to undergo that treatment. Two factors seem to be at play here:

    1. A common observation in computational linguistics is Zipf's Law which says that if you order words by their frequency (in any reasonably sized collection of documents), and plot a graph of its rank against its frequencey, you'll see a graph like the one on the right (taken from here). The first few words (the top seeds) have the most frequencies, and this rapidly dies out to give a long tailed distribution.

    It is empirically observed that the rank of a word in this ordering will be inversely proportional to its frequency and this proportion is constant (allowing some leeway here).

    Many words in language (let's exclude "function words" like "the", "of" etc.) are "homonyms" i.e. they are used to represent more than one concept (e.g. "fan", which could be an instrument providing artificial breeze, or a supporter). There are words like "set" and "run" whose different meanings are estimated to run into the hundreds.

    The explanation for Zipf's law is (I don't know if this has been scientifically proven) that since speakers want to conserve energy, they want to use smaller words and want to reuse words (listeners would prefer the opposite: they'd want to hear unambiguous words).

    The point of discussing this is that people are inherently energy conscious (read lazy) and would want to reduce the amount of work that they have to put in to create something. So writers would prefer smaller codes (i.e. shorter spellings) and let the reader figure out what they meant to say 1. You may have encountered the meme about how you could leave out (usually vowels) or jumble a lot of characters in a word or sentence and people would still figure out what you meant (works for "rspnsblty"; also see this post). So in many cases, a energy-conservant writer would be able to use this to his advntg (notice that I can't leave out "a" in that word).

    With time, trial and error, and some form of community editing would leave us with a new set of acceptable lexemes (i.e. word forms) which seem to also have the desirable property of annoying older sections of literate society.

    I believe spellings are arbitrary conventions, and there's nothing particularly sacrosanct about one specific code set. But that doesn't mean that "as u lyk it" wouldn't irritate the hell out of me, just as I'm sure Geoffrey Chaucer would find it hard to navigate the English spellings I take to be correct.

    2. So far, I've conjectured that casual, off-hand writing has increased and that writers inherently prefer to expend as little energy in accomplishing their task as possible. There is one more factor at play: the permissiveness of the readers.

    We are taught (correct) writing at school and we were expected to keep that up when we wrote for official or public purposes. We would get a clip in the ear for writing "Delhi wz da capital of India" (indeed, it would not even occur to us to write that way), and people would snigger if office memos or personal letters went that way. They probably still would. However, the modern increase in casual writing, where correspondents want to primarily exchange information without regards to form, it is incredibly easy to write shorthand and get away with it. Older fogeys may insist that anything you write to them be less insulting, but most people who cared about their spellings would just gnash their teeth in private and think of you as a whippersnapper of no merit.

    This lack of censorship freely allows these forms of spelling to spread in the community unhindered. Soon, this spills over to other, more formal mediums as well.

    In fact, I'm convinced that lexicographically, we are in the middle of a great and visible shift (I don't know if it qualifies to be a "Great Shift"). Usually, such changes happen over a large period of time, and aren't readily apparent. In this case, it is exploding under our noses.

    What is worrying though is that in addition to a (somewhat) logical compression of a word ("you" -> "u", "people" -> "ppl"), young writers indiscriminately drop characters. I see "awsome". I see "wats need of raincoat,enjoy d rain". And I see "rememeber u ask me to to bring the...". There isn't enough 'sic'-ness in the world to cover this ailment. Is there an excuse for lack of attention to your writing?2

    We as readers now encounter more text than we did before, which means some of us spend a lot more energy in comprehension than we used to. Do we now appreciate good writing more than ever? Should we be grateful that perhaps a Zipfian Law of appreciation has now kicked in?

    1. I realise this argument fails if you ask why do writers ramble on, instead of choosing to write smaller texts? I'd argue that here ((just like in not paying attention to your spellings), the energy saved is in not having to edit. It takes effort to be succinct and so the rambling approach suits a "stream of consciousness" approach. Result: the reader is left to navigate endless verbal meanderings. I'll take the hint and stop here.

