Tuesday, February 05, 2013


A recent discussion with friends about the meaning of certain symbols such as the national anthem, pledge of allegiance, the national flag, etc. has left me thinking about what ‘patriotism’ means. Does it means external symbols like the flag, an anthem, etc.? Does patriotism mean showing allegiance to these symbols (and hence to the nation)? Perhaps it means vociferous support of everything that the country does. Maybe it includes the demonization of those that don’t do any of the above. Maybe patriotism is about blaming those that don’t wear lapel pins, for instance.

Before launching into my thoughts on this topic, let me recount an anecdote that a friend narrated recently (from her school days in India). So we have all grown up with the dual events of flag hoisting and singing of the national anthem during Independence and Republic days in India. Every year, on the 26th of January and the 15th of August most school grounds around the country and filled with kids, teachers, parents, local dignitaries and so on for the Indian tricolor being hoisted followed by a loud rending of “Jana Gana Mana”. So, this one time (in my friend’s school), one of the students refused to sing the national anthem. Turns out that he was a Muslim and according to his faith, one should not sing praises of anything other than the supreme being. So he respectfully declined to participate. From what I heard, he was vilified by his schoolmates and teachers for a long time for being “unpatriotic”.

Let’s pause a little to think about the above anecdote. I might be missing some details because I’m repeating it from someone’s narrative of their memory of the incident. But that is not the point. Nor is it the point of whether boy was correct in his interpretation (or implementation) of his faith (not being a Muslim or a scholar of the faith I cannot honestly comment on that part). Now, let’s put this at the back of our minds and proceed for a bit (don’t worry, I’ll come back to it later).

Consider the following questions:
  1. What if one loves the nation but disagrees with its policies?
  2. What if one doesn’t like the overt professions of love for these symbols (anthem, flag, etc.) but still has respect and love for the country?
  3. What if one genuinely hates his/her own country due to its policies, or treatment that has been meted out to the individual/community?
Is anyone following one or more of the above lines of thought “unpatriotic”? The problem is, in India, any of these could quickly get you into trouble – essentially for stating your opinions. Using the garb of patriotism people quash any attempts at free speech and personal choice. For instance, someone stating that they do not want to sing the National Anthem is a matter of personal choice. They should not be targeted for this reason. As long as one doesn’t force others to stop singing it (or saluting the flag) how does it affect anyone? If you like singing the anthem, then you should; if someone else doesn’t, well, then that is his/her choice. The same goes for “respecting” the national flag. How can something like the flag lose its value just because one person “disrespects” it (or burns it)? If it was such a fragile symbol of a nation that one person can bring its value down, then isn’t it time we rethink its position in society? The same goes for any community, god, leader, etc. These things are (usually) above any single person’s acts. The very fact that a society allows an individual to express their freedoms and choices by showing (actively or passively) disrespect for such symbols means that the society (and country) is resilient to provocations and is moving in the right direction.

Patriotism then, in my opinion, is not about the overt show of love and affection for such symbols (or even abstract entities). It is not about tormenting those that voice their opinions. Patriotism is about thinking what is good for the society/country as a whole and working towards those goals. This might foment short term discord because what is “good” may not be obvious in the short term and could even include the process of disagreeing with the policies/actions of the nation (or governments). It could involve putting unpleasant, yet important, topics into the public domain. It could be raising awareness of problems. It could involve publicly condemning those that threaten our freedoms and points of view (not just of the majority, but the minority as well). It could involve service of any sort. It could mean an understanding of our responsibilities and participating in the democratic processes. Patriotism could mean all of these and a lot many more things. But it does not imply the suppression of those that we disagree with, no matter how insignificant the argument or the group.

I often hear comments like, “the country should come first” or “this is how the terrorists get in” and so on when I profess that blind love for the symbols of patriotism is not part of my beliefs. These vacuous arguments just add to the collective noise of public debate and are used to target those that disagree with the majority opinions. It might be better to think about why that person disagrees with you in the first place.

Now, consider question (3) that I mentioned above. What if an individual (or group) hates the country that they’re born into? There could be many social, political and economic reasons for this and I won’t get into any of them here, but what is such an individual (group) supposed to do? The silly solution of “get out of the country” is not a feasible one. That’s just a churlish response. Now if they refuse to honor the flag or the national anthem or the policies of the government, is it fair to call them “unpatriotic”? Or is time better spent by trying to figure out the underlying problem(s) and perhaps moving in the direction of positive dialogue and (hopefully) solutions?

Now let me ask you this question: was the boy in the earlier anecdote unpatriotic because he refused to sing the national anthem, or was he just expressing his freedom of choice? At the end of the day, which one do we cherish more? Loud professions of allegiance to “symbols” that can be better termed as “jingoism” or the ability to inculcate the freedoms of speech, choice and expression in society?

Friday, March 09, 2012

Rahul Dravid | Losing my religion…

[I guess it would take a big event for me to break my hiatus on writing blogs. Unfortunately I thought it would be a happier event and not this melancholic one.]

Ok, so I shamelessly lifted the title for this post from Siddhartha Vaidyanathas’s Cricinfo article of 2008. But there is no better way for me to express this and he pretty much sums up how I feel today as a cricket fan (and that too a fan of Indian cricket). He was talking about the retirement of a group of cricketers (Kumble, Ganguly, Laxman, Tendulkar and Dravid); about how many of us had grown up watching these icons, from their debut to their current standing and everything in between; and how we would all feel a void when they retire, which will be sooner than later. Today, I felt the same way but it struck me much harder – that hypothetical situation had come to pass, the day I dreaded the most for Indian cricket is here – Rahul Dravid has announced his retirement from all forms of international and first class cricket.

Ok so he was dropped (and “retired” from 3 years later) from the ODI team a few years ago. I was really angry then and felt that he was being made the scapegoat for a disastrous world cup campaign – instead  of the entire team, the coach and the BCCI taking blame, they decided to drop Dravid, not just from the captaincy but from the team itself! And this when he had set himself up to be the best finisher in the ODI game for the previous 3-4 years and gone over 10,000 runs in the format. “Such injustice” I thought and railed and ranted about it to whoever would listen. With each passing year and tour my hopes that he would return to the ODI team reduced further. But when they did pick him in 2011 it seemed like a mockery of the whole situation – the BCCI wanted to save face and in desperation turned to the one person who wouldn’t let them down. I guess even he realized the absurdity of the situation and promptly “retired” from ODI. “Good for you, Dravid” I thought, “show them that these stupid political machinations are a total farce”! In fact, I felt great sadness that he was not part of the team that won the 2011 world cup. The reason why India has the confidence and the ability to win in ODI matches and tournaments is due to Dravid and his generation of players. He, as one of the best finishers of the game showed us how to successfully chase 300+ scores. I remember in the mid 90s where India would get to the finals and semi-finals of major tournaments and then lose.

But there was something that I held on to – that he would continue to be a cornerstone of the Indian test batting lineup. His place in that can never be shaken, that the team without his contributions would crumble and that I (and millions of other fans) would enjoy watching the beauty of test cricket led by the one person that epitomizes it most – Rahul Dravid. With each passing year and test series, my admiration of the player grew and the fans’ trust in him wasn’t misplaced – 2011 was the perfect example of that. In a year when all the superstars of Indian cricket collectively failed (heck they were humiliated) in foreign conditions, Rahul Dravid flourished. He showed what classical test cricket was all about; in fact it shows what cricket is all about – the grit, the patience, the mental strength, the ability to dig yourself out of a hole and hold steadfast when all around you is falling apart. To gain the respect of not just your fans and teammates, but from your most ardent opponents. Five centuries later, the only reason an Indian cricket fan will look back on 2011 was to see that purity of sport and determination that was Rahul Dravid playing test cricket. Alas, that is no more since he announced his retirement today.

