Thursday, December 31, 2009

Avatar


Movie Review : Avatar
Released : 2009
Genre : SciFi Adventure
Director : James Cameron
Staring : Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana
My Rating : 10 out of 10

Many many years ago, while growing up in Mumbai, I watched "Star Wars". It was my first movie in a theater with stereophonic sound. That and the visual aspects simply blew me away. And as the sequels happened, I became a life long fan. I agree with a lot of deficiencies pointed out by critics of Star Wars. But to me, they simply do not matter. Star Wars is a fairy tale for adults and an experience to immerse yourself in.

Avatar generates exactly the same feeling in me. And I know there will be critics. I might agree with the objections they would raise. There is very little character development. The movie has a strong political message, about the history of interactions with Native Americans, as well as the desire to go on a war for "minerals". Cameron is repeating some of the "save the planet" message from his own "Abyss". I might shock a lot of people, but there is a certain lack of originality here. Yes, I mean it. The aliens are very human-like, the animals very much like dinosaurs, and the planet is very much earthlike. The plot elements have been seen in many movies, from Disney's "Pocahontas" to Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves". The planet that's alive (kind of) has been used in many SciFi stories. Even certain scenes like jumping in the waterfall have been done numerous times from "Fugitive" to "Anaconda". OK, enough.

So why 10 out of 10 ? Because all the objections listed above don't matter. Of course, more originality would have helped. There is enough imagination to overcome any such defects. But that's not the point either.

This is an experience. I watched it in IMAX 3D. Without 3D or IMAX, the opinion might be drastically different. I don't know. When you are watching the movie as it was intended to be watched, the awe and amazement of the entire package will overwhelm you. The action scenes, the attention to detail, the music and of course the extremely realistic 3D will put you "in there". You will not just be watching it, you will feel it.

The movie is not just action and visual effects. It is strong in the story-telling department. It's easy to root for the natives. We know them more than the human characters. We understand their lifestyles and their desire to protect it. The human characters are extremely single dimensional, but they are mostly villains, so it's OK I guess. It's kind of strange to be happy at the end when aliens win and humans lose.

Will this revolutionize movie making the same way Star Wars did ? I am not competent enough to discuss that. We will know in coming years. I am sure there will be sequels. Good sequels are more of an exception than norm. Unlike Star Wars, this is not a multi-generational saga, at least yet. And Lord Of The Rings is one cohesive story across many books. Here  story has ended, and Cameron will have to invent a continuation, may be another attack by humans. But he has proved that he can do great sequels, "Aliens" and "Terminator : Judgement Day". So I think I should look forward to them.

Please make sure you watch this in IMAX 3D. Movies as game changing as this, do not happen every day. Most kids would enjoy this, but younger ones may get scared once in a while.

Jon Stewart and India

Here are some nice Jon Stewart episodes related to India from 2009.
First about the suspected mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks being caught in Chicago - "Scary Plotter".


The best was about Indian Space Agency discovering water on Moon - "Deep Space Naan".

The one about Shah Rukh Khan was just OK. Nothing great.
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Shah Rukh Khan Detained at Newark
www.thedailyshow.com

Daily Show
Full Episodes

Political Humor
Health Care Crisis

Monday, December 28, 2009

Taken


Movie Review : Taken
Released : 2009
Director : Pierre Morel
Genre : Thriller
Starring : Liam Neeson
My Rating : 7 out of 10

Taken has at its heart, a nightmare scenario for every parent. A son/daughter being kidnapped. To make matters worse, the teenage daughter is kidnapped in a foreign country by a large criminal network, who is not interested in ransom, but selling off the girl for prostitution and then eventual murder.

This time, the parent happens to be an ex-spy who still possesses superhuman skills and great contacts. This aged superhero is racing against time to save his daughter and has to succeed in an amazingly diverse challenges thrown at him by the situation.

These are the kind of movies that require a firm commitment to not raise any logical objection whasoever. If you start thinking then you can find more holes in the plot than there are craters on the Moon. So the director has to make sure that the viewer does not get any time to think. And in this movie, the director succeeds.

He does that, by keeping the movie short, by not wasting any time in any unrelated fluff, by keeping it moving at a very rapid pace and by letting a very good actor take on 90% of the screen time. Casting was extremely important here. Liam Neeson is neither Daniel Craig (James Bond) nor Matt Damon (Jason Bourne). But he is perfect for this role who has to play both a doting father and a skilled mercenary. Everyone else, including the villains and the kidnapped daughter, gets only a few minutes, and manage to not ruin the fun.

I recommend this movie if you are willing to just enjoy a fast and furious 90 minutes of action.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Brief History Of Mind



Book Review : A Brief History Of Mind
Author : William H. Calvin
My Rating : 3 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond".

With a provocative title (obviously inspired by Stephen Hawking's blockbuster "A Brief History Of Time"), I was very enthusiastic about reading this book. But I came out much underwhelmed after reading it.

The book starts off well. The author is trying to trace the chain of events that must have led to the evolution of our mental abilities. It's mainly anthropology, with some neurobiology sprinkled in. Obviously, we start with investigating behavior of primates and then move along the evolutionary branches.

There is a wealth of information here. The author is trying to explain what must have been the "Big Bang" for our mental abilities. This turns out be the development of language, which seems a very logical conclusion. And it's also one which author arrives at by presenting a strong case.

So why am I not so happy about this book ? I am not a student of anthropology, but it does seem to involve a lot of speculation. That's not a problem to me, because even a lot of cutting age theoretical physics seem speculation to this layman. My problem is about the style of presentation. After reading many chapters, I was wondering, yes, the discussion is interesting, but how exactly does it help the argument move forward ? After reading a chapter, I would go back and read the summary of it in the contents pages, and then would I understand, "Oh, so that's what the point is of this chapter". Considering how short these chapters are, summaries should not be needed, but ironically, it was these summaries that made me understand the point of some chapters.

In many cases, the author presents what we think must have happened, only to discard it quickly, without presenting an alternative. I was not sure, if I was following the chain of reasoning correctly. Hence I didn't always detect a coherent theme and was getting lost once in a while. This reduced the enjoyment of such a nice idea for a book.