    2. A related post from the past: What's your excuse for writing badly?

    Jun 15, 2011

    String theory

    IBN Live quotes Extreme Tech, a technology website, as saying:
    The innovative doodle that Google put up for the country and jazz guitarist, songwriter and inventor Les Paul resulted in $268 million in lost productivity.
    The calculations are basically a house of cards made of slabs of back-of-the-envelope calculations built on a foundation of assumptions. Still, even if I ignore the number or method, the exercise annoys me. Consider the positives:
    • Several million+ people, who may not have heard of the pioneer Les Paul, now know who he was.
    • Instead of muddling 5 minutes on Facebook or Powerpoint or thinking about what they'd do after work, they spent time with a new toy, and some of their neurons (especially on the right hand side of the brain) welcomed the change.
    • They marveled at the current state of web technology and some of them resolved that day to learn to build such cool things.
    • By listening to what others had done with the audio-doodle, they figured out that great music can be made even from humble instruments. Some dusted off their old guitars and others made appointments with musically-inclined friends and teachers.
    I wouldn't know how to calculate it, but I guess that whatever the loss to numerical productivity and annoyance to neighbours, the contribution to human knowledge and creativity was firmly in the black.

    And if you want to pluck a few strings again, here you go.

    Jun 14, 2011

    "The Myths of Innovation" by Scott Berkun (O'Reilly Media)

    Scott Berkun is an author and blogger, a former Microsoft man. I began reading his blog a couple of years ago, and have found most of his posts interesting and even provocative. In fact, he makes a point of being strident in his views about management, public speaking, and thinking.

    "Myths of Innovation" is his second book (the first was about project management, and the third is about public speaking). Ordinarily, I'm wary of anything with the I-word in the title because most people use "innovation" to indicate a vague sense of novelty and as synonyms for invention or creativity. They've either never thought what they mean by it or use it just like they use most other verbose polysyllabic words. However, Berkun has often suggested that perhaps it would be good (for our collective mental health no doubt) if people could stop using the word "innovation", I was reasonably sure of being spared the fertiliser.

    I'm not saying that the expressed need for (more) innovation is hollow or just a fad. Most industries and societies at some point in their lifecycles need to change (indeed, are compelled to), in order to survive, flourish, grow, or just to avoid dying of boredom. Doing new and useful things is immensely challenging and interesting, and some people are going to be very inclined to try their hand at it. If they are also of the reading type, then "The Myths of Innovation" will be a useful book for them.

    These myths are obviously not in the mould of hand-me-down stories. They are better understood as being assumptions, unspoken ideas that take insidious home in minds. Take, for instance, the idea that some of history's greatest inventors were hermits, working in wooden cottages bouncing ideas off the house cat. Okay, not so much that, but the notion of the solitary innovator, having to single-handedly fight off the status quo, has always been great material for long-lived stories and trivia questions. Any reading of history easily debunks many of these stories. Edison, the archetypal inventor, had an army of researchers and technologists. Steve Jobs, innovator extraordinaire, needed to find his Woz, his Ive, and many more. Yes, they had to fight the proverbial systems, but they had cohorts. The revision history of any innovation, to use a software engineering term, will show the grubby fingerprints of many, with several increments and roll-backs. One thing will be certain: the more the longevity of the innovation, the more it would have evolved and the more the people involved.

    Berkun tackles this and other such myths, including some counter-intuitive ones such as "Innovation is always good". Anyone forced to listen to an annoying ring-tone in a public space would know that isn't quite true. The book is engaging (and well-referenced) with a variety of anecdotes and discussions, and there are no homilies.

    Towards the end, moving away from the negative tone, the book turns into a checklist of various suggestions, "hacks" of interest to the creative innovator. Perhaps Berkun didn't want to limit the book to a list of things you shouldn't assume or avoid doing. It's by no means comprehensive, but useful nevertheless. He also encloses an excellent bibliography. Sure, you can spend time reading them all, but to me, the message of the book is that if you think you want to innovate, what you should do is: just go ahead.

    I reviewed this book as part of O'Reilly's Blogger Review Program. This is the first time I've done so, and it was mostly motivated by being able to read this particular book for free. Sorry Scott :-)

    I review for the O'Reilly Blogger Review Program

    Jun 6, 2011

    Alain de Botton and "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work"

    That I am a little reluctant to describe Alain de Botton as a modern philosopher probably reflects more on my self-image and the image I want to portray to the world. In this post, I will be describing a book of his that I quite enjoyed and since, in the minds of my friends, modern-age philosophy is often bolted to the shelf of professionally vague self-help bestsellers, I worry about what they may think.

    But Alain de Botton himself (or rather his website) comes to the rescue, describing him as "a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a 'philosophy of everyday life.'". That's a reasonable description. de Botton is not a prescriptive writer, but one who seems to possess both the leisure as well as a unintrusive acumen to write about us humans and the worlds we inhabit. Without telling us what to do next.

