Sunday, March 11, 2007

Heartbreak for NC State in the ACC tournament

They came here as underdogs, they played their hearts out, they took down the mightiest names in college basketball and reached the finals of the ACC tournament, where exhaustion finally seemed to take over. I'm talking about NC State's run in the ACC basketball tournament. UNC just won the ACC basketball tournament, beating NC State 89-80.

While Tyler Hansbrough was taken down by the State defense, Brandan Wright stepped up and kept the scoreboard ticking. In the first half though, NC State was able to keep up, mainly due to the pyrotechnics of Brandon Costner. He set the scoreboard on fire with his three-point shooting and great moves on the paint. Engin Atsur, State's point guard seemed to be struggling at times - perhaps his hamstring injury and fatigue finally caught up with him.

But with two minutes remaining in the first half, and the teams tied at 32 points apiece Carolina seemed to blaze away with a 14-2 run by the time the half-time break came around. When the second half started, they seemed to continue their run and extended the lead to 16 points. State was written off and if anyone expected them to roll over and play dead, they were wrong. State came back strong and even tied the score at 69, but then almost immediately went down by 3 and then never really recovered after that. The closest they came after that was within 3 points of Carolina.

I think what State was missing in the second half was a complete lack of three-point shooting. Considering that they had three good three-point shooters in Atsur, Costner and Grant (with Fells and Nieman also able to chip in admirably in the past) it was puzzling that they didn't try to shoot more from behind the arc. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, they didn't have a single three-point basket in the second half! This effect became important in the last two minutes of the game where with state being down by two plays, shooting three-pointers seemed like the logical thing to do to close up the gap in a hurry.

There was some poor decision-making in the crucial last couple of minutes, as NC State seemed to be taking too much time to cross the floor, especially when they're trailing by 5! Then there were costly misses when they did get to the other end, all of which probably contributed to their loss after playing hard and coming close.

But that is not taking away from the way this team played in this tournament. Sidney Lowe's team seems to have grown this season and they carry themselves much better than most NC State teams have done in the recent past. With some good recruits that have been picked up this year, next year's season will be a mouth-watering wait for Wolfpack fans.

Even Roy Williams, the UNC head coach, had to stop and admire the State team when he was talking to reporters immediately after receiving the trophy. He said that they have come far and Wolfpack fans everywhere must be proud of how they performed this year. Being a Wolfpack fan myself, I must say I completely agree - they went further than anyone, their own fans included, expected and unfortunately couldn't win the final one - not because they didn't play well, but because they were matched up against a slightly better team. I say slightly, because if NC State had bench strength, then they would have definitely better than UNC today.

Now we'll just have to wait and see if the powers-that-be that make up he NCAA will fee like they have made enough of a point to grant them a spot in the NCAA tournament. Wishful thinking, you say? Well, three days ago, no one would have even considered the idea that NC State could beat Duke, Virginia and V-Tech and make it to the finals of the ACC tournament.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Movie Review : "300" is a visual treat.

 Frank Miller is a genius. I guess that fact is obvious to those of us who have read his graphic novels over the years. He created what is arguably the best Batman series ever (The Dark Knight Returns).

The rest of the world came to know of his genius when Sin City hit the big screen a couple of years ago and became an instant hit. The dark storylines and the imagery conjured up precise ideas and feelings - probably the ones that Frank Miller wanted everyone to conjure up in the first place with his Sin City graphic novels. Coupled with Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller crossed that hallowed line - adapting a great graphic novel into an even better movie while still retaining that essential touch which made the books special.

While not directly involved in the direction of "300", Miller's hands are visible all over the movie version of his graphic novel, which he created in collaboration with Lynn Varley. Although the movie version has been directed by Zack Snyder, the visual imagery, the story-telling and the composition of sequences tell a story that was exquisitely framed by Miller and Varley.

The movie is visually stunning and that is an understatement. As Sin City used color prodigiously, so does 300, but to the other extreme. While Sin City had just one or two colors embossed on an otherwise black and white canvas, 300 shows a riot of colors, but in a dim, blurred sort of way - almost apologetic that color seems to exist. Yet, the dimness and the grainy camera work shows sweeping scenes that capture your imagination like none other and forces you to gape at the screen like a 5-year old on his first outing to the movie hall.




Based loosely on the events surrounding and leading up to the battle of Thermopylae, Miller presents the brave sacrifice of 300 Spartans, led by their king Leonidas I, who faced the million-plus Persian army of Xerxes (as the movie and book puts it, "the collected armies of over a thousand nations") on their way to conquer Greece, and through it the rest of Europe.  Resting solely on their grit, determination, bravery (what some might even call stupidity) and superior military tactics, they fought to the last man and were able to hold off the vast hordes of Asia until the rest of Greece united and decided to take on Xerxes's might.