As a result, I am very much interested in reading and learning more about anthropology. I remember reading "Guns, Germs and Steel" written by Jared Diamond a few years ago and was extremely impressed with it. I yearn to read a book like that again.

I can only tentatively recommend this book. It's quite good, but it could have been so much better.

Audit The Fed : Response From Senator

I had sent a letter supporting the bill to "Audit the Fed" to both my congressman and senator. I had received a response from the congressman very quickly. It took a while for the senator to respond, but it sure did come.

It doesn't look like Senator Feinstein supports this bill.
Dear Mr. Avachat:

Thank you for contacting me to express support for legislation to increase transparency at the Federal Reserve. I appreciate your interest in monetary policy and welcome the opportunity to respond.

The Federal Reserve was originally established in response to the country's need for a sound and independent central bank to manage decisions relating to U.S. monetary policy. I understand your concern with some of the unprecedented steps that the Federal Reserve has taken recently to ease the flow of credit and stabilize financial markets.

On March 16, 2009, Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT) introduced the "Federal Reserve Sunshine Act of 2009" (S. 604), which would require the U.S. Comptroller General to audit the Federal Reserve System before the end of 2010. This bill has been referred to the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) has introduced a similar bill (H.R. 1207) in the House of Representatives. Please know that I will keep your support for this legislation in mind should it come before the full Senate.

While I recognize the importance of accountability in the operations of the Federal Reserve, I strongly believe that monetary decisions should be made independent of political influence or motives. You may be interested to learn that I supported an amendment to the Congressional Budget Resolution (S. Con. Res. 13) offered by Senator Sanders requiring the Federal Reserve to disclose how it has disbursed emergency economic assistance to financial institutions during this severe economic crisis. Be assured that I am carefully monitoring the actions taken by the Federal Reserve to help stimulate our economy and unfreeze credit for businesses and homeowners.
  
Once again, thank you for writing. I hope that you will continue to share your views with me. If I can be of any further assistance, please contact my Washington, D.C. office at (202) 224-3841. Best regards.

      Also, may I take this opportunity to wish you a happy and healthy holiday season. And may 2010 be a good year for us all.


Sincerely yours, Dianne Feinstein
        United States Senator

Further information about my position on issues of concern to California and the Nation are available at my website http://feinstein.senate.gov/public/. You can also receive electronic e-mail updates by subscribing to my e-mail list at http://feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=ENewsletterSignup.Signup.

Kambakht Ishq


Moview Review : Kambakht Ishq
Language : Hindi
Released : 2009
Director : Sabbir Khan
Starring : Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor
My Rating : Not worth rating

There was a time when I could watch any movie till end, or read any book till the last page. Maybe it's age, may be it's scarcity of time, maybe something else. I cannot waste my precious time on anything now. Beginning of a movie or a book, very quickly gives you an idea of things to come. Based on this, I make a decision to invest more time or not.

Kambakht Ishq, in it's first 15 minutes of pathetic comedy, told me to move on. Maybe the movie turns out better as it progresses. I was willing to bet that it won't. Hence I did not watch it past that point.

Of course, my recommendation is to avoid this movie.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One for the winter

It's been cold and wet here for last few days. Cannot get away this time, so I have to console myself looking at these pictures.







Going to Hawaii in an off season is highly recommended. You will have the entire beach for yourself.






 

Or I could be easily here, in Mexico.





Sigh.

Henry The Cheater

Last world cup, Zidane's heroic effort made it possible for France to reach the finals, only to be overshadowed by his headbutt. I was sorry for France and upset with Italy. Being World Champion, Italy has already qualified, but I am still going to root against them. But now, because of what Henry did, I am not going to root for France as well. Not that my rooting matters, but this is how I feel.

Playing against Ireland in the deciding match to qualify for World Cup 2010, France sneaked through, based on this handball by their best player Thiery Henry. Incredibly, neither the referee nor the linesman saw this. Poor Ireland lost their bid due to Henry's skillful hands.




I know soccer players try to get away with as much as they can. But this is disgraceful. I hope France, along with Italy, does not even make it to the knockout stage in World Cup 2010.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kaminey

Movie Review : Kaminey
Language : Hindi
Released : 2009
Director : Vishal Bharadwaj
Starring : Shahid Kapur, Priyanka Chopra, Amol Gupte
My Rating : 7 out of 10

Vishal Bharadwaj does many things. He is a music composer, director and also writes screenplays and dialogues. To be honest, I have not been a big fan of his work, neither as director, nor as music composer. I thought Omkara was way over-rated and mediocre movie at the most. Fortunately, with Kaminey, he has changed the league and I can use the cliché "has arrived".

This is an interesting story of identical twins - both played by Shahid Kapur. Both have different speech problems. Charlie is a small-time criminal with big dreams. Guddu on the other hand is a simpleton, who is getting married to Sweety - sister of another criminal Bhope (Amol Gupte). Intersecting their story is yet another group of criminals and corrupt police officers. Well, the title is "Kaminey", so you should expect a lot of bad guys here.

Charlie accidently discovers a guitar filled with drugs and wants to score big with it. The corrupt police officers to whom this belongs, capture Guddu by mistake. So a trade is arranged to exchange Guddu and Charlie. What happens after is a heavy dose of crazy confusion.

I should correct that sentence. Even what happens before is crazy confusion. That's how the screenplay is by design. This style of narrative is not uncommon in Hollywood, but is definitely rare in Hindi movies. It requires the viewer to pay close attention and tie the lose ends. This becomes a fun challenge, but it demands a lot from the director and writer. It's a tightrope walk to keep it smart but to not overwhelm the viewer. Vishal Bharadwaj almost succeeds. Almost.

On the plus side, there is not a dull moment in the movie. There is enough whimsical dark humor throughout. It zips and zaps from one scene to another. Acting is very good. A lot will be said about Shahid Kapur, who has to show two very different personalities, and he deserves the praise. All other actors lend admirable support. The real one who deserves a special mention is Priyanka Chopra's portrayal of the fiery, mad-in-love Sweety. She doesn't get as much screen time, but she makes a disproportionately larger impact on the movie. 

