Thursday, December 29, 2011

Descendants

Movie Review : The Descendants
Director : Alexander Payne
Genre : Drama / Comedy
Starring : George Clooney, Shailene Woodley
Released : November 2011
My Rating : 7 out of 10

With only a few movies, Alexander Payne just might have established himself as a sincere artist. His Sideways is widely loved, and he was also the producer of "The Savages", which I liked. The genre of Drama/Comedy applies perfectly to his movies, with the focus of presentation on underplay and subtlety.

His latest movie, The Descendants, will be a candidate for many 2012 Oscars, with both George Clooney and Shailene Woodley having a good chance to win in their categories. Even with strong Oscar / Golden Globe nominations, the real question is always, should you watch the movie ? Hopefully, my reviews help you decide that.

As the movie opens, we learn that Matt King (George Clooney) is a successful lawyer, whose very large and extended Hawaiian family has inherited a substantial fortune. Unfortunately, his wife is in coma due to an accident, and the prognosis is not good. He has never been really there to perform his parental responsibilities - he calls himself a "backup parent". Now he finds himself in a situation where he has to rebuild the relationship with his kids, inform all the relatives about the doctor' decision to pull the plug on his wife, handle the legalities of inheritance - all at the same time. To make matters worse, he finds out that his wife was having an affair and was about to divorce him.

To say that this is an unpleasant situation would be a gross understatement. This particular storyline poses numerous challenges for the writer, director and the actors. It can get overly emotional. Any attempt to infuse humor might show disrespect to the serious issues faced by the characters. I think the movie keeps the right balance between all these elements, thanks to superb direction and absolutely great acting.

I am quite certain that George Clooney will be nominated for Oscar. It is a great performance, no doubt. In contrast to his usual role of a suave, confident man, this role requires him to play a middle-aged man with slouching shoulders and a tired gait. I was very impressed with his performance.

But more than him, I was completely won over by Shailene Woodley's performance. If casting George Clooney for this role was a surprise, the character of his teenaged daughter is completely anti-stereo typical. She is not the careless, disrespectful teenager often found in movies. She is bitter, but because she saw her mother cheating on her father. In her own strong-headed style, she supports her father all through out the movie. Shailene Woodley's acting is so real, that you might forget she is playing a character. I am looking forward to her future movies.

So in spite of this, why only 7 out of 10 ? That's where subjectivity comes into play. I thought the movie was unnecessarily slow, to a point where many viewers may just give up on the movie. As a parent, I also found a few of the dialogues/scenes involving the younger daughter quite uncomfortable. Removing them wouldn't have done any harm to the overall effect of the movie.

If you are OK with slow movies, it's definitely worth watching. My wife was quite bored by this movie, but I liked it. It's definitely not for the kids, although I doubt if any kid/teenager would have even the slightest interest in watching this movie.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sudoku Bragging :-)

I like Sudoku, but I didn't solve too many puzzles in the printed form. If you make a mistake in deciding a number for a square - especially at hard levels - it becomes too much pain to figure out later what went wrong and how to fix it. But the iPad app is the best way to solve Sudoku. If you make a mistake it immediately lets you know. It also allows you take notes and helps in visualization.

I have been using Sudoku2, and definitely recommend it. It has a nice point system, in addition to the timer, to keep you motivated :-) I am no longer addicted to it, as I was a few weeks ago. Mainly because, I have reached my limit in improving the score. So here is what I think is my peak score :


Can you beat it ? :-)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lady bug

It's awfully hard to capture a photo of an insect ! They are constantly moving in search of food and are not enthusiastic about posing for a portrait. So I could not get a face shot of this self centered starlet. (And I don't have a macro lens. Ever since I discovered how good prime lens can be, I haven't taken it off.) Holding the camera in one hand, focusing continuously while the other had was trying to twist the branches to make the bug face the camera, I spent about 15-20 minutes without success :-(


Friday, December 16, 2011

Interview With Michael Platt

A very interesting video about the implications of Europe's crisis - interview with Michael Platt, founder of one of the largest asset managers in the world, BlueCrest Capital Management. It's a bit long - 15 mins, but very well worth watching. In case you are short on time, I have summarized the key points, as I understood.

Disclaimers :
1. This is obviously NOT an investment advice.
2. I do not know anything about this person, apart from what I have learned from the interview. So I am taking it at its face value.

Why I think it's worth watching :
1. He seems like a very smart guy. Apparently manages about $30 billion in his hedge funds, which is huge. Claims to have generated positive and hefty returns over last many years. Let's say all that is true.
2. He is NOT shouting from the roof, crying Armageddon. He sees a high probability of a significant crisis due to European debt situation. He is calmly talking about his viewpoints, and his strategies.

Key points he is making :
1. He is worried about the crisis. So he has all his money in the safest and liquidest instruments : short term US and German government debts.
2. No matter what the policy makers are saying, Euro break up is being priced in for, in options and futures markets.
3. Math is against Europe. Example : Italy's debt is already 120% of their GDP. GDP is declining and debt is growing at 5%. Arithmetically, this will blow up.
4. There is no growth to get Europe out of this. Austerity makes it worse. And their is no willingness to transfer money across boundaries to ease the burden.
5. Most of the European banks are now insolvent.
6. As an investor, you do not make money by going into a crisis. You make money in the aftermath of the crisis.
7. Things will get worse in 2012. What's going on is significantly worse than 2008.
8. He thinks that bold solutions - like ECB printing, a fiscal union etc - will solve the crisis. (This is the where I disagree. Printing money does not solve anything. It just changes the problem from high debt to to high inflation. And an European fiscal union is probably a non-starter.)


Monday, December 12, 2011

U-12 Chess Champinonship

The chess revolution started in India by Anand continues to generate more fruits. Adding to the list of Humpy, Negi - now we have Karthikeyan Murali. He won the U-12 chess championship.

You can read more on Chessbase.

Many kids from India participated in the World Youth Chess Championship and many did well. But it's hard to find online news articles to link. :-(

Friday, December 9, 2011

Savages

Movie Review : The Savages
Director : Tamara Jenkins
Genre : Drama
Starring : Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco
Released : 2007
My Rating : 7 out of 10

Tamara Jenkins' first major movie is about a brother and sister forced to take care of their dying father. It's not a comedy, although labeled as such. In fact, it can be quite uncomfortable to watch at times.

There is no plot as such. Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is suffering from dementia. We learn from references that he wasn't that great of a father, as a result Wendy (Laura Liney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) share no love for him. But they are forced by the circumstances to share the burden. This provides the backdrop for the real story where, they have to confront their own shortcomings and get their life in order.

This is not all that funny. And although the tone can be a bit light-hearted, the handling is quite serious. It's a dysfunctional family.  The brother and sister have major personality traits to overcome, which they have acquired definitely because of their father's neglect. There is risk that a viewer can get completely indifferent to such characters. It's the credit of actors and the director that make you feel sympathetic to them.

I can watch any movie for Laura Linney, an uncommon combination of beauty and ability to play complex characters. Hoffman rarely disappoints. And they together share 90% of the screen time. Philip Bosco supports them well portraying an old demented man.