Miller has crafted in politics, corruption, greed, anger, fear, mysticism, sex, hubris, endurance, violence and war in ways that don't do anything but mesh in well with each other. The storyline presents the Spartans in a special, noble light - almost godlike in their adherence to their ideals and belief in their abilities. But it is Xerxes who believes himself to be a God among humans while the Spartans just consider themselves to be supremely conditioned, but humans nonetheless and holding on to their highest ideals of freedom and liberty.

The battle sequences - if you thought the rest of the movie was spectacular and stylish, then wait till you see the battle sequences. They grab your attention and not since The Matrix Revolutions or Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has a battle sequence been this good, and in my honest opinion, this tops them all!

While there is blood and gore all round, you cannot turn your eyes away,, for fear that you might miss the tiniest of detail of the work of art which is being painted in front of you. Every single sequence in the battle sequences looks like it has been choreographed, but has that complete unscripted feel to it - like a real battle would have.

I do believe that the actors were chosen for (a) being over 6 feet tall and having sculpted bodies and (b) being able to maintain a stoic facial expression. There is no other reason to explain the lack of expression and sometimes dull acting that is visible in some parts of the movie. Gerald Butler seems to have some sort of multiple personality disorder, as different Gerald Butlers turn up in different parts of the movie - in some he is plain ordinary, while in others, he is able to carry his own.

Lenda Headley as the queen and Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes were superb - they acted like they belonged to their characters and showed that in an epic like what 300 is, there is a significant place for good acting.

On the flip side, some sequences from the book were missing in the movie, like the raiding party that the Spartans undertake to burn the encampments of the Persians, but that does not matter - for whatever reason, the movie had a shorter script and sometimes one has to live with that.

All in all, a fantastic movie and being a comic book fan, I am thrilled at the (more or less) faithful adaptation of the book and this is a movie which I would be proud to own on DVD. But before that happens, I forsee myself watching it multiple times on the big screen.

[Please Note : The images from the movie are courtesy of IMDB.]


ACC Basketball : NC State blazes in the year of the underdogs.

NC State's basketball team is having a dream run in the ACC tournament so far. Coming into the tournament with an all-time low seeding (10), no one even took them seriously. This, considering that they had beaten the fabled UNC once and Virginia Tech twice (yes, home and away) during the regular season.

Suddenly they are in the spotlight, and that too as giant-killers! They made the unthinkable happen by beating Duke in the first round, and now have taken down Virginia in the quarter finals. And these were teams which had comprehensively beaten NC State during the regular season. They are also both in the top 25 in the Coaches poll, with Duke being at 21 and Virginia being at 24. Now, there is a possibility that both of these teams could drop out of the top 25 as a result of these losses.

Sidney Lowe's NBA-style offense seems to be paying off, and the team is led well by point-guard Engin Atsur. The team seems to be completely different every time he is on the court. He handles the ball well and makes great plays, making use of good finishers like Brendan Coster, Ben McCaulay and Gavin Grant. Today relative unknown Bryan Nieman also stepped up and shot a couple of three-pointers to bring the Wolfpack back into the game.

The Wolfpack have been derided all season long for lacking bench strength, leading to exhaustion among the starters. They have often been called the "sixpack" due to having only 6 players playing the entire game. This has resulted in player fatigue surfacing at key moments, such as the loss to UNC in the away game during the regular season. Today was only the third time, all season, that Lowe used 7 or more players in a game.

In the first half it seemed like too much experimentation was going on (what with close to 9 players being rotated in and out), and NC State went into the break trailing by 14 points. It would be great to know what Sidney Lowe told his wards or fed them during the break, because the regular starters came out and played like they were possessed - they soon cut the lead to 7 points, but then saw it stretch to 11 again. Nieman, Costner and Atsur soon pulled Virginia back and State were leading with around 8 minutes of the game left. They never relinquished the lead, and the game ended at 79-71 in favor of the Wolfpack.

Some key elements of the game - Costner's 20 points (this following his 30 point showing in the Duke game), McCaulay's penetration of the Cavaliers' defense, Atsur's ball-handling and play calling, and the unselfish attitude of the State players. One instance was when McCaulay was fed the ball, into the paint, by Atsur, and he immediately sent it to the corner where Courtney Fells was waiting to nail a 3-pointer. This in spite of the fact McCaulay himself might have been able to put in a 2-point basket without much difficulty. This shows that the players are placing the team ahead of themselves and is a great attitude that Sidney Lowe is cultivating.

Also, the defense was exemplary, and this in spite of the fact that the Cavaliers have Sean Singletary and J P Reynolds in their team, who can run rings around (and occasionally did in this game) most defenses in the country.

There is one worrying point for State, and that is the large number of turnovers. There were 13 in the game, with 8 in the first half, and Gavin Grant seems to be responsible for a few of these. Turnovers have been a constant problem for Grant throughout the season, and he must work hard on improving this aspect of the game. Many a game has been lost by State during the regular season, because of this issue.

Next year's NC State team will be worth watching, considering that the current team, with its lack of bench strength is performing well, and since Sidney Lowe has some promising recruits lined up for fall '07.

