Punching Numbers

This may be the most insane thing I ever did. Now you can call me using Grand Central. I one of those who will try anything, once!

What about noli me vocare, ego te vocabo? Throwing caution to the wind.

It was fun picking my number though which spells out: REHASH-5-PAD using phonespell.

On A Productive Day

I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.
- EB White

Oscars 2008

Has 2007 been a great year for the movies? I think so. Have the Oscars been reflective of that? Not so much.

Certain movies have overshadowed much of everything else that went on during the year. There are movies that are good, and those that do well at the Oscars.

In the former category, Before the Devil Knows You are Dead was largely unnoticed. It does have the oscillating non-linear narrative, but the dialogue is brilliant. Albert Finney, Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman are excellent in this fast-paced story of family, personal demons, and things spiralling quickly out of control. Nominations - 0.

Another movie that sort of died too soon was The Darjeeling Unlimited. Wes Anderson is the heir to Robert Altman in many ways. The soundtrack was a homage to the Merchant-Ivory 'Bombay Talkies'. But, India was simply a backdrop. With the same actors and the same sort of story, this is what can be called a paraquel to the Royal Tenenbaums.

In the Oscar-friendly category we have Exhibit A - No Country For Old Men - lot's of great actors, wonderful locations, complex plot with parallel stories. The Babel of last year. Then there is a new kind of movie that is gaining favour, Exhibit B - Juno - a dramatic-comedy on a serious issue, with very likable characters, an unusual soundtrack, and new actors. The Little Miss Sunshine of the year. These two represent the two extremes - the much larger than life and the true 1:1 scale that are very Oscar friendly. The old staple - the biopic also always works. Everything else seems to fall between the cracks. The real shocker has been Michael Clayton. A good movie, but far from outstanding that I feel has been undeservedly been overrepresented. Perhaps indication of the clout of the people behind the movie?

Predictions up next...

Oscar 2008 - Predictions

It's a pity that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly walked away with no awards. It was one of the finest movies of the 2007. Tilda Swanson came from nowhere to win that award. I was glad to see that Marion Cotillard's performance did not go unnoticed. Ellen Page will have to wait.
Other than that, most awards went as expected.

Reportcard: 8/12

* *
This is now a yearly ritual (thanks to the insistence of JRR and others). Let's see what tomorrow will bring. Most of the categories have been quite easy to call in contrast to last year. This is not to say that the nominees lack quality, but rather that the relative differences are apparent.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Daniel Day-Lewis has created a niche in playing deranged, driven maniacs and this is a role for him. It is more his voice than his acting that deserves the credit and There Will Be Blood is a movie that should be watched but also listened to. The others nominees can leave their speeches at home.
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Philip Seymour Hoffman has had a fantastic year. If Daniel Day-Lewis is sheer depth, then Hoffman is breadth. His role as the cocaine-sniffing exec in Before the Devil Knows Your Dead did not get much notice, but was one of his finest ever. It took me a while to realise that he was playing the CIA-agent Gust Avakatros in Charlie Wilson's War. If acting prizes were handed out in terms of batting averages, Hoffman would win many prizes. Unfortunately for him this time, Javier Bardem is standing with a cattle-gun with a killer performance that has been bested by only Day-Lewis.
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Cate Blanchett is in her own Golden Age as an actress. Even her tiniest role as Bob Dylan earned a nomination. Do you need to say more about an actress who can embody - Hepburn, Dylan, Elizabeth and Galadriel? Another fan. I thought Marion Cotillard playing Edith Piaf poured her heart into role. But, there are a few things going against her - the movie was in French, about a French superstar, and the musician-biopic has become a tired genre for this award. Ellen Page (not Julie Christie) is the fresh face and her role as the flippant, pregnant teenager is the best one of the year.
Ellen Page in Juno

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Ruby Dee's performance was good, but not great. I cannot say anything about Amy Ryan since I have not seen the movie. I was most impressed by Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. When I read the book, I had a Briony in mind. Now, after having seen the movie, I cannot imagine anyone but Ronan. She exudes that nervous energy, prodigious talent, and fanciful imagination of a thirteen-year old.
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement

