One ring to bind them

One of the most profound concepts that I came across late this year was of the 'organic circuit'. In The Metaphysical Club Menand writes on John Dewey:

... it assumes that the parts are prior to the whole, when in fact it is the whole that makes the parts what they are...

Meaning that divisions are artificial, there are no real discrete units, there is simply an organic whole. According to Dewey, we do not know, so that we can do, but doing leads to knowing. Knowledge in not the result of experience, any more than a response is the result of a stimulus; knowledge is experience itself in one of its manifestations.

As is usually the case, the same concept once discovered pops up more often and much sooner than expected in other places. At a different level was Jeff Hawkins's On Intelligence which presents a new framework for intelligence - ideas on how to build a human brain. Even after all these years AI did not produce a device that can perform the basic task that a three-year old can perform with ease. Bigger, faster is not going to get us there when the neocortex, the size and dimension of a dinner napkin still beats anything out there in telling a cat apart from a dog.

The key is to first understand how the brain actually does it. Neuroscience suffers from the the other problem - too much detail, no overarching theory. Echoing Dewey, we need to study the organic whole and not just the parts in isolation. Society is not a sum of individuals, but an aggregate of interacting individuals. The brain too works as an organic whole and there is no seeing that leads to perception that results in action, but all these acting together. No wonder that 80% of the connections in the brain are feedback connections.

There are always analyses, the breaking down in various ways. What about the synthesis? the putting together. Is that a tacit assumption that we know how to put together what we have pulled apart? If the market is any judge are there jobs for synthesists?

Eric Clapton on Eric Clapton

It's a goddammed impossible life
- Robbie Robertson

So described Robbie to Clapton the life on the road as a musician. It also neatly describes Clapton's own life. The facts of EC's life are well-known and there are no facts out of the ordinary and known in his autobiography - Clapton, the Autobiography . Yet, the book is a marvelous, fascinating read of an impossible life told by the incredible artist himself. It's not just what happened, but how it happened that interests me. The book is organized chronologically along the big events in his life. Clapton arrived and left quickly, often at the peak of a band's popularity. These quick, short events are convenient for breaking up the story in neat chapters. But, that is on the surface. Like his own songs, in which there is a main riff and then dizzying solos, the book is largely a rambling account, with years, events, and names flashing forward and backward. It feels like listening to an extempore narration of Clapton recounting his life based on bullet points printed on a 4x3 inch index card. There are no footnotes to help you along, as EC talks about people using their first names - e.g. Mick, Keith, Roger John - without introducing them appropriately. Sometimes there are lots of details that would have been excised by a more careful editor. It is quite unlikely that the book was ghost-written, and the somewhat poor editing gives the autobiography a rough authentic feel.

His musical wandering has been relentless - Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominoes. Life has been a constant journey and search. Is Clapton a seeker or just a wanderer? It depends on your point of view. He was an illegitimate child, told that his grandparents were his parents and his mother his sister. When the truth was told he was unable to handle it. He constantly wanted to hide, constantly felt he was being judged. That made him a perfectionist and made the desire to pursue music and play it the best he can his prime obsession (with the drugs and alcohol getting in the way, of course).

But, satisfaction and comfort came late. Subway graffiti proclaiming - 'Clapton is God' only made Clapton feel that he had some street cred, but did not give him the feeling of guitar divinity. He always felt uncomfortable with the 'guitar-hero' tag. His problem was always been about being comfortable in his own shoes. He writes that it was confidence that he lacked, not the chops to be a bandleader and a singer. He took him more than 50 years to really find his footing and come to grips with his talent, his origin, and his addictions. At the same time, he writes, "Once, I got what I wanted, I realized I did not want it any more." It's the same story with guitars, women, and success. And he had a lot of all three while riding on one form of addiction or another.

Throughout the book there is not one harsh word about anyone; Clapton reserves it mostly for himself. It wasn't about them, it was about that inner demon that lead him to both glory and despair. He writes, "There is a madman inside me that gets out under the influence." EC did a whole lot of wild things, but the tone of the whole book and every episode is even and matter-of-fact. He does not gloat over his crazy episodes or failures in relationships. They, sort of just happened. It hurt, and it hurt like hell, but he moved on, for the most part.

The Epilogue is one of the finest chapters in the book after rather anti-climactic last three chapters of domestic bliss with Melia (his current wife). If they ever make a movie about his life (which they will) it would start here.
As I write this, I am sixty-two years old, twenty years sober, and busier than I have ever been.... I am virtually deaf, but refuse to wear a hearing aid because I like the the way things sound naturally, even if I can hardly hear them.

After having been sober and clean for 20 year, he blames his addictions for not being able to forge close relationships with people during those years, especially Muddy Waters. Some the most famous concerts, he writes, he was too stoned to remember.

I was curious to know what he had to say about his relationship with Jimi Hendrix. Clapton says, he was devastated when he first heard Hendrix play. "I remember thinking here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we were finding our own speed, here was the real thing." Jimi and Clapton used to crash random bars, walk up onto to the stage and wipe everyone out. What would I not give to see this happen? Clapton was deeply shocked and saddened by Jimi's early death. He was going to present him a guitar the next day.

He has nothing but good things to say about musicians, and even managers, in the entire book. He hated the 'music machine' when he first started and he still hates it now. We like to glorify the 60s and 70s and think of that time as some sort of golden period of rock music, but he puts it into perspective.
The music scene as I look at it today is little different from when I was growing up. The percentages are roughly the same - 95 percent rubbish, 5 percent pure However, the systems of marketing and distribution are in the middle of a huge shift, and by then end of this decade I think it's unlikely that any of the existing record companies will still be in business. With the greatest respect to all involved, that would be no great loss. Music will always find its way to us, with or without business, politics, or any other bullshit attached. Music survives everything, and like God is always present. It needs no help, and suffers no hindrance. It has always found me, and with God's blessing and permission, it always will.


This seems rather late in the day decade, but I just found out that MIT has made about 1800 courses available online:
OCW. They started in 2001 (I found out only a few days ago). Sometimes I wonder, if all I should have done is invested in a super-fast internet connection years ago. It would have saved a lot of time and cash.

I am really interested in the access data. There is a long report on it which should make interesting reading on the knowledge needs(with some caveats) of the rest of the world.

The statistics are quite revealing. Not surprisingly, most of the access to the OCW is out of the US (>60%). North America(39%), China and Southeast Asia (21%), South Asia(7%), Europe(19%), South America(4%), and sub-Saharan Africa(1%). Are the South Americans and Africans not interested, or do they simply lack internet connections? Students from India have made their presence, and their gratitude felt.

The most visited course is Linear Algebra (link), a subject that needs to be emphasized more. The most visited courses are mainly mathematical or engineering courses, the traditional domains of nerds. Only psychology and macroeconomics manage to squeeze in as humane elements.

There are many courses that I will 'attend' in the next few months as snow drifts pile up at my door. I always find video-taped courses provide the much needed benefit of using fast-forward and being able to listen to them in your bed. This is a dream.

PS: I am trying to find a course that Chomsky taught.

Used or New? Forget it!

As any college student can attest, there is a HUGE secondary market in textbooks. The average price of a textbook is between $100-$120, and many students sell their books at the end of the semester, or buy used ones at the start of one. So, what do you do? Buy used or new?

There are cost, quality and time trade-offs. Many students order books online and have to wait, often up to 2 weeks, to get their textbooks.(Some online sellers are based in India and China and mail economy editions.) To save money, you lose time and might have to hunt the book down in the library, or check it out for a 4-hour reserve for the first couple weeks. For this reason, a student wrote in the campus rag asking professors to make the list of textbooks available before courses actually started.

The publishers aren't twiddling their thumbs either. To add insult to the injury of high-priced textbooks, they bring out new editions every other year. Once a new edition is out, the price of the old one falls considerably, and there are no used books to go around for that semester at least. One commenter (see below) wrote, "Does calculus change so much that it needs a revised edition every other year?"

The Economist blog reports a new model of selling - FREE! For students, anything free is welcome. There are a number of additional benefits: It gives professors more options, and you can learn from a book that best suits you and not get stuck with the prescribed textbook that is too 'dry', or more plainly 'sucks'.

The question is, "Is this a viable business model? based on ads?" I don't think so. Since this is not YouTube, I would not visit the site again once I have downloaded my books for the semester. A better model would be to charge a fraction of the cost, say between $5-$10, to generate some revenue and give the author more money than he would make from royalties. The volume should compensate him enough since more people would be inclined to buy the book in the first place. Perhaps, this is what future textbook authors need - a low barrier to entry.

Blogs were laughed about when they first appeared as alternative media. Now they have been co-opted by every major company and publication. I cannot see why we don't have more of these textbooks download sites. Wouldn't you write one too? This is where market economics will best serve the purpose of giving more choices and options to both consumers and suppliers and sidestepping the middlemen - the publisher and the professor to some extent.