There are some problems though. It's way too dark in many scenes to see clearly what's going on. The screenplay tries too hard to be smart and goes overboard. Maybe some scenes were simply deleted by the editor to save on running time. I don't know. For example, the scene in the beginning where the corrupt police officers are waiting in the hotel room after killing someone would only generate "Huh ?" from confused viewers. They could have removed Charlie's dream scenes and explained some more storyline. But I guess it's mandatory for an Indian hero to show off his body. And who killed Bhope's men when they accompanied Guddu at the end to get the stash ? How did the killers know they were there ? Or was it Charlie who killed them ? If the director wants to carry the movie on the road to smartness, he has to avoid such potholes in the plot. The riotous end has some funny moments, but it's another overdone cacophony.

I know that some of the songs are hit. But this is not my type of music. And I think Gulzar should really stop tarnishing his image as a lyricist. Retirement is not that unrespectable.

So I recommend this movie with some reservations. If you don't like dark movies, don't watch this. Even if you do, set your expectations appropriately. This is not a great film, but it's worth watching.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Burn After Reading



Movie Review : Burn After Reading
Genre : Coen Brothers :-)
Released : 2008
Director : Coen Brothers
Starring : George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich
My Rating : 9 out of 10

In all aspects, this is a Coen Brothers' movie. This is how they make movies. Quirky and unpredictable. This is not intended to pigeon-hole their work, but to note that that have a unique unmistakable style of their own. This will also help you decide if you want to watch this movie. Did you like their other movies - especially the ones that came before "No country For Old Men" ?

I am not sure I can capture the synopsis of this tangled tale. Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is being demoted from his CIA post. His wife Katie who is already unhappy with this eventually files for divorce. She is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) who himself is as dishonest a husband as one can be. In parallel, are Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) who work at a local gym and their lives getting curiously tangled with the first set of people. What follows is a mixture of comedy and tragedy.

The brothers keep a very calculated control over this entanglement. The movie never gets more complicated than needed. In spite of never taking itself too seriously, it works on many levels. These people are deeply unhappy, so you feel bad for them. But they are either not-so-nice or dumb-witted, so you cannot really root for them. So you just end of chuckling at their plight (most of the times, not always) and at the same time, you cannot ignore the real social issue that the movie is highlighting in passing.

Helping the brothers make this a wonderful ride is their usual cast of actors (George Clooney, Frances McDormand), and of course Brad Pitt. Both Clooney and Brad Pitt have been given different roles than what you would expect from their personality and both shine. Frances McDormand is as good as she was in Fargo. John Malkovich is delightfully weird.

Overall, I highly recommend this movie. It's quite short - less than 100 minutes. As usual, Coen Brothers have delivered a movie that more than satisfies the desire to watch something different.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dekh Idhar Ae Haseena

For some reason, I have been humming this song today. From the movie "12 O'Clock". It's a Rafi-Geeta Dutt duet. Very nicely sung by Rafi, for Johny Walker. A typical OP Nayyar composition that combines multiple rhythms and tunes into a song. It's a very nice tune, but it's not as famous as other OPN compositions.

But what I like most about this song is the "mukhada". It uses a common theme of traditional Urdu poetry "zulfoN kaa saaya" in a very humorous way.
dekh idhar ae haseenaa, June kaa hai maheenaa,
Daal zulfoN kaa saayaa, aa rahaa hai paseenaa
- Majrooh Sultanpuri

देख इधर ऐ हसीना, जून का है महीना,
डाल ज़ुल्फ़ों का साया, आ रहा है पसीना !
- मजरूह सुल्तानपुरी

The rest of the song is quite normal. Just the "mukhada" is imaginative.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dharm

Movie Review : Dharm
Language : Hindi
Released : 2007
Director : Bhavna Talwar
Starring : Pankaj Kapur, Supriya Pathak Kapur
My Rating : 9 out of 10

The Sanskrit word Dharm is often used in contexts where it can be interpreted as "religion" or "duty" or both. The point being, the right religion is duty and vice versa. The movie "Dharm : Come, Question Your Faith" stays true to this theme and forces the viewer to accept the broader meaning of "Dharm".

Pandit Chaturvedi (Pankaj Kapur) is a famous, scholarly priest. He practices what he preaches, hence even his adversaries respect him. He is not afraid to say the truth, has no political ambition and simply wants to live an austere life according to his interpretation of "Dharm". He has a loving wife and an obedient daughter. Together they are happy in their simple life.

One day a woman hands her baby to Pandit Chaturvedi's daughter and vanishes. She brings the baby to their home and assures her father that the baby is of Brahmin cast. When the police cannot find the mother, Panditjee wants the baby sent to a proper orphanage. But his wife and daughter are already attached to the infant and somehow convince him to keep the baby. As days and months pass by, he himself gets attached to the child. A father-son bond develops between the kid and the priest. And we see that the stern priest has a soft heart inside him. Then the real mother comes back to claim her child.

Not only is this a blow to the family, but a much harsher shock to the Pandit, as the boy's real mother is anything but Brahmin - she is a Muslim. The weeping boy - named Kartikeya by Panditjee himself - is sent off with his real mother. Now Panditjee has to fight to keep his social status. His real fight, though, is with himself. His belief system is at severe odds with his fatherly affection and tests every single drop of his resolve. But when the Hindu-Muslim riots break out, he realizes the true meaning of Dharm.

This is a simple and very powerful theme. Director Bhavna Talwar handles it without melodramatic cliches and remains very honest with the sensitive nature of the subject. She does not use the priest to preach wordy messages to the audience. Beautifully shot, everything in the movie feels real - the setting, the people, and the dialogues.

Of course, as important as the director is the lead actor. Pankaj Kapur gives a towering and flawless performance. The movie is centered on the character of Pandit Chaturvedi and his internal struggles, and Pankaj Kapur lives the part. Even his long silent moments on the screen convey his every single feeling clearly to the viewer.

I absolutely recommend this film. It's a slow paced feature without any entertainment. But it's immensely satisfying.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Unknwon Quantity



Book Review : Unknown Quantity
Author : John Derbyshire
My Rating : 4 out of 5 star

The complete title of the book is "Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra".

