Monday, January 30, 2012

Brilliancy by Aronian

Every January, Wijk Aan Zee holds the prestigious chess tournament. It is sponsored by Tata Steel, who bought Corus a few years ago, and have continued supporting the tournament. This year, it was won by Levnon Aronian from Armenia, who is among the only 5 players to ever cross the 2800 ELO rating.

His win with black over Anish Giri (a child prodigy himself, and a super-GM with rating over 2700) was a brilliancy. The entire game is very complicated, and is worth playing over. I would like to present just the final moves.

Be prepared to be amazed. If you want, you can pause here, look at the following position. With black to play, how will you proceed ?

Position after white's 41. Ra2

As you can see black (Aronian) has sacrificed the exchange (rook for a bishop). White doesn't have a strong attack, despite the open h file for his rook. On the other hand, black can build up strong attack on an open white king. That's easy to understand. But how should black proceed ?
41. ... Ne1!!
Position after black's 41. ... Ne1!!

The difference between a grandmaster and a wood-pusher (like me) is enormous. It's not just the memory, the knowledge, the ability to calculate many moves ahead or even the intuitive feel about a position. It's also the imagination. Calculating all the consequences of such a move is beyond us, that goes without saying. Truth is, we won't even try to calculate such a move, because such a move simply doesn't come into our imagination. This is where chess becomes what it is loved for - a truly unique combination of logic and art.

What's the point ? The threat is of course ...
42. ... Nd3+
and any way the king moves results in a lost position for white.
If 43. Kb1 Nc5+ wins the queen.
If 43. Kc1 Nxf2+ wins the rook.

White accepts the sacrifice. He doesn't have to, but finding the least damaging move in tournament play is extremely hard for such positions.
42. Rxe1
 Position after white's move 42. Rxe1

OK. But now what ? Black is down a full rook.
42. ... Qf4+!!
Black offers even more - now the queen. Of course, it's untouchable.
Position after black's 42. ... Qf4

If 43. Nxf4?? Rxe1+# is a pretty mate delivered with very little material.
That's the main point behind the knight sacrifice - to allow the queen to go to f4.

If the rook was still at h1, this queen offer wouldn't work, as the rook protects the e1 square from mate. But by being lured to come to e1 to capture the knight, the rook became a target instead !

But that raises another question - why does the queen want to go to f4 ?
Because it's on its route to the intended destination.
Naturally white plays the only real move
43. Kd1
Position after white's 43. Kd1

Now comes the quiet but crushing move.
43. ... Qe4!
Position after black's 43. ... Qe4!

White resigned due to the unstoppable threats on the b1-h7 diagonal.
Black queen goes to d3 and/or b1 to give mate or just win a lot of material.
This e4 is where the queen wanted to come after it has forced the white king to get stuck on d1 by giving the check from f4. But the check from f4 was not possible as that square was protected by white's knight. The idea behind the knight sacrifice is to lure white's rook to e1, which very indirectly enables the black queen to safely go to f4. This is beyond brilliant.

The question Aronian must have asked himself is, how to make it safe for the queen to travel to f4 and then to e4. This level of reverse reasoning is beyond us. Even if the question was directly asked, we won't be able to answer it. But remember, he even had to invent the question itself ! It's like explaining a magic trick. Sometimes it seems obvious when explained. But figuring it out is not the real genius. It is to be the one that comes up with the idea behind the magic trick.

In three amazing moves, without capturing anything, black won the game.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Review (First Impression) : Alcatraz
On Fox : First episode aired in Jan 2012
Rating : 4 out of 10 (based on pilot)

I am very selective when it comes to watching long TV series, whether its drama or action. It's a lot of commitment of time. Time, which can be used to watch something else, or just sleep. Very precious. I have a much higher tolerance for movies. If a movie turns out to be not so good, it only wastes a couple of hours.

So generally, I simply choose to not watch a TV series, till I hear a lot of good things about it, and then watch the entire seasons on DVD. It worked well for "Rome", and first seasons of 24. In other instances, I have quit midway in season 1 DVD itself, for "Tudors" and many others.

This year, I decided to try to be current. Alcatraz ads that were getting bombarded during the NFL games, hooked me on. Especially, because the story happens in my neck of woods.

After watching the pilot, I have to give up on this rather quickly. I was OK with the weird Sci-Fi like premise. Before Alcatraz closed, a lot of prisoners simply vanished. Now they are suddenly coming back, and causing mayhem. Some time travel is indicated, as they haven't aged a bit. This could have been interesting. But it isn't.

There are numerous problems. I can handle the unexplained. It's too early for explanations. But the ease at which the characters (the lady cop and the Alcatraz expert) accept the weird happenings makes it unbelievable. There is no shock, no confusion. They just accept it as routine case. Then there is this mysterious special unit whose sole task is to track and capture these bad guys. It's super secret, but our lady cop joins it with little effort. Even the civilian author gets initiated just like that. That one sequence gave me real bad feelings about this. And the guys who come back, have no problem adjusting to the modern times. No future shock. There is complete disrespect for viewer's intelligence.