More aimless wandering on the internet

Remember the time they used to ask capitals of countries in quizzes? and then it all changed. The worst thing you can do as a quizmaster is to ask capitals. But, what do you do if you still know where Dushanbe is? Or, pinpoint Reunion on a map?

This Travel IQ will ensure that you gain a sense of power and superiority over your fellow men. It is totally addictive and an insane waste of time.

Even the WSJ has taken interest in it!

Album Art Grabber

This site does a pretty good job of grabbing Album Art. Apparently, Apple isn't too pleased about this and has blocked the high-res images.

Face Off

The biggest suggestion at a recent conference that I attended was not scientific at all, it was "You need to get on Facebook!".

For all my geek bravado, when it comes to social networking, I am still in the dark ages. When it first started on Friendster, and later on Orkut, it seemed rather pointless, juvenile, and silly. I figured - I am more than 20 years old, I have a blog, and a webpage, why would I ever need this? For people who could not set up their own webpages, or upload music MySpace, Facebook, etc. provide useful tools. To me, it looked like another digital time sink.

IMHO, there is little intrinsic value in these networking sites, but all value is due to the snowball effect. I have noticed friends and lab members check their Facebook accounts even before they check their email in the morning. Bizarrely, I was left out of a party invitation because the invitation was not sent on the email group, but on the Facebook group!! Not by choice, but by design - 'If you are not in, you are out'. Party snubs aside, it is time to take this thing a little more seriously.

For certain contexts, it has replaced email and even cell-phone messages. It's true that you cannot possibly email ALL your far-flung friends to know what's going on. Sometimes, you want to just say, "Hi". In a few minutes, you can get a pretty good idea of what your friends have been up to lately. There are tons of pictures on Facebook that are tagged, mostly Patel-shots of the me-at-the-EiffelTower variety. Then I heard about the graffiti wall, virtual gifts, and the virtual happy-hour (where you can invite your friends for a beer). This really got to me and I was a runaway again. I am content with my blog and my mostly static webpages.

But, I now understand that most people don't like to write, or even read what you have written (gentle reader, you are an exception!). Blogging freed tons of people who were simply aching to write and hungry for a space, some space. ( It also released a few that shouldn't have been let out of the asylum.) Alice was right (Who the ***k is Alice? from the Wonderland) - people like pictures. Some bloggers have strict 'no-pictures' policy, but then they are not so pretty. There is something rather inhuman about pages with only plain text than a book or webpage with pictures (some not a lot). Where does that leave a i-love-plain-text kinda person? Into digital exile.

Currently, I am still holding out. Things don't look so good, considering that even my Dad now has a Facebook account. Social networking is not the flavor of month, and now I feel like an ostrich.

A Word a Day: Some grain of truth

A link from my brother Darshan:

I am really intrigued by the interesting method employed to raise money for the UN World Food Program. Go to to work on your vocabulary and donate 20 grains of rice for every word you get correct.

This program is highly addictive, don't say I did not warn you! At least you won't feel as guilty.

Dire Threats

I am the admin for an email group that has over 1400 people. The listserv is set up to automatically take people off if they send a message with UNSUBSCRIBE in the subject line.

The unsubscription process is appended to every message that is sent. In addition, I have huge header that says, "Don't reply to the sender of this message. Follow instructions at the bottom of this email to be taken off this list". Despite all that, I often get personal requests from people to be taken off. Then I have to remind them that they should follow the instructions. Most people understand, but then you have the occasional idiot. I got this message after my gentle reminder:

TAke my name off the list
or I will email you 100 times a day


So for he has sent about 20 messages. What kind of asshole can you be? You don't read your mail. You can't understand instructions. And then you act like a terrorist. Thank God for filters.

This sort of stuff sickens me to the stomach. The internet gives the trampled soul a voice, provides courage to cowards, and takes away all responsibility from communication.

Another Thanksgiving

How do you know it's Thanksgiving in Ann Arbor?
You can find parking on the street and its free!

I started this year's White Thanksgiving in an ironic sort of way - by meeting at a Starbucks with my running group and then running 7 miles. Ironic, because in a way it represented the best and worst of Thanksgiving. Wonderful tradition with commercialization seeping into whatever cracks it can find.

Another fun Thanksgiving tradition is to hear Arlo Guthrie on the Classic Rock station singing Alice's restaurant. If you have about half hour to spare, then you should listen to this song which is part ballad, part protest song, and part about taking out the garbage.
Watch on You Tube.

The worst of Thanksgiving is the Black Friday doorbuster sales. If you are part of that madness then more power to you, but I was on the sidelines last night. Gawking is more fun, less expensive and, more importantly, keeps you warm and comfy. We drove around to Best Buy and Circuit City to look at the poor souls waiting in line. With the temperature in the 20s, it could not have been much fun except for the Bearclaw Company chaps who were selling them coffee. The line stretched around the block and it was easy to see the Black Friday pros from the amateurs. The pros were in the first 10, had a tent and a generator, yes a generator! The amateurs with just a cap, gloves and a jacket will need to have their bodies thawed in the morning with a blowtorch.

Check this documentary.

Presidential Pardon

Look who got a presidential pardon.

I am thinking of names...
Lucky and Break
Gobble and Gable

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

Last week I saw Caetano Veloso in concert at the Hill. The Brazilian Bob Dylan had unfortunately decided to go electric this time. The show was nice, but the energy was low since most of the crowd, like me, had showed up expecting the more soulful Brazilian acoustic melodies. While the electric stuff was great, when Veloso played his acoustic stuff unaccompanied you could feel that the music was at another level.

Yesterday's show by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ) at Rackham was packed. There would be no singing and the auditorium is perfect for such acoustic performances. The guitar is a sort of bastard child among instruments when it comes to classical music. It is often considered not to be pure enough to make it on the symphonic concert stage. You notice that many classical guitarists have this chip on their shoulder, Andres Torres Segovia included. The LAGQ has done a great job rearranging a lot of classical music that is mainly for strings for the four guitars and it's a job well done. Yesterday's Brandenburg Concert No.6 by Bach was a perfect example.

But, they also have tremendous range in their repertoire as they played samba/bossa-nova music from Brazil, Celtic-inspired compositions and Spanish flamenco from Manuel Falla and music by a Russian composer who never went to Spain - Rimsy-Korsakov. The Korsakov piece was in lieu of the Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt which they played a few years ago in Ann Arbor. What's really beautiful is to see, for a change, four guitars not dueling with each other on the stage but playing together to create one voice.

It is a vicious cycle, not many composers really write for the guitar and hence there isn't much 'classical' specifically for the guitar. It is therefore quite commendable that the LAGQ, while not composers themselves, have managed to inspire a couple of composers to write music for them.

Since UMS has decided to focus on guitarist this season there will be a lot of guitar gods passing through in the next few months, including Leo Kottke and the Assad brothers.

OSU 14, Mich 3; me - below zero

Today was 'The Game'. The most famous rivalry in football stretching back 102 years - Michigan versus Ohio State. If there was a list of the most boring states in the country, Ohio would rank in the top five, along with New Jersey. That is one of the reasons Michigan fans give for hating Ohio and the Ohio State team in particular. Ohio is the real middle America, and no surprise that this state has given America seven presidents and decides presidential elections. The American Midwest in known for a lot things and among them is the fanatic appeal of football. A totally perverse game according to me. Not only do they play with an egg-shaped ball, and hardly ever kick the ball, but also the fact that a great football day is when the weather is most foul.

Today, Saturday was most foul. Almost freezing. Grey, windy, and raining. This was my last chance to see a Mich-OSU game in the Big House and I felt, despite my little interest, I must pay my respects, at least once, to the holiest Michigan traditions. They say you can't graduate till you know the Fight song (I am working on both!). I had friend who came all the way from California to watch. He has my sympathies. It was tremendous let-down for what was promised to be a great showdown. Not only was the game low-scoring, but also was super boring with nothing much happening for close to four hours. Unlike soccer, the game is mostly abrupt, with each play lasting less than few tens of seconds.

In any case, I doubt that 112,000 people really show up for the football. Football Saturdays are just another good excuse to get drunk before noon and talk trash about opposing teams. It is one of the beauties of America to create an entire supporting subculture on almost anything that is done by more than a dozen people. A lot of things about football Saturday are not not about football at all. The tailgate, the BBQ, etc. This culture is what I enjoy the most - the feeling of being walking towards the stadium and being sucked into another world. I like to hear the guy outside the IMSB building who raps extempore on way to the stadium. The smell of the hot-dogs on the grill. The martial march of the sea of yellow shirts. The drunk undergrads with the ridiculous face-paint, the trash-talkers and over-priced pizza slices.

In the stands, the guy behind me decided to streak onto the field. He got down to his undies and was trying to persuade others around him to get naked. Given the general boredom it might have happened, perhaps on a warm sunny day. Soon he decided that the twin problems of getting arrested and getting hypothermia with no supporting nudists was not worth it.

For all the pre-game hype, freezing to see Michigan held to a total yardage, less than length of the field, wasn't worth it. I could have been toasting in the comfort of home. But, then you have no stories to tell.