Watching Dravid bat is quite unlike anything else. It is something that people (and future generations) can only see and understand if they follow test cricket and all days of a match with ardent fervour. You cannot tell someone about how well he played to hold off opposition attacks for days on end. It is not about the match winning innings he plays, but about the balls he doesn’t play. While Sehwag makes huge (300+ scores) with his wild abilities, Dravid can judge a ball and makes his decision to leave it alone in a split second. There is such sublime beauty to a ball well left that s hard to describe – in leaving that ball alone, he is acknowledging the skill of his opponents (bowlers, fielders, captains) and also showing us why he himself is on a higher plane. I often use this as a metaphor in a  completely different arena, that of poker, where I say, “a good poker player is like a good test batsman; his ability is not always defined in the balls/hands he plays, but in the ones he lets go”. I think Rahul Dravid would make a fantastic poker player simply due to his mental abilities, but he currently finds himself as one of the all-time greats in cricket and we are all thankful for that.

He has been the ultimate team player – willing to take on anything (even responsibilities he doesn’t like such as opening the batting or keeping wickets). He was willing to move around in the batting order to suit the team. He took the blame for the 2007 disastrous world cup. He was willing to come back and play the ODI matches in 2011 because his team needed it. He was able to adapt well to the T20 and finds himself captain of the Rajasthan Royals. I dare say that Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman’s remarkable success through the late 90s and the 2000s was owed in part to him – he was able to play anchor and blunt bowling attacks (often very early) so that they had the easier time of it. The epic 2001 test between Australia and India would not have been considered one of the best cricket matches of all time if not for him (sure VVS gets most of the credit, but even he would not have been able to do much without the patient 180 made by Dravid at the other end). He brought the belief in the Indian team that we can win and win in any situation, be it home or away.

His Bradman Oration at the start of (what would become) his last tour was typical – simple self-deprecating humour interspersed with wisdom and genuine affection and concern for the game and its fans. I must admit I choked up when I heard it and I still do – whenever I go back and listen to it, which I do from time to time. Even his retirement speech showed how much love and respect he has for us fans and the game,

“Finally, I would like to thank the Indian cricket fan, both here and across the world. The game is lucky to have you and I have been lucky to play before you. To represent India, and thus to represent you, has been a privilege and one which I have always taken seriously. My approach to cricket has been reasonably simple: it was about giving everything to the team, it was about playing with dignity, and it was about upholding the spirit of the game. I hope I have done some of that. I have failed at times, but I have never stopped trying. It is why I leave with sadness but also with pride.”

I am yet to see sportspersons show this much affection and respect towards their fans. Sure, they all pay lip service at the end of a winning performance, but I doubt if anyone really thinks and cares so much about us. Dravid definitely understood the place that genuine fans hold for a sport – a sport exists mainly due to the fans and it can surely die if they choose to neglect it. Now if only everyone who played professional sport read that and took the advice seriously!

I answered a poll on an online news website about what he should do next – should be become a commentator, a coach, an administrator, etc. I honestly believe that he should become an administrator, like that legendary former teammate of his, Anil Kumble. Cricket (especially today) requires people of integrity and vision to step in and take charge – to ensure that the future of the sport will be bright and not lost in the show business-type mentality. I really hope that he decides to give back to the sport that has given him so much and I think that everyone will be the better for it.

I once had the opportunity to see the man live, not on a cricket field but at a literary fest at an engineering college in Bangalore back in 1999. He had arrived as a chief guest for the event, not because he wanted to show off his celebrity, but (from what I understood) as a favor to a friend (yup he is that type of person). He was not 5 feet away from me and before I could whip out a pen and paper for an autograph, he was whisked away in a car. I will rue the moment forever. I hope that I get the chance to meet him again to make good a chance to shake his hand and get that autograph.

[Here is another nice sentimental piece about Dravid’s retirement which also inspired me to write this post.]

[Harsha Bhogle says it well too.]

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Cyber Physical Systems | The New Wave in Computer Systems Researc

How often do we notice the fact that we live in a society that is immersed in computing systems? That smart phone in your pocket; the iPod that you use for music; elevators, escalators and moving walkways; the controls for your windshield wiper; the thermostats in your home; traffic lights at the intersection; you name it and it probably contains a computing device. If you throw a stone in a random direction in modern society, chances are that you will hit something that has processing power in it. Most of these devices are so common in everyday life that we don't think of them as computers but that is exactly what many of them are. Of course, they differ in form, function and specification from the everyday notion of a computer, i.e. the desktop or laptop that most people are used to and no, you cannot browse Facebook on such devices (though Twitter may be a whole different ball game). Such systems are often referred to as embedded systems, i.e., computer systems that are designed to perform one or more dedicated functions. Though programmable, they are not always meant for loading up different programs, but the lines are blurring these days. With the advent of smart phones that can pretty much do things that were previously only in the domain of desktop computers what is an 'embedded system' is open to interpretation (though the part of your phone that works on the voice, the DSP chip, may still considered to be an embedded system). 

Now consider the anti-lock brakes (ABS) in your car (the first figure shows a schematic of a typical ABS). The point of the ABS is that when you suddenly press down hard on your brakes the ABS should prevent your wheels from locking and thus preventing the car from launching into uncontrollable skids. The point is this: the ABS should kick in and work correctly the very instant you slam down on the brake pedal or, at the very least, within a few milliseconds. If it takes longer than that, say 10-20 seconds or even five minutes, it is too late and can lead to fatal car crashes. Such systems, that have specific timing requirements, are referred to as real-time systems. They come in various shapes and sizes too: the ABS that was just described, nuclear reactor control, flight guidance systems on aircraft, electronic engines, factory controllers, controls of space shuttles, etc. Errors, particularly timing errors, in real-time systems can lead to dangerous fallouts to both, people as well as the environment. In fact, many of the real-time systems described here are also embedded systems and the overlap between these domains is quite large and boundaries on what is a real-time system and what constitutes an embedded system can be quite nebulous. Both, embedded and real-time systems though, have been around for decades now and there's a large body of work (theoretical and experimental) that has been developed over this time.