Best animated feature film of the year
My real work involves rats, I confess to certain amount of Francophilia, and to being a foodie. Even if any of these did not apply to you, Ratatouille should convince you to save money to be able to eat once at a cafe in Paris. I did not have the opportunity (in terms of money) to eat at a Michelin three-star restaurant, but if the 'common' cafe food was so good, I cannot imagine what a real restaurant offers. I have missed the bus on rap-music and also on the graphic-novel genre. Persepolis stands an outside chance (it's the only movie that is really made in France!)

Achievement in cinematography
Both, the American Westerns would not have been that majestic if hadn't been for the camerawork. But, Kaminski's job as portraying the life of man who can only blink his left eyelid is one of the finest achievements in cinematography that I have ever seen. It would be nothing short of travesty if the award goes to anyone else.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Janusz Kaminski

Achievement in directing
Schnabel's work is nothing short of spectacular. This is the movie that is going to make it to the textbooks. Juno has on outside chance, but the Coen brothers' tight, riveting piece of work in No Country For Old Men will most probably win.
If I had to choose I would give Schnabel the award and let the Coens take home the Best Picture. It takes a great deal of skill to portray the life of locked-in patient without pitying him and showing his spirit.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Julian Schnabel

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
Incorporating the typewriter as part of the score is nothing but brilliant, and Marianelli's other selections, like the aria from La Boheme, will not go unnoticed.
Atonement - Dario Marianelli

Adapted screenplay
Ian McEwan's novel was written to be adapted. There are no challenges there. Large parts of the Diving Bell had to be written to show the second person perspective which was very nicely done. But, Cormac McCarthy's novel presented the greatest challenge and the end result speaks for itself. I cannot see Bardem or Lee-Jones being able to do what they do without this adaptation giving them the canvas.
No Country for Old Men - Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Original screenplay
It takes effort to write a sentence with ten redundant 'likes', even if you are a teenager. The exchanges between Juno and her friends and Michael Cera are so uncannily real that you feel you have actually overheard them.
Juno - Diablo Cody

Best live action short film
It's a really pity that these gems are not as widely distributed. The Michigan Theater performs a great service by bringing these to Ann Arbor. There are novels and then there are short stories and these are truly the best of the best.

Tanghi Argentini had a great twist at the end and Il Supplente was a Robert Benigni-style riot. Every frame in The Tonto Woman could be in the National Geographic and I would watch out for Daniel Barber in the future. Going with the Francophile theme, the pickpocket movie was clearly the best. A very human story, told with a lot of wit, wonderful dialogue and a nice end.
Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)

Best motion picture of the year
Michael Clayton should not be here. I don't know what it is supposed to represent. Atonement was very tastefully done and, in this case, one can admit that the movie is as good as the book, and in some ways better. Using Vanessa Redgrave as the old Briony Tallis was a nice touch. There Will Be Blood fails to offer anything beyond the ambition and mania of two men - Paul Sunday(Dano) and Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis). No Country For Old Men offers a lot of different things and speaks at different levels. The story is both old and young. Javier Bardem is the Grim Reaper and Tommy Lee Jones is the honest sheriff, a composite from all Westerns. Josh Brolin is the Vietnam Vet who is more a cowboy than anything. The themes are huge - Good and Evil, Chance and Fate, Contemplation and Spontaneity. In contrast to this Goliath of a movie stands the charming Juno. It's going to be interesting to see if soaring universal themes are cut to size by a pint-sized pregnant teenager with an attitude. For now, like God, I am sticking on side of the big armies.
No Country for Old Men

Press One, then Press Five For...

Sick of talking to machines?
Pressing one, then five, then six, yada...yada... yada?

Get me a human please!

