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


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


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


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.


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.


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.
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