Only if you like to watch different but well made movies strongly based on characterizations, I can recommend this. It has limited appeal otherwise. Definitely not safe for kids.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat



Book Review : Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat
Author : Hal Herzog
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is, "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals".

As is quickly clear from the title, we humans have a multidimensional relationship with animals. And the book explains, this relationship is much more intricate and even contradictory on all these dimensions.

Dogs may be family members in US, but in many countries, dogs are vermin. Some of us have mice as pets, but most of us hate them, but squirrels are cute, even if they are from the same rodent category. And when it comes to eating, there is indeed a very wide divergence of opinion on what is edible and what's not.

Now add ethics, economics and politics to that equation. Is it ethical to eat animals, and if yes, which ones, and how should they be farmed ? Which animals should be banned from being pets - tigers, pythons, chimps ? If it's illegal to raise chickens for fighting, even when they are treated like kings, why is it legal to raise them for food in horrible living conditions to eventually die a painful death ? If using monkeys as research objects is immoral, why is it ok to use rats instead ?

This expands the scope of the debate by orders of magnitude. But wait - let's add logic and philosophy to it. If you were an animal lover, would you rather have a cat as pet, or a python as a pet and feed live stray cats to it ? Don't squirm. Use hard cold logic. Cats destroy local bird population. And even if you force them remain indoors, the cat food itself comes from killing many other animals. On the other hand, a python can survive on a few cats for the entire year. Just look at the pure number of lives lost in feeding a cat v/s a python, and see if you change your mind. That is of course, if you want to be called as an animal lover, as opposed to a cat lover.

One last question - hypothetically of course - if you were in such a situation, would you kill a panda to save a child ? 100 pandas to save a child ? 100 pandas to save an old man who is going to die in a few years anyways ?

OK. Enough. This is how enormously complex the subject is. It's not just vast, multi-dimensional. But it's also cold, slippery and very uncomfortable. It gives rise to heated, passionate debates with polarized opinions, but the answers are elusive to most, while crystal clear to only the ardent activists. Most of us draw a line based on our comfort zone, and move on with life. That's because of the simple truth - we are emotional creatures, not rational beings.

This would serve as a nice summary of the book - except it doesn't completely convey how marvelous the book is. Author Hal Herzog has done wonderful job in exploring the enormity and complexity of the subject. This is no easy task.

The book covers all the things mentioned above and much more. Author Hal Herzog is a professor of Psychology, specializing in anthrozoology - a field focusing on human-animal relationship. With many years of research, he is well qualified to write on this subject. More than competency, his attitude wins the reader's heart and mind. His approach is very scientific. It is also honest and humble. He is unafraid to mention his biases and irrationalities. Neither does he offer any answers, nor does he advocate a certain point of view. He wants to highlight the contradictions within us, to explain why is it so difficult for most of us to come up with satisfactory answers.

The writing is smooth, thought provoking, funny. Totally enjoyable. But unlike many pseudo-intellectual books (e.g. Malcom Gladwell) there is more than just pleasant writing and touching anecdotes. Hal Herzog has done his own research. Not all of course, it is impossible given the scope of the issues involved.

This is a great survey of the numerous issues. It's a wide span, from analyzing how dogs came to be a fashion statement, to stereotyping of dog persons v/s cat persons, to the ethics of eating meat, to using animals in research, to the hypocrisy and moral inconsistency within all of us. It will engage you, enlighten you and force you to reexamine your beliefs. Just don't try to find any easy to use supportive arguments here, no matter what your stand is. Because this book, ultimately, is about the conflicts within us, not about animals.

I highly recommend this book. Read it and let others know about this. A scientific, objective and honest way to examine complex moral issues is rare. Especially, when it's presented in such an accessible manner.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Bend It Like Beckham ! Indeed.

MLS 2011 Conference Finals. LA Galaxy v/s Real Salt Lake. The game would be remembered for how many times the ball hit the post and for this amazing assist by Beckham. I am not a fan of Beckham, but this is indeed his signature cross. Beautiful, perfect and it just makes you exclaim ... WOW.




Friday, September 30, 2011

Agora

Movie Review : Agora
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Genre : History / Drama
Released : 2009
Starring : Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I have always yearned for movies based on the lives of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers. Not all highly intellectual persons are whimsical, nor are their life stories boring. Quite contrary. Their stories are not as well known as those of kings and queens, and are often full of struggles and dramatic elements. Especially tragedy, which was always a strong possibility if the thinker was living in a society controlled by religious extremism.

Such is the story of Hypatia, perhaps the last woman scholar of antiquity, and around whose life the movie Agora is built. A bit of historical context might be helpful to understand and appreciate the movie.

Hypatia lived in 3rd - 4th century Alexandria, in Egypt. She was of Greek origin. Most Greeks and Romans in Alexandria were pagan. She probably was not religious, and was more devoted to science and philosophy. It was not uncommon in Egyptian society - especially in Alexandria - for women to have almost the same rights as men. Hypatia was a well-known scholar, a very well respected teacher and almost universally admired. Agora means a place for public assembly. In this case, the library hall, where Hypatia taught.

Alexandria was always a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city ever since Alexander the Great established it. With the growing strength of Christianity, it also became a multi-religious society. This led to religious friction, which led to extremism and violent conflicts. During such times, intelligent, outspoken and respected women like Hypatia are considered threats by extremist men who want to grab power in the name of religion. Hypatia was lynched by a Christian mob in a most brutal fashion.

The movie picks up the story when trouble had just started brewing in Alexandria. It is not a story of Hypatia. It is a story of a city in transition. This choice allows the director to reconstruct every detail of how life was and how it changed. This turned out to be a mixed bag. The city life is magnificently reconstructed with clever techniques. While the political drama and mob violence is effectively portrayed, the central figure of the story, Hypatia, is a bit under-developed. It just doesn't feel complete. This is a fault of the script. Rachel Weisz, who won Oscar for The Constant Gardener, does a superb job as Hypatia. Other actors are not as well known. You might recognize Max Minghella (as Davus) who played Divya Narendra in The Social Network).

This is a movie based on good research of historical facts and tries very hard to remain accurate and fair. The pagans, the Jews and the Christians are all depicted without any bias. Among the graphic scenes of carnage, there are also moments of thoughtful reflection. Of course, the director has every right to take some artistic freedom and Hypatia's research is definitely fiction. It is not known if she really knew if the Earth revolved around the Sun or if the orbits were elliptical. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't.

This is a good movie. If you don't know much about the history of that period, you will definitely enjoy it. If you are just interested in watching well-directed movies, this fits the bill too. It is definitely not for kids.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Jalapenos !

Now the jalapenos are ripening ! Finally, I am getting a decent yield of something from my backyard :-) As I mentioned previously, 2011 season has been disappointing. In contrast, I had bumper crops of tomatoes, jalapenos, bell peppers and cucumbers in 2010.


These are deliciously hot !


Friday, September 9, 2011

The Debt

Movie Review : The Debt
Director : John Madden
Genre : Thriller / Drama
Starring : Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Jesper Christensen
Released : September 2011
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I rarely get to watch movies in a theater. When the opportunity came last weekend, there was only one choice suitable for my taste - "The Debt" by John Madden.