Agony is the Mother of Invention

This might sound familiar to all those, like me, who have to travel monkey-class on planes. There is waiting and more waiting. Waiting to get in the plane, waiting to get out of the plane, waiting to get your measly half-cup of orange juice. The worst undoubtedly is waiting for access to the toilet.
For the ten rows of business class, 6*2=12 people there were two toilets. The other two, at the back of the plane was shared by 30*6=180. One can make a fair assumption that the micturation needs of both classes are same, unless they are serving something very different up there (I have never had the opportunity to find out). Given this skewed ratio, the lines are much longer in monkey class.
Can this process be made more effective? These are areas, according to me, where market economics are not applied enough. Now even airline peanuts are not free. If every extra convenience is charged - like extra baggage, or meals on planes - they should also introduce an option to pay $10 extra to have a FAST PASS to the bathroom which gives you the right to skip over every other person in line who does not hold a similar FAST PASS. The airlines will not only make money this way, but will also save some as the really risk-averse and cheap will not drink anything and take the chance on dehydration than suffer the agony of waiting in line.

Till that is implemented a work around is to go is right after they have served drinks, when the lines are short or non-existent. If you wait for about half an hour, then you might have to really exercise some more self-control and wait even longer.

Caffeine Break

Today is Day Four of my caffeine break.
To convince myself that my soul can be redeemed and realizing that having close to a pot or more of coffee everyday isn't going to do me much good, I'm on a caffeine break this week. Taking its literal meaning, I won't (or will try not to) have coffee or any caffeinated drink all of this week. So far, the flesh has done the bidding of the spirit. Nothing like conducting an experiment on yourself.

One things about quitting is that there are always people handy to give you advice. One of the things suggested was to drink hot water from the mug instead of the usual joe. It worked, sort of. On Day Three I buckled in to drink hot tea (decaf, of course). That's keeping me going and I'm convincing myself that it doesn't count as cheating. (It's a lot better than the hot water for sure!)

All I have to worry about is Friday. Funnily enough, I don't drink coffee at home. It's a conditioned reflex of sorts that I need it when I am at work or going to work.
In the meantime, every coffee-shop looks enticing and I am tempted to snatch a cup from someone.

Drugs, man! they make you do these things.

2.3 Planets Needed!

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

On taking this Ecological Footprint Quiz I found that I am doing much better than the average American in keeping my environmental footprint small. I bike to work or take the bus; sparingly use my one fuel-efficient car; and try to walk to most places. Despite all that, we would still need 2.3 planets if every person on the planet lived like me. Shame!

American average: 24 acres
My Score: 10 acres
Actual biological acres available: 4.5 acres

Looking for a media bias? Check the coverage on Gore's victory. The Economist wasn't too pleased about Mr. Gore winning the prize. Well, the Economist will be the Economist, but I was surprised to read their background blurb on the article.

Global temperatures and sea levels seem to be rising, but whether this is mankind's or nature's fault is unclear.

Hah! The facts are unclear, then why feel so bad about the 2.3 planets? The New York Times in its infinite wisdom found this op-ed piece by Paul Krugman fit to print. From the Gore Derangement Syndrome:
So if science says that we have a big problem that can’t be solved with tax cuts or bombs — well, the science must be rejected, and the scientists must be slimed.


Saw a variation of this sticker, which wasn't half as decent. At least on this one they have science (with science's poster child) on there.

From their website:
Every letter has a symbol that represents a system of thought: The crescent and star for Islam; the pentagram for Wicca; the relativity formula for science; the star of David for Judaism; the Karma Wheel dotting the i for Buddhism; the Tao symbol for Taoism; the cross for Chrisitianity.

Wondering if I should support the notion or not.

GO gREen!

Now that Gore has won the Peace prize for his fight against global warming (not, as I read in a couple of places, 'for global warming'), this project might gain more adherents.

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

I have signed up, but is this one more of a quiet and failed attempt, lacking in courage as Thomas Friedman alleges? Our generation, he writes, is too quiet and too online. More inside, deep inside virtual worlds, than outside.

When I grow up ...

Every small company or startup wants to be a Google when they grow up. From one startup's description,

[ ]'s mission is no less than to be the next Google. They want to be the next great software company right here in Ann Arbor ...

Looks like Microsoft is not cool anymore. Since 1997 a number of former role models have fallen from their pedestals, in the minds of new startups at least. The idea that the above description seems to suggest is that Google is synonymous with rapid growth, innovation, coolness, and high valuations. Which company does not want that? It was a rather pathetic way to lure undergraduates into thinking that they had a chance to work for the 'next Google'. I wish these companies all the best in trying to get there. While Google will be around ten years later, I still wonder if it will still be that company that every currently unemployed nerd has a wet dream just imagining he works there.

For now, a great business opportunity is to cash a la mode Levi Strauss is to make T-shirts and sell them to these startups. The tagline: "I work for The Next Google".

He hath spoken

Even tight-lipped gods have to come down from Olympus occasionally. After debating the idea for a number of years, Clapton finally wrote down 'his version of the memories' in his recently released autobiography - 'Clapton'. In a concert that I attended a few years ago, Clapton barely said more than a few words. He is one of those who lets the guitar do the talking.

The NYT Times Review (better read online than on paper) praised the book and notes Clapton's tone of detachment as he writes about his deepest and darkest times. For Clapton fans, the review hasn't much to offer as it focuses more on the personal themes, like the oft-repeated story of rock and roll's most famous love triangle - Clapton, Pattie Boyd, and George Harrison. The review hasn't much detail on his music or its creation, and I hope that the book itself has more to offer in that department. It will be a great disappointment if the book chronicles merely the people and events in his life. Sometimes, a well-written biography is better than an authentic autobiography, if there is such a thing.

Who's who on YouTube

The Nobel Prize is, in its own words, now a 'brand' on the YouTube bandwagon. A good move in anticipation of all the announcements next week.

The Problem with Emails

"I read your emails"
- on a T-shirt

The written word,
especially the hastily written email,
Can always be misconstrued
(including the word 'read')

What follows are more keystrokes
And irate digital bits.
Try a phone call maybe?

Shelter from the Storm

I've heard newborn babies wailin' like a mournin' dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love.
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

- Bob Dylan

I was without internet access for most of the time that I have been in France. I am used being online constantly and have to urge this battle against the impulse to respond to every new email instantly. While rambling around Paris was rather exhausting, I must say that I was quite up to the task of spending a few more minutes online. For the first time, I had not left anything behind and yet I had this feeling that I had left something behind. I had, it was - free, constant and relentless access to the internet.

It wasn't that people would give me up for dead if I did not respond, but puzzling question of 'How would I find information that I needed and did not have?' Four, five days later and it strangely after a few days it does not matter as much. I had this idea that I would sit in some cafe in Paris and post my dispatch for the day.

Another One Will Bite the Dust

It was no wonder of wonders that as part of the conference schwag I was given a laptop bag. Not another laptop bag! Can organizers be so lacking in imagination that all they can think of is giving out another laptop case? Surely, they have enough of their own gathering dust on a shelf.

A Taste of a Feast

More importantly, personally of course, is the fact that I have been in Paris since last Saturday. As recuperation from the day's mad rambles I have been reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast - his memoir of Paris in the 20s, or more correctly, of his account of 1920s Paris as a young and struggling writer.

Before getting to France, I felt I needed to 'prepare' for the trip. (It is France after all.) 'Prepare', in my book, is defined as - to read as much as possible on the subject. I was intrigued by the fact that a memoir about an age in Paris long gone is still referenced in almost every general book or guide on Paris.

The books begins with a quote from a letter that Hemingway wrote to a friend:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

That was arresting enough. Yet, I could not read it before I left since I had to do the stuff that pays the rent and which defrays the cost of getting to France. In retrospect it was infinitely better not to have read it before.

I am trying to figure out why this book appeals and enthralls me so much. Much of it appeal lies perhaps in the fact that the book is a sort of a mirror. Like Hemingway, I find myself in Paris, in my 20s, recently married, with wife, and with a rather thin wallet (done thinner by the weak greenback). When Hemingway writes that on a hungry stomach he appreciated the paintings in Luxembourg museum better, I not only understand it but also know it. Then there are times when the taste and sheer delight of my meal and the wine of the afternoon come alive as I read an account of his meal years ago.

The book is a wonderful dessert at the end of a marvelous feast that is Paris. It is one of the few books that one is lucky to have read at the right age, place and time.
What I have right now is simply a taste of Paris. On Paris, later. For now, I realise it's really important to first savor the taste.

Join the Have Nots

I see them on busstops, under trees on campus, at info-desks, on street-corner cafes. From Seattle to Singapore, people between six and sixty are doing 'it' at all times of the day. 'It' has achieved the impossible. People have even given up TV for 'it'! That's something.