This brings us back to the topic that forms the focus of this article: cyber-physical systems. Catchy phrase, isn't it? As a friend put it, almost wants to make you wish you were one too. Well, with embedded and real-time systems morphing into all shapes and sizes these days they're interacting with the real world and other systems around them in ways that are unprecedented. Consider the new generation of cars that are available on the market these days. You can take your smartphone into the car and the two can actually recognize each other and share information, music and other data, almost automatically! You can drive up in one of these cars into a new 'smart home' and the car and the home automation system can communicate with each other. The heat is set to your comfort level and the lights are turned on, your favourite music tracks start playing and it could even start the shower for you! And all of this with absolutely no human intervention! Such systems are no longer about controlling the mechanical aspects of the world or only about executing certain programs. The 'cyber' and the 'physical' world are often so inter-twined that our existing understanding and techniques can no longer deal with this new fusion. Also, it has become obvious that any one scientific community, be it from embedded and real-time systems domains, avionics, automobiles, power systems, control theory or even mechanical engineering, does not possess the solution to this problem. New theories, new models and a lot more research and analysis is required and the field is wide open for scientists and engineers to explore. Hence, the advent of cyber-physical systems. (As the second figure shows, the overlap of embedded, real-time and cyber-physical systems is quite large, but still differences exist among the three fields)

A cyber-physical system (CPS), by definition, is a system that has a tight coupling between its computational and physical elements. One cannot talk about the computing side without reasoning about how the physical side behaves and how the latter behaves depends, quite closely, on the computations being performed. Most modern aircraft, automobiles, sensor networks and even power grids fall into this category. By very definition, the field is interdisciplinary in nature and people from diverse backgrounds, who would otherwise have never worked with each other, are forced to come together to solve the complex problems posed by this domain. 

CPS has been identified by various government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a key area for research. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) presented a formal assessment of the Federal Networking and Information Technology R&D (NITRD). In that report, the domain of CPS was recommended as an priority area for federal research investments. This resulted in the organization of several workshops that culminated in a new funding program in CPS from the NSF. The recent federal budget also maintains support for research in CPS, thus ensuring that the focus on the area is maintained.

The advent of CPS spells the dawn of an era of exciting research possibilities. Various research groups around the country (and even other parts of the world), from top universities to industries, are involved in this effort. The field is ripe for young researchers to stake their claims and for established scientists to apply their vast experience. It is envisioned that this effort will lead to never-before seen interdisciplinary research efforts and move forward not just the computer systems domains, but also various other fields.

Now, consider this: various power companies across the US have already, or are in the process of, upgrading their power management systems. Various sensors in individual homes (smart thermostats) can collect information that is sent via a network to the main stations (perhaps even local 'hubs') that can perform computations and apply complex power management algorithms and send control signals back to the grid (or even individual homes) to save energy, deal with catastrophic faults, or plain load balancing. Meanwhile, you, sitting at your work computer for instance, can monitor the power consumption in your home, even broken down by time of day. Thus you can decide what appliances to turn on/off and when, resulting in significant energy savings. Even Google is getting into the game with its Google Powermeter. All of this is possible, by a complex interaction of embedded devices, real-time control and interaction among the computation and the actual power management. Yup, you got that right, it is a cyber-physical system.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Google Docs | Post to Blog feature.

Google Docs now has a feature where you can publish to your blog of choice.  Nice I must say. I am really a big fan of platform independent tools that I don't have to install/manage, even if it is Google.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Will Shakespeare’s 25 Random Things list

Well, many of us thought, analyzed and then poured our hearts out to fill a “25 random things about yourself” or “40 things you don’t know about me”, or a “gazillion things I REALLY didn’t want to know about you” type of lists. So how would it be if the bard decided to make one such list? Fret not, fair maiden (or men or whatever else), here’s just such a list. Some [of my favourite] excerpts:

13 The people that loue my Wordes the best are always the most disappointed vpon meeting me. Is thisse List ouer yet?

15 I deteste it when the Low-Comedians improuise the scenes I writ them… becavse they always make them so mvch fvnnier.

25 When I am feeling Melancholic, I console myselfe with the Knowledge that, aboue all else, I will be remembered for my Musick.

Notice the spelling, of course!

Link thanks to Amit Varma.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

“Slumdog Millionaire”, Enough Already!

[Well, I’ve been a bit lazy about writing something on here, but this movie and all the hoopla surrounding it has riled me enough to want to put my thoughts down. Be warned though, there are spoilers in this post, but then again, I don’t give a …]

There are movies about India and there are movies about India. Particularly when it comes to dealing with an iconic city like Bombay (yes, “Bombay”…most Indians refuse to use the politicized names such as Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, etc.). Bombay has long been the city of dreams in India, what with it being India’s biggest city, its financial capital, one of the largest ports in the country and of course the Hindi film industry being based there (“Bollywood” for the uninitiated). From the time movies have been made in India there have been various attempts to showcase life in Bombay and even attempts at making the city a character in the movie. There have been movies about the rich, the poor, criminals and cops, politicians and prostitutes, businessmen and ordinary people -- you name it, its been done in Bombay.

Enter, Mr. Danny Boyle and company to make a movie in India. One guess where its set – Bombay! Well, then he wants to make a movie about Indians and let’s have another guessing game what its about – slums and poverty. And let’s not forget that ultimate cliché that is common to Grandma’s bedtime stories, folklore and bad B-grade movies – it is a “rags to riches” story with a girl thrown in as well.

2968978540_b3a8f207bc[1].jpg_v=0 by you.Well, it seems like one western filmmaker after another is out to “showcase” India to the rest of the world. First there was John Jeffcoat with his pathetic attempt at showing the software outsourcing industry in India with “Outsourced” that received “rave reviews” and what not, and now Danny Boyle has this attempt. Why is it that a movie about India is received in the west only if it is cliché-ridden and shows cows, slums and general poverty (of late it is the outsourcing and tech support angles)? And even then, why must is be made by a non-Indian? Shekhar Kapur made a  really good movie known as “Bandit Queen and the Oscar committee did not have the sense to add it to the Oscar candidates’ list, let along nominate it. Of course, at the time, they were worried someone was going to sue them for it.

Hard-hitting movies about India, that too set in Bombay, have been made in the past. Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay!” was a brilliant, gritty movie about a boy who lives in the streets of Bombay (sound familiar, Mr. Boyle?) and goes through more hell than what is shown in this romanticized “Slumdog…” movie. Manirathnam’s film “Bombay” was about the riots in the 90s and Anurag Kashyap’s “Black Friday” was about the 1993 serial bomb blasts in the city and the aftermath. These movies about that city stand far above the lame attempts in “Slumdog…”.

Let’s delve into the details to see why, in my opinion, this movie doesn’t deserve all the credit that it is receiving. First off, Dev Patel as the protagonist, Jamal Mallik. What can one say of a character raised in the slums of Bombay and who can barely put together a few words of broken English, when those words happen to be in a British accent! He really tries to emulate an Indian accent, but it comes off as a parody of the Apu accent, and that’s giving him credit! He is far from believable in this role and doesn’t even seem comfortable doing it. Here’s what I got from Wikipedia,

To prepare for the role, he went along with Boyle while scouting for filming locations, where he was able to observe the Dharavi slums for himself. He also reported having had a brief internship at a call centre and working in a hotel, where he spent a day washing dishes and generally observing life in Mumbai.

Well, these are the problems with casting people in such roles – for a role such as this you either need someone who is a local and can understand the nuances of the country, the culture, everyday mannerisms, etc. or a phenomenal actor who can slip into a role with conviction and get under the skin of the character. Dev Patel falls flat on both counts and before you go off with, “hey, he’s Indian” and what not, let me remind you – being of Indian origin doesn’t necessarily mean that you can understand the day-to-day issues of living in the country for a few years and not just a day washing dishes and working in a call center (that modern cliché for India).