John Derbyshire is a brave author. He first had the audacity to write Prime Obsession, about Riemann Hypothesis and make it accessible to an average reader. He was immensely successful. In this book, he is trying to pull off the same trick about entire Algebra.

He starts with very primitive - by today's standards, but no small feat then - algebra that existed in Fertile Crescent. From there, he proceeds to solving general polynomial equations and complex numbers. Things get more abstract, as he moves on to vector spaces, groups, fields and other advance topics such as category theory.

This is a significantly harder undertaking. He has to cover a lot of history and a lot of math. Derbyshire is a master at mixing these two aspects. Great anecdotes and biographic sketches are delightfully mixed with mathematical explanations. We all learned algebra in school. But we hardly learned anything about the mathematicians who advanced the theory. This book will fill many, if not all of those gaps.

But eventually the scope of the topic is just too immense to be covered in one book. I think that will restrict the target audience. You have to be really interested in math to enjoy this book. I am, and long time ago when I was doing my graduate studies, algebra was my favorite subject. Still that really was long time ago, and it was not easy to follow the latter half of the book. But if you want to learn why groups and fields are important (and interesting), this is very good gentle introduction.

This is a wonderful book, but you have to be willing to work with it. Even if you just want to browse the historical sections and skip the math, there is a lot to enjoy here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

They Really Said It ! [7]

Today was Bernanke's reappointment hearing with Senate Banking Committee. Nice day to walk down the memory lane. Did he save the economy ? Or did he make it worse ? I think he has made it worse, although the problems of the Fed balance sheet will become clear only in future. No matter what you may think of him, history will associate his legacy with one infamous remark
At this juncture, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.
To this Jim Grant responded, "They are contained to planet earth" !

Not much point detailing all mistakes of Chairman Bernanke. This famous video is more than enough.



Reelecting him reminds me of the joke, where people kept requesting "once more" to the singer - not because he sang it great, but because they kept hoping maybe he will get it right with practice !

Audit The Fed : Response from Congressman

I received the following response for my letter about auditing the Fed.

November 30, 2009

Dear Abhay,

Thank you for contacting me in support of H.R. 1207, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009. I appreciate learning your views, and I welcome your input.

Congress created the Federal Reserve System in 1913 to serve as the country's central bank. The Federal Reserve regulates the banking industry, provides services to banks, and also plays a central role in the nation's monetary policy. The Federal Reserve acts as an independent entity to minimize political influence on its decision making.

The Federal Reserve has played a significant role in our national response to the recession, and ensuring transparency at the Federal Reserve is an important objective. H.R. 1207 requires an audit of the Federal Reserve System, and the bill was referred to the House Committee on Financial Services, of which I am not a member. Should this legislation receive a vote by the House of Representatives, I will keep your opinion in mind.

Thank you again for expressing your views. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of additional assistance. To learn about other issues that I am working on in Congress, I encourage you to visit my website at www.mcnerney.house.gov

Sincerely,

Jerry McNerney
Member of Congress


Please do not reply to this message as the mailbox is unattended.
If you wish to contact me again, please visit my website at http://mcnerney.house.gov.

Maybe this is a token and standard response. But hey, at least they listen. They may completely ignore it later, but I must say that I was pleased with the response.

Taking of Pelham 1 2 3


Movie Review : Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Released : 2009
Director : Tony Scott
Starring : Denzel Washington, John Travolta
My Rating : 5 out of 10

I have not seen the original movie of which this is a remake. So judging this just by itself, I found this move nothing more than average.

This is one of the many thrillers that Hollywood can churn without much effort. There is a bad guy (Travolta) who takes a train hostage, demands lot of money and will negotiate only with the other protagonist (Denzel Washington). Does it sound exciting new idea ? Didn't think so.

With this kind of routine plot, the film needs a lot more than routine sequences to rise above average. The bad guys shouts a lot, kills people in cold blood to make his point, disburses intelligent thoughts to the good guy and has hidden motives. Nothing new here. Oh, and the good guy is not all good, he has made mistakes too. And he is willing to bravely confront the bad guy in order to redeem himself. OK. Let's just say that this is not exactly an imaginative setting.

So does the film offer anything else ? Whatever the bad guy says, only helps give clues about himself and his motives. Not a very smart villain. Is he menacing, evil, disturbing ? Unfortunately John Travolta fails to scare us. I was actually bored by his performance.

What about the good guy ? Well, now that's one positive point, because Denzel Washington is very convincing in his performance. He keeps the viewer interested. Interestingly, since the villain is so lame, the side characters manage to add something to the movie. James Gandolfini as the Mayor of New York shines in his small role.

With the action not so exciting, and the humor not so funny and dialogues not at all smart, and plot having way too many convenient co-incidences, there is little reason to watch this movie. It's not a complete waste of time - it's a very short movie. So if you are in a mood for some quick entertainment where you don't have to be very attentive, go for it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

They Really Said it ! [6]

Bubbles are not that hard to identify. When someone calls for Dow 36K, you know the top is near. At the top of the housing bubble, people were doing far more irrational things than getting into a bidding war and offering 200K over asking with no contingencies.

What can be more than that ? How about promising to feed the squirrels ? How about the potential neighbors interviewing prospective buyers to make sure that they will "fit in" ?

From the Wall Street Journal,

Within a month of putting her two-bedroom house in San Francisco on the market recently, homeowner Linda Gao had five offers, each one above her asking price of $699,000. So before accepting the most-attractive bid, she threw in an extra condition: If you want to buy my house, you have to feed the squirrels.

...

Home-buyer Allison Love figured the process wouldn't be about anything but the financials, and when she bid $235,000 for a three-bedroom Craftsman-style home in Tempe, Ariz., she expected the sellers to respond with a simple counteroffer or rejection. Instead, they invited her over for a 20-minute interrogation around the kitchen table. "So, why do you want to buy my house?" the sellers inquired, asking as well what Ms. Love would bring to the community, and whether she would participate in neighborhood watches.

...