'It' is a recent 700+page book which has managed to numb millions to any sort of sensation; many have taken a temporary leave of absence from their responsibilities as children, graduate students, parents, babysitters and citizens. While they are under the grip of a fantastic spell, I am gripped by self-doubt. A lot of self-doubt. For a person who fancies himself as reading omnivore I wonder - 'Have I managed to miss out on the greatest book cult of my generation?' For all her billions, J.K. Rowling has nothing to thank me for; I haven't read any of the books or seen any of the movies.

If you put half a dozen people together, somehow, somebody manages to steer the conversation to the sixth and last book. I try to hide behind the nearest flower-pot to avoid embarassment. "Man, you are STILL reading Faulkner? That's not even 60s dude, that's 40s."

Millions of people queuing up for the book at midnight like crack-addicts waiting for their next fix can't be wrong, can they? Am I simply a literary snob? or just out of touch with popular culture? What is a great book? One that seeks out universal truths? or one that has universal appeal?>

While Harry Potter could be the answer to world peace, the world is clearly divided into the haves and the have-nots. I clearly belong to the mass of people who have not read the hexology (Aside: I was disappointed it wasn't called a sexology!) The time is nigh to start a support group for the have-nots. Want to join? Don't be ashamed. Whether you are a self-doubter, a pop-culture hater, or just an unrepentant snob - help is at hand.

iPhone, My Way

If don't have the spare cash to buy the latest cool toy on the market at least you will be able to enjoy David Pogue showing off. He takes on the iPhone in his way.


Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
- Kurt Vonnegut


Some people are under the impression that if you have a cell phone then you SHOULD always be available all the time, be it night or day. One of the unfortunate consequences of the electronic leash is having to explain yourself all the time.

Don't piss people off. Give them an excuse. Here are some of mine:

'Hey, are you busy?'
'Actually, no! I am talking to my parents in India.'

'Where were you? I called you a million times.'
Umm... I was thirty stories underground. I don't get any signal there.

'Why did you cut the phone?'
'I did not cut the phone... my phone ran out of charge.'

'Why do I always get your voice mail when I call?'
'Why do you ALWAYS call at the wrong times?'

Link to my Photo Album

How are you? I assume you are doing great and are enjoying the summer. I have just returned from my summer vacation and I would like to share my digital pictures with you. You know right? that I bought a digital camera a few weeks ago and I went completely berserk taking pictures. Who knows? One of them could even make it to the National Geographic!!!

Instead of my usual practice of sending you the pictures as a large .zip file, I am sending you a link to my online album (I know you don't like attachments). Don't worry! you don't miss out on anything as I have downloaded EVERY SINGLE picture. Boy! It did take a long time to upload.

A lot of them look like repeats, but you will appreciate the subtle differences. I like to be honest and I have not deleted the completely out-of-focus and badly exposed shots. By the way, since you like puzzles - all the pictures are titled IMG_(some number).jpg and have ABSOLUTELY NO comments or descriptions. I guess it would be a nice exercise for you to figure out what the heck they are all about (you already know where I went). Going through the slideshow may take a while, but you won't lose track of the fact that it's my vacation album - at least one of us is present in 90% of all the shots. I can't wait to order the prints.


- Your friend

P.S. Hope to see your online album soon.

Pankaj Mishra on The Clash Within

Pankaj Mishra reviews The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future by Martha C. Nussbaum in The New York Review of Books. Mishra not only reviews the book, but also provides an interpretation of the events in a short history capsule on Indian politics, economy, and media since Independence.

Unlike the West, Nussbaum's thesis is that India faces a clash and danger from within. There have been major changes in the Indian political and economic landscape in last decade and a half. The most salient being: the rise of religious and regional nationalism in form of the BJP and others, and the bewildering rate of growth, initially fueled by software.

His and Nussbaum's explanations for the rise of the BJP and changes wrought by their six years in power seem rather simplistic:

... after a string of successes throughout the Nineties in provincial elections, to gain power within a coalition government in New Delhi in 1998. Six years of the BJP's rule brought about deep shifts in Indian politics and the economy.

While it is true that the BJP did provide a vent to decades of simmering discontent and the urban middle-class and elite provided them support, most of the sweeping changes were more a result of adroit maneuvering in the face of mostly uncontrollable external global changes than implementation of agenda.

Apart from that quick explanation, Mishra and Nussbaum are right on many other counts. Mishra rightly states that India is a rather complicated exercise in democracy. A democracy in which, " ... India's leaders faced the problem of instituting a secular and democratic state before the conditions for it — an adequately large secular and egalitarian-minded citizenry, and impartial legal institutions — had been met."

While there is a lot of freedom in the Indian media, most papers rarely exercise that right and are have been reduced to a mere echo chamber. A fact that I as a blogger am familiar with since much of the blog world is mostly an echo chamber. Yet, the 'sensible' blog world is largely free from much of the idiotic fascinations of the Indian press. Cases in point: the overblown idea of 'global Indian takeovers' and co-option of anything that has the most vague connection to India (like Sanjay Malakar or Norah Jones).

One of the big accusations that Nussbaum via Mishra throws at us is that the new privileged generation of Indians lacks any 'identification with the poor'. The phrase is quite telling. For most us: the poor exist, something should be done about it, but for now, let's get rich and sustain the growth. The Maoist militancy in the hinterland and farmer suicides are reported but have not, for most of us, become a 'critical issue'. It can be safely said that most people of my generation, including myself, are well-meaning but we lack the necessary background and education to identify adequately with the poor. No one denies the starkness of contrast and the disastrous side-effects of the explosive nature of growth. But, mere acknowledgment of a problem does not equate to identification with it.

The other important point in the book and Mishra's essay is that mere transplantation of what has worked in America and Europe, and even China won't do. Chiefly, what I find missing from current debates on Indian economic and political policy is the lack of environmental considerations. As Mishra writes:
But it may be imperative for Indians, who, arriving late in the modern world, are confronted with the possibility that economic growth on the model of Western consumer capitalism is no longer environmentally sustainable.

For Mishra the 'trickle-down' theory of economic growth might be too slow to stem the grim outlook:
There are no easy ways out of the impasse — the danger of intensified violence and environmental destruction — to which globalization has brought the biggest democracy in the world.

Whatever your personal inclinations and prejudices may be, it is quite clear that Pankaj Mishra's voice rises above the current babble of the rabble.

A Mirror perhaps?

Sometimes we all feel that reviewers need a reviewer. (That is supposed to be the editor's job) One reviewer to my paper sent in this comment:

- TABLE 1 : (minor corretion): title and description ...

I laughed. Then sat down to work on the comment.

A Note to Bathroom Singers

Since none of you ever illegally downloaded an .mp3 or a video, or read a pirated book, this one is for you. I would like to warn you chaps that even bathroom singing could become an illegal activity, along with whistling, if things continue in this fashion as Slashdot reports: In a rather bizarre move, the National Music Publishers Association and The Music Publishers Association of America have decided to take on guitar tabs. They have served notices to a number of tab websites for infringment of copyright and IP. As a result many guitar tab websites are twiddling their thumbs and have restricted access till they figure out what to do.

Guitar tabs as opposed to sheet music are diagrams of notes and chords for people too lazy to read music and are usually transcribed by ear by some 'talented' musician. They aren't direct copies, but interpretations of the melody, chords, etc. which the publishers claim are an infringement of the artists's creative copyright over the melody. I have tried to write tabs and it does take a few hours of effort to get all the notes and chords right. It's not a simple case of running a copier, or dragging and dropping songs from one folder to another.

The publishers' claim that these 'illegal' sites make money off banner ads without permission. The publishers now want to make money from their own 'official' sites. This seems fair enough. Often Tom is making money off Dick's unpaid labour of love of creating tabs from Harry's song?

What seems fuzzy is the definition of the song IP. A large number of these tabs are often wrong, is that a copyright violation? That gives our first workaround - a silly one, one that the lawyers will have for breakfast. Assume I make a change in the key of the song, or I make a tiny, obvious error in the tab; is it still a copy? Then can I then sue anyone who uses that tab for copying? If a song sounds like Stairway to Heaven then it is obviously stolen even if it an annoying MIDI file or cell phone tone. Fine.

But where do you draw the line? At the melody? The song arrangement? Section of music? Individual riffs? Combinations of notes? Chord changes? Aren't all songs mutated copies of other songs? What is really original? Who is that guy who wrote the first I-IV-V change? He should make billions.

A simpler definition is: as long as you don't profit from it, anything goes. The next time you are in the bathroom and whistling or humming away be aware that you are infringing on song IP. While that currently qualifies as fair, personal use it is still use of IP without permission. Who's to say that in the future you might need the artist's/publisher's explicit permission everytime you play that song at house party? On a brighter note, if you do happen to be a musical genius and your neighbour is whistling a tune you composed. Sue his ass off!

A good idea would be to write a program to write a song that has every musical note, in every major and minor key, with all possible combinations of rhythm and chord changes. Yeah! Heck it will be ten miles long, but then I will have created every song in the universe.

Spaced Out

Zachary Kanin takes Sunita 'Suni' Williams's Boston Marathon in space a few steps further in this hilarious piece.