The story outline is very interesting. In 1967, 3 Mossad agents are in East German side of Berlin on a mission to capture an ex-Nazi - a German doctor who performed experiments on Jew prisoners. These are young, passionate, idealistic agents. They are not there to kill him, but to bring him back to face trial. In spite of their homework and thorough planning, things go wrong. They don't succeed in bringing the monster alive out of East Germany. Instead, they have to bring him back to their apartment and wait for more help.

We pick up the story 3 decades later. We learn that 2 of the agents - Rachel Singer and Stephen Gold -  had gotten married and later divorced. Their daughter has written a book about this assignment - the movie opens up during the publication of this book. The third agent, David Paretz, has returned to the country many years later. There is tension between all these characters, and we are led to suspect that there is more to their story than meets the eye.

The movie jumps back and forth between the 2 periods. But the jumps are not frequent, and they are not used to make things unnecessarily complicated. As a director, John Madden reveals his cards slowly. This approach will successfully grab viewers who are willing to pay attention and do some thinking on their own. And the payoff is worth it. There is enough drama and suspense, without much action and violence. As you can expect from the synopsis, this is not a spy thriller like a James Bond, or even Jason Bourne movies. There are many aspects to this movie. There is a romantic love triangle, and the brevity of its presentation makes it more effective than any love story we have seen lately. There is also a morality angle, but it's not handled as well as other aspects of the movie. What the movie really excels at is maintaining tension.

John Madden is known for his "Shakespeare In Love". I fell in love with his "Proof", a much better movie, I urge you to watch it, if for no other reason than Gwyneth Paltrow's acting. Even here, acting is top notch across the board. Interestingly, different actors play the characters from different periods. I liked it better than seeing the same actors with heavy makeup to change their age.

I thought it was a pretty good movie. My wife found it to be good as well, but she was not as impressed as me. I definitely recommend watching it, but you can wait for the DVD.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Colorful Peppers

This backyard farming season has been disappointing. No tomatoes, no peaches and no plums. Got a few cucumbers. But peppers have started showing some hope.

All the bell pepper plants were from the same set - so the different colors were a pleasant surprise. Of course Mendel wouldn't have seen any reason to be surprised about it. :-)



Friday, August 12, 2011

Familyhood



Book Review : Familyhood
Author : Paul Reiser
My Rating : 4 out of 5

We all know Paul Reiser for producing and acting in the famous sitcom "Mad About You". Apparently he writes books as well. And he is pretty good at it. His first 2 books "Couplehood" and "Babyhood" were both New York Times Bestsellers. "Familyhood" is his third book.

I haven't read his previous books. I picked this one up because I liked what I read on the back-cover. An admission of how inadequate he feels his parenting skills are. I felt an immediate connection !

The book is just a collection of short essays. Mostly about his handling of family affairs. And some about seemingly unrelated topics such as a GPS and a chair ! In all, he is the stereotypical dad - goofy, insecure, well-intentioned - just a regular guy. With an emphasis on being a "guy". It's a father's view. And as such, all mothers must read it :-)

You won't find any advice here on being a better parent. The book has the feel of a stand-up comedy act. Every good comedian needs to have great observational skills. They use those to point out our own absurdities, idiosyncrasies, and make us feel that they are reading our mind. That's what makes it fun. Paul Reiser will make you chuckle, smile and laugh. And he will not bore you.

It's not just all comedy. It's about being a family, so there is that special warmth too. But nothing melodramatic. He has his tough times, but he is not trying to win your pity. You will be surprised at how he maintains a positive tone even while discussing the sorrowful parts of his story.

It's been a while since I read a humorous book. I am glad I read it. It's a short book and I definitely recommend it. In fact, even though I haven't read them, I can still recommend his previous books (Couplehood, Babyhood) - depending on which phase of life you are in.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Quote Of The Day : Peter Schiff on S&P Downgrading US Debt

This man speaks what's on his mind. He has been right about gold, housing bubble and our debt problems.
The only thing they did wrong was, they waited too long to downgrade and they didn't downgrade low enough.
It was really funny to watch Tim Seymour getting uncomfortable with Peter Schiff's rant.

If you want to watch the CNBC video clip, click here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Troubleshooting Guide For Baking Bread

When I wrote about my bread recipe I claimed that it was THE easiest recipe for artisan bread. I stand by that claim. A lot of people have had good success with it. But for someone who has never baked before, a few more tips would have been helpful in that article.

So here is a little troubleshooting guide in case you need it.

1. What if the dough doesn't rise ?
Without properly risen dough, the bread is not going to be successful. In this recipe, the dough rises nearly 3 times. If the dough doesn't rise after 4-5 hours, it's not going to rise at all. Most likely the yeast that you used was old and dead. You can test your yeast very easily. Just dissolve some sugar in lukewarm water and sprinkle some yeast. If you don't see any foam/bubbles in 10-15 minutes, the yeast is dead and unusable. I buy dry active yeast and store it in the refrigerator. It stays alive for really long time.

If the yeast was fine, them most likely there was not enough water. Yeast needs water to activate and then thrive. See below on for tips on how to properly measure the ingredients.

2. How to measure ?
The best part of my recipe is that it doesn't demand absolute perfection in measurements and time and all the parameters that are generally part of any bread recipe. But the measurements still need to be at least approximately correct ! Not having the correct ratio of flour to water is the most common problem in bread baking. If the water is off by a teaspoon, it's probably going to be OK. But a tablespoon of water makes a big difference in the final result. So you cannot eye ball the amount of flour/water and you have to use a measuring cup.

For measuring flour, scoop it out and level it with a table knife, or just your fingers. Don't press the flour to tightly pack the measuring cup. When you need 1/2 cup of flour, use a scoop that is of size 1/2-cup. Don't use the scoop that's 1-cup size and try to guesstimate 1/2 cup by filling it only half. It doesn't work that way.

If you are using a big glass cup with markings to measure the water, then fill the cup, put it on the counter and bend down so that your eyes are at the same horizontal level of the marking. You cannot judge the water while looking from above.

Measuring ingredients if often considered a sign of lack of skill by many - especially Indian cooks. Because baking is not all that common in India. Baking is a bit of science, not just art. You don't get to make any adjustments once it's in the oven. So get over it, and measure your ingredients :-)

3. What if the bread didn't rise a lot in the oven ?
First the oven has to be pre-heated before you start baking. Secondly this recipe will NOT produce a tall loaf. This is not sandwich bread. After rising, the dough is almost batter like and will spread over the cookie sheet. The looser it is, more it will spread. The bread will still be fine, will have nice big holes in the crumb. If you want you can try reducing the water by a teaspoon the next time. But remember, this is a no-knead recipe. The dough has to have enough hydration. So err on the side of more water, not less. The dough has to be very sticky, not dry.

Even if it looks flat on the cookie sheet, you will get a nice oven spring. The bread will be about a couple of inches tall, not more.