The script. Where does one start with a storyline that feels like it has been thrown together in fits of drunkenness? The main outline is that Jamal Mallik, a boy who grew up in the slums of Bombay needs to go on the television show “Kaun Banega Crorepati?” (Indian equivalent of “Who wants to be a millionaire?”) to find the girl of his dreams. As improbable as that sounds, what’s worse is that he is actually able to answer all the questions that are thrown at him, no matter how arcane or ridiculous they are. For instance, for the question “which American politician’s picture appears on the $100 bill?” he is able to obtain the correct answer (Ben Franklin) because of the following sequence of events: he tries to scam some tourists –> the driver beats him up –> the tourists feel bad for him –> they decide to show him the “American way” (another cliché, this time on Americans) and give him a $100 bill –> he meets a blind kid who is a beggar that he hasn’t met for many years and they recognize each other –> the blind kid who has never seen a $100 bill himself, is able to feel the note and tell him Ben Franklins’ picture is on there!!! So every question that is thrown as him matches an event in his life and he is able to answer it correctly.

Of course, the plot would not be complete without…you got it, clichés! There are the usual corrupt and brutal cops, an egotistical show game host, the slums in the city, scenes with filth, people who maim kids to make them beggars, underworld dons, Hindu-Muslim riots and even a brother who only cares about number one. (How would Americans like it if every movie about the US, that is made in another country, shows cowboys and “injuns” shooting each other and shows the country as still being racially segregated?)

Adding to this whole mess, Danny Boyle tries to be “poetic”. The climax, where his brother fills a tub with money and decides to lie in wait for the don with a gun and then dies in a hail of gunfire (of course in slow motion and b&w) with the bills fluttering all around him has no words to describe the sheer lack of originality. Well, except that a Tarantino he is not…not even a John Woo, who with two guns and some slow motion could actually create visual poetry. This was such a lame attempt on the part of the director to try and show off his “talent”. This from a guy who made the likes of “Trainspotting”!

This movie has just two savings graces and one of them is an acknowledged genius who probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. I’m speaking of A. R. Rehman, the brilliant music composer. The music that he has crafted for this movie is phenomenal, like much of his work. It captures the feel of the city and the mood that the movie is supposed to set. He deserves all the awards that he gets for best score.

The second, is Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, as young Jamal Mallik. He is perfect as a child growing up in the slums of Bombay. He has the right sense of innocence, wonder (for instance, when he gets an autograph from a movie star), cheek, diction and acting abilities to make him look like a natural in the movie. He is probably the only person in the movie that looks and acts his part.

After the Golden Globe wins for this movie, I am really hoping that the Academy has enough sense to not prop this up any further at their awards. If that were to happen, one would hear no end of an “Indian” movie making it in the Oscars and would probably scar an entire industry brimming with immense talent as they has to put up with jibes based on a sub-standard movie.

All in all, definitely a forgettable venture. Hang on, not just forgettable, but lock it and up throw it away and have your memory wiped (a la “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) forgettable type of movie. In fact, thinking about it, go watch “City of Godinstead which is a far better movie that seems eerily familiar (hmmm!) and made by someone who knows what making such a movie is all about.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I must say that I never thought I would live to see the day. The day that someone who is not a white male gets elected as the President of the United States of America. Not that it was impossible, as recent events have obviously shown, but until a few months ago it seemed highly improbable. History was against it. The divisions within this country seemed to have increased if anything over the last couple of decades and for someone to transcend a contentious issue like race seemed like an impossibility. Yet, here Barack Obama stands, the 44th President-elect of the United States of America! And winning with a landslide (338-156) at that!

While this election (both the lead-up and the actual result) includes many firsts it also marks a change for the Democrats – winning the presidency and gaining a significant majority in Congress. This hasn’t happened since the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency and that lasted for only a short two years. So, this could be either an incredible opportunity to bring about positive “change,” or one to lose your way in partisanship. This is a fine line the new President will have to walk.

In my opinion, some of the best decisions for a country (and society in general) have happened when the legislature and the executive are perhaps from opposite sides of the aisle. When you can put aside your pet projects rooted in ideology to meet with, and gain consensus from the other side then that process maintains a critical balance in society. Traditionally when both sides are aligned to the same ideology and level heads give way to emotion then it is possible for the government to push through legislation that could alienate a significant portion of the populace and perhaps cause long-term harm. Any doubts and one should look back to 2000-2004 period to study the reasons why this country is stuck in what seems like a never-ending war in Iraq.

Enough has been said about the challenges that the President-elect will face in office. Many campaign promises and pet projects may have to be put aside on account of the bailout, the two seemingly endless wars, etc. Perhaps the comforting thought that his party holds close to an absolute chokehold in the Congress might help in dealing with these problems. But, he must ensure that power is not abused.

Obama’s ascendancy to the White House can also help silence many critics of the US. People who complain that the Americans play the role of a big bully and pick on the little guy may have to hold their tongues, at least for a while. This election shows that the little guy, an outsider, an African-American, the son of an immigrant, can rise to the highest office in the land. Perhaps this might mean that the new President starts with some grudging respect and good-will from his peers around the world – something that he should milk to the fullest extent to improve the approval ratings for the US in the eyes of the world.

But the bottom-line is that we live in historic times and one expects that Obama goes down in history for his presidential term(s) and governance rather than for his election!


Thursday, October 16, 2008


Well, this is not an article about the political debate that was on tonight, but it does have implications in that sphere as well. This is about “debate” in the generic sense – a discussion when two or more entities/people/parties disagree on a certain topic and decide to talk about it.

Seems like the majority of discussions (debates, if you will) fall into one of two categories:

1. politically correct, staid, excessively “civil”, no trace of passion

2. “your mother is a $!*&# because you don’t agree with me”

Now [1] tends to a bit boring because people are afraid to articulate their true thoughts/emotions for fear of being misjudged or labeled the wrong way. The second, while it makes for interesting television, evokes the wrong set of sentiments. How often does a discussion quickly step out of bounds because one or both parties got carried away with an unnecessary comment or judgment call?

Now, neither of these two extremes achieves the true purpose of the debate – understanding the other side(s) and achieving consensus. The first, as I mentioned, is overly civil and the true reasons and thoughts of the parties involved are not known. The whole affair is put up and made for “appearing” to do the right thing. So the public face is quite different from the private one and hence it is extremely unlikely that people will put aside their prejudices and beliefs for such a farcical  process to yield results.

The problem with the second one is obvious – name-calling and personal insults do not go hand in hand with understanding, compromise or consensus. Once this route has opened up there is pretty much no going back. The statement above (about one’s mother) is akin to the corollary in Godwin’s law; once someone likens you to a Nazi/Hitler or insults your mother, then every statement that you made before, no matter how well constructed or how logically or fundamentally correct, is open to question and shaded grey. If you really believe in a cause/opinion, then the best way for someone to belittle it is to let you (yes, you, who might be the most fervent proponent of the viewpoint) hang yourself with statements such as these. Agreed that it is a logical fallacy. Just because you likened someone to Hitler doesn’t mean that the polar bears are not dying! But, unfortunately, you have handed your opponent(s) the leisure to ignore everything (yes, that’s right everything) you have ever said in that discussion. The lack of a platform to present your views or the possibility that you are not taken seriously enough is potentially more dangerous to your “cause”.

If you are thinking, “I don’t do that.” I never insult anyone that way. Let me put this across to you – even if you pass of what you think is a trivial insult (“what an idiot!”) or make a silly sarcastic comment with negative connotations (“your points of view are certainly ‘interesting’ ”), you are still guilty of taking the second path! This is because, to someone in the middle of passionately expressing their point of view or defending their faith, so as to speak, there is nothing worse than mockery, no matter how subtle. From then on, it is a free-for-all and matters can only get worse, because every exchange drags the quality of the arguments lower until [2] (or something very close) is achieved.