From One Small Step:

April 16—Suni Williams competed in the Boston Marathon on our treadmill. Although she did not win, she said that she enjoyed the “fresh air” and “being outside.” NASA is very pleased with us for finally doing something that people on Earth aren’t horrified by.

April 19—Today, Suni used the StairMaster to begin climbing Mt. Everest. She predicts that it will take several months to complete her ascent, but she is refusing food and water. Our colleague Oleg Kotov tried to explain that mountain climbers on Earth do not deprive themselves of sustenance, but she insisted that she would “hunt for food, like a human."

City of Djinns

There is something odd about rusticating in the Georgia countryside under a hammock and to be reading a book written by a Brit on an Indian city. William Dalrymple is one the finest scholars of the late Mughal era and one can understand his fascination and love affair with Delhi, which he calls The City of Djinns. The book, an account of a year in Delhi, is a fascinating portrait of India's capital city. He writes, "Delhi is a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic, a city of djinns".

The book flits back and forth between the past and present as Dalrymple explores the city and uncovers its secrets - the mansions, the eunuchs, Unani medicine, Lutyen's Delhi, etc. Starting with the riots following Indira Gandhi's death in 1984, the book spirals backwards going back further and further in time till it ends with a solitary sadhu on Nimbodh Ghat. For a Brit, Dalrymple doesn't have much sympathy for the British era and his portraits of the Anglo-Indians and Brits who chose to be 'left behind' aren't sensitive but comic. They are a people suspended in an age and time that has long passed. For one particular class of Anglo-Indians he does make an exception and those being the 'White Mughals', notably Col. James Skinner and William Fraser (the ancestor of his wife Victoria Fraser). One can see why these Brits who 'went native' are so fascinating and to do justice he had to write a larger piece of work - The White Mughals. For these class of Brits he is overcome with wistful nostalgia and anguish over history's great missed opportunity. For a brief period the English, Hindu, and Muslim world lived side-by-side in an odd, harmonious marriage before the Revolt of 1857 and Victorian mores destroyed that idea forever.

Delhi doesn't boast the glitz or the financial muscle of Mumbai, and isn't anyone's idea of the cultural capital either. Around partition Delhi was a city where even milkmen and prostitutes could quote Dagh, Mir, and Ghalib. The indigenous poets and artists have long departed. What remains of culture is transplanted from elsewhere. Delhi, for most, is a political circus, where the Parliament meets, the location of the annual Republic Day Parade, and incidentally also the home of the Red Fort. Monuments are really empty if the culture around it has vanished. Dalrymple's central thesis is that the Partition all but killed Delhi's cultural richness that resulted from the mixing of the Hindu and Muslim worlds from the Mughal times. The Partition exodus resulted in the city being overrun by the boorish and loud Punjabis who have no love nor understanding of the city's language or culture. Modern Delhi is divided into two halves - the decaying and dying Mughal Old Delhi and vulgar and conspicuously consumptive Punjabi New Delhi. But as he explores Delhi's past, Dalrymple cannot escape the Punjabis who now run the city and grudgingly he gives them their due. He rents an apartment from the iron-fisted Partition-refugee Mrs. Puri and is driven around by the irrepressible Balwinder Singh from the International Backside Taxi (backside denoting its location behind the International Centre).

The world that he writes about is from the late 1980s (the book was published in 1993) where he had many encounter with the famous Indian bureaucracy, but things have not changed much since at least in terms of preserving history, culture, and architecture. He writes about two brothers from a family of nastaliq calligraphers. One brother continues to preserve the dying art and the other, the more pragmatic of the two, has all but shunned it in favour of taking soft-porn photos in the same premises where his ancestors laboured for princes, omrahs, and scholars. The death and decay continue. Monuments are still uncared for, valuable papers are still rotting in basements, and grotesque improvements and changes are being made in places that are of great historical importance.

In middle of this captivating account, the mid-morning Georgia sun made it presence felt and I had to run indoors for cover. I was halfway across the world but this plot of earth is only 10 degrees north of Delhi and in any case the red earth of Georgia does remind me of the Red Fort.

Banker to the Poor

If you want to make money on the stock market all you need to do is to remember to 'buy high and sell low'. Correct advice on what to do, but ultimately useless since it does not tell how. Similar is the concept that 'free market economics and education' is the answer to the problems in developing countries. Pray tell me how?

Muhammad Yunus's book 'Banker to the Poor' is an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary person doing rather ordinary things for the most ordinary of people. It is a story of great courage and determination in the pursuit of an idea that was considered to be doomed from the start.

Muhammad Yunus is a patriot, who gave up a professorship in the U.S. to return to his country in 1971 following independence to help rebuild the new nation of Bangladesh. He got disillusioned with his first job at the Planning Commission and accepted professorship at Chittagong University. All along Yunus was really hunting for a cause. Before he hit upon the idea for Grameen in 1976, Yunus tried a number of things to help the villages around Chittagong university.

If Yunus hadn't been the head of the Department of Economics at Chittagong University, he would have been booted out by the bankers and officials when they first heard his hare-brained scheme to lend money to poorest people, ones who had no credit history or collateral. It was a scheme that was not only against all banking principles, but also against plain logic. The said that the poor would simply use the money for their own needs and not for a business and the project would surely fail.
Yet, he persisted and they lent him some money for a pilot scheme.

Only upon reading the book did I realise that in addition there were also social conditions that Yunus had to fight against. Yunus knew that he needed to target women to really make a difference. In Bangladesh most women observed purdah, left all economic decisions to the male in the household, so even getting them take the credit that was being offered was hard. On one hand were the religious right who claimed that women running businesses and taking loans was against Islamic law. On the other hand were the communists who insisted that this was 'capitalist' plot to rob the poor of their despair and rage.

Yunus is a devout Muslim, but not an Islamist. He tries to shy away from 'isms' and and he writes:

I am not a capitalist in the simplistic left/right sense. Bu I do believe in the power of the global free-market economy and in using capitalist tools... The able-bodied poor don't want charity. The dole only increases their misery, robs them incentive and, more important, of self-respect.
Povery is not created by the poor. It is created by the structures of society and the policies pursued by society. Change the structure as we are doing in Bangladesh, and you will see that the poor change their own lives.

It wasn't that Yunus simply had faith in the poor, he saw them differently. He did not see the poor as beggars but as potential entrepreneurs. Yunus did not patronize them gave them a thimbleful of help and hope and they responded. But why were the poor so much better at returning the money that Grameen lent them? Because that was their only chance to get out. It wasn't charity that they were seeking, all they wanted were the barest means for self-empowerment.

In hindsight all this seems quite logical, but many such schemes have failed to take off in other places. Why? Understanding a good idea is one thing, but implementing it is another. There is nothing small or simple about microfinance. It requires very specialized skills, lots of energy, and an acute understanding of local conditions. Grameen's success can be credited to the remarkable innovation and adaptability of their schemes. After every project Yunus and his team refined their program. In the early years, new hires were chiefly asked to observe and then criticize current schemes, and then they were asked to give their own ideas and suggestions for improvement.

Yunus isn't much of a believer in the 'trickle-down' theory and for a long time opposed the World Bank. Even schemes to directly help the poor are flawed. According to him, almost 75% of aid money is spent on commodities, technologies, and salaries of experts from the donor country itself. The rest of the money, if not embezzled, is spent on making the locals dependent on donor technology as opposed to harnessing local tools and technology effectively. And in most cases all development benefits and advantages are always captured by the privileged.

He mocks the per capita system of assessing economic growth. In his opinion, a correct measure of a country is assessing the per capita growth of the bottom 50%, more realistically the bottom 25%, of the population.

Microfinance, the hare-brained scheme of 1970s has now attracted the attention of the largest and biggest banks. With 97% of the loans being honored, they see it as another way to make a profit. While they can't realistically be expected to match the evangelical zeal of Yunus and his Grameen Bank, they still need to lend to the poorest. Currently, as the Economist recently reported, these banks are still vary of lending to poorest and are mostly lending to institutions, like Grameen, who have a proven track record. Ironic, huh?

It is easy to dismiss Yunus's aim to eradicate world poverty by 2050. In the 25 years of the Grameen bank's existence, it has not made much of dent in eradicating poverty in Bangladesh and there are no comprehensive studies to show that microfinance really alleviates poverty. But, it did make a difference to 6.6m of its borrowers. It did change the idea of how banking for the poor works. How many of us really are interested in being part of a solution?

Awake in the Dark

Review of Roger Ebert's Awake in the Dark is posted on the lit blog.

Tax Forms

Forms have the weirdest questions to which no sane person would ever write 'Yes'. For example, "Have you ever been a member of the Nazi Party?" What??

If you survived T-Day last Tuesday, did you notice this non sequitur?

On my income tax 1040 it says 'Check this box if you are blind.' I wanted to put a check mark about three inches away.

- Tom Lehrer

Never Ever

... tell people about your secret parking spot.