4. How to do more tweaking ?
You should start with the measurements in the original recipe, oven temperature and make only minor adjustments. A regular oven is better, but I have successfully used toaster oven as well. In any oven, you shouldn't need temperature over 450. Underbaking is rarely a problem for beginning bakers, most end up overbaking their bread, because it takes time to develop the visual judgment. Take out the bread from oven and tap it's bottom. If you hear hollow sound, then baking is done. It shouldn't take more than 25 minutes for this recipe.

Do not try to change the water temperature till you get more experience. Just use room temperature water.

The flour is naturally the most important ingredient and will have the most impact on taste and texture. Bread flour will obviously give the best result. All-purpose flour has lower gluten content and hence will result in slightly shorter loaf, but the bread will still be good. Indian Roti flour results have been just about OK, as it’s mostly from Durum wheat more suitable for pasta. Whole Wheat flour (generally of Red Winter Wheat) gives dense bread that I really like. You can use this same recipe idea for other flours as well, for example Rye bread. My favorite variation is by mixing some blue corn flour with whole wheat flour.

5. Don't give up.
There is nothing like a fresh baked homemade bread made by using just simple ingredients. It's healthy and tasty. If you need more advice, just ask me. I am passionate about bread, and will be more than happy to help you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Doubt

Movie Review : Doubt
Director : John Patrick Shanley
Genre : Drama
Released : December 2008
Starring : Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
My Rating : 9 out of 10

I like to watch movies with as little information about them as possible. Due to the many nominations it received at Oscars and Golden Globe in 2009, I had filed "Doubt" in the long list I have for "must see it later, so don't read any more about it" :-) It shouldn't have taken so long for it to bubble up to the top of the queue. I should have watched it then, not later.

While watching, it was clear to me that this must have been based on a play. Indeed it is. Director Shanley has adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, and it's equally clear why the play won so many accolades.

The setup is deceptively simple. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the Principal of a Catholic School in Bronx during 1964. An eighth grade teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams) brings to her attention that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) had called the only black student, alone to the rectory. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn to be engaging in an improper relationship and sets out to oust him.

On the surface, the question is of course, is Father Flynn guilty ? With what we know about that period now, we are inclined to answer yes. But is it true ? This is not a detective movie, and in real life arriving at truth without any ambiguity is rare. So if you don't like loose ends, chances are, you will be unsatisfied when the movie ends. The lingering doubts harass the characters in the story, as well as the viewers. That's how the director intends it to be, and I found it very clever.

Both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn claim to have nothing but good intentions, and may be that's true. But their approaches and personalities are polar opposite. Sister Aloysius is as strict as you would expect a principal to be in a Catholic school circa 1964. She doesn't even approve of ballpoint pens. I remember my teachers saying that ! Students are terrified by her. Father Flynn on the other hand is very accommodating and gentle. He has a good sense of humor, and kids love him. Is this difference in personalities the real reason of the conflict ?

On a deeper level, it's also a conflict between moral righteousness versus compassion. Father Flynn believes in forgiveness, whereas Sister Aloysius believes in justice. These two different faces of every religion are often incompatible.

And on an even deeper level, this is about the very nature of truth. In life, especially about behavior of real people, truth can be very illusive. How can you be certain - without any doubt ?

This ability to appeal us viewers on many different levels is why I think this is a great movie. It wouldn't have been so nuanced without the phenomenal acting by both Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. For Meryl, this earned her yet another nomination - one of her unbelievable total of 16 till date. And as for Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think he did better than Meryl ! His internal battles are clearly visible on his face. I cannot think of a better choice to play this complex role. Amy Adams provides good support, but her role is much simpler and we have seen this type of portrayal many times before. Viola Davis gets a fraction of the screen time compared to other actors, and yet, she manages to make as big an impact as others.

Director Shanley chooses to get noticed by not trying hard to get noticed. The story matter is handled with utmost respect and sensitivity. It's an uncomfortable topic for the viewers as well as for the characters. Shanley chooses to provoke thoughts in your mind, rather than jolting you out of your seat. As the writer, he paints the characters as mostly good, but not perfect. It's hard to strongly dislike any character here, each is trying hard to do what is right according to them. But it doesn't stop you from wishing that they had made slightly better choices. It's subtle and superb writing.

I definitely have a bias for character based movies, still I think this movie will impress a very large percentage of viewers. This is one the "must see" movies.



Friday, July 15, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo



Book Review : The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Author : Stieg Larsson
My Rating : 3 out of 5

Almost everyone in the world has read this book and it's 2 sequels. Everyone except me, till now. The books have been an enormous international best seller series, but I am rarely enthusiastic about best selling fiction. The hype is usually overdone.

As almost always is the case, a movie follows such success. And like always, once the movie is scheduled to be released, I am forced to read the book before I watch the movie. Because, as we all know, books are generally better than their movie incarnations. In this case, I can safely bet that the opposite will be true.

Why do I feel that way ? Because this book is way too long and the movie will have a good chance of doing the editor's job, that is so glaringly absent here. The author tragically died before his books were published. That may be part of the reason why the book couldn't be edited and also why these books became runaway success.

I had managed to stay away from knowing any details about the plot or the theme. Didn't read any reviews. In fact I purposefully avoided reading the back cover and the inside descriptions. I like to read a book or watch a movie without any preconceptions. In the same vein, I will keep my synopsis to a minimum for those few (if any) who haven't read the book.

The story is about a financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who has been tasked by a prominent industrialist to solve a decades old cold case of disappearance of a young girl from his extended family. He gets help from Lisbeth Salander, a social nutcase and the reason for the book's title. This book is story of that investigation and about a lot of personal details about the 2 main characters.

Larsson spends a whole lot of time establishing the characters and setting the stage. The book doesn't become a page-turner till you are nearly half-way through. I have no problem with character development, I like it. But here it's too much irrelevant details and mundane stuff that fill up the pages. The characterization felt very shallow and unrealistic. Blomkvist is an average middle aged man, and still all the women in the story - from 50+ year old to twenty something Salander - cannot stop themselves from getting into bed with him. Really ? The attitude of everyone in the book towards relationships is callously casual.

He also introduces us to an extremely large family and it was hard to keep track of all those names and their relationships to one another. He gives a picture of the family tree, but a map of the island (on which the story takes place) would have been more helpful.

The investigation is gripping, in spite of being tedious at a few places. And although the mystery is not impossible to guess, there are some surprises. That's the main part of the story, and fortunately the strongest. I wish the book was far more concentrated on it. After the investigation is over the author spends another 100 or so pages in closing a subplot that could have been left open. It's so weakly written and unbelievable, that I was just skipping over it to somehow finish the book.

As you can imagine I cannot offer a strong recommendation to read this book. But it will probably lend well to a movie depiction. We will know this December, when the Hollywood version starring Daniel Craig hits the theaters as "The Feel Bad Movie Of Christmas" ! The Swedish movie has been out for a while now.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Power of Suggestion

Found this while browsing the popular financial blog Naked Capitalism.

How do we understand what we hear and what we see ? I am always amazed by the abilities of the brain - human or otherwise. Like any programmer I compare the deterministic abilities of my own code with the seemingly indeterministic behavior of any human/animal brain, It's easy to get amazed at the speed of search and pattern recognition performed by our brains. What's truly mind-boggling (!!) is how well we handle the fuzzy, unclear and incomplete data.