Is there no middle ground? Can we not have a passionate debate without falling into the gutter? How’s this as a third option:

3. each party will passionately vocalize their point(s) of view, listen to the others, bring up facts, arguments and opinions that counter the expressed views and then allow the other side to do the same. A bit like a sparring match.

Don’t get me wrong though – I’m not talking about a “clinical” approach where someone makes a point and then the other spends 5 minutes thinking about it and then responding with “logical fallacy” arguments and what not. That would approach method [1] from above and would end up becoming boring, both, to the participants and to the viewers, if any. Be passionate, go on record with those contentious thoughts and opinions, fervently argue against the points made by the opposition, all without resorting to calling into question the judgment of the other side. They have their reasons for picking a particular side (or staying impartial which is actually harder that you can imagine) and there is no reason to question their motives for picking that side or insulting them for doing so. The question I have is – so what if they don’t agree with you? Consider it time well spent, shake on it and walk off. No harm done. You don’t ever have to have a discussion with them ever again on that or any other topic if you think that you will never agree with them. Perhaps in time, they will come to realize that your point of view is correct and may start to agree with you. If you had chosen method [2] then there is very little scope that this could happen. All it takes someone who is a partial or even true believer to harden his stance, is to be belittled or insulted for holding that opinion.

Seems like we have lost the ability to have true civilized debates (not the ones mentioned in [1]) in the modern world. Television and the large propagation of media (traditional and otherwise) might be pushing people to pick [1] or [2]. The former because anything can be taken out of context and misrepresented and the latter because it sells more newspapers and increases television ratings. What must the ordinary man on the street (“Joe Plumber”) think and learn when he sees his peers, his administrators, policy makers, celebrities, commentators and even teachers and educators around him stick to one of these two extreme techniques? Where are the people who could raise a crowd to its feet with passionate speeches and counter-arguments without ever insulting the other party? Are they a dying, nay dead, breed?

Here is an interesting note to end on: how often does one see a debate/discussion start with method [1] (or a brief attempt at [3]) and then invariably end up at [2]?


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Graphic Novel Review | "Doctor Who" #1

"Legends tell of the planet Gallifrey, born before the dark time, home of the most powerful beings in the cosmos.

By harnessing the powers of a black hole, they traveled in time. They became benign gods of the universe.

Learned and responsible, they observed the universe, understanding causal effect, and monitoring and protecting the fragile web of time.

But there was a war. A terrible, devastating war, which they were party to...and in one second, Gallifrey, the time lords, a many planets, systems, and galaxies were consumed. Gone forever as the universe itself collapsed. "

What would you do if you were the only survivor of this great race of Time Lords from Gallifrey? What if you were The Doctor - one who can instill fear, respect, love and admiration all at once? What would you do to carry on your heritage and protect the time stream from the many demons out there?

Go on a hunt for the best chocolate milkshake in the known cosmos, that's what!

With the success of the BBC television series, Doctor Who is back in business - albeit in the color panels of a graphic novel series from IDW publishing. This series follows the escapades of the 10th doctor and his companion, the Brit Martha Jones, in the "Time and Relative Dimension in Space" (TARDIS) vehicle shaped like a London police box.

The storytelling and art are typical - tongue-in-cheek humour interspersed with some interesting gadgets, trans-dimensional villains, and of course the really tough choices: "Dark or Milk?", "Belgian or Swiss?" - milkshakes that is.

Not everything is fun and milky joy for the Doctor and his companion of course - they must face off against a villain, Sycorax, intent of collecting the Doctor to use him as prey for Sycorax's clients who like to hunt species on the verge of extinction. Sycorax himself is the paradigm of elegance, exuding class with menace, all the while mouthing lines such as, "Sycorax strong, humans weak, that is why we rock!"

This new graphic novel adaptation of the classic Doctor Who series keeps the spirit of the original television series and books alive. It has enough gadgetry, humour and thrill to keep us involved. The book ends with a bit of a cliffhanger in London. While this was the first of the series, I would definitely love to get my hands on the remaining books.


Graphic Novel Review | "Therefore Repent" by Jim Munroe and Salgood Sam

"The Rapture is the name given to a future event in which Jesus Christ will descend from Heaven,"

What if the rapture went from being mythology to reality? So if you were living a "saintly" life as deemed by God, you would be led into heaven by the Son of God himself. If the rapture event came to pass, and if you were one of the folks left behind, how would you feel? Would you feel like a complete schmuck for either not believing in Christianity, or worse, being a Christian and not living a "saintly" life?

"accompanied by the spirits of all the saints of God, both from the pre-incarnation period and after, who have passed on prior to this event,"

"Therefore Repent", released in the United States by IDW publishing, is set in such a world - in a time after the Rapture has taken place. Those that remain, either were not "invited" to join in, chose to remain, or worse, could not get outdoors in time to be drawn up into heaven! People left behind either spend their time in "repenting" and trying to lead good lives so that they are part of the rapture the next time around, or just watching the world go to hell.

"and then the bodily remains of these saints are transported from the Earth to meet the Lord and be rejoined with their corresponding spirits in the air."

Before you go, "not another one of those morality tales telling us that we should live good lives for the promise of heaven, etc." read on a bit. Matters are not as they seem and there is more to the rapture event than meets the eye. Munroe and Sam have some sharp wit running through the story, and particularly towards the end, where everything is revealed. They are able to twist a morality tale into one with sharp humor and witty undertones. Along the way the story takes somewhat weird turns, such as talking dogs, ravens, third eyes, commando angels, and a real kinky method for email transmissions.

"Immediately after this, all Christians alive on the earth are simultaneously transported to meet the Lord and those who have preceded them in the air. "

They all push you towards the climax that will leave you either really laughing your head off, or forcing you to think deep and do some soul searching as regards religion, life, etc. - worse, it could make you do both!

The art is in stark black and white with some great paneling. It brings out the mood for the book depending on what your mood is - dark undertones for a gloomy world, or a representation of the dark humor that is prevalent throughout the book.

" All are transformed into immortal bodies like Jesus' body, often referred to as the "resurrection body".

It is a good read - something that definitely forces a double take on organized religion and also makes for a good laugh. It is interesting that the book starts with a quote from Revelation 2:16:

"Therefore Repent! If you do not, I will come to you soon and fight against them with the sword of my mouth"


Friday, February 29, 2008

In memorium...

...for Netscape, which faces its last day (so as to speak) today. How interesting that it has to be Feb 29!

Rest in peace. Your progeny still carry the legacy forward:

Friday, January 11, 2008

Book Review | Graphic Novel "Unbeatable"

Is a nightmare just a dream gone wrong, or does the cause lie somewhere else? What if you wake up in a padded cell and then slip into endless nightmares day after day? Nightmares that don't make sense. Nightmares that have you dying day in and day out. How do you get out of the cycle and try to make sense of what is going on? How do you stop yourself from going insane? Wait a minute...what if you are already insane?

Matthias Wolf's first effort at a Graphic novel titled "Unbeatable" starts off really well. It shows a young man in pain, waking up in a padded cell with no memories of what has transpired. Before he realizes it, he is launched into dream after dream where all he does is fight the most famous warriors in history with a predictable outcome -- his death at their hands.