In Defense of Food

Grocery lines at the local Meijer can be quite long and what can you do while waiting in line? One, read the pulp magazines on the rack, or two, talk on the phone. My preferred way to pass the time is to look into other people's carts - it tells you a lot. How much soda-pop? microwave-ready food? fruits? fresh veggies or boxed? You can make a pretty decent guess about their health, wealth, and lifestyle. You can even tell if they are single or married without looking for the ring finger. Try it!

One day while eating Michael Pollan felt like asking, "What is it that I am eating? Where does it come from? He traced the story of four different kinds of meals - fast-food, organic, foraged, and hunted. Those simple questions lead him to discover some shocking and rather unpleasant facts and write the Omnivore's Dilemma. Most people think that they know what they eat, and where their food comes from, but they don't. For example, try looking at the package your bread comes in. How many of those ingredients do you recognize? Are you surprised to find some stuff you weren't expecting was in the bread you eat? If you are perplexed then grab hold of the book, or listen to this - NPR interview.

That book was the description, his latest book - In Defense of Food - is the prescription and it's bafflingly simple:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

There isn't anything more to it. How many books have you read whose first line IS the punchline?

Eat food
What food? you ask. Any food that is really food, says Michael Pollan. Much of what we eat is not food, but a 'product' of food science. Simple rules of thumb:

1)Anything with more than five ingredients is probably not food
2)Especially something that needs to advertise itself - low-fat, multi-grain, vitamin-fortified.
3)Something your grandmother(great-grandmother, if you are American!) wouldn't recognize

What you are left with after applying those three rules is very likely going to be food, whole food. I tried it this week and what you realize you are not left with much. As Pollan says, "The yam, sitting there silently in the produce section doesn't scream it health benefits" and I found, much to my shock, that my low-fat healthy yogurt contains high-fructose corn syrup. There is actually very little real food in the supermarket.

Mostly plants
I am what you call a 'flexitarian' - one who will eat meat if nothing else is available. People give different reasons for giving up meat or animal products - religious, ethical and health. I've discovered another, in my opinion, more compelling one - ecological. The entire livestock of the world emits more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry. I also ought to let you know that herbivores are being fed meat (mostly ground beef) for juicier steaks and cows drugged up with hormones. So, that bumper sticker you say is right - "Drink beer, not milk!"

Not too much
We all know this right? But, it's hard to follow it when the food is piled sky-high on your plate and you feel compelled to finish it. Okinawans who are known for their longevity as a community believe in hara hachi bu: Eat till you are 80 percent full. Again, hard to do since most meals are not consumed at dinner table, but are eaten in the car, in front of the TV and are eaten far too quickly or absent-mindedly that we cannot or don't respond to satiety cues. The French paradox is well-known. How do the French eat the most 'unhealthy' food and still manage to be so lean? First, they emphasize quality over quantity, second they don't take second helpings, and eat slowly and enjoy their meals.

Pollan says that - low-fat, low-carb, Omega-3, multi-grain, organic, etc. - are fads and not nutrition, but nutritionism in action. We have been eating food for centuries, and there is much evidence to suggest that most cultural practices are often healthier than the seemingly more healthy array of products of today. Food, real food, needs defending because it is rapidly disappearing from the marketplace.

So what's on your plate? - Make sure it's food, mostly plants, and not too much.

Ira Glass: now on DVD (the radio is better though!)

As an self-confessed NPR junkie I make no bones about my favorite show on radio - This American Life. The show is like the movies, except the stories are real (see old post).

Last Saturday, the show's host Ira Glass was in town. Being Ann Arbor, one the few places where if you don't listen to NPR you will be looked down by people, the local bookstore Borders was trying to restrict the audience by handing out wristbands when the store opened in the morning. In the evening, Borders did not have the executive power to enforce this and were letting anybody in. As a result, yours truly was stuck behind a pillar. This kinda of put dampener on the whole point of going there - "I came to see Ira, not to hear him!".