Kurt Vonnegut is in Heaven Now

I have to break my current work-imposed silence to write about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Words on the book-jackets read,
Kurt Vonnegut is among the few grandmasters of American letters, one without whom the very term American literature would mean much less than it does.

American letters means a little less today. His books will always mean a lot to me. You can pick up any book and start on any page, you will be amused and entertained, and still have learned something. His books are rambling, often without a real thread. You don't read Vonnegut, it reads you. They will change the way you view the world without bullying you about it. Vonnegut wanted us to be humans and simply do the decent thing. Life is hard, shit happens, people are mean, things don't turn out the way they do. Kurt knew it too, as he battled depression for a number of years. But, he had the grace to understand and tell us not to forget to enjoy drinking lemonade under the shade of a tree. He said, "If this isn't nice, what is?"

It is always interesting to walk in a bookstore and see where they place Kurt Vonnegut's books. I always felt that there should a separate section called "Vonnegut". He gave us a few of the most colorful characters in fiction, famously the best-selling, but unknown sci-fi writer - Kilgore Trout.

Vonnegut said the villains in his books were never individuals, but culture, society and history, which he said were making a mess of the planet. Perhaps now Vonnegut will know if the following statement, one that he often made, is true:
"Life is no way to treat an animal".

Previous posts on Kurt Vonnegut:
Man Without a Country. Hear Kurt talks about his books and life in a recent interview on NPR.

Slaughter House Five

For a humanist the thought of being in heaven after death is a big joke. When asked about Issac Asimov, a past president of the American Humanist Society, he often joked, "Issac is in heaven now." Wish Kurt a good time with Issac up there!

Between the High and Low

The blog world is full of pretentious characters. How must one survive? In his characteristic sardonic way, Sinfully Pinstripe offers advice on
How to be a lower-middle brow reader. A reader defined as:

One who technically should not be having any views on Llosa or Woolf because he appreciates Tom Robbins, but one who has sniggering rights at that hot babe who is turning the pages of 'Angels and Demons' at Coffee Day (And why just sniggering rights, who can even walk up to her and suggest her a book ...

Oscars 2007

Apart from Scorsese's win as Best Director, I was a bit surprised to see The Departed pick up the Best Screenplay and Best Picture awards. Ellen Degeneres was herself; I would have liked to see some of her dancing. Her best gag of the evening was asking Spielberg to take a picture of her with Clint Eastwood for her Facebook profile. It has been Mexico's best year in Hollywood, but the big prizes did not go their way. Apart from the old Three Amigos presenting Scorsese with the award there weren't any other memorable or sensational moments.

It is a fun game trying to guess the winners each year - Oscar 2007 Predictions. Discounting The Departed, I wish I had second guessed some of the other categories. I felt Eddie Murphy should not have lost out to Alan Arkin. The other upset of the evening was Melissa Etheridge winning the Best Song. However, it was good to see that Pan's Labyrinth won most of the awards that it was nominated for.

The Oscars also mark the start of the season of drought. Perhaps it is time to get back to some of the classics.

Oscars: Movies, predictions, and other fun stuff

We love to hate the Oscars because in theory they are supposed to reward the best performances of the year; in practice, the Oscars are often handed out as 'mercy' trophies for past slights, as part of some Academy agenda, or as part of some rotation or quota. While you can quibble over the categories and the winners, at least give the Academy credit for doing a good job of noticing the best movies of the year. But griping about the Oscars is as much a tradition as is Martin Scorsese being passed over. I am also waiting for the bitching and moaning that follows the next morning - best exemplified by Annie Proulx's (despite her disclaimer) grapes-are-sour gripe last year. If 'the Oscars suck' and they 'didn't really care' why even bother watching or attending? Who would really watch or care about the Golden Globes if they were not presented before the Oscars?

The hosts in the last two years have been somewhat disappointing. Jon Stewart and Chris Rock were nothing to write home about. Rock was out of control and Stewart too restrained. Ellen Degeneres might provide the right balance and might be a worthy pretender to the throne that Billy Crystal vacated.

Thanks to the Michigan Theater, I shall be able to watch all the nominated short films making this year the closest I have ever come to watching every movie that has been nominated. (I will update those categories later today Updated.)

Before getting to the predictions I would like say that it is a bit of a shame that one of the best movies of the year - Robert Altman's Prarie Home Companion - did not get a single mention. The overlapping dialogue between Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the Johnson sisters is priceless. Another fantastic movie not to make it in some of the technical categories was - Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Best Supporting Actor
What's Mark Wahlberg doing here? Haley doesn't have much of chance too. The serious contenders are: (in order) Hounsou, Arkin, and Murphy. In a presence that is felt up to the last frame, Alan Arkin's performance as the crochety, foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandpop was lovable and all his advice is well taken and useful. In a movie where all the roles were stereotypes the challenge and beauty was in doing something original and unique; Arkin, unlike Breslin, just played what he was supposed to play - a wise, but maverick dirty old man. Hounsou has an outside chance, but easily Eddie Murphy as the soulful, can't-keep-me-down Jimmy Early (a thinly disguised James Brown) has stolen the show.

Should Win: Eddie Murphy
Second Guess: Alan Arkin

Best Supporting Actress
If you were really looking for a puzzler then this is the category. So far, the acting awards have never been shared and if there was a year for trophies to be shared - this is the year. For reasons mentioned earlier if not for Abigail Breslin's unbelievably natural performance Little Miss Sunshine would have totally fallen apart; it would just be another cute family movie. Rinko Kikuchi has been a revelation (no pun intended) as the wounded deaf-mute girl in Babel. Adriana Barraza playing the Mexican maid reiterates just how awesome she is playing character roles. Cate Blanchett? What can I say? She is not only beautiful on the bicycle, but also can convince us to sympathize with a teacher who decides to have an affair with a 15-year old boy. In this crowd of talent, I would still pick Jennifer Hudson to edge them all out. Hudson has given it her all. While Deena Jones(Knowles) is the just another pretty singer, Effie White is a real artist. She is loud-mouthed, emotional, independent and knows how to throw a tantrum. Hudson might have been booted out of American Idol but it looks like tomorrow is her night on the stage.

Should Win: Everyone or Jennifer Hudson
Second Guess: Rinko Kikuchi

Best Actor
Forest Whitaker has saved the nominees in this category the trouble of writing speeches. In the Last King of Scotland he has stolen every scene, even scenes in which he is not present. Whitaker plays Idi Amin better than Idi Amin. Not only does he play Amin from the outside - the accent, the booming laughter, movement of the eyes, and the half-crazed look, but he is also Idi Amin from the inside. He conveys Amin's magnetic personality and how charisma can blind an entire nation. In a sense, Whitaker's performance is a disservice to the movie. The movie would have garnered more appreciation for its other merits if the magnificent Forest Whitaker had not overshadowed everything.

Should Win: Forest Whitaker
Second Guess: Forest Whitaker

Best Actress
There was a time when playing characters with some physical, mental defect was a sure-shot at Oscar success. Lately, the trend has been towards playing real characters. Six out of the last ten Oscars for Acting have gone to people playing real characters. Perhaps, since people have a better sense of a real person, it is easier to judge and reward such a role. In order, Streep and Dench have given the other best performances of the year, but the Queen is all set to rule.

Should Win: Helen Mirren
Second Guess: Judi Dench

Foreign Language
I was happy to see Water nominated and it deserves some sort of award for perseverance on the part of the filmmakers in the face of the most idiotic, politicized opposition. The best of Deepa Mehta is yet to come, this ain't it, I'll wait. Guillermo Toro's Pan's Labyrinth does not belong here; it should be in the Best Picture category. It is the finest film of year and the host of nominations in other technical categories vindicate the claim. Sergi Lopez as the vicious captain in Franco's Spain and Ivana Banquero as the innocent, fable-loving step-daughter are simply fantastic in this 'adult fairy tale'. It is hard to describe what the movie is about, because it is simultaneously about a lot of things - good and evil, honour and duty, reality and dreams. A masterpiece.

The Black Dahlia, an otherwise uninspired movie, gets a honorable mention here. Children of Men will win only if it is better than Pan's Labyrinth.
Should Win: Pan's Labyrinth
Second Guess: Children of Men

Costume Design
This is a toss up between Marie Antoinette and Dreamgirls. Looks like soulful Motown has an edge over gay Paris.
Should Win: Dreamgirls
Second Guess: Marie Antoinette

Best Documentary
God may or may not exist, Iraq is a mess, but global warming is a much bigger danger and given the misinformation about it, the truth better get out.
Should Win: The Inconvenient Truth
Second Guess: The Inconvenient Truth

Glass's insistent sound ruined an otherwise fantastic movie - Notes on a Scandal. Santaollala's work for Babel sounds much like his work for Brokeback Mountain. Navarette's score for Pan's Labyrinth struck the right note.
Should Win: Javier Navarette
Second Guess: Gustavo Santoallala

There is talk that three nominations will split the Dreamgirls vote, but they have a winner here.
Should Win: Dreamgirls
Second Guess: The Inconvenient Truth

The Departed felt apart in the end because of poor writing. Some of the loose ends were rather unsatisfactorily resolved. Notes on a Scandal deserves the award for cleverly adapting Zoe Heller's novel told from Dench's point of view without having too much of a voice-over. Good to know that you have Dench and Blanchett to pull it off.