Overall, this seems to be going the way of "Lost". Mysteries within mysteries, inexplicable events happen in such a way, that not only the viewers are dumbfounded, but even the writers cannot figure out how to get out the hole they dug themselves in. I gave up on "Lost" in just a few episodes of season 1. After reading about how the later seasons frustrated many (except the die-hard fans), I feel happy about not watching Lost.

Alcatraz may be able to handle its own enigmas better. Or maybe it won't. I don't see much point hanging around. And if it does manage to keep itself in check, I can always watch it on DVD. I seriously doubt it though.

Let's see what "Touch" does now.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Oxford Murders

Movie Review : Oxford Murders
Director :  Álex de la Iglesia
Genre : Suspense / Mystery
Starring : Elijah Wood, John Hurt, Leonar Watling
Released : 2008
My Rating : 5 out of 10

How do you take a decent mystery plot and convert it into a mess of a movie that’s so superficial in its attempt at being intellectual that it gets really irritating ? Answer : Oxford Murders.

Martin (Elijah Wood) arrives in Oxford to learn under his idol Professor Arthur Seldon (John Hurt), who, as expected, is obnoxious. There he meets Lorna (Leonar Walting), a nurse, who we learn later, had an affair with the older professor. A murder happens, and then another and a hunt is on for a serial killer who is leaving mathematical clues.

Nothing wrong with this idea. But the script is overly focused on appearing smart, and that desperation is obvious. It completely fails to impress us with all the references, because the it's just constant name dropping. Wittgenstein, Turing, Heisenberg, Fibonacci, Gödel, Pythagoras, Fermat - all the right names, and nothing else. By the way, Andrew Wiles did present his first proof of Fermat's Theorem during the same time period, but the movie changes his name for some unknown reason.

The love triangle is laughable, because we don't even understand why Lorna fell for any of those. The truth is, there is not one believable moment of human interaction.

This is all sad. The kernel of the mystery had potential for surprises. Actors are capable. (Elijah Wood is really trying hard to shed his Frodo Baggins image.) Camera work is not bad either. But the writing is amateurish. I think a lot of blame can also be placed on the original novel.

I cannot really recommend this movie. It's definitely not for the kids. There is no gore - the murders are "clean", so to speak, but there are disturbing images. If you are willing to endure pseudo-intellectual blah blah for a potentially good suspense idea, then by all means watch it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Remember When

I "discovered" Country Music over 10 years ago. I was flipping channels on the car radio, and stopped when a tune sounded catchy. Then the lyrics caught my attention ... hmmm ... words that actually made some sense. Finally ! Then as I listened to more and more Country songs, I found songs that I can actually relate to.

I have a very open mind when it comes to music, movies, food and books. But I used to get turned off by vulgar music videos and lyrics that make no sense. Till I discovered Country Music. So I have decided to write about Country songs that I like !

Alan Jackson is one of my favorite artists. Great voice, simple touching music, and almost always, great lyrics. Starting with one of his best. This is almost poetry.
Remember when ... thirty seemed so old
Now looking back, it's just a stepping stone
To where we are, where we've been
Said we'd do it all again
Remember when ...

Remember when ... we said when we turned gray

When the children grow up and move away
We won't be sad, we'll be glad
For all the life we've had
And we'll remember when

Enjoy !

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Astounding Optical Illusion

Who doesn't like optical illusions ? It's been a while since I have seen something new, and this is one of the best I have seen. (This is not a new illusion, it's a few years old. I saw it only recently).

Which square is the darker shade of gray ? A or B ?

Of course, since you know this is an illusion, let me just give you the answer. They both are same shades of gray ! Now that you know it, can you see it ?

That's what makes this such a great illusion. It's irritating, no matter how hard you try, your brain just refuses to accept that they are the same shade.

There are many ways to prove this.

1. Print the image. Cut a small piece from both the squares and lay them side by side.
2. Copy and paste the image into an image editor like PaintBrush. Cut a small piece from each and compare.
3. Use a color inspector utility : like the Digital Color Meter on Mac. Hover over the squares to make sure that the RGB values are the same for both.
4. See this interesting proof ! (Focus your eyes on B).

You have to take the colors out of the surrounding context to see the same shade. That's pretty much the only way.

This image is courtesy of Prof Edward Adelson. You can find many similar examples on his site.

Another equally astounding and my favorite from this collection is the Koffka Ring.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

War Horse

Movie Review : War Horse
Director : Steven Spielberg
Genre : Drama / War
Starring : Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup
Released : December 2011
My Rating : 8 out of 10

Spielberg's latest movie, War Horse, has everything. A moving story, many memorable scenes, outstanding cinematography, heartfelt messages about the horrors of war - and a nice dose of sentimentalism. Overall, it's a high class demonstration of how the art of movies can be grand and effective.

Based on a best selling book by the same name, the movie takes us on a journey following the hero - a thoroughbred named Joey. We meet him when he is born. Albert (Jeremy Irvine) falls in love with him. His father Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys the horse at an auction to win an ego battle. His wife is not too happy about it. Deep in debt, they needed a plow horse for work. Albert trains the horse, and a bond develops between them. But World War I breaks out and circumstances force Ted to sell the horse to the army. As one tragic situation after another occurs, Joey gets transferred from one caretaker to another. But he is no ordinary horse and eventually finds his way back to Albert.