    I heard of de Botton via Dhammo (thus giving me a chance to pay the favour back). I first read "The Architecture of Happiness", a quaint book about different spaces of the constructed variety, lowly office buildings and grand cathedrals alike. But this post is about "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work".

    Perhaps I am taking the easy way out, but I don't have as much to say as much as I have to quote from the book. We spend a significant portion of our adult lives at "work", says de Botton, but we don't discuss it very much. This is perhaps not so true any more - blogs and tweets are devoted to dissecting our work-lives in detail or making throwaway comments during the day; but it is true that we do not compare our experience across professions: art curators do not break commiserative bread with brain surgeons, cricket umpires do not swap notes with database administrators.

    Apart from being a lurking presence during the day and a quiescent ghost in the hours between work, what is so special about work? Our ancestors (including our parents) probably never made so much of it, the way we charge so much of our potential happiness to it.

    "...the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy."
    In the book, de Botton follows people to work, talks to a wide variety of people going about their daily business, observes, and makes conjectures, even about himself. It is fascinating, an unexpected kind of voyeurism, watching rocket scientists prepare for a routine launch, shaking your head at a power engineer whose weekend hobby is to trace the paths of power lines, ride up and down elevators with business consultants. Satisfyingly (and sadistically), their lives are as interesting (or boring) as ours.

    Perhaps the most interesting and poignant encounter is with a career counselor. He deals with mid-career clients who can no longer keep up the facade of knowing what they want to do and students about to plunge into the depths that plague all of us, while dealing with his own professional anxieties. Like a dentist with a vague sense of dread about the pain in his molars.

    de Botton notices that the counselor has a notice pinned to a door containing:

    "a quote from Motivation and Personality, by the psychologist Abraham Maslow [...]: 'It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.'"
    He observes the counselor helping a woman deal with the attempt to discover what she really "wants to do" (familiar question at any age?), by attempting cathartic writing sessions not just about what these people like, but also what they envy. What else can you do in that short span of time, in the rapidly falling sunlight of life?

    A de B takes an aptitude test; when its results come back:

    "I recognized my desire to submit to the report’s conclusions in the hope of quelling my doubts about my future. At the same time, the report failed to inspire any real degree of confidence and indeed, the more I dwelt on it, the more it seemed to signal some of the limits of career counseling as a while.

    It struck me a strange and regrettable that in our society something as prospectively life-altering as the determination of a person’s vocation had for the most part been abandoned to marginalized therapists practicing their trade from garden extensions. What should have been one of the most admired professions on earth was struggling to attain the status open to a travel agent.


    But perhaps this neglect was only an appropriate reflection of how little therapists can in the end make sense of human nature."

    He ends the book by noting that “If we could witness the eventual fate of every one of our projects, we would have no choice but to succumb to immediate paralysis." However,
    "Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble."

    May 18, 2011

    A Christopher Nolan movie quiz

    I had set these questions as part of a theme round at Abhimanyu 2011 (COEP's internal quiz).
    1. Tarantella and Larceny of two of Nolan's earliest short films. Which short featured Jeremy Theobald, who would appear in Nolan's first feature film?
    2. What is the name of the burglar played by Alex Haw in Following, which is shared by a leading character in another Nolan movie?
    3. The Pledge, the ____, the Prestige - What's in the middle?
    4. Who plays the role of Nikola Tesla in The Prestige?
    5. In which American state do the events of the film Insomnia take place?
    6. This character in Greek mythology was the daughter of King Minos, and helps Theseus in defeating the Minotaur and finding out his way from the Labyrinth. Also the name of a character in a Nolan movie. What?
    7. What geeky book did Hans Zimmer read as part of his preparation for creating the score for Inception, because he wanted to study "the idea of playfulness in mathematics and playfulness in music".
    8. In Batman Begins, what is the name of the Batmobile used (based on a military prototype by Lucius Fox)?
    9. Costumes of which comic characters do the bank robbers use at the beginning of The Dark Knight as part of their disguise?
    10. The official website of Memento had only one word in its url. What word?
    11. What Academy Award distinction links the Sidney Lumet film Network and The Dark Knight (and only these two films)?
    12. Of his seven releases, Nolan has worked with composer Hans Zimmer in 3 films. Who is the other music collaborator who made music for Following, Memento, Insomnia, and the Prestige?
    13. Retrograde amnesia is when a person forgets all memories before the loss event occurs. (i.e. the garden variety amnesia seen in Hindi films). What is the name of the other type of amnesia that Leonard Shelby in Memento suffers from?
    14. Which former Batman is one of the producers of Insomnia?
    15. Who will be playing the role of Catwoman in the next Batman movie?
    Answers have been posted in the comments.

