Dream Theater

A few days ago, I watched Almost Famous again. DVDs really spoil you and I am real sucker for all the extra material, outtakes, interviews, etc. Of course, listening to the commentaries is always informative, only if not done in the manner of Ridley Scott. The new DVD aspect has not escaped the filmmakers; they are quite conscious of shooting material with the explicit purpose of using it for the DVD version.

As I was watching the movie, I was reminded of the time I first watched it in Pune's Vijay theater. It perhaps has the lowest ratio of quality of theater versus quality of movie. The building is crumbling, the seats are bad, the sound even worse. Simply fitting a projector in the former stage theater into a movie theater is not a good idea. Yet, the box-office was often sold-out. Till the monstrous multiplexes came along a few years ago there weren't too many places to watch an English flick. The neighbouring Alka theatre, a much better theater, obliged less often and often with poorer films. Vijay theater is so bad that even the refreshments are terrible. How hard can it be to serve a half-decent wada-pav in city of Pune? Vijay has managed.

But as I flipped through all the fancy options on the DVD, I wondered if watching a movie at Vijay is perversely better. Vijay theater strips away everything that could possibly bias your judgement about the movie: plush seats, acoustically-aware design, better speakers, popcorn with seasoning, cup-holders; really the only things that the newer multiplexes have to offer. All the viewer is left with is the moviemaker and his movie.

In a few weeks, I will be home and I am looking forward to seeing the latest flick there. This time I will be better prepared and will bring my own wada-pav!

Genuine or Fake?

Take the test and find out if you can tell the difference. Just for kicks, I need take a look at some group photos. I bet most of them are fake.


Well-known for its poke and toke tourists, Van Gogh and bikes. Amsterdam is the only major city in Europe not to have a major landmark. This is because the self-effacing Dutch believe not in ostentation but in practicality. The celebrated liberal attitudes of city are a result of the apathetic nature of the Dutch.

On Hunters and Gatherers

If you were ever a part of the madness called the Day-After-Thanksgiving Sale a.k.a. Black Friday you know what I mean:
Malls are not for men. These are places where men are least welcome, least required and least comfortable.

There are only a few ways you can get a guy to go to a mall:
a)He was told he will surely find something nice and was 'tricked' into coming
b)He was emotionally blackmailed
c)There is a really huge sale on electronic items
d)This is his first visit

Shopping is the same, but on Black Friday, everything I describe below should be viewed at a magnification of 10x. Most stores are of little interest to men. In the big stores - Sears, JC Penny, Macy's, etc. almost all the space is devoted to women's products. Somewhere, tucked away in the corner there will be a tiny men's section. Even there you will find women furiously turning everything over and you start feeling as if you were intruding. In fact you are since you have no interest nor inclination to buy.

Then just are you are beginning to adjust you will be startled by a voice crying out behind you - "Are you finding everything okay?" It is the salesperson with a beatific smile. While you are far from feeling comfortable, you mumble that you are "Doing okay!", "Fine!", whatever. Then most guys, like me, will start playing with their cell-phones. There is no TV to watch, beer to drink, games to play, trails to follow or animals to hunt.

In the mall context women are the hunters and men are the gatherers. As women collect their various trophies obtained at an 'incredibly low price', they cannot but tell the tale of the capture of the elusive bounty. "You know I have been looking for this colour for months? I finally, finally found one and it fits perfectly. It was the last piece too!" The men patiently listen and gather the shopping bags.

If you want an greater sense of alienation then try walking into a shoe store, alone. After being bored in exactly 1 minute and 23 seconds, I decided to conduct a spot-survey. There were 35 women and exactly 5 guys (including myself). An important observation was that all of the guy captives were being escorted by women. These gender ratios would be completely reversed in say, in a Best Buy. Talk about sexism!

Another piece of advice: Never mess with women drivers in trying to beat them for parking space in the mall. You will not win on their home turf.

This tongue-in-cheek article called:How to Buy nothing, had me rolling on the floor laughing. It does have a few sensible ideas. I suspect that the page has been created and edited mostly by men.

Measuring the Unmeasurable

Natures reports on the latest scientific effort at measuring happiness.

There is further debate as to whether trying to do something about people's happiness is feasible in principle. Some researchers favour the idea that people have a 'hedonic setpoint' that stays remarkably constant in the face of bouquets and brickbats. Such a setpoint need not in principle be unalterable, but its alteration might require an approach with a pharmacological component, raising the problem that one of the things we value about happiness is its authenticity. Another is its autonomy. Governments may guarantee citizens freedom in their pursuit of happiness, but we bridle against the idea of its ever being enforced.