Ironically, Ira is on a tour to promote the DVD of his six-episode TV version of the show. Something, he said, he was reluctant to do for a long, long time. I have seen the pilot (on their website), but the radio show is better( and everyone knows it). From the straw-poll conducted at the bookstore, by Ira himself, not many people know the show from TV, which is small victory of sorts. TV or radio, the show is about real-life stories of real people.

The show is also well known for its beautifully put together music and one wonders if Ira who was born in 1959 was inspired by the music revolution in the 60s and 70s. He said that he was a nerdy Jewish-American kid growing up in Baltimore. He never heard any of the popular music while growing up. He said, "I remember a kid in my neighborhood asking me if I thought 'The Monkees' were better than 'The Beatles'. Imagine that there was a time when there was even a debate about this!. I grew up listening to Broadway musicals. The music of my people!". Musicals from the 40s and 50s, he said, have shaped his aesthetic and he tries to achieve a lot of that effect on the show.

I waited in line for about an hour to get the DVD signed. A bookshop is perhaps one of the few places in the world where I can wait in line forever. I picked up a book and 'almost read it'. Finally, it was great to meet and talk to Ira. He seemed to be in no hurry to conclude the conversation. The reason the line moved slowly was that Ira likes to talk to people, but which also made the wait worthwhile (not that I was complaining). I suggested that he should make a show on the show. There is a certain demographic to which the show appeals and, 'who really are these people?', and 'why do they listen to the show?'

Earlier, he said that for those in the creative profession most of the work is not in doing the work, but in simply finding the subject. As a young reporter, Ira tried really hard to sound like what he thought a reporter should sound like and he was terrible. He said that your best work is done when you are not trying to be what people think of you, but when you are doing it simply to amuse yourself. What does Ira do when he has all these wonderful stories from people to choose from. It isn't that hard -

Everyone has a story, but everyone does not have a story that needs to be told to two million people.
- Ira Glass

Orienting my Cartesian Coordinates

Go outside, the graphics are amazing
- Unknown quote

Upon reading this quote at the end of someone's email, my first impulse was to look through my window. Yes! the graphics were truly amazing. So, my excuse for not blogging in a while is that I have been out, in the real world, doing things that real people do. Mostly important stuff like doing the laundry, making enough to pay the rent, scraping ice off the windshield, etc., you get the drift.

The digital world does get a little too comfy after a while. Instead of blogs being about the world outside or about real people, they are mostly about themselves. Blogs on blogs. Opinions on other opinions. Links to links. I looked back at my last few posts and I was a little shocked to realise that I was describing myself.

Do I do anything that is unconnected with the digital universe and has something to do with the real world outside? Actually, I do. I am always up to something. Over the past four years, my yearly blog output has been remarkably consistent, with the exception of last year. Last year, I was extremely busy working or traveling or administering giving me little time to blog.
Which gives rise to the
Certainty Principle of Blogging: You can't be doing and blogging at the same time.

Thus, I have conveniently rationalized myself out of my responsibility to blog regularly and regale my readers with my posts.

Having said that, I have another thought - assuming that blogs are not recursive and do talk about something really interesting, like the graphics outside, then I do believe that the ancient Cartesian dictum of 'Blogito, ergo sum' holds. As any responsible blogger can attest, a lot of blogito requires a lot of cogito (There some who seem to manage fine without the latter). Logically speaking, if A ⇒ B, then ¬ A does not ⇒ ¬ B. However, I am not one to take chances.

Creating a blog is easy, the hard part is keeping it going. The Buddha told us that birth ⇒ there will be death. Many blogs are started with great enthusiasm, but after a few months most are simply trying to avoid blog-death. Writing blogs can get to be hard work, especially if you are attempting to say something meaningful or capture something memorable, not for others, even simply for yourself. For my part, I could be as well as yelling into a well. Ira Glass said something last night (see next post) that is really relevant to this idea. In any case, writing does makes you think harder. So, there could be a lot of doing, but not much thinking. Or, vice a versa.

Lab Notebooks

What good is a lab note-book,
if it doesn't have a coffee stain somewhere?