    May 10, 2011

    Where Trolls come from

    (not to mention their stand-bys)

    If you've ever been beset by trolls, and wondered where they came from and conjectured it would have to be some kind of dark, stinky place, well, you might be right.

    May 9, 2011

    "Mother's Day" - a story

    I believe it was Mother's Day yesterday? Here's a story I wrote a couple of years ago.
    ~~Mother's Day~~
    She woke up as if stung by a red ant. That abrupt start to the day was not at all unusual for her. Each day, it was always accompanied by a vague sense of dread: of overnight tasks forgotten, of three meals to cook, of the hypochondriac maid-servant, of the pressure cooker blowing up just as the schoolbus honked for the last time, just to spite her.

    But not today. It was Mother's Day. She had forgotten to inform the poor alarm clock, who was the only one apart from her to uncomplainingly perform its unpleasant duties. She drooped back in a way she had not known in a decade. In fact she lowered herself as slowly as she could, savouring this rare chance. She sighed, turned to her side, and went back to sleep. It was only 5:45 A.M.

    When she woke at 7, she opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling. Her eyes, usually burdened under sleep and fatigue, had never been this wide open in a long time. She shrugged her sheets off and sat up. There was a mirror right opposite her. Usually, she would be terrified to look at her reflection, scared of what it would reveal about her. But today she had acquired the strength to stare back. Guided by the mirror, she fingered her black circles and smoothed her hair back. She was several dollars short of looking like a million bucks but today she felt great. On her way up.

    She sat there for some more time. It stayed quiet. On the table beside the bed was her sole perfume bottle and three of her husband's deodorants. He always smelt artificial. She realised today that she didn't know any of his real smells. Strange. She knew the deos were empty, so she reached out for the perfume bottle and sprayed a little on her fingers. As she raised them to her nose, the phone in the living room began to ring. Her heart leapt but his voice asking her to pick that bloody thing did not come. Instead, the ringing stopped. Once again, she marvelled at the magic of Mother's Day.

    What will I do today? she wondered. Of course, there was all that cleaning to do. But that could wait. What about a meal? Perhaps scrambled eggs? He never liked eggs, and the brats always demanded chocolate frosted cereals. But today she could have her own way.

    She sat on the dinner table, swinging her legs as she bit into an apple. What will I do next? Should I take a vacation? Last night, her husband had told her exactly that - why don't you go somewhere? He had suggested her father's house. But that was so stereotypical. She tried to think of all those friends from college who now lived in places worth visiting. She wondered if Pushpa still lived in Dehradun. The hills might be a good place to lie low and have some time just to oneself. But it had been about seven years since she last corresponded with Pushpa, so this might be an imposition. Going home alone was fraught with the usual inconveniences: did you have a fight? are the boys better behaved these days? should you have come without the children? who is feeding them?

    She found herself withdrawing into familiar whirlpools, so she leapt gently to the floor and vigorously shrugged her head. She needed to get cheerful, otherwise how would today be any different from yesterday? She decided to tackle the cutlery left by the sink. Washing the knives made her feel better. She inspected the edge of the big knife carefully - it definitely needed sharpening. Perhaps it was time to indulge in a new set - one of these which came with a resting block with slots that you could insert each knive into. She had seen photos of that in a mail order catalogue. The angle of the knives in the slots had reminded her of that famous photo of the Marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima. When she had made that droll observation to her husband, he said he didn't know what she was talking about.

    The doorbell rang. She hesitated, partly hoping the ringing would be stopped, just like the telephone. But it did not. She grabbed an apron and wiped her hands on it. She walked to the front door, drawing the curtains that shielded the rest of the house. The 'eye-hole' showed her nearest neighbour holding a newspaper.

    "Hello, aunty."

    "Hello beta. You were busy?"

    "No, just housework."

    "I wanted to check if your paper had come today. That fellow seems to have forgotten to put it again. But looks like he has put yours. It looks like even you have forgotten to pick it up today."

    The neighbour thrust the daily out, chuckling.

    "Oh, um, I don't think I heard the bell. Would you like to take the paper?"

    "No, no, won't Ravi want the paper? Or is he not there?"

    "Uh, he is..., he and the children are planning to go somewhere in the morning. So I don't think he will have the time now. I'll send one of the boys to collect it in the afternoon."

    "That is so nice of you." The neighbour looked intently at her. "Beta, have you cut your finger?"