All in all, this ACC tournament seems to be the year of the underdogs, with all four games on Thursday being upsets (in that they were won by lower-ranked teams). Only UNC seems to be living up to its seeding, by beating Florida State in today's game.

Even if NC State doesn't make it to the NCAA tournament (which seems highly unlikely considering their lackluster regular season performance), they have retrieved their pound of flesh by beating UNC and VTech during the regular season and now Duke and Virginia in the ACC tournament. Who knows, they may have even spoiled the Blue Devils' and Cavaliers' shots at the NCAA tournament, and that is no small consolation.

Most importantly though, they have gained respect by how they have performed admirably and entire season with their handicap of a short V-Tech, again, in the semi-finals and UNC in the finals.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

US lacking in cross-Atlantic trade wars.

Yes, the title is exactly as I meant it to be. There seems to be a subtle trade war, of the underhanded kind, and the United States doesn't seem to be doing too much about it.

I'm not sure if the Europeans are following an agenda, but they seem to be systematically targeting some of the biggest players in the tech industry (basically American corporations).

The first in line, was of course Microsoft. But then, they were pulled up in the US for unfair trade practices as well, so one could say that well, they deserved it. If they used unfair methods to get ahead, then well, it is obvious that the Europeans would go after them as well. But what was interesting, was that the Europeans kept at it. The legal battles and fines went on for much longer in Europe than it did in the US. In fact, the Windows versions released in Europe were very different from what was released worldwide.

The extent to which the Europeans seemed to be taking Microsoft to task was obvious by the way American corporations like Google and Adobe would run to the European Union to complain about their impending Vista release and not to the American government/courts! They felt they had a better chance of being heard there than in their own country.

Well, considering that Microsoft was being dragged about everywhere by the European Union, the American government did not intervene and throw their support behind the company -- but then again, since they had also gone after the same company, it would seem odd if the government now changed its stance and helped Microsoft.

Of late, Google has been in the news, again in Europe, losing court battles that almost seem nonsensical - people laying claim to the local language site like, others complaining that Google cannot use the name "gmail" or something even more nonsensical like they don't want their articles to appear on Google News. In the latter instance Google was initially being fined close to a million dollars a day unless they stopped their search engines from indexing certain Belgian newspapers. Apparently they didn't like the free links from Google!

Then there's Apple. Apple is supposed to be everything that Microsoft is not - cool, revolutionary, hip, and rebellious. They supposedly are in a league of their own and are responsible for over 70% of online music sales and also own the player market with their iPods.

First, the French decided to take a shot at Apple. They passed a law, (mind you that's a constitutional change), that says that companies (like Apple) that sell digital music in France must open up their systems so that the music can be downloaded onto any device. This means that Apple will have to make their music available on any mp3 player. 

The rest of Europe seems to be following suit -- various countries that form the European Union are now pursuing Apple to open up their iTunes store.

I'm not taking side in the DRM vs non-DRM argument. I'm not even backing the record companies in this case. The socialist nature of the European Union seems to be driving them into taking periodic potshots at companies (companies that are global players, but US-based nonetheless) and maybe hurting them seriously.

I'm not a big fan of the governments stepping in and trying to crush free competition, especially when they're driven by a particular socialist agenda. The only reason these lawmakers are even considering these legislations, is because they know that the iPod/Google/Windows is very popular and the voting public will see them as taking on these software giants to help their everyday lives. Add to it, they will also have given "evil" Americans a snub in the face.

I do believe that the US government has to step in and back their corporations to the hilt. These issues should be a part of trade negotiations with the Europeans, because these problems have a serious side effect - the losses/drop in share values could affect American economy in a big way. Add to it the idea that any company, just because it is big and successful, can be a target of malicious governments the world over should not be tolerated.

This is not limited to the personal tech sector. There is the classic case of Airbus vs Boeing. The European aircraft manufacturer has been getting away with a lot of "profit" and price cutting due to subsidies it obtains from the European Union, while Boeing has been feeling the ill effects of having to compete with Airbus on unfair terms.

Then there was the hushkit issue a while ago. While all Airbus-manufactured aircraft had these installed, the European Union found a way to go after Boeing for not having this installed, which would cost the American aircraft manufacturer billions of dollars - to retrofit every aircraft that flies over European airspace!

But the aircraft industry was an instance where the US government decided to step in and support Boeing and file WTO complaints against the EU. During the hushkit fiasco, they also came down hard on Airbus on aircraft flying into the US. I guess the visible losses in income and blue-collar jobs woke up the Washington DC politicians and made them spring into action. Sadly, no such action seems forthcoming in the software/personal tech sector. The losses are not visible yet, or are in the unforseen future, and hence they needn't worry about it. Reminds me of the ostrich-in-the-sand scenario (or even the global warming issue to be honest).

The US government seems to be sleeping while their industry is facing serious problems in Europe. Perhaps it is time that the government (surprisingly an industry-friendly government in this case) wakes up and decides to do something about it.