Should Win: Notes on a Scandal
Second Guess: Children of Men

Original Screenplay
This is a tough one. It was amazing to know that Pan's Labyrinth was not written by someone like Marquez. Babel was a good effort but some of the connections in the story were a little tenuous and Arriaga could have made it a little tighter. A good contender is Letters from Iwo Jima. Here I would have to hand it to Little Miss Sunshine for a fresh look at a cliched theme.
Should Win: Little Miss Sunshine
Second Guess: Letters from Iwo Jima

Animated Film
Should Win: Cars

Animated Short Film
Should Win: Lifted

Live Action Short Film
This category is often overlooked and it was two hours well spent. I sincerely hope the Academy doesn't put the nominees in this category in the cheap balcony seats and imposes it usual 'no-speeches' rule. The most impressive adaption of Romeo and Juliet via West Side Story is Ari Sandel's musical satire - West Bank Story which features two competing falafel stores called Kosher King and Hummus Hut. Helmer & Son features a father who locks himself in a closet at a retirement home and refuses to come out. It has laughs, comic situations, and insights in family relations equivalent to films that take 4 times the amount of time. Éramos Pocos (One Too Many), the Basque-Spanish movie, is easily the best. When Joaquin's wife suddenly leaves him and his adult son, he struggles to manage the household. They both decide to bring Joaquin's mother-in-law back from a retirement home which works out great for the both of them.

Should Win: Éramos Pocos

Best Director
Unless the Academy has finally decided to take mercy on Martin Scorsese, the real contenders are Inarritu and Eastwood. Like Scorsese fans everywhere, I would rather not have him win at all than win for The Departed. It might be worth just giving him the award to watch his expression and hear what he says - that is stuff for legend. Realistically, the strongest contenders this year are Eastwood and Inarritu. They are a study in contrasts. Inarritu has done a great job of handling all the talent in his transnational, butterfly-effect movie and while the movie has been criticized for lacking 'follow-through', it is perfect in its details. If the Mexican Inarritu is bursting with talent, the American Clint Eastwood, at twice his age, is bursting with energy. In contrast to the colorful spread of Babel, we have the dark Letters from Iwo Jima, the story of Japanese soldiers stuck in the tunnels with no hope but of certain death. While Inarritu could leap from one timezone to another to move his story, Eastwood had to make a movie of soldiers in tunnels speaking in a language most of the audience would not understand - interesting and explore war from a fresh angle. He has largely succeeded.

Should Win: Clint Eastwood
Second Guess: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Best Picture
The Queen has the weakest chance and should be happy just to be nominated. The Departed is a good thriller, held together by some great acting by Jack Nicholson, DiCaprio and others, but lacks a deep theme that is so needed to be a winner. Why was there no place for Pan's Labyrinth? Little Miss Sunshine's story of a family in crisis is entertaining, but certainly not worthy of the big prize as it lacks the depth that is shown by the next two contenders. I feel that this year, the best director and best picture prizes are going to be split again. Babel has a much richer palette and while the directorial work is not as challenging as it was for Eastwood, essentially stuck with a dreary tale of soldiers and war, it has the correct soaring multi-ethnic, human theme that is always a favorite. Every element is so Best Picture Oscar-friendly that it might actually go against it. But, if my impression when I first saw months ago, before the horse-races were on, is correct Babel should win.

Should Win: Babel
Second Guess: Letters from Iwo Jima

Air Hostess equation

Ashutosh grumbles about the Air Hostess myth. I almost resigned to the fact of facing or rather combating matronly hostesses on NWA and I considered it a norm after seeing it same on the other carriers. Not after I flew on Easy Jet in Europe and Indigo Air in India. BTW US airlines suck in comparison to the new Indian carriers - SpiceJet, Kingfisher, Indigo, Deccan, etc.

Air Hostess equation:
Unattractiveness of the air-hostesses = k. Age of airline

Those desirous of prettier faces in the sky should fly on newer airlines; often most of them are budget airlines making it doubly attractive.

What makes a quote quotable?

The forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps, and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it.
- HG Wells

It is well-known that in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman never said: "Play it again, Sam"; she said, "Play it, Sam." In this week's anniversary edition of the New Yorker Louis Menand says, "...quotable quotes are coins rubbed smooth by circulation", and the most famous quotes, as originally uttered, were not quotable quotes; they needed some "editorial attention". Editorialization ensures that the quote survives and consequently the person who said does too. Quotes are memes that have a life of their own.

So what is a quote anyway? Why do we find them magical? The last paragraph of his essay is just as quotable for the reasons he describes:

Public circulation is what renders something a quotation. It’s quotable because it’s been quoted, and its having been quoted gives it authority. Quotations are prostheses... We pick them up off the public street, but we put them to private uses. We hoard quotations like amulets. They are charms against chaos, secret mantras for dark times, strings that vibrate forever in defiance of the laws of time and space. That they may be opaque or banal to everyone else is what makes them precious: they aren’t supposed to work for everybody. They’re there to work for us. Some are little generational badges of identity. Some just seem to pop up on a million occasions. Some are razors. "I see a red door and I want it painted black." "Devenir immortelle, et puis, mourir." "Much smaller piece." "You’re two tents." The quotation I have found most potent in warding off evil spirits is the motto of the Flemish philosopher Arnold Geulincx (1624-69): "Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis." "Where you are worth nothing, you should want nothing." That’s mine. You can’t use it.

This American Life

If you had time to listen to only one program on Public Radio, then it would be - This American Life. Last week's show was all the more special since it was about quiz shows, or rather people associated in some way with quizzes.

To describe the show in their own words:

One of the problems with our show from the start has been that whenever we try to describe it in a sentence or two, it sounds awful. For instance: Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme. That doesn't sound like something we'd want to listen to on the radio, and it's our show. In the early days of the program, in frustration, we'd sometimes tell public radio program directors that it's basically just like Car Talk. Except just one guy hosting. And no cars. It's easy to say what we're not. We're not a news show or a talk show or a call-in show. We're not really formatted like other radio shows at all. Instead, we do these stories that are like movies for radio. There are people in dramatic situations where things happen to them.

Ira Glass has worked every possible position in a radio station: a tape cutter, newscast writer, desk assistant, editor, producer, and host. This American Life has won the highest honors for broadcasting and journalistic excellence, including the Peabody and DuPont-Columbia awards, as well as the Edward R. Murrow and the Overseas Press Club awards. At first, Ira Glass's voice is not one that you would associate with a radio personality: it's slightly nasally, the delivery is often choppy, but it feels feels direct, genuine, and matter-of-fact; after a while, you can't think of another voice that would match the material better. It is well-crafted like everything else on the show. Glass uses his training in semiotics to great effect: every pause, repetition of sentence, choice of word is a deliberate choice. Glass spends hours selecting, adding, or deleting the position of a particular pause, cadence, and selecting the songs for the show. Consider selecting songs for all these topics? I bet it's a tough job. Try finding a song for a show on quizzes? Their selection could not have been better - the punk tone and lyrical content of Smarter than You by The Undertones almost perfectly describes the attitude of quizzers. He says, "There are only two things in radio - sound and silence."

This American Life goes beyond just finding extraordinary stories on the most mundane of all topics:
The retiree in Brooklyn who invites some homeless prostitutes into his house on a cold winter night and they never leave; pranksters who go on missions to create a cell-phone symphony, board the NY subway in just underpants, or give a band its greatest gig; on New York building supervisors, or the 'Supers', and their fantastic tales; students at a high-school prom when a tornado rips a third of the rest of their town. One of my favourite stories is about Charlie Brill and Mitzie McCall who got caught in another kind whirlwind, when they got their biggest break on Ed Sullivan.

After listening to a couple of shows you realize that despite the name the show is not really about America; it's about life in general and stories of humans caught up in it. How we deal with situations and how we don't. How things that seeemed liked good ideas at the time went fatally wrong.

* * *
All the shows are available free on the website as streaming audio. To my great joy they are now allowing episodes to be downloaded on iTunes as podcasts. Each show is availabe for a week after the broadcast and is then archived on

Just Drag a Drop

It's Oscar week and everyone has something to gripe about. The Oscars simultaneously stand for all that is good about the movies and all that is bad about them. It is the big daddy and the whipping boy.

Since we are on the subject, this story finds a new reason to gripe about acting and the movies in general. Note that the Oscars got singled for what can be said for acting in general. While, thanks to Adobe, glycerin manufacturers are out of business, it gives the less good-looking among us more options in the celluloid world!

If you want to see real acting then you need to look to the stage. Every performance is unique, there are no takes, no special effects, actors interacting with the audience, but there ain't no free lunch - wait till you actually pay for the theatre tickets. Also you cannot carry your popcorn inside.