    They both looked at her left index finger which was wrapped in a brown stained cloth.

    She smiled: "Oh nothing, just was peeling potatoes yesterday."

    "Oh, poor girl. What you do is - to get rid of the stains on your dress I mean - you take some lemon - oh, there is your uncle calling - I think Mohan's call has come. These children go to America and they start celebrating all this Father-Mother day there and then think of their parents - and when they were here, they wouldn't bother about poor mummy at all. Ok beta, just send someone to pick up the paper later."

    She shut the door and looked down at her dress. She'd have to get down to all that cleaning at some point. Might as well have a look and decide where to begin.

    She drew the curtains open and walked into the big bedroom. It was a mess: clothes strewn around and her suitcase open, where her husband had tried to shout her into going away the next day. Also, there were ice-cream smears all over her favourite wall-hangings that her younger sister had made for her - the brats had fought over who would get the last scoop from the pack. But most of the stains were that of clotted blood, from the large knife wound in her husband's stomach and some from the slit necks of her two boys, who had blabbered in the last moments, the ice-cream melting away, adding to the mess.

    Thankfully, the fragrance of musk from the deodorants was still in the air. Which now no longer belonged to her husband. She decided she liked the smell of Mother's Day.

    Apr 12, 2011

    Babies, Babas, Bappis, and Bas Karo

    Outgoing Kerala CM V.S.Achutanandan called Rahul Gandhi an "Amul Baby" a few days ago, in a desperate attempt to remind us that much of the country is in the midst of assembly elections. Predictably, the Congress and its minions have seen red (ha!) , and dismissed this as being uncivilised and disrespectful.

    I don't think there's anything wrong in being called an "Amul Baby". Assuming the usually bombastic VS was referring to the chubby "Amul Girl" and kids who've been reared on butter, Rahul Gandhi (who has previously been described as heading the "babalog") is being compared to an iconic figure says more clever things in a week than many of our politicians manage in years.

    Of course, Kerala has lots of Babys of its own - none more prominent than the current Kerala Minister of Education M.A.Baby.

    Apparently, Bappi Lahiri is some sort of an official cheerleader for the Pune Warriors IPL team. That team has the least amount of golden colour on its uniforms, so perhaps Bappi-da has been roped (though no lasso is big enough to...) into lending his auric presence to the proceedings.

    Speaking of the Sonar Fella, here's an extract from a recent book about the making and impact of "Disco Dancer". Writer Anuvab Pal goes to Bappi Lahiri's house, where:

    Now, during the walk, on either side of me, what I saw could be best described as gnomes. [...] It was a garden gnome, a little sculpture in ceramic.

    But not of a random old white man but of Bappi Lahiri himself, wearing tuxedoes of different colours, almost as if fourteen midget marble versions of him, or a series of oversized tiled Bappi Lahiri action figures, we[r]e welcoming you into a room whose central decoration you were manipulated into observing -- a wall with two roman columns on either side. The wall had a huge framed photograph. In the photo were three people -- Mr Lahiri, Sonia Gandhi and Jay Z.

    The article is here.
    Speaking of gold and IPL, we're into the fourth year of the annual parade of extreme colour clashing combinations. The addition of the Kochi Tuskers and a revamped Bangalore outfit has taken the discolorations to stratospheric heights. Watching an overhead shot of the players during their match reminded me of some of the worst Powerpoint slides I've seen. And this supreme example of this website of a Japanese children's hospital (who must be undoubtedly, just to spite me, doing great humanitarian service during the current crisis).
    (It has become exceedingly difficult to make pithy observations such as the above at home. As soon as they are made, the reluctant smile on people's faces gives way to grave concern. "You are going to tweet about this, aren't you?")

    Apr 11, 2011

    A Google a Day

    A Google a Day is a new trivia game by Google. Apart from the fact that is neatly designed and fun to play, I'm guessing it helps Google collect data about how people would use web search to answer questions.

    I've always thought search engines and Q&A sites (this seems to be where the action is these days) could harness the power of quizzing. Google seems to have designed the whole process nicely. Judging by how they have taken the pains to make these questions relative un-google-able via answers to these exact questions elsewhere by people trying to solve them, a lot of thought has gone into the design.

    As someone who runs a daily quiz blog himself (and has a similar in-built "show answer" design), I wonder how easily the scalability-conscious Google generates these questions. The questions seem to have a human hand in them, judging by the framing.