The book is slick -- well crafted images, great start with the plot unwinding slowly at times but with large leaps and bounds at other times.

He remembers growing up in a small town, his first crush, his mild mannered father who guides him along the various pitfalls of life that only a high-schooler can experience, when things seem to go wrong in seemingly small ways.

His father, the epitome of non-violence breaks loose and unleashes his fury and is then immediately paid a visit by a mysterious person whom he recognizes, but our protagonist has never seen before. A "creature" is helped in his escape from a highly secure facility who then rampages across the countryside and finds our hero's girlfriend as a victim after he has been knocked unconscious. To top it all, he wakes up in a padded cell with no memories and gruesome battles and deaths to follow.

The storytelling and art are great, with styles reminiscent of manga artwork -- somewhat comic, yet deadly serious. The coloring is fantastic - invoking exactly the kind of mood and feelings that the author intended. 

The only problem I had was when the plot unwinds towards the end -- it seems too sudden and too convenient. While there are no doubts in the reader's mind as to what has been happening, perhaps a couple of more pages and panels could have been dedicated to explaining the concept in a more careful manner.

All said and done, this is a great first effort and if there is a sequel (or even other titles from the same group) then I shall definitely like to get my hands on it.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book Review | Complete Graphic Novel version of Clive Barkers "The Great and Secret Show"

Did you ever get the feeling that there is something other than what seems "real"? A vague feeling of undercurrents in everyday life? That something lies beneath the surface, and yet cannot be seen, heard or touched? What if that something is a source of unimaginable power and yet we cannot know of its existence?

The real scary part -- what if by being at a particular point in time or place you chance upon the existence of this seemingly endless source of power and worse, misery?

Clive Barker is a master of horror. He can weave stories around you while you are busy concentrating on something else -- concentrating on something as dull as a post office clerk working in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere becomes somewhere for Randolph Jaffe the aforementioned post-office clerk. He becomes aware of something called "the art" which can help him gain access to a mystical sea known as "quiddity". To gain access to this source of supposedly infinite power, he calls upon Richard Fletcher to help him. Fletcher, through scientific (or other) means, is able to find a way through to the "art".

Here begins a battle for control of the art -- a battle that calls upon huge resources of power and energy from Jaffe on the one side and Fletcher on the other...a classic good vs evil battle.

But, is that what this book is all about? Does it come down to that overabused concept of good vs evil?

The answer: doesn't everything come down to that quintessential question? Choices must be made in life and sometimes those choices are black and white. What you choose defines you and if you are the source of great power, then it probably defines an entire generation, if not more. Barker is able to conjure up these ideas by having his chief characters fight it out over various realms of the real and unreal. But his genius is the fact that he doesn't leave the storyline at such a simplification.

Four teenage girls frolicking in a countryside are raped by the "spirits" of both Jaffe and Fletcher -- to impregnate them so that their progeny can continue the battle. Yes, that's correct -- both of them fall to the level of raping the young girls. Here's where the gray comes into the battle. No one side is "pure" anymore. They are both willing to do whatever it takes to win. Does the end justify the means? That is what both sides seem to believe in this tale...

Well, guess what - eighteen years later, their progeny answer the "call" and come out on one side or the other. Or do they? What if they don't want to take the roles chosen for them by their powerful fathers? What if they are attracted to each other?

A whole host of characters go in and out at a dizzying pace in the story. We can see that Clive Barker did not intend for us to sit still and follow single lines of thought. There are subplots within subplots. For instance, who is the woman in the desert? Who is this Kissoon character really, and how is he able to exist in a single moment over and over? What happens if Quiddity is breached?

Do not worry -- Barker and his host of characters have answers to everything in this first (and yet complete) book in the "Art Trilogy". 

Adapted into the graphic novel version by Chris Ryall (who adapted "Shaun of the Dead") and Gabriel Rodriguez (who adapted "George A Romero's Land of the Dead") the storytelling reaches new heights. IDW has a history of great titles, and this is definitely one of the top graphic novels from their stable. The artwork and visual images evoked in the adaptation heightens the understanding of the original story and also makes us involved in the sequence of events. It is extremely difficult to put down and makes for fascinating reading. I now want to get my hands on the second book in the "Art Trilogy" -- "Everville", or even its graphic novel adaptation.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Customer service woes...

What is it about interacting with customer service that seems to drive us over the edge? Is it the incessant lack of logic and rationality that we have to face from time to time? No matter which industry (telecom, credit cards, insurance, you name it) the same problems keep creeping up all the time.

The standard answer of "the system says so, hence, it must be true" must be intentionally designed to bring out the maximum frustration among the customers. I have often been tempted to reply, "you know I am fairly competent in Computer Science and I know that the system is only what you put into it. It does not have a life of its own," but held off from doing so, if only to avoid the metaphysical discussion that would inevitably follow about "the system" having a life of its own!

Then it seems like the first person you speak to about your problem cannot help you, because the rules don't allow them to do anything about your situation. "But for a low fee of $14.95 we can ensure that you do not receive additional penalties!"

Most people will probably hang up, pay the additional fees, seethe about how they got screwed over and then forget about it -- until their next tryst with a customer service rep, when the horror starts all over again. Some resourceful people will actually record their experiences and force the company to pay them back. Interestingly, the companies still do not learn!

I had a recent experience with AT&T customer service. Here's the history:

  • I was supposed to get a certain discount, every month, since July of this year
  • as of last month (November) they hadn't credited me with this discount
  • my bill was over $100

I complained. They said they would look into it but with complete skepticism, as if I was lying about it. They called the actual store I got the plan from and then came back, in an apologetic tone, stating that the credits would be applied and my bill would be reduced to what it should be. I then get a call this month stating that my cell phone service would be disconnected for not paying the $100+ bill. I called them back and asked what about my credits and guess what I heard?

"What credits?"

Imagine that. Long explanations all over again, part of which included the following statement from their rep,

"sir do you use your phone for voice service?"

My incredulous response: "can you please repeat?"

Them: "do you make or receive calls from your phone?"

Somehow I felt that this might be a parallel universe where the meaning of a cellular phone was somehow different! Anyways, after much plodding I was assured there was a mistake and that they would credit my account, etc. etc.

I ask: "should I just go ahead and pay the balance to ensure that my account will be valid?"

Response: "not required. We will fix this matter. Call us back in a couple of days and we'll see." End of call.

10 minutes later, my cellphone service has been...you guessed it -- disconnected! I call back from another phone and try to explain the situation

Response: "Sir, your phone has been disconnected due to non-payment. Unless you pay the amount in full we cannot restore the service. Of course, there is an additional charge of $36 to restore your service!"

I tried to reason with her and then got this response: "as a one time courtesy to you we will remove the $36 connection charge, but you must pay the balance in full!"

I ask to speak to manager/supervisor, who tells me more of the same but then I'm forced to pay half of the balance to get my service back. Apparently they will apply the credits in due course and everything will be adjusted.

Then comes the best part of the whole incident. As I'm waiting for the half payment to go through, the supervisor tells me,

"Sir we are not charging you the $36 fee as a one-time courtesy only! In the future, if you are disconnected, you must pay that fee"

Me: "you do realise that this happened because your people made a mistake?"

Her: "Sir, I do realise, but I am warning you that in the future this should not reoccur from your side."

Me: "but you still do realise that it wasn't my fault and that your people messed up?"