Further it seems that
This contributed to the notion of a 'hedonic setpoint' to which people return no matter what life throws their way. And based on studies showing similar levels of reported happiness in twins, the setpoint appeared to be genetically determined.

Determinism triumphs! Not too happy about that! :(

Is Development * Culture = K ?
or, Why India =Turbans and Camels?

Most books on India have a disproportionate number of pictures and stories from Rajasthan. To outsiders, the idyllic world of camels, cows, colourful saris and handle-bar moustaches seems to convey a more authentic feel that the rest of homogenized India. While relative proximity to the nation's capital has helped, I feel that the Rajasthan theme is rather overworked and it is time that writers and cameras moved on. Simply being drawn to the visual appeal of Rajasthan is rather superficial. To me, local culture in other regions is equally rich. Reflecting on William Dalrymple's essay on the oral tradition of Rajasthan titled "Homer In India" (The New Yorker, Nov 20, 2006, Issue 38), I feel I might need to alter this view.

A young Harvard classicist named Milman Parry had a brilliant theory that Homer's works, the foundation upon which all subsequent European literature rested, must have originally been oral poems, and that they contained certain recurring formulas that he thought were a product of traditions of oral transmission. He believed that to study Homer properly you had first to understand how oral poetry worked, and that since Yugoslavia was the place in Europe where such traditions had best survived he caught a ship to Yugoslavia in 1933 to prove it in the field. Parry was described as a sort of "the Darwin of oral literature".

He writes:
While I was staying at Rohet, I heard about what seemed to be the most remarkable survival of all: the existence of several orally transmitted epic poems. Unlike the ancient epics of Europe--the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Nibelungenlied (the basis of Wagner's "Ring Cycle")--which were now the province only of academics and literature classes, the epics of Rajasthan were still very much alive. They were preserved by a caste of wandering bhopas--shamans and bards--who travelled from village to village, staging performances.

It is perversity that the most backward, conservative regions are often culturally the richest? More than any other part of the country, large chunks of Rajasthan remained under the authority of the local hereditary rulers. It was only after the abolition of the privy-purses in 1971 that the age-old feudal structure started to really erode. This raises a difficult moral question.

Moreover, the Gujars are very often illiterate, and illiteracy seems an essential condition for preserving the performance of an oral epic. It was the ability of the bard to read, rather than changes in the tastes of his audience, that sounded the death knell for the oral tradition. Just as the blind can develop a heightened sense of hearing, smell, and touch to compensate for their loss of vision, so it seems that the illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not.

This was certainly the conclusion of the Indian folklorist Komal Kothari. In the nineteen-fifties, Kothari came up with the idea of sending one of his principal sources, a singer from the Langa caste named Lakha, to adult-education classes. The idea was that he would learn to read and write, thus making it easier to collect the many songs he had preserved. Soon Kothari noticed that Lakha needed to consult his diary before he began to sing. Yet the rest of the Langa singers were able to remember hundreds of songs--an ability that Lakha had somehow begun to lose as he slowly learned to write.

In the Yugoslavian case the recordings survived, but the actual oral tradition did not. Death of oral tradition takes along with it an entire subset of culture, leaving behind only a skeleton of words preserved in mummified form on CDs. Sad, but can it be preserved in a living form? If it can, then what about the moral implications as suggested above?

I agree that it is a bit of a leap to generalize from oral tradition to culture in general; but, are more developed regions of India culturally shallower than more backward regions like Rajasthan? Local culture in other regions are equally rich, but not as well preserved. If so, then I should not begrude Rajasthan's preeminent position on the covers of those books.

When I read about traditions dying, I feel that I am personally responsible in a way.
Yet, culturally we are relatively better off as this paragraph from the essay suggests,

Anthony Lane noted in this magazine in 2001, in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States, that the people of New York again and again compared what had happened to them to films: "It was like 'Independence Day' "; "It was like 'Die Hard' "; "No, 'Die Hard 2.' " In contrast, when the tsunami struck at the end of 2004, Indians were able to reach for a more sustaining narrative than disaster movies: the catastrophic calamities and floods that fill the Mahabharata and the Hindu tradition in general.

But then, we might have much more to lose too.