This synopsis and the promos may give you the impression that this is yet another boy-loves-his-pet story. A part of it is definitely that, but just a part. The backdrop of World War I offers little opportunity for being cute and innocent. Every time Joey's ownership gets transferred, it's because of tragic circumstances. Many would compare this to Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan". That comparison is valid, but not accurate. Here too, the battle scenes are real enough to make you feel the heat. You may have read about the first World War’s fighting in the trenches, but you will experience it here. That's where the similarity ends. In "War Horse",  it's the war that’s the villain, not a person. Most people we meet have the right intentions, but the sad reality is, all wars are simply horrific - and that's a big message of the story.

This starkness makes it impossible to categorize this as a feel-good movie, in spite of the predictable happy ending. There is a lot of sadness, pain and tragedy throughout. It is no easy story to present and Spielberg masterfully prevents the movie from being too depressing. There is just the right amount of laughter and hope and good-heartedness sprinkled throughout to keep a perfect balance. Only an experienced and accomplished director can manipulate our emotions like that.

Another challenge of the story is the sheer number of characters. Again, Spielberg shines through. The movie should be a tutorial to all those single dimensional action flicks on how to define a character in just a few minutes. Of course it’s done to make us love the characters, so when tragedy strikes, we reach for our handkerchiefs.

Like many other great directors, Spielberg has given us numerous impossible-to-forget scenes. The rolling boulder from Indian Jones, the T-Rex in the side view mirror from Jurassic Park, the girl in red coat from Schindler's List - everyone will have his or her list. I added a few to my own list. Joey's run through the battleground left me speechless. For that scene alone, I can recommend this movie. Of course the one immediately after that, where an English and a German soldier work together to help Joey, is also memorable for its poignancy. In another scene, German machine guns eliminate the English cavalry. Spielberg shows us horses without any riders on their back, jumping over the trenches. This indirect method of showing the massacre will touch all viewers, and kids will likely cry.

Acting is superb overall, but all individual characters are just supportive to the journey of the War Horse. Even though everyone does extremely well with the limited screen time, I have to mention Jeremy Irvine, considering that this is his first movie. And of course, the real star - the horse - is a wonderful actor too. Very elegant, and with eyes of a puppy. It's impossible to not like him.

Since I am a fan of John Williams, I have to mention the music. This score is not as memorable as Star Wars or Indian Jones or Jaws or Superman (and the list goes on), but it will very likely add to his unbelievable total of 45 Oscar nominations.

Camerawork is great too. Yes, there are some cliched shots – especially the ending scene. But it’s easy to forgive, because in general, the idea is to be supportive by creating the right atmosphere, yet to remain unobtrusive so that attention is not diverted from the story.

This one has my very strong recommendation. But do not think of it as a family movie. It's not for young children. The war scenes are extremely intense. There is no gore, but there is violence. It's suggestive, but potent. Horses get hurt. These images can be very disturbing. It's likely to be fine for teenagers. But everyone will feel the emotional impact - that I guarantee.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

PTA Reflections 2011 - Diversity Means ...

The PTA Reflections is a great program that encourages kids to be creative. In 2011 the theme was "Diversity means ...". Kids can submit their entries in different categories like drawing/paintings, music pieces, essays, photography etc. The best entries from each school are sent to next level - the school district level. From there, winners advance to county - state - national levels.

This was my first time visiting the award ceremony for the school district level. My daughter did not win, but she had fun participating. I was very impressed with the overall creativity.

The award ceremony was held in the Fire House Art Center. For a small town like Pleasanton, this is an impressive theater.

The interior is tastefully decorated.

Here are some of the photos I took of the exhibits. Remember, the theme was "Diversity Means ...". Each kid had his or her own take on the theme. The kids were from all grades - elementary all the way to high school.

I don't remember which of these won the prizes. They are all good.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Book Review : Cleopatra
Author : Stacy Schiff
My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "Cleopatra: A Life".

This is yet another book that I decided to read because the author was interviewed on "The Daily Show". Stacy Schiff has written a few biographical works and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for "Vera".

The idea behind the book is great. Everyone has heard of Cleopatra, but how many know what is fact and what is fiction ? The book's cover conveys its theme well. A portrait without the face. We don't know a whole lot about her.

Naturally, it's hard to arrive at historic truth about someone who lived more than 2 thousand years ago. So author Stacy Schiff has decided to mix meticulous research with intelligent speculation. Based on what we know about the times and places, she suggests what might have happened around the facts that we know for sure. It's a very interesting approach that I personally liked.

Still, the book lost me. Stacy Schiff is really a very good writer. Her style never gets dull. But the book is too big, too detailed and eventually got tedious. If you are seriously interested in history, this may be a great book. If you just want to know more about who Cleopatra was as a real person and unlearn what Hollywood has taught you, then this