This demonstration highlights that point. How a suggested frame of reference makes us see patterns that do not exist. It's kind of similar to how "preconceived notions" affect our thinking. Also similar to what is referred as "Confirmation Bias". Whatever the name might be, this demonstration is quite dramatic.

Simon Singh is a very good author. I have reviewed his books Big Bang and Fermat's Enigma. Loved them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

GaDiMa-2

Long long time ago I used to be an active participant on the rec.music.indian.misc usenet group. During those times, there were often debates about who is/was the best lyricist for Hindi movie songs. There were many Gulzar fans, and were particularly impressed by his wordings in songs such as

हमने देखी है, इन आँखो कि महकती ख़ुशबू

Generally I think highly of Gulzar's poetry, but I was never particularly impressed with such phrasings. To me, they always seem very forced. Some find it confusing, others find deep meaning in them. Note that I am talking only about the refrain, the song has other marvelous lines - such as

नूर कि बून्द है, सदियों से बहा करती है !

But that's subjective. The real misconception is that Gulzar is the only expert of this style when it comes to movie lyrics. Far from it. He relies on it more than others, but examples abound in the works of other lyricist.

Here is one from महाकवी गदिमा - it will be a crime to call him a lyricist - who was both Sahir and Gulzar (and much more) for Marathi movies. Sahir is my favorite lyricist of Hindi Movies, but neither he nor Gulzar has done anything to be compared to a giant such as GaDiMa. To those unaware of Marathi literature, "गीत-रामायण" has made GaDiMa (Gajanan Digambar Madgulkar) the Valmiki of Marathi Poetry.

नसेल माहित तुला कधी ते,
रोज तुझ्या मी स्वप्नी येते,
त्या स्वप्नांच्या आठवणी
ह्या ओठां देशील का ?

It's not straight-forward to attach a simple meaning to this verse. My attempt at a very loose and literal translation (forgive me, I am NOT a poet). Feel free to do your own 'काव्य-रसग्रहण' !

You may be completely unaware,
that in your dreams, I always appear
Memories of those dreams
Would you please ...
Install on my lips ?

As amazing singer Asha Bhosle is - I think she was more than that in this song - she was just perfect. Listen to the mesmerizing short आलाप at the beginning. One of the best compositions by Baabuji - Sudhir Phadke. Very typical of his compositions, easy to hum, but not at all easy to sing.

I want to make two small observations here. Both about the other stanzas in the song.

First, the word "दिनांती" (meaning 'at the end of the day'). I am trying to remember any other song/poem with that word, but I can't. It's not that unusual a word - at least it should not be - but I cannot think of an example. If you know, please share it with me.

Secondly, and more interestingly the words "एकांती" and जवळी are repeated (their two occurrences are adjacent) in the song.  I do not know of any other songs that has such a feature. It's not just that they are repeated - first occurrence ends a phrase and second begins the next phrase. It's pretty smart.  Especially the line

मी येतां पण सलज्ज जवळी, जवळी घेशिल का ?

Sudhir Phadke is known for his pains-taking attention to poetic details. His tunes fit even the ह्रस्व-दीर्घ (short and long) pronunciations of the vowels ! So it's not Babuji taking liberties with the lyrics to fit to a tune. It's GaDiMa's deliberate word play.

The song is from the famous 1952 movie लाखाची गोष्ट by Raja Paranjape.


Previously ... GaDiMa-1

Friday, June 17, 2011

Inglorious Basterds


Movie Review : Inglorious Basterds
Released : 2009
Director : Quentin Tarantino
Starring : Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger
My Rating : 8 out of 10

I am not a big fan of Quentin Tarantino. Oh, I totally "get" his movies, I like them, but I just don't think of them as highly as most others do. In my opinion, he stresses more on style than on substance. I am also turned off by his fascination with macabre violence, and ego trips like Kill Bill. I am perfectly aware that this is but a minority viewpoint among movie aficionados.

I did like Pulp Fiction, and would definitely consider it a classic. And I have to say that, Inglorious Bastards is, in my opinion, the best Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction. It's well crafted, full of vintage Tarantino scenes and very gripping.

The story takes artistic liberties to create alternate history of World War II, without being pretentious. There are 2 threads. In one, a group of American soldiers - the Basterds - led by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is raging a successful guerilla warfare in France. Their task is to kill Nazis and collect their scalps. When they learn about the Nazi leadership attending a movie premiere in a small theater in Paris, they hatch a plan to blow up the entire theater. Helping them is a double agent Bridget von Hammersmart (Diane Kruger), who is a German actress.

In the second thread is about the owner of the theater - Emmanuelle. Her real name is Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent). At the beginning of the movie, we see her family butchered by the "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). She also has her plans for taking revenge during the movie premiere. As expected, the 2 threads of the story eventually meet.

One of Tarantino's main strength, and his signature style, is to blend superb dialogues within scenes of brutal violence. Some of the scenes in this movie are wonderfully taut and tense. It's the anticipation of the violence that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Of course, the ensuing violence is typically shocking, as you can expect from Tarantino. The movie is watchable just for those scenes.

I do not want to give away a lot, else the unpredictability of the movie will be compromised, depriving you of a lot of excitement.

Acting overall is fairly good - especially by Christoph Waltz. His portrayal is unsettling and mesmerizing. Brad Pitt, does a variety of roles, quite unlike his super star image, and he succeeds. With every movie, I get more and more impressed. Both the female leads (Diane Kruger and Mélanie Laurent) look beautiful and give a strong performance. There are cameos by Eli Roth, and Mike Myers.

I definitely recommend this movie. There is no need to remind anyone, but just in case, Quentin Tarantino movies are never for kids. For anyone else who loves movies, this is one that should not be missed.



Thursday, June 2, 2011

Plastic



Book Review : Plastic
Author : Susan Freinkel
My Rating : 5 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "Plastic : A Toxic Love Story".

Susan Freinkel's "Plastic" is a very current, up-to-date book that has to be on your "must read" list.

Plastics when used in daily conversations, is a nebulous term. Technically, it's a polymer (mostly man-made) with long molecular chains, which give it all the properties that we associate with plastics. Paradoxically, the very same properties that make plastics so desirable - lightweight, durable, inert, strong and cheap - also make it such a nuisance. As a result we cannot live without them, but we wish we could.

Susan Freinkel explains both aspects of this love-hate relationship. It was indeed revolutionary that we figured out a way of using the by-products of petroleum processing. It wasn't just about efficiency. These by-products generate a wide variety of plastics that make all sorts of items - from everyday utilities such as comb and toothbrush, to ultra-thin ultra-flexible tubes required in medical equipments. This platics revolution was crucial to improving our standard of living. Its substitution in place of wood and animal parts has helped us stop the plundering of Mother Earth. Think abut it. Today we see pictures of sea birds dying because of plastic trash. But its use has also saved many species by removing our need to kill them.