(If want a copy of the article write to: A C H I L L E S - G M A I L)

The Game

I am not much of a spectator when it comes to sports. But today is different, so I am told. Michigan (ranked No.2) plays arch-rival Ohio State(ranked No.1). The rivalry is like India vs. Pakistan in cricket. This is not taking the analogy too far, since supporters are equally fanatic and these two states of the union have also gone to war against each other. While the two states have since sublimated their mutual animosity on the football field, it is not unusual to get honked at if you happen to drive in Columbus, Ohio with your blue Michigan plates. The breathless excitement is well conveyed by this local newspaper:

But never has there been so much at stake.

This is the first time they have met as No. 1 vs. No. 2. Both are 11-0 and the winner will earn the Big 10 championship and a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game on Jan. 8.

This meeting, in my eyes, is the de facto national title game.

It's No. 1 vs. No. 2.

What else could you ask for? It doesn't get any better or bigger than this.

This can get pretty crazy. At the community wrap-up event for the Royal Shakespeare Company Residency the audience was asked to sing the Michigan fight-song for ESPN. Why ESPN chose the people who come to a discussion of the plays for singing the Michigan fight song was strange to me? It was a personal shock to observe that I was perhaps the only one in the audience who did not know the words to the song and I was raising my hands at the completely wrong times. In Ann Arbor lovers of the stage also seem to know the way to the stadium.

Today, I will watch the game and proudly announce the score to my labmates on Monday. (I have been threatened that I will not be given my Ph.D. degree if I don't know the fight song.)

The Taxman Cometh...

... and this time with reinforcements. Forget VDIS. This might perhaps be the best strategy ever. This is good in so many ways.

Schulz Quote

Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, "Where have I gone wrong?"
Then a voice says to me, "This is going to take more than one night."

- Charles M. Schulz

The Malaysian Position

On the heels of the previous post, I stumble across this story (via from Reuters) where government officials pulled up a newspaper for publishing a survey on the sexual attitudes of youth. The official position was that the article was distasteful and such articles would worsen their social situation. Hmm!

Quite tellingly, the Weekend Mail said its survey respondents only held one position in common:
"One point everyone agreed on was that sex and sex-related issues should be discussed openly to avoid any negative perceptions."

Double Standards Falling?

India Today's latest cover features the sexual attitudes of the Indian male from the ages of 16 to 25. Newspapers around the world have screamed the obvious headline that 63% of Indian males want virgin brides. Actually, I think we have come a long way and it should be reported that 'ONLY 63%', or better still '37% of Indian males do not mind not having virgin brides.'

46% said they have had premarital sex and about half had sex with prostitutes. If you are feeling bad for yourself already, then FYI the average age of the first male sexual encounter has fallen too -- to 18 years from 23. Ah! Romance, thou art dead! But with all that sex, standards of 'horniness' have really fallen, especially when only 34% of the current lot said they would have sex "anytime, anywhere." What a shame given that the 'younger' generation has had greater opportunities with the post 1991 reforms, the internet, access to condoms and also with, um... more scantily-clad women. They say that, 'women who wore revealing clothes were sexually liberated'. So, if you are a male between 16-25 and are still wasting time writing unsolicited scraps/comments attempting to seek friendships,loveships, etc. on Orkut, or on weblogs of the opposite sex it is time to make a 'real' move and leave those things to the geriatrics ie. greater-than-25-desperate-as-hell-but-still- not-bold-enough.
See the incredulity expressed in these articles in the foreign media prefaced with the usual "... in the land of the Kamasutra":
IHT Story and Reuters. If only they knew.

That being said, I would like to look more closely at the data when I finally get my hands on the juicy article. Sad that India Today does not have online access. While MARG is a respectable organization, the stats are poorly reported as is the case with most polls that appear in popular magazines. There were no error bars on the results and again they report only the average and do not mention the median.

A Tale of Two Finishers

The ING NYC marathon concluded today. Not only did it mark end of the inaugural year of the World Marathon Majors, but also two very special men made it to the finish line. These two men were not winners, or even close to that, but could do a lot more for the marathon than anybody else who ran today. Interestingly, they finished pretty close to each other.

