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


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 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.
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