Freinkel explores the world of plastics, and it's effect on world in general by using a very novel approach. She devotes a chapter to objects such as chair, comb, Frisbee, credit card, bottle etc. I really liked this idea. It was a great pleasure to read the history of plastic chair and comb and Frisbee. These chapters are a great cocktail of information and story telling. The later chapters have less emphasis on story, but more on opinions and research. As a result there is some danger of information overload towards the end. Overall it's very well researched, well presented and well argued.

Consider the case of the plastic bag. It's hard to find an item as reviled and still as widely used. Well maybe the plastic bottle can compete for that dubious honor ! Are these items so deserving of scorn and activist attention ? The book's discussion of these topics was an eye-opener. I had always suspected that, replacing plastic bags with paper bags, is not really a wise solution. My suspicions were confirmed. But there is way more to it than what I had naively suspected. I urge you to read those chapters.

I had also wondered what happens to the items I throw in the recycle bin. I got answers. I think I agree with what I have learned. Recycling is needed, but the need to recycle is also a problem ! Reuse is the solution. Not always possible, but we should do it whenever possible.

As the author correctly points out, plastic is not a villain, and making it compostable won't make it a hero either. It's the culture of irresponsible consumerism based on single use, that's the root cause of the problem. For example, replacing plastic bottles with glass bottles will only increase the fuel required in transportation. Plastic has genuinely great benefits all over the spectrum of its applications. But if we keep throwing it away, we will become a civilization that choked on its own trash.

She points out that, it takes nature thousands of years to create the fossil fuel that's used to make plastics. It takes us few seconds to use it and trash it. Trash that will kill many species and outlive us by many generations. Very ironic and very sad.

Changing consumer behaviour is a tricky multi-dimensional problem. In here, there is a superb survey of many such attempts underway today.

That's not the only focus of the book, nor is its intention to be an activist mouthpiece. It's a social commentary too. I was chuckling when she pointed out how we all disapprove plastic chairs as being cheap, but we still use them. There are many such observations about the curious nature of our relationship with plastics.

I think this book has a wide appeal and it's very relevant today. Read it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why do I think Messi is the greatest soccer player ?

FC Barcelona won the UEFA Champion's League 2011 Final (3-1) against Manchester United in style. Messi scored one, and helped in David Villa's magical goal. It was yet another amazing performance and complete dominance by Barca under Josep Guardiola.
I just want to bookmark a few videos celebrating the best Soccer player ever - Lionel Messi. At 23, he is already at the top of the world. Has won the FIFA best Player of the Year in 2009, 2010 and will likely win it again, having scored the most goals in La Liga and Champion's League.

There is a reason why. He is not just a prolific goal scorer, but he is also a dribbler and a passer. He is not the forward waiting for the midfielders to create an oportunity for him. He creates the opportunities for himself and others. And his control of the ball is already legendary.

For his dribbling skill, check out this video. At around 0:48 check out the sea of yellow jerseys needed to prevent him from scoring.



For his amazing passes, check out


And even you have watched this before, please watch again one of the greatest goals in the history. Starting behind the half-line, he beat 6 defenders and the goal keeper to score this goal !


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Movie Review : Frozen River

Movie Review : Frozen River
Director : Courtney Hunt
Genre : Drama
Released : October 2008
Starring : Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I have a bias towards movies that have a strong focus on story and people. The CGI, special effects are nice, but they are definitely not sufficient, and not even necessary for me to like a movie. "Frozen River" is such a low budget movie, with a simple touching story of struggles of day to day existence of 2 single mothers.

The main character is Ray (Melissa Leo). As the movie opens, we learn that her husband has run away from her, taking her savings to blow on gambling. She was saving this money to move into a brand-new double wide trailor. Yes, that's the dream house, and now even that modest dream is unattainable. Living in a small village near a Mohwak reservation in upstate New York and working part-time in a store to take care of 2 sons makes even basic needs seem like luxary.

But she is a fighter. When another single mother Lila (a Mohwak who doesn't really like white people all that much) offers her to join her to smuggle people from across Canadian border, Ray grudgingly takes up the offer. Lila needs Ray to drive the car, as cops are less likely to stop a white female driver. It's Christmas time, which means Ray needs the money to buy presents for her kids as well. It also means, she has to drive the car across the frozen river, a risky endeavor. It's only a matter of time before Ray gets in trouble.

Director/writer Courtney Hunt Makes us root for Ray. She is helped tremendously by an exceptionally strong performance by Melissa Leo (winner of 2011 Oscar). The story revolves around her, and it's her portrayal that makes the movie so believable. Director Courtney Hunt keeps things real, and doesn't make it too dramatic. Yes, life is hard for Ray, but there are some positives as well - her elder son is well-intentioned responsible teenager who wants to help his mother.

It's not a perfect movie. But very worth the time. Definitely recommended. It's rated R, but apart from some strong language, I didn't find anything objectionable in it for kids. Younger kids will get bored, but older kids who like to read, may actually like the movie.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Paranoia



Book Review : Paranoia
Author : Joseph Finder
My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

When I read Joseph Finder's, "Company Man", I had no idea of what to expect, as it was the first time I was reading a book by the author. Having liked it, I was eager to read more of his work, and picked this one due to high praise in Amazon.com reviews.

The book is told as a first person account of Adam Cassidy. (I have a bias against this style, but it's not the book's fault.) Adam is kind of a loser, doing a mundane job for Wyatt Telecom. He commits a really stupid fraud and easily gets caught. The company CEO Nick Wyatt makes him an offer - either go to jail on fraud charges, or work as a spy with competitor Trion Systems. Naturally, Adam chooses the second option. Wyatt trains him in corporate espionage and Adam manages to secure a high visibility position in Trion with the sole purpose of stealing secrets. The combination of this training, the new job and a new girlfriend beyond his dreams, completely transforms Adam. Will he fulfill his job as a spy ? If he doesn't, will he be punished for his fraud ? Will he lose his girlfriend in the process ? How will he extract himself out of this mess ? This makes up for a nice high adrenaline set-up for a corporate thriller.

The book delivers on most of its promises. Except, I don't think the ending is that hard to guess. I grant a lot of freedom to thriller books when it comes to the believability of the plot. Things don't have to be completely logical. Life isn't, and often times stranger than fiction. But some readers will shake their heads and might call the plot a bit too "Hollywoodish". There is some truth in that complaint.

Regardless, Joseph Finder is a good story-teller. He manages to draw you within Adam's world. There is a right balance between characterization and page turning action. The main character - Adam - is not a hero, but Finder makes you root for him. The corporate world, definitely feels real - it is not restricted to only boardroom politics.