    There's always place for one more daily quiz site, I guess :-)

    Apr 9, 2011

    Fast and Future

    "Civil Society"
    A tendency to wince each time this phrase is heard has now turned into a full-blown case of shuddering unease, with the events of the last week. Does this universally mean what it represents in India today? A cursory web search is evasive on the answer, but it appears to principally (and ironically) serve as a label for anyone excluded out of formal social or political dialogue.

    So what makes this particular collection 'civil society'? Can it only be defined by what one is not? For instance, anyone in the military is not 'civil society' (and serve us indisciplined civilians right). Anyone in politics (i.e. not in a position to rule today or tomorrow) is not 'civil society', perhaps because it is hard to be 'civil' in that society.

    I don't know what it is about 'civil society' that riles me. Perhaps 'civic society' might work for me. Given the strength of this class of people is in their ordinariness, perhaps "ordinary people" is good enough. Or "Rest of India".

    The God of News Channels
    There is a God of News Channels, who looks and protects them. Realizing the inevitable hollowness of soul that would succeed the euphoria of an Indian World Cup win, He provides with an event that would allow them to remain on the side of the masses. Something you could cover all day, and whose result was going to take more than a few days to emerge. There were clear heroes and villains too. Essentially, something like a gripping Test match between India and Australia. This makes a good change from the usual battles, once in a while.

    It also meant that reporters could continue to interview the ordinary citizen, while keeping the experts talking. Words like "Victory" and "standoff" could still remain relevant to headlines. And there were scenes of street celebrations to round it all off.

    Less ironically
    I actually heard some interesting and thoughtful comments by ordinary people. The politicians sound so out of touch, and so unwilling to engage in meaningful debate. Any young politician could easily have seized the day by simply talking to and with ordinary people, in many of the hundreds of gatherings around the country. There were no reports of any major 'young' political leader doing that. It was both an opportunity lost for the established lot and the briefest of sparks for the Rest of India.

    Mar 31, 2011

    And Then There Were Ten

    I've been a fan of Agatha Christie's books since childhood, and have written up a Top Ten list of her books for Tender Leaves, as part of their "Must Read" section. Here's the list.

    (Yes, there's even mention of Tommy and Tuppence :-) ).

    Mar 25, 2011


    It was Tejaswi who first mentioned the words to me. They have never failed to inspire trepidation in me. "Sherlock Holmes Adaptation" - I'd rather face Col. Moran with only a feather for defence. He qualified it by saying it was a rather "creative adaptation" and that he was "happy". That, and the fact that Steven Moffat was involved in the writing, calmed the nerves a bit.

    The venerable Holmes has been portrayed on TV and the DD generation knows well the Sunday morning series starring Jeremy Brett. The Holmes enthusiasts among us have the books, are steeped in trivia, and have enjoyed the references in pop culture(such as "House MD", which often drops many an allusion for the discerning fan to drool over, or Neil Gaiman's absolutely mindblowing short story "A Study in Emerald"). Beyond this, we never felt the need for anything more.

    Especially with the manic Guy Ritchie film version a couple of years ago. I haven't seen it (lack of courage, mostly), but I have had it contemptuously described as "Holmes for the Americans" (ouch). But Moffat wrote (and brilliantly at that) "Coupling" - the FRIENDS -like sitcom that you can openly admit to enjoying even in your late-20s. So here was reason to look forward to "Sherlock" (no "Holmes", my dear W).

    More recommendations followed (from Ajay and Keya) and so the game was afoot. I watched it last year, and was quite "happy" too. It's a bunch of surprises, right from the first episode (the wonderfully titled "A Study in Pink"). There was a lot of reference-dropping (for the fan) but a lot of plot as well. The writing (Moffat, Mark Gattis, and Stephen Thompson wrote one episode each) is unencumbered by the weight of what it is trying to be - a truly modern adaptation of a character that is more than a hundred years old.

    The immediate reason for this post is to bring to your attention the fact that these three Sherlock episodes will be aired in India for the first ever time (see end of post for details). In the great British TV tradition, only a limited number of stories per season were filmed, but each is 1:30 hours long. I don't want to spoil your pleasure, so I won't tell you what I thought of episodes 2 and 3, but will mention that "A Study in Pink" was satisfying, even as a detective puzzle. Rich in texture and well-portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock") and the familiar Martin Freeman ("The Office", the H2G2 film) as the blogging Doctor. Don't miss the beginning.

    "Sherlock" will air on BBC Entertainment on Sat at 8 pm, with repeats at 2 am and 2 pm the next day.

    (image: BBC)