Indeed, when Susan Butler was negotiating to buy Ms. Gao's San Francisco property, she was resigned to the feeding schedule. "At that point, I said, 'Yeah, what the hell, I'll feed the squirrels,'" she said. She signed a contract in April, paying $815,000 -- or $116,000 over the asking price. Will Ms. Butler actually feed her new furry friends? "Probably not," says the college administrator. "I don't want to encourage other rodents."

How about that ?

Silly and Poor Jokes - 1

Q: Why did Shahjehan build the Tajmahal in Agra ?
A: Because land was very expensive in Delhi.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Transsiberian


Movie Review : Transsiberian
Released : 2008
Director : Brad Anderson
Starring : Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley
Genre : Drama, Thriller
Rated : R
My Rating : 8 out of 10

Transsiberian is one of those rare thrillers that depend a lot on characters and their interactions than on actions and situations. Well directed, and extremely well acted, it grabs the viewer by making them understand the characters and why they react the way they do.

An American couple, Roy and Jessie (played by Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer), is returning from some missionary work in China. They decide to take the trans-Siberian train to Moscow. At about same time, the Russian narcotics detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley) starts on the other tributary from Vladivostok on an unrelated mission. Eventually, his path intersects with Roy and Jessie. Along the route, Roy and Jessie are joined by another couple Carlos and Kate. They are friendly, but you can sense that they are not such a good company. Jessie is aware from the very first minute that Carlos has his eyes on her.

At a long stop, Carlos and Roy go for a walk, while Jessie and Kate have their girl-talk. When the train starts, Jessie discovers that Roy is not on-board. She decides to get off the next stop and wait for Roy. Carlos and Kate join her, offering a friendly gesture so that Jessie is not alone.

What happens afterward has to be watched in the movie, although an experienced viewer is not really going to be surprised. Such surprises are not really the point of the movie. You will be glued to the sense of dread that permeates the movie, because you understand the characters.

Roy is naive, to the point of being stupid. Jessie loves him deeply, maybe because his simplicity offers her an opportunity to forget the daemons oh her past and help her stay clean. It's easy to see that Carlos and Kate are not what they claim. You don't necessarily like the characters, but you definitely believe their actions to be consistent with the way the writes have defined them.

The direction is top-notch. Most of the story is on the train and it feels real. The shots of the lonely train traveling through snow-covered Siberia and various native people we meet gives nice touches.

Both Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley lend adequate support to the story. Undoubtedly, Emily Mortimer has done a phenomenal job of acting in this movie. She inartificially shows many different shades of her character's personality. It's her character and her acting that forces you to focus on the movie.

The movie deliberately leaves a couple of things unresolved and for some, the ending may not offer a huge pay-off. Still, I highly recommend this movie. It has some violent scenes, adult situations and is definitely not for kids.

Audit The Fed : Letter to Congressman

The secrecy of Federal Reserve must go away. This is what I wrote to my congressman today.

To : Hon. Congressman Jerry McNerney

Sir,

There is a bill proposed by Senator Ron Paul to audit the Federal Reserve. This bill needs support. Please vote for it.

The Federal Reserve has helped the bail out of biggest Wall Street firms. These firms were responsible for inflicting the worst financial crisis of our generation onto us. Now they are giving huge bonuses to their employees while middle class Americans in all parts of the country are losing jobs and homes.

We need to understand what the Federal Reserve is doing. Please be on our side and not on the side of Wall Street. Please support the bill as proposed by Senator Ron Paul.

Specifically, the amendment by Ron Paul and Alan Grayson is what we need and the NOT the one proposed by Mel Watt.

You voted for giving billions of dollars of bailout money. Money that went to big banks and haven't helped average Americans. Now please vote for auditing the Fed, so we know what they are doing with their balance sheet.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Devil and SP500

During the March 2009 stock market crash, the SP500 index briefly flirted with 666 level and bounced back from there sharply to start a 8-month non-stop rally as of now. This being the Devil's number and all that, generated quite some attention at that time.

Today, the index has now jumped 2/3rd - or 66.6%. It will be a very interesting coincidence if this turns out to be a near term top.

Roughly :
666 + (66.6% of 666)
= 666 + 444
= 1110

The actual closing value is 1109, and intra-day it went above 1110.

I have a very pessimistic view of US economy, even more than what I had an year ago.

This is NOT an investment advice.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ibrahimovic

This world cup, we will miss Ibrahimovic in action, as Sweden did not qualify. That's a loss to soccer fans. I couldn't believe my eyes last weekend, when he pulled out this pass.

Now this is not just a skill drill, his pass pierced the defense and help score a goal.



This was a WOW moment.

They get tired too :-)

I am sure, you must have seen many photos of hummingbirds drinking nectar from the flowers. I tried in vain many times, but these are shy birds and they quickly fly away before you focus the camera.

Once in a while they get tired and rest. If you flap your wings so many times, you would get tired too ! So this is an unusual photo of a hummingbird resting quietly hidden in a tree.


Well, at least I succeeded in taking a photo of a hummingbird !

Hadrian's Wall



Book Review : Hadrian's Wall
Author : William Dietrich
My Rating : 2 out of 5

Hadrian's Wall is a historical fiction set in Britannia in the declining years of the Roman Empire. As the title suggests, most of the events happen around the Wall, which was constructed by Emperor Hadrian, to separate the Celtic barbarians in the north from the Roman Civilization. The plot involves Valeria, a Senator's daughter - who travels to the Wall to marry the newly installed Praefectus Marcus. This is a marriage of convenience - the Senator was paid money (useful to save his career) and Marcus got the bride and the command. The previous chief, Tribune Galba is understandably not happy at this, and is a prime suspect in the events that follow. These events are told to us by the investigator sent by Rome, who is also trying to guess what must have happened.

This could have been a great setting for a novel of intrigue, political maneuvers and suspense against the historical backdrop. The author does well to establish the context. The description of the lifestyles, villages, religious beliefs is good enough considering that this is not a history textbook. The ideas people have about the "other" side are expressed really well - how the Romans view the barbarians and vice versa, same for Christians v/s pagans.