Her: "Sir I understand, but I'm just laying the ground rules and expectations for future dealings!" (who speaks like this in real life???)

Me (mixed exasperation with attempt to not laugh into the phone while trying hard and somewhat succeeding to keep my voice at an even tone): "Ok, now I am laying the groundwork hoping that your people will not screw up my bill and then charge me for it, cancel my service and attempt to charge me for reconnecting it -- while it was the fault of your personnel, all the time!"

30 seconds of silence on the phone and then,

Her: "thank you sir. your payment has been approved. Would you like to take down the confirmation number?"

Still no admission of guilt.

 While it was exasperating that they had made a mistake and were continuing to do it even after I thought I had cleared it with their reps a month ago, the really annoying part is where they're condescending to me. The supervisor and the rep before acted as though they were doing me a favour! They did not really admit to something being wrong from their side, and yet were insisting that they were fixing the errors only as a "one-time courtesy." This is the whole attitude that annoys me. That and coupled with the fact that the first person you speak to is typically of no help. I think their job is to just stall and see if you go away. If you don't, then they put you on hold for a long time and then come back asking, "sir, are you still there?"

I have realized that the best way to get something worthwhile done after a couple of minutes of explaining it to the first rep, is to ask to speak to the supervisor. And failing that, ask to speak to their supervisor. Finally you do get to someone who can help and finally will. There was that one time though that one person said that I can't talk to anyone else simply because there is no one above him. I expressed surprise that I was speaking to the CEO of the company and that how nice it was that he was actually responding to customer calls! Well, sarcasm worked in that case and he transferred me to his boss who finally solved the problem.

So after many years of frustration in dealing with customer service, I finally believe that it is a cleverly designed system - a system to keep people out, where only the persistent ones get their problems resolved. So the next time, perhaps ask to speak to the supervisor directly and spare yourself the task of reducing your lifespan trying to explain the problem multiple times.

Oh and definitely record the conversations. Absolutely. You never know when it might come in handy.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Book Review | Graphic Novel version of Richard Matheson's "I am Legend"

So who decides if you are human? Is if enough that each person holds on to the unshakeable belief that he or she is human? What if everyone else thought that you were not one of them? Does that shake your beliefs or do you hold onto them with a vice-like grip -- afraid that your last attempts to stave off insanity must mean that you must hold these beliefs closer than ever?

Richard Matheson's "I am Legend" forces us to ask the question - if everyone else on the planet is alike and you are the only one who is "different," then who is really human - you or them? What if all of them were bloodthirsty vampires out to kill you? Every single one of them! Since you are obviously in an abject minority, does it really matter that you believe that they are "freaks"? Does it give you the right to decide that their lives are not worth it and your is more important?

These questions hit home; uncomfortably so in fact in this book. When it is in the stark black and white that is the graphic novel adaptation from IDW by Steve Niles and Elman Brown, there is no question that this is not just any other "cool" vampire book.

This book will dispel any preconceived notions about graphic novels or vampire stories. The protagonist is not a muscle-bound super-smart guy who uses cool technology and martial arts moves to bring down vampires. Robert Neville is just another small town guy who has suffered the loss of his wife and daughter to the vampire manifestation (or is it a "virus"?) and has to survive being hunted down every night. He's neither good looking, nor does he have a technology expert helping him hunt vampires. He does so the old-fashioned way -- shaping wooden stakes from planks and putting up garlic cloves everywhere.

He has to constantly fight his all too human urges -- fires within his loins for instance. This is a facet that keeps him tottering on the edge. Whether he will give up all attempts at humanity and rape a female in sleep or if he can control himself -- are positions that he must constantly evaluate and painfully so. He does try to attack the problem analytically to understand the "scientific" issue of vampirism even while facing failure from time to time.

Is he right in trying to preserve his ideas of right and wrong? Does he have the right to kill vampires in their sleep? Are they now the "humans" on the planet and he an aberration? How does one man fight an entire planet?

The movie adaptation with Will Smith will have a tough time keeping up -- not just with the original book, but more so with this "visual" adaptation. They already seem to have started on a wrong note by making the protagonist "Dr." Robert Neville - trying to infuse some sort of intelligence to tackle the problem. Well, I won't prejudge the movie until I see it, but the graphic novel adaptation sure does look like a tough act to follow.

If you haven't read this book, then well, you should! And it is also a good book to show those people who believe that graphic novels are for prepubescent teenagers to salivate over hot babes/superheroes in tight costumes. This book shows that quality graphic novels can achieve a level of storytelling that is often hard to beat.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Bill vs Bill.

Bill O'Reilly vs Bill Maher that is.

No, this is not a post where I compare the two - one supposedly a battle-weary veteran holding fort for the "fair and balanced" news network and the other holding up the bastion of the liberal left against the "evil" right wingers. This is not one of those situations where I find which one is better and say that the other one should shut up.

On the contrary, I find them to be incredibly alike! Yeah, that's right, alike! Hmm...somewhere in both worlds (the liberal and the conservative ones, for clearly, they occupy different planets) heads are popping and hearts are giving out simply because I'm writing this, nay, even thinking about it!

Well, surely I'm mistaken, they say. I must mean that O'Reilly and Maher are exact opposites of each other - why look at their shows, their views, their guests, etc. They cannot be alike - it must be an error of judgement on my part. Perhaps I'm a one of those left-wing liberals trying to bring down a straight-talking, shoot from the hip TV host. Perhaps I'm a right-wing, conservative who is trying to bring down a straight-talking, shoot from the hip TV host. Hmm, now what could be common among those two statements?

Let me get rid of the subtlety and sarcasm to just get down to the point. They are both biased, stick to extremes on their own sides, push their own left-liberal/right-conservative agendas, trash talk about and talk down to people they don't agree with and bring up hypothetical situations about the attack on the right/left.

http://wickedstageact2.typepad.com/life_on_the_wicked_stage_/WindowsLiveWriter/BillOReillySaysHesOnAlQaedasDeathList_12F9D/oreillymad3.jpgThey both take pot shots are each other (well, at least of late I've seen Maher do that to O'Reilly and I'm sure the other Bill can never resist a brawl). I mean think about it - they're both preaching to the choir, and increasing the division between their respective audiences. During a time that bipartisanship is supposedly at its height, what are The image “http://www.thirdwayblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/06/bill-maher1_062702.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.they doing but fanning the flames? And they each blame the other side for doing the exact same thing that they themselves do. While O'Reilly claims that the media is left-leaning  and they're baby-murderers and terrorist-supporters, Maher claims that O'Reilly and his kind are right-wingers who lust for oil and are...yup, you got that right...baby-murderers and terrorist-supporters!

The more I think about this, the more similarities I find between the two. They can always bring up hypothetical situations (or get guests who will do it for them) which supposedly can put the other side in a "tight spot". Come on - they're hypothetical for a reason - they are artificially constructed examples that can probably never occur in real life! If they could and did occur, then you wouldn't have to ask these questions would you? The answers would be fairly obvious!

I think such "media-types" are more to blame for the problems and "fear psychosis" in today's society - at least definitely more than their targets, the politicians they like to slam. While politicians and other people in the news are expressing their private opinions, whatever they may be, such talk show hosts are the ones who are pushing these views onto the public, in what is probably a pathetic attempt to boost their ratings. And I believe that this is the worst thing to do - take side and play divisive politics without real convictions - just for increased ad revenues!