It's a fun book to read and relax on lazy weekend.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The ongoing Debt Crisis - at State Level

Meredith Whitney is feeling even more confident about her call on the coming crisis in Muni Bond Market. The States are in deep financial troubles. The apparent cause is economic downturn, but the real cause is unrealistic retirement benefits and huge inefficiencies. It's not clear when the day of reckoning will come, and when it comes what the repercussions might be. Greece is serving as a test model for the debt crisis. Using that model and common sense I can say that,
  1. Politicians will try as hard as possible to kick the can down the road. "If the crisis hits when I am gone from office, then I won't be blamed" is how they think. Fixing structural issues is hard. Printing money to create an illusion of prosperity to buy time is easy.
  2. Hope springs eternal - which helps us humans survive tough times, but often makes us blind to a future crisis. Americans will continue to be completely sanguine. No one was willing to believe how bad the credit bubble was, and similarly, no one is ready to understand the implications of the debt crisis. Debt at Federal level and debt (including promised future retirement benefits) at State/Municipal level, is simply unsustainable. There is no way to grow out of this.
  3. No real solution (like a hard reset via bankruptcy) will ever be attempted unless the market forces it upon us in an unpleasant way. Why ? No one likes to be the bearer of gloom/doom news. No one with vested financial interest (e.g. unionized government workers) would prefer to lose a big chunk of their entitlements, and no politician in his/her right mind would offend the voting blocks. 
This cannot end well.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My roses are taller than yours :-)

Finally the spring arrived in Pleasanton. Unfortunately it was too late to get any bloom on the fruit trees :-(, which means no fruit this year. At least the roses are happy. These roses blossom profusely and a few of them are really tall. I need a stepping stool to trim them !

This one is trying to go over the first floor.

These are already over a very tall fence.


This one has some catching up to do.



The roses in the front plant come in different shades of orange and pink on the same branch.




This one is a vine, which I plan to run along the fence.



The most mysterious is this one - it's hard to capture it in photos. Every rose starts as a bright yellow flower and as it blooms, changes color almost every day - goes from yellow, to orange to pink to red !!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Up In The Air

Movie Review : Up In The Air
Director : Jason Reitman
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Released : December 2009
Staring : George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
My Rating : 8 out of 10

Jason Reitman is destined to become one of the greatest directors of all time. Not even 35 yet, he has given us "Thank You For Smoking", "Juno" and now "Up In The Air". I was tremendously impressed with "Thank You For Smoking" - definitely the sharpest satire I have seen. In "Up In The Air", he mixes in some sensitivity in the satire without loosing the sharpness of the comedy.

The story is very contemporary. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for a company that helps other companies fire their employees. Ryan is a specialist, a professional. He understands the delicateness of his job responsibilities, treats people with respect and loves what he does. Not because he enjoys hurting people, but because he thinks he doing tough important work. And he also loves the lifestyle. Definitely. He has mastered the art of living on road. Figured out every detail. And he is more concerned about joining the 10 million mile club than having any roots anywhere.

We also meet Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another road warrior. Ryan and Alex get together very well, right after their first meeting. They arrange their plans to meet at common airports, have frequent short steamy encounters and are almost like a couple - almost. Joining Ryan is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a new hire who has some novel ideas about how to fire people.

The story moves on - touching us in many different ways, we chuckle, we feel the pain. And we learn more and more about the characters. And Ryan learns a lot more about life and himself.

Although Ryan's transformation, and even the ending, is somewhat predictable, it is believable. Reitman doesn't trick us. He also keeps the drama aspect to a perfect level, only as much as needed. The movie is not a romantic comedy, although it may appear at times as such. It's not just drama either. It cannot be pigeonholed into one genre.

The movie has multiple strengths. The screenplay is exceptional. Character development is perfect - all 3 major characters are multidimensional and you understand them completely, even if you may or may not like them. Acting is superb. The lion's share goes to George Clooney and he is a perfectly cast in this role. In the beginning of the movie, we see George Clooney giving a motivation speech. Compare that to the one he gives at the end. These are 2 very different shades of the same color. Very nicely done.

I loved this movie. I think it has appeal for a very large diverse audience. Highly recommended, but not for kids.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Our Green House

For last 2 years, we have been trying to do our part to help the environment. Please allow me to pat my own back. I can proudly say that we have reduced our share of landfill to almost nothing. We have been averaging just one small trash bag every week. Not only do we have a smallest size trash container from the city, every week we just put one small bag in it.

We compost anything that can be composted. And recycle anything that can be recycled. And without spending any extra effort/money, we achieved near zero trash. Most people I know recycle as much as possible. But they are apprehensive about composting. Hopefully I can remove some of the apprehensions.

First, if you do not want to manage the composting yourself, you can throw all the compostable material in the green container for yard waste. You can confirm with your city. Pleasanton has a big list of what can be thrown in this container. You will be surprised how many things can be composted.

I just use a few containers - a couple of small sized bins, a couple of medium sized (similar in size to the in-house trash cans) and one larger sized container. I created a few big holes at the bottom for drainage as well as for creating good contact with the soil below. These containers are placed on top of the soil near the fence. That area gets only partial sunlight and not suitable for plants anyways.

I did not buy any expensive equipments, nor did I purchase any worms etc. Just kept it very simple.

I start with the small container, line its bottom with soil from my backyard. Then whenever there is compostable waste - like vegetable peelings etc - I throw them in there. After a few days I throw in another handful of soil, sometimes a handful of grass clippings. Once the container is full, I just empty the whole thing into the medium size container, and when that gets full, it gets emptied into the biggest size container. It easily takes 6 months or more before I have to empty out the biggest container to make room for the compost in other containers. In this time, the compost in the biggest container turns into fluffy, dark and very fertile soil! I just empty it out in my planting area. Done.

So what's the work involved ? Just tumbling the containers once a month, and once a week, throwing in more soil or leaves/grass. Both are essential. The tumbling exposes the entire compost to air and sunlight. And mixing some soil is also necessary to keep adding natural composting workers.

What do I compost ? All fruit/vegetable cuttings/peelings/skins, tea bags, kitchen towels - all organic matter. Except anything related to meat. I would recommend against throwing any meat or even prepared food, else it might attract come critters. We don't waste any food anyways. Many shells don't compost at all - like egg shells or nut shells. No point putting them in there. And definitely don't put any bones, they will only attract critters. Bones do not compost, else we wouldn't have found dinosaur bones !

And to answer your question : NO. It does NOT smell at all. Plant waste is what I am throwing in there. Unless you put your nose into the container :-), you are not going to smell anything. (You might smell something while you tumble the contents.) In cases when you suspect some odor, just add some soil/grass/leaves on top to cover it. It's the manure and animal products that generates the bad odor in the industrial compost plants. Plant waste is not a problem. If you throw prepared food in there, then it might generate some odor due to the fat/oil in it. I wouldn't know, my compost is fat free :-)

You will see some flies/tiny insects around the bins, but they are part of the solution.

There is one downside of this, if you can call it that. The soil generated from this compost, is too fertile, the weeds easily germinate in there ! But that's why my plants grow so strong and yield so much fruit. Pulling out the weeds is a small price to pay. I am helping the environment, and in return getting excellent home grown, fresh vegetables !

Monday, May 2, 2011

Gravity's Arc



Book Review : Gravity's Arc
Author : David Darling
My Rating : 4 out of 5

The complete title is "Gravity's Arc: The Story of Gravity from Aristotle to Einstein and Beyond".

Author David Darling has covered a lot of material in this short book that can be read very quickly. Starting from early theories of Gravity to all the way upto current speculation about Dark Energy.