The author definitely has a passion for historical details and has done his research. In the end there is a little bit of payoff in the form of some tragedy, good battle scenes and a little bit of suspense. But this cannot overcome the big shortcoming that spans most of the book - the love story between Valeria and Arden the Celtic Barbarian.

This whole idea of love story between a high born lady and a rogue enemy warrior is as old as hills. The presentation makes it worse. It's hardly different than a teen-age Hollywood romance. He teases her, she hates his confidence, then falls in love in due time. And yes, she saves life of someone in his clan, and gets accepted as one of them. As you can guess, this gets very boring. I was skipping pages at times. I felt deceived by the cover, title and description.

This was a wasted opportunity, and hence I do not recommend this book.

They Really Said It ! [5]

"I didn't get it".
History will associate the legacy of Alan Greenspan with that lame excuse.

As the former Fed Chairman, he was definitely one of the chief persons responsible for causing the housing bubble. How much should he be blamed ? That depends on who you ask. He certainly cannot be responsible for the decisions made by others. But he should share a big portion of the blame. Not only did he promote the ultra-low interest policy for too long, but even in the role of a regulator, he failed miserably. His argument is, he did not turn a blind eye, and he just didn't get it.

Didn’t get it ? It's hard to accept that. The debate about whether or not there is a bubble wasn't exactly a secret. He participated in that debate, and defended his banking industry. Consider this speech ...
"Improvements in lending practices driven by information technology have enabled lenders to reach out to households with previously unrecognized borrowing capacities."
In other words, subprime was fine. And, there is no systemic risk system at all, because as he clarified in an another speech ...
The use of a growing array of derivatives and the related application of more-sophisticated approaches to measuring and managing risk are key factors underpinning the greater resilience of our largest financial institutions. ... Derivatives have permitted the unbundling of financial risks.
Derivatives reduced risks ? That and the so called "more-sophisticated approach" brought down the world economy like a house of cards.

Greenspan cannot hide under "I didn't get it", as he was arguing against "it", saying "it" won't happen. But "it" did, and not only wiped out many financial institutions, it wiped out jobs and livelihoods.

In addition, he also encouraged the practice of taking risky mortgages. Risky as in "adjustable rate mortgages" - which have a risk of interest rate changes, in addition to other risks. Now in fairness, hardly anyone was listening to his incomprehensible speeches to decide what mortgage product to use. But nevertheless, it was irresponsible of him to say ...
Indeed, recent research within the Federal Reserve suggests that many homeowners might have saved tens of thousands of dollars had they held adjustable-rate mortgages rather than fixed-rate mortgages during the past decade, though this would not have been the case, of course, had interest rates trended sharply upward.
There is a qualifier at the end, but he was saying this when the interest rates were historically low and indeed had the risk of moving upward. Read the entire speech for more gems, to decide if he should share any blame in promoting risky mortgages.

This is a rather sad end for a person of his intellect. He was a big follower and supporter of Ayn Rand's philosophy. Sometime, somewhere down the road, he shunned Objectivism. After warning investors about their "irrational exuberance", he changed the tune and claimed in this speech that
As events evolved, we recognized that, despite our suspicions, it was very difficult to definitively identify a bubble until after the fact--that is, when its bursting confirmed its existence.
Any student of financial history knows that to be simply untrue. Bubbles are NOT that hard to identify.

Nevertheless, I have to include some of his other quotes that I really agree with.
In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation. There is no safe store of value.
Protectionism will do little to create jobs and if foreigners retaliate, we will surely lose jobs.
Whatever you tax, you get less of.
Once upon a time, much before his constant deification on CNBC, Alan Greensapan was one very smart man.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tomato Bread

After some experimenting, I settled on this recipe that gives a tangy and spicy bread. Same wheat flour, yeast, salt etc proportion. For liquid, instead of the usual milk/water, I use a can of tomato puree and eggs. Then spice it up with garlic powder and crushed red chili paper flakes.



This is a crowd pleaser.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

They Really Said It ! [4]

All financial bubbles involve euphoric optimism from unsuspecting public. But there is also the "fear of missing out" that leads to panic buying at inflated prices.

Nothing captures this feeling like these books by the then Chief Economist of the the National Association of Realtors - a person that deliberately lied, twisted data and quietly slipped out of limelight when it all came crashing down.

There is no shortage of documentation of impossible comments by David Lereah, who was routinely criticized and made fun of by almost all economic commentators. So I won't add any of his deceitful comment here.

I haven't read his books, won't waste my precious time on them. But just the front cover of his books say it all. Notice how the family is looking upwards to the house that's floating like a balloon destined to go only higher. This is how we all felt, and made to feel this fear by the likes of David Lereah.




Then he had the audacity to update this book to have following title ...


This guy should be in jail.

Wicker Park

Movie Review : Wicker Park
Released : 2004
Director: Paul McGuigan
Starring : Josh Hartnett, Rose Byrne, Matthew Lillard, Diane Kruger
Rated : PG-13
My Rating : 7 out of 10

Often times, it's all about expectations. The front cover of the DVD and plot outline on the back cover, give a wrong idea. It makes you think that this is another B-grade thriller with illogical twists added just to surprise you. Couldn't be more wrong.

In the beginning of the movie, Matthew (Josh Hartnett) is dining in a restaurant with his fiancé and prospective business clients from China. He overhears - or thinks so - his girlfriend from the past. He is convinced it is Lisa (Diane Kruger). That starts his obsessive quest to find her again. He decides to not go to China, lies to his current fiancé about it and remains in Chicago.

We don't get many clues in the first few scenes. Did Matt really hear her ? Or did he mistake her for someone else's voice ? And who is Lisa ? Why did he suddenly lose contact with her, as he is still clearly in love with her ?

The writers decide to complicate the matters here. The narrative mixes what happens after that with flashbacks - sometimes the same scenes, with different viewpoints. And by doing this in a well-planned way, they raise the movie level from a simple story to a smartly made film.

I do not want to give away anything. So I will have to skip writing more about the characters and how they are related to each other. Not that there is a big suspense at the end. It's just that having the movie outsmart you is kind of fun. The surprises are fun not because they are big twists and turns, but because they are simple and make sense. Eventually, all gaps are filled and there are no more lose threads. At the end, I was smiling with that realization, instead of shaking my head in disbelief.