Here is a good example (and probably a rare one) of the two having a conversation...the interesting thing to note is that they still take pot-shots at each other. O'Reilly starts of by claiming that Maher has all these left-wing nut jobs on his show and then gets a good response about O'Reilly being the one who supposedly "plays it down the middle". Towards the end, Maher takes a shot at Guilliani for being a "cross-dresser" and O'Reilly takes him down, and rightly so, by asking him about what the clothes have anything to do with it.

Hmm, am I beginning to sound like them? Am I doing to them what I claim they do to others? Perhaps, but at least I'm doing it to both sides and to be honest, I have yet to see some ad revenue, and now that I've managed to piss off both sides, I doubt if I will see any.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Movie Review | Transformers doesn't disappoint...all that much

I have, of late been reading the webcomic, "Least I Could Do" by Ryan Sohmer and Lar DeSouza. It is quite funny and really hits the spot especially if you are a twenty-something who has grown up in an urban environment. I had particular reason to think back about one recent strip as I was heading off to watch the "Transformers" movie by Michael Bay...

My thoughts exactly! Having watched a lot of the Transformers cartoon series when I was young, I was really apprehensive about the movie, especially since the trailers didn't seem to be really very interesting. And the part that I was most worried about - it's being directed by Michael Bay! Come on, he has Armageddon and Pearl Harbor to his credit! Even though the former was a huge hit and collected millions in the box office, I found it to be a dismal joke. So while expectations were not very high, I was hoping that my pre-analysis would prove to be wrong and that the movie would blow me out of my seat, and luckily for me, that did turn out to be the case.

First off, let me say that the movie is an out and out action blockbuster - the action hardly ever lets up and makes for one thrilling joy ride after another. It starts with a bang and then keeps up a fast breakneck pace. So, the only reason you would get bored, is if your idea of a night at the movies is sitting at home watching a Freddie Prince Jr. movie marathon in your pink pajamas with a batch of tissue paper!

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie because it has all the ingredients for a great summer blockbuster -- great action, fantastic special effects, fast storytelling, nostalgic memories of weekends spent watching the Transformers cartoons in our childhood, hot women, great cars and a bit of wit! Yes, that's right - they have some intentionally funny moments, at least in the first half of the movie. Most of the funny incidents and one-liners come from the unwilling protagonist played by Shia LaBeouf. He's a bumbling idiot who is always picked on by the jocks and can't seem to make women notice him, even if he spent many years studying in the same classroom with them. He gains centerstage attention because he unwittingly obtains the directions to a source of great power - something that two robot armies, who have been waging war for millennia, have been seeking for a long time.

The "Automatons" and the "Decepticons" are the good and bad guys, respectively. The former are trying to prevent the latter from achieving their goals - of taking over the Universe, presumably. Earth becomes the staging point for their battle, because "Megatron", the leader of the Decepticons has crashed here thousands of years ago and him and a vital instrument are missing and are the central objects of an intense struggle and search by the others. They have the ability to transform themselves at will and take on the looks and behaviour of any machinery -- from cars to stereos to army vehicles to aircraft to even cell phones. Some of these robots have been on Earth for many years, trying to understand the nuances of human civilization all the while searching for their objective. One, "Bumblebee" in particular, has the mission of protecting our hero.

So this is the perfect setup for Robot armies to invade the Earth and then start pounding each other without any regard for human life or property. What results is a carnage of intense violence and breathtaking action and special effects sequences. The camera work is also a delight to watch and some of the slow-motion sequences add a nice touch to the movie. There is one particular scene, shot in slow motion, of a car transforming itself into a robot while jumping over a shocked woman and at the same time trying to avoid missiles being fired at it. The scream of the woman, slowed down while still retaining a high pitch brings in a touch of humour to the entire situation.

The second half of the movie starts to become a bit cliched though - while the action still remains at a top level, the storyline and dialogues seem to take a serious nosedive, often times bordering on the nonsensical. The dialogues between "Optimums Prime" (the leader of the good guys, Automatons) and "Megatron" (the leader of the Decepticons) become cheesier and cheesier as the action seems to get hotter. Its look as though the scriptwriters and directors got caught up in planning and writing up all the action sequences that they seemed to have forgotten that a movies must also have dialogues and at the last minute patched in cliched, typical dialogues from various disaster movies. Lines akin to "these fragile humans do not deserve to exist", and "they must make their own choice", or even the spiel about how we are a "young race" who must "find our own way" and "our way of life needs protecting", etc. are uttered far too often.

Then there seems to be the whole idea of all the bad guys disguising themselves as authoritarian vehicles - either police cars of military vehicles (helicopters, tanks, military trucks, etc.) while the good guys get to be cool sports cars, road trucks, pickups, etc. In fact, most of the bad guys are military vehicles. Is Michael Bay trying to send "subliminal" messages about the current war and political situation? Is he trying to state that the military and the government are bad? Is this a dig on the military-industrial complex, perhaps? Oh, the subtlety! Surely no one noticed this as it was not thrown on their face a few hundred times! While directing good action sequences seems to be Bay's forte, subtlety and smartness surely doesn't seem to be.

Of course, the cast and their so-called acting wasn't very great either. Except for Labeouf, everyone else seemed to be labouring through their roles and acting in a bemused sort of way - since they must now act with non-existent actors all around them (the special effects, robots, etc.), they seem to be finding it difficult to adjust eye and body movements to obtain a natural effect. What results is a loss of sync between the live actors and the CGI. While Megan Fox was the eye-candy for the movie, she did have a decent role and performed admirably well. Rachel Taylor, with her thick Australian accent, was a bit irritating as the "special advisor" to the defense secretary. She doesn't seem to know anything about the tech stuff that she was talking about, which kind of lets her off the hot seat a bit, as much of the tech stuff didn't make sense anyways! Ok, ok, I agree - in a movie about self-transforming robotic aliens waging war on Earth, technical correctness may not always be the thing to look for -- but lines like, "can you hotwire this computer to connect it to that ancient morse code generator so that it could send morse code" and then pointing to and picking up the computer monitor was not even funny - it was plain pathetic!

There were also definite gaps in the storyline and it seemed like they were in some sort of a rush to get the movie done and out this summer. Seems like they couldn't "transform" a bad script into a good one.

Of course, the most glaring point of the movie was the garish product placement - from the Panasonic SD card to all of the GM vehicles. Phew! It was in-your-face and hard to ignore. I'm not against product placement if it is done in style. Hey, they need money to make the movies and if companies will shell out money so that they get a couple of seconds of showtime, then let that be the case. But there must be some limits -- in once scene, Rachel Taylor's character removes the SD card from a computer and holds it for a second while showing it to the camera instead of doing whatever she intended to do with it. Oh, then there was the over-abundance of GM vehicles. One would think that the only vehicles that the world ever had were made by GM! But the plus side of this was all the cool cars that were shown - especially the new Chevy Camaro and the Pontiac Solstice. Both transform into some really cool robots, and the transformations are as much fun to watch as the action sequences.

Well, I could say that this movie is worth a watch and it does provide sheer entertainment - at least for the guys and geeks everywhere. If you were a fan of the original cartoon series and action figures, then it is a must watch, but be prepared to switch your brains off for a while, and ignore the bad acting. Apart from that, you might enjoy it, thoroughly.