(All the fun stuff on the Oscars: predictions, movies of 2006, rants, etc. tomorrow.)

Krugman on Friedman

In the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman deconstructs the late Milton Friedman in his essay: Who was Milton Friedman?

If Keynes was Luther, Friedman was Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. And like the Jesuits, Friedman's followers have acted as a sort of disciplined army of the faithful, spearheading a broad, but incomplete, rollback of Keynesian heresy.

If Economics was a Church, Friedman is already on the fast-track to canonization (his zealous followers are seeing to it). No one disagrees that Friedman was one of the greatest economists of the 20th century; however, Friedman is lionized by economists and the general public for different reasons:

Moreover, Friedman's effectiveness as a popularizer and propagandist rested in part on his well-deserved reputation as a profound economic theorist. But there's an important difference between the rigor of his work as a professional economist and the looser, sometimes questionable logic of his pronouncements as a public intellectual. While Friedman's theoretical work is universally admired by professional economists, there's much more ambivalence about his policy pronouncements and especially his popularizing. And it must be said that there were some serious questions about his intellectual honesty when he was speaking to the mass public.

So, the lay public can hardly be blamed since Friedman himself was responsible for much of the misrepresentation and subsequent misperception of his ideas by public. The disconnect between Friedman's bold rockstar-like public and his more cautious academic pronouncements reveal Friedman to be a more complex than the simple tag-line 'biggest champion of liberty and capitalism' suggests.

The larger issue the article bring up is: if you wish to market yourself as a public intellectual then there better not be any ambiguity and self-doubt. Your band of followers are looking for a clear message and once you get on the roller-coaster there is no getting out.

What Men Want From Women

For a few months now, I have been carrying Hugh's Gaping Void on the sidebar. He has a quirky sense of humour that reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut.

Today's comic is a true gem, more so when you realise the subtlety of the order. It has inspired me to send this man a cheque. Why not? He does as much to make the world more livable than any bleeding-heart social worker. When Hugh figures out what women want from men, I guess his mailbox will be flooded with cheques. We won't have any more troubles with homo sapiens XX and no more comics. What is worse?


Serious Scrabble is not everyone's cup of tea, especially once you realize it has very little to do with words, their usage and meanings, and everything to do with memorization, anagramming, calculation and strategy. As much as I like Scrabble, I have to admit that it merely masquerades as a word game. When you get stuck with a bunch of A's and E's, or worse, all consonants, you wish you were playing in some other language.

The most serious contender for being called the king of word games, in any language, is - the crossword. For many, it is as much of a daily addiction as their cup of coffee in the morning. The meteoric rise of Sudoku puzzles seems to suggest that to the general population even crosswords are just too hard, and even elitist. To them and fellow word fanatics, I recommend Stanley Newman's book - Cruciverbalism. Somewhere along the way, the few rules about crosswords have been obscured from sight. It was a surprise for me to learn the unwritten rule about daily crosswords - they progress in difficulty with the day of the week. So, starting your crossword career on a Saturday might not be a great idea. One of the few pleasant things about Monday is that the crossword is the easiest.

The short book is wittily written and explains the hidden rules of the grid, history of the crossword, and tips on getting better. Enough to get you hooked, provided you start on a Monday. The only feature of the usually ludicrous campus rag, The Michigan Daily, that never lets its readers down is their crossword. As is the case with many newspapers, a large chunk of their readership is attracted by the crossword. Despite their importance crosswords are treated like step-children and are always tucked away in a corner within the folds of the newspaper. Newman argues on behalf of the constructors who spend hours constructing puzzles that aim to tickle and tease readers only to end up as no-name nobodies who don't even merit a byline on the page. It is interesting to note that the most prolific constructors of crosswords are guests of the state. Apparently, felons are among the few who have the time to spend hours and days working on the possibility of a $50 reward.
Passionately making his case Newman says:

"I saw nuances in language, I'd never appreciated before, I savored witticisms that I might have not understood in the past, and I become adept at considering information from a multitude of angles, identifying possibilities and patterns with ease..."

It was a little disappointing to find that the book hardly mentions cryptic crosswords. When crosswords crossed the Atlantic the Brits found them to be too boring and spiced them up by inventing cryptic crosswords. If crosswords are addictive, cryptic crosswords are doubly so (once you get a hang of the idea). The Hindu, which rather magnanimously allows free access to their daily cryptic puzzle, is now a daily fixture till I rise to Guardian level standards.


This is great!

Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?
- James Thurber

From the Other Side

Francis Collins, head-honcho of the Human Genome Project, baffles me to no end. I have not read his books and I don't think he has much to offer as this interview in the February edition of the National Geographic indicates.

All he does in the interview is to offer apologies and excuses for God and religion, and pooh-pooh claims that science, including genetics, will eventually be able to answer questions that are currently the domain of religion. He does not have much faith in the power of prayer, except that through it we obtain fellowship (how?) with God; he knows that miracles are highly unlikely, yet believes that they may occur; suffering and evil in the world is not God's fault, but the result of human free-will.

Why only blame the uneducated and the ignorant for holding irrational beliefs?

There are no Spanish Darlings


From the IT department:

More versions are available here where you can can even order them for 2$ a pop.

The Tragedy of The Commons

Last night when I was renewing my library card at the AADL, the local public library, the librarian politely informed me that I had $4.00 in fines and if I wanted to pay some of them. Having to pay library fines is something I have struggled with all my life. I usually OD on books and despite my furious reading speed I don't have enough time to read all of them by the due date. There was a time when I thought that having to pay fines meant something was wrong with my character; something I needed to improve. I have since rationalized that paying fines is a way to support your local library.

So, I told her: "Sure! I would love to pay the all the fines and support my local library!".
She said: "You are already supporting your local library through your taxes."
I said: "True, but there are some, like me, who use the resources disproportionately!".

She laughed so hard that everbody in the checkout line wondered what I had said. I think she laughed because she looked like a disproportionate user herself! It is quite a club at the AADL. Ann Arbor, is a disproportionately overeducated town, full of self-styled experts and polymaths. You know you are in Ann Arbor when 'serious' books have hold queues with over 200 requests. I call this phenomenon the NPR Effect.

The public libraries in the US are fantastic. They let you borrow as many materials as you want; they will get whatever you want. The libraries do much to educate and engage the community. Perhaps it is less true in Ann Arbor, but in general the public does not use its libraries as much as it should. The public library seems to be a perverse example of the tragedy of the commons-free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately dooms the resource through over-exploitation. Here, a great public resource for which the public is paying taxes is being under-utilized. A tragedy indeed!

Old posts on: Fines and library nostalgia.

State of Denial: The God Delusion

Once upon time, I was an agnostic. Being an agnostic doesn't affect your daily life. You could be friends with the religious folk and non-believers and they would all think that deep down you were on their side. Like a certain famous Frenchman, I thought that agnosticism was a good insurance policy, just in case G-O-D did exist. So, I remained comfortably agnostic till I read the Selfish Gene. By the end of the second chapter, I was pretty much convinced of the foolishness of my position and was turned on by the beauty of evolution. He shows how life can happen without any agent. My agnosticism was a euphemism for ignorance. It takes a book like the Selfish Gene to convince you inconvertibly. To deny the existence of something on basis of gut feeling is one thing, but to have it shown scientifically is quite another. I felt a sense of betrayal; I had been misled all my life. I considered the hours I had wasted in prayer and there was no one even listening. What seemed shocking was the fact that the book had already been in publication for decades and things had not changed. Apparently, the word had not got out. God, or the idea of God, was still omnipotent as in John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".

Armed with the powers of scientific method, Dawkins took on the Herculean task of trying to wrest control of the Word. Over the years, he has published numerous books on various aspects of evolution and has been a valiant soldier in the fight against creationism. With the God Delusion, his aims are more ambitious than any of his previous books - combating scientific ignorance; arguing that we are moral despite religion, not because of it; begging atheists to come out of the closet; and the mental torture of children by religious parents. "Children", he says, "should not be called Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, but children of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim parents." They should be taught not what to think but how to think.

He begins the book with the myth about Einstein believing in God. There are many interesting anecdotes and studies cited in the book, out of which I found Russell's teapot of great utility. He notes with irony in the first chapter that he might be preaching to the choir, but he hopes to at least convince the fence-sitters to re-evaluate their beliefs. Indifference is just as bad as ignorance, and he believes that is the moderates that give power to the extremists.

An important point that Dawkins brings up is the privileging religion. He asks why religion, which is like any other belief, is always given a place of privilege. Why is questioning belief in Jesus or Allah or Vishnu different from questioning belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden? Why is religion considered to be beyond the domain of scientific inquiry?

We humans always seem to have an anthropocentric view of the world, even though we are sensitive to only a limited part of the light spectrum, hear only a limited range of frequencies, live on a minor planet orbiting an average star. Science, he says, has a way of opening our eyes to a much bigger and wider universe around us.

Listen to Dawkins on Science Friday.