Any story like this relies heavily on coincidences. Cell-phones sometimes exist in the story, but their lack of use at convenient places is needed to make the plot work. So if you want to find holes, you can. Still, the movie works, because the script keeps you engaged. It's not a fast paced film, it's quite the opposite, but as a viewer, you remain busy.

What definitely helps is the sincere effort by all the actors. No role demands an Oscar caliber performance, but everyone plays their part well to make you believe in the story. The direction is superbly sympathetic to the characters. It succeeds in conveying their feelings of sadness, awkwardness, jealousy and establishing the gullibility, fallibility of human nature.

Overall, I can definitely recommend this movie if you are willing to watch it attentively and accept coincidences as essential part of story-telling. This movie is definitely not for kids.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dil Bole Hadippa


Movie Review : Dil Bole Hadippa
Language : Hindi
Released : 2009
Director : Anurag Singh
Starring : Rani Mukherjee, Shahid Kapoor, Anupam Kher
My Rating : 5 out of 10

I am not even going to pretend that this movie requires any serious examination of its artistic merits. This is a feel good movie with a modest aim of just mentioning a social message. Nothing worng with the old idea of a sweet romantic comedy.

The movie is definitely inspired by "She's The Man" - which itself can be traced to Shakespeare's "The Twelfth Night" - in using cross dressing and mistaken identities as the main elemnts. Nothing wrong with reusing the ideas that Shakespeare borrowed from even older authors.

The story is about a simple village girl (Veera, played by Rani Mukherjee) in the fictional Punjab where people with colourful dresses work in fields that are always lush green. She wants to play Cricket. So she dresses like a man for being accepted in the team. For her romantic partnership, comes a handsome NRI from England (played by Shahid Kapoor) with the name of what-else-but-Rohan-of-course. Nothing wrong with the standard idea of romance between a returning NRI and a simple village girl.

To provide the context of their love story, comes in the qunitessentially Indian love affair of Cricket. As movies like, "Lagaan" and "Chak De" have proved, there is nothing worng with using the idea of big game as the main plot element.

Well, you get the idea. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about the individual ideas, except that there is nothing new here. Now, Bollywood Masala movies don't really try to claim any originality, and there is nothing worng in that as well - or may be there is.

The problem is, how many times more do you really want to see an NRI being trained by an authentic Indian in how to eat using hands or how to eat hot chillies ? Or a over-talkative village girl mixing English and Hindi in a trite attempt at comedy ?

The music (by Preetham) is the same Bhangra drumbeats interperesed with meaningless words. The lyricist came up with, "disco waale khisko". It actually rhymes, what an achievement ! In comparison, everything else seem strikingly original. Hmmm, may be that was the real motive - make the viewers complain about the songs and hope they don't notice the other stuff made out of recycled material.

If the movie's strength is not romance and songs, then it certainly isn't the final Cricket showdown between the Indian and Pakistani teams - not the national team, just village teams. One of the strengths of Lagaan was the long Cricket game masterfully done. This game was not even 1/10th as exiting. I know that a certain level of belief suspension is needed while watching such movies, so I won't question why the Indian team couldn't find better players to fight after 9 years (!!) of defeat and had to rely on an NRI from England to win. Ok, we need a hero, so let's just accept that. But get this - after the fall of 9th wicket, the Indian team needs to score something like 165 runs in 47 balls ! Now come on, Mr. Director, we know our stars are superhumans, but did it have to be that outrageous ? This and many such problems with the Cricket aspects of the game simply give away how little thought has been put into making this movie.

That's not to say that the movie doesn't have any bright moments. Like most movies, the choreography is nice. This movie is carried on her able shoulders by Rani Mukherjee - who gives a solid performane. Whatever belivability the movie has, it's because of her. Both she and Shahid Kapoor seem to have gone through some sort of cricket training. But that is not enough to take the movie above the average level.

Another plus side is that the movie is kid friendly - almost. Kids will definitely laugh and enjoy at many places.

It's not a complete waste of time. But if you miss it, so be it.

Fabregas

For this World Cup one of the countries I will be rooting for is Spain (along with Brazil and USA). They have some amazingly talented players. Here is their midfielder playing for Arsenal. It took him 5 touches to steal the ball at the center line and taking it single-handedly all the way before hitting it into the net.

Amazing.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Seraphim Falls


Movie Review : Seraphim Falls
Released : 2007
Genre : Western
Director : David Von Ancken
Starring: Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan
Rated R for violence, language
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I am always interested in watching movies that are non mainstream yet show a promise based on the storyline or actors or directors. So I was enthusiastic about watching Seraphim Falls. Hadn't even heard about this one in spite of the 2 very strong lead actors.

The movie begins with Pierce Brosnan (playing Gideon) being shot at. He survives, and we see that hot on his trails is Liam Neeson (playing Carver) with a band of 4 bounty hunters. This chase continues through the movie till the very end.

Initially, not much clue is offered as to who these people are and why the chase is on. As the story continues, we see how ruthless the 2 main characters are. We keep getting glimpses of the past, but the director intentionally keeps us guessing as to who is a good guy and whom should we root for. This works very well. Of course at the right time, we are given enough background to make up our minds.

I would classify this is a Western. And although this is not a shootout, the violence is at times shocking. The movie is very quiet, shot in beautiful lonely locations and maintains a certain Western mood throughout.

The strongest point of the movie is definitely Pierce Brosnan. He has proved very well that he is more than just James Bond. This maybe his best performance yet. The movie is worth watching just for his acting. Liam Neeson is as dependable as he has been in other movies, giving yet another solid performance.

David Von Ancken has directed many TV serials and he certainly shows a lot of imagination directing a full length movie. The movie starts in freezing snowy mountains and ends in a dry, arid, hot place. The pace is well maintained and viewers are guaranteed to be gripped. Till about two thirds of the movie. Unfortunately, the director's desire to infuse symbolism - presumably done with the intention of raising the level of the movie - completely falls flat on its face. I won't give away too much, but the near mystical appearances of unnecessary characters were confusing and pointless. It spoiled the movie for me.