The first was a seven-time winner of one of most gruelling races on the planet - Mr. Lance Armstrong. About 30-40% of all marathoners are first-timers and there was no doubt that out of them all Lance was the world's fittest first-timer. Lance has a lactate threshold (indicator of endurance) of 85 which is identical to that of the world-record holder Paul Tergat and for the past few months, a lot of people placed bets on how fast Lance Armstrong would eventually run. Even with that legendary competitive spirit, not to mention the 8% body fat, Lance was not going to catch up with the gazelle-like, effortless running of the elite Kenyans and estimates ranged from 2:45 to 3:10. Lance wanted to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his cancer diagnosis and also wanted to use the occasion to raise money for his foundation.
As he found out,
"For the level of condition that I have now, that was without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done,... I think I bit off more than I could chew, I thought the marathon would be easier."
- Lance Armstrong (856th, 2:59:36)

A few days after I finished, I myself wondered if I could have done better than my four hours and a few seconds. I felt that I had slowed down in the last three miles. It is comforting to know that even the great Lance had to virtually walk the last couple of steps and had issues completing the last 3 miles. While he did make it just under the three-hour mark, I found that he echoed my own sentiments just after the race,
"Before the race that was my goal, I wanted to break 3 hours. But if you told me with 3 miles to go, `You're going to do 3:05,' I wouldn't have cared," he said. "Honestly, at the end I was so tired, I couldn't care. Now I'm glad I did."
Regardless of the shape you are in or what time you finish in, the first time is going to be hard, but you will always be glad you did it. Lance announced that he will not run a marathon again, but did mention that he has reserved the right to change his mind. We'll see.
See Sports Illustrated story.

While Lance will hog the publicity, a most remarkable feat was accomplished by Dean Karnazes. The NYC Marathon which he finished in 3:00:30 was the last of Dean Karnazes's Endurance 50 marathons. An attempt that cannot but be sheer insanity, Dean ran 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days. Conventionally, it takes about 2 weeks to recover from a marathon. Dean had less than 24 hours to recover from each marathon and not to mention all that traveling across the country. Dean has redefined the limits of human endurance and achievement. What length we can go to do something that has never been done before. The more insane the idea, the more appealing it looks. And what did he have to say at the end of it all? He wrote on his blog
In fact, I’m having such a great time, why stop? Tomorrow, I think I’ll go for a run. A long one. Maybe I’ll keep going the next day, too….

So, where are your running shoes?

Religion: Caveat Emptor

In his remarkable book - Breaking the Spell, which I strongly recommend everyone to read (especially 'believers'), Daniel Dennett argued for the study of religion using principles of evolution. Leaving aside which flavour of religion you prefer, religion or faith has survived the test of time. Even in our modern age of science and reason, religious belief has not crumbled. Any organism or idea that has managed to survive for so long in humans has to confer some sort benefit or evolutionary advantage.

In my opinion, an easier and alternative way to look at religion is to treat it like a product. A product that satisfies and serves certain public needs.

Proving or disproving whether God exists is difficult (The quest itself does lead to more useful and tangible results as in the case of the Rev. Bayes). The priests, mullahs and rabbis who are the stewards of religion cannot but know that religion is nothing but a business enterprise. Belief of millions in the divine word of God is quite separate from the business of religion. Every religion, sect, cult is a product and needs good marketing and favorable advertising. But you have to come to America, the land of the free and home of the brave, to really appreciate how 'professional' religion and its marketing needs to be. There is much competition in the market to save people from damnation.

In my first semester, I often noticed flyers for a 'Free Fellowship dinner' or 'Come Dine with Us and practice English' and I am not one of those people who pass an opportunity for a free meal. The fine print below all these flyers always mentioned that the activity was sponsored by some church or the other. Oops! As it is November, I will have a few emails inviting me to a Thanksgiving Dinner with an American family. In the subtle guise of providing international students with a flavour of Americana, there is always some church behind it.

Truly speaking, Haggard should argue that as CEO of the New Life Church he has been exceptional in his professional duty towards Evangelism (a religious product) and his flock (clients) which should be separate from what he did in his personal life in his free time. He has made the Church popular (increased marketshare) in an increasingly competitive market and is a spiritual advisor to President Bush, so why should anyone complain? (See Ashutosh on Haggard).

Gaurav was surprised that he met a Mormon who knew about Hindi movies. Luckily or unluckily for him, she did not consider his soul worth redeeming as she did not thrust the Book of Mormon or take down his address to pay him a visit. I have had the unique opportunity to watch one of my Mormon colleagues in action and they are really smooth. In his own words: All of them are well-trained for their 1-2 year missions in foreign countries. They have crash courses in the language, culture and politics of the people whose souls they have to save. The moral is: If you have something hard to sell, which involves something like the person giving you his soul, you should do it slowly and gently. I see a very strong parallel to the strategies employed by them and the Amway folks (see: old post).

Like any medicine or product there are benefits to religion if taken in moderation. But religion can do you great harm and I wish it came with statutory warnings. Till then: Caveat Emptor.


Hey guys - stop popping the pill and slip into this.
(Another one of those inventions that you wish you had thought about. Duh!)