The focus is on gravity, not on relativity theory or quantum mechanics or creation of the universe etc. Darling starts with Aristotle's explanation of how things fall to earth and projectile motion. Then we learn how later scientists found flaws in them and corrected - till Newton's formulation of the theory. And as you can expect, we then learn how Einstein used non-Euclidean geometry to change our understanding of gravity and eventually land into current ideas that still await experimental verification. It's quite a journey in fast forward.

All popular science books face a hard choice.  Without math, the treatment is bound to be superficial - just verbal explanations. But how much depth can be added without overburdening the layman ? In this book, Darling chooses to just scratch the surface. This allowed him to fit a lot of material in few pages, but left me unsatisfied. But that's just me.

If you haven't read a lot of pop-science, then you might enjoy this book a lot. If you have, then you may not find much new stuff here. That's my criticism. Books like "The Big Bang", by Simon Singh and "Fabric of Cosmos" by Brian Greene cover a lot of ground, in much more detail and in a very easy to understand style. So a frequent reader of pop-science books has no strong motivation to read this book.

Apart from the overlap problem, the book has no issues. It's a pleasant read.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Messi !

First leg of UEFA Champion's League Semifinal between Real Madrid and Barcelona. One of the long standing great rivalries. A completely start studded event. Among them is the brightest star - Lionel Messi who at 23 is already being considered as one of the best soccer players ever. In my mind, he is the greatest, surpassing Maradona and Pele.

Watch him create an attack out of nowhere, beating 4 defenders (among the finest in the world), and then the goalkeeper Casillas (who is also the goal keeper of the Spanish team that won the World Championship), and also a 5th player that tried to catch him in vain.

AMAZING. The speed, the dexterity, the control and the imagination.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Edge Of Darkness

Movie Review : Edge Of Darkness
Director : Martin Campbell
Genre : Thriller
Released : January 2010
Starring : Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston
My Rating : 5 out of 10

"Edge Of Darkness" is one of those forgettable thrillers with top stars that Hollywood mindlessly churns out so often. This one is barely enough to be a popcorn movie. It has some shocking scenes, but is generally devoid of any tension whatsoever. And as is typical of such movies, the viewer has everything figured out long before the characters in the story.

It's a simple story. Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) is a detective in Boston. In the opening few minutes, we see his daughter being shot in front of his house. The rest of the movie has Craven trying to find out the people responsible for this.

It's disappointing. Martin Campbell has Casino Royale and Golden Eye under his belt, so what happened here ? This was remake of a TV series and was crammed into a movie. Maybe that's why. There are so many scenes - where I was just left scratching my head and saying - "What ?", "Why did he say that ?", "Really ?" etc. The character of Ray Winstone was just too mysterious for me, completely unbelievable.

I like Mel Gibson a lot - as an actor/director, NOT as a person, let me be clear on that. So I could sit through this movie. But I would recommend his other revenge flick, Payback, over this one.


Friday, April 15, 2011

There is no inflation

I can keep ranting about the absurdities of  current economic policies in US forever. But videos like this capture the essence perfectly. Only the budget deficit drama theater in Washington is comparable.

Somehow, people - when in very large groups like a nation - are completely incapable of fixing the root cause. Sad. Too much debt, too much money printing, too much entitlements are the root cause of our current economic malaise. Nothing will be fixed until it's too late. Because no policy maker wants to be the tough guy administering a bitter medicine.

This cannot end well.


Monday, April 11, 2011

On The Right Track



Book Review : On The Right Track
Author : Marion Jones
My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

The complete title for this small book is quite long "On the Right Track: From Olympic Downfall to Finding Forgiveness and the Strength to Overcome and Succeed".

Marion Jones was the superstar of the 2000 Olympics, winning 5 medals. Later she lied under oath when questioned by federal agents about performance enhancing drugs made by the infamous BALCO. After a many months, she came clean on her own. Unfortunately, she received the maximum sentence for this offense and spent 6 months in a jail. Her medals were taken away, she was financially broke, lost her home via foreclosure and well, everything was bleak.

This is her story, in her own words about her struggle to get back to normal life. It's a touching, honest account of her feelings.

There is very little in this book about Marion Jones before she went to prison. This is not an auto-biography. This is a long monologue containing her guilty plea, her difficult journey to get back to normal life, her love for her family and how faith helped her.

Marion Jones is not a very good author. The book lacks coherency - but she makes it up for all that and more, by her truthfulness, maturity and honesty. She owns it up, admits her own mistake, doesn't try to transfer the blame, and stays completely non-controversial. The honesty is refreshing and striking. It's impossible to not be moved by her ordeal and her approach to stay positive. The book overall is inspiring, and your heart goes out to her.

What she did requires tremendous courage, very few people can manage to do it. And I can only salute her for that and thank her for writing this book. God bless her !

This is one more book I decided to read because of watching an interview on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show". Happy that I have read it, I can definitely recommend it.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

At The End Of The Rainbow

I am one of the few people who loves rain. One reason is the rainbow, whose scientific explanation has not dulled it's beauty to me. This one was very near my home. These shots are from my window.






Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Movie Review : The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Director : Andrew Dominik
Genre : Western
Released : September 2007
Starring : Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck
My Rating : 4 out of 10

I decided to watch this movie based on the curious title, the cast and the true story on which it is based. Sadly, this turned out to be a long movie (with a long title) - a whole 160 minutes -  that feels way longer than even that. I thought I was watching it for like 5 hours.

First the good news. Great acting by Casey Affleck. Really superb. Very nice cinematography. Last 30 minutes are well scripted. That's about it.

Bad news is plenty. Brad Pitt is not a bad actor, but he is badly cast as Jesse James. Completely unbelievable portrayal. A large number of unnecessary scenes. And they are slower than snail. You will learn almost nothing about Jesse James. There is zero tension in scenes that should have been tense. It's hard to care either way about any character except Robert Ford (Casey Affleck).

And the movie takes itself way too seriously. It's absurdly pretentious.

There really isn't much of a synopsis to write about.

I don't mind watching long slow movies at all. But there has to be enough return on investing so much time. Not here.

Had this movie been cut down by half to 80 minutes, I might have a given a tentative recommendation based on the camera work and Casey Affleck's acting. As it stands, you are better off not watching this one.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Humpy Koneru

I know Cricket World Cup is happening, but this is an important news, that should not be overshadowed. India's highest rated woman GM, Humpy Koneru, has qualified as a challenger to play for the title of the Woman's World Chess Champion against the current World Champion - Chinese GM Hou Yifan !

Humpy has been a leading female player for a while. With some impressive results so far (like winning Girls Junior world championship title). She has been awarded Arjuna Award and Padma Shri by the Indian Government.

The current Woman's World Champion Hou Yifan is a phenomenally talented 17 year old. She won the title when she was 16 years old - and created the record of being the youngest person in the history to win a chess world championship.

Apart from the highest rated female player Judit Polgar (who does not participate in Woman only tournaments), these are the only 2 other girls rated over 2600. So they are the logical contenders for the championship. But the match would be tough for Humpy - in their games so far, Hou has won 7, and Humpy only 2.

If Humpy wins the match later this year, both male and female World Chess Champions would be Indians.
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