This movie is not for everyone, even of you enjoy Westerns this is a different take on the genre. It is certainly not for kids. I think it's well worth the time, if you are willing to watch it with the knowledge that the movie loses itself in the end.


Unity In Diversity - The Roses Edition

Summer is long over and we are perhaps seeing the last bloom of the year. I wanted to capture the peculiar variety of roses we have in our backyard. These plants give roses of different colors on the same branch !







Of course, the look nice in solo as well ..


They Really Said It ! [3]

One of the common refrains heard in the aftermath of the financial crisis was, "no one saw that coming". This is quite false, as their were a number of prominent thinkers who had been warning about the crisis.

But this is not the first time euphoria has given rise to a crisis. It has happened many times before and will continue to happen.

During the S&L crisis, the then FDIC chairman Bill Seidman oversaw the unraveling process. He was a frequent commentator on CNBC. He has left us - and more importantly to the regulators and lawmakers - this famous advice.
Instruct regulators to look for the newest fad in the industry and examine it with great care. The next mistake will be a new way to make a loan that will not be repaid.
When did he write this ? In 1993 !

Of course, such advice is meant to be ignored. And after every crisis there will be a legion of experts who will proclaim the impossibility of predicting the outcome.

Back pass

One of the most exiting things to watch in Soccer is of course the passes. In this, the back passes are electrifying.

Yesterday, the Arsenal demolished AZ (4-1), in their UEFA group round match. Watch the highlights - the long back pass comes after midpoint.

SaaNware ...

The Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan song, "saaNware ... tere bina jiya jaaye na" from Bandit Queen has been chosen by many participants in reality show music competitions. The winner of Recently concluded "SaReGaMaPa Li'l Champs" Hemant Brijwasi performed this song during the season. For his age, injecting so much soul into this song is incredible. This one is definitely worth hearing.



For comparison, here are 2 other performances. I am not too fond of this one



About 2 years ago, Mussarat Abbas did a great version, which I like a lot.



And of course, the original - in case you want to hear it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Book Review : Big Bang



Book Review : Big Bang
Author : Simon Singh
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe". This title is a little bit misleading, as in "incomplete". This is not a book that details how the Big Bang model explains the creation of the universe. Of course it covers basic ideas of that model, but the focus of the book is on how mankind reached the conclusion that this is indeed a good model to explain the creation of the universe.

I found that style of coverage extremely informative. Simon Singh starts with very early astronomers and explains how they measured the size of earth, distances to moon and sun etc. Then proceeds through the history of how the models of universe kept changing, what challenges the new models faced and who were the people instrumental in proposing these models with appropriate scientific reasoning.

That is the main point of the book. For example, Singh is not laughing at how Ptolemy got it wrong. He clearly gives what observations supported the earth centric model and why it was difficult for ancient people to accept a sun centric model. He presents checklists for comparing competing theories. Throughout the book he explains how science progresses and how a paradigm shift occurs. He also spends some time on the role of serendipity and speculation involved in scientific advances.

The book tracks the evolution of the models in almost a perfect chronological order. Every time a great new insight enhances the model, he delves deeper into the life and struggles of the protagonists. This makes it a very long book - nearly 500 pages. The fact that Singh keeps the reader engaged and glued to the book throughout, is a remarkable achievement. It's not just because of the empathetic story telling. Singh really wants the reader to understand the concepts. He does not shy away from using equations and gives ample diagrams. The explanations in this book are amongst the best I have read.

Most people would already know about what new ideas Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo contributed to the model of the universe. But there are so many other scientists and astronomers that contributed to the model that eventually culminated into Big Bang. Singh makes great effort to give credit to all those. And lucidly explains exactly how their ideas fit together. It's impossible to review all the information in this tome. I immensely enjoyed the material about the 20th century astronomers as it was quite new to me. The battle between Steady State theory and Big Bang makes for some great reading.

Because of the title and material in many current books on popular science, some readers may start with expectations that can lead to a bit of disappointment. The book essentially stops at the end of last century. This leaves out a lot of cutting edge topics (dark matter, dark energy, supernova, singularities and inflation to name a few). More interestingly, Einstein's contributions to the model are covered in great detail, but you won't find much explanation about his relativity theories, beyond what's needed to explain Big Bang. Singh is focused and that's fine by me. So, if you want to understand more about say relativity theory and quantum mechanics, I suggest looking elsewhere - like books by Brian Greene.

I am as much impressed by this book as I was with the author's other book - Fermat's Enigma. Big Bang is one the most revolutionary ideas that humans have dared to imagine and validate. This is the best book to familiarize yourself with that.


Once more ...

Have you seen a goalkeeper make a big mistake ? I am sure you have. But have you seen the same goalkeeper repeating the same mistake in the same soccer game ?

Watch it to believe it.




:-) The expression on the coach's face says it all.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Quantum Of Solace


Movie Review : Quantum Of Solace
Release : November 2008
My Rating : 5 out of 10

I am not a big James Bond fan, but I thoroughly enjoy the James Bond movies. Over the years, the formula has kept many constants while tweaking some variables over a much wider range. The previous offering in the series, "Casino Royale" was decidedly a significant shift from all previous Bond movies. I am one of those who really appreciated the new take on Bond. While watching the promos for "Casino Royale" I was unsure as to how Daniel Craig would carry the Bond persona, but when I watched the movie I was extremely impressed. A new actor and a new presentation style won me over.

Not so fast. The "Quantum Of Solace" was a big disappointment. It has nothing to do with raised expectations by its prequel. This is just not a good movie. The action scenes - especially the chase scenes that are part and parcel of all Bond movies - are simply terrible. Instead of imagination, director Marc Forster decides to shake the camera, then shake it again and then shake even more.If the intention is to make Bond into an action hero (and not a smart, witty, suave debonair) then action scenes need to be exiting, not confusing.

There are very few bright moments to write about. The story is continuation of sorts from the previous movie and it tries to highlight the transformation of Bond into a cold, killing machine. That's about it.

Bond movies are to be watched on the big screen, but I am glad I did not spend my money to watch this in a theater. I really cannot recommend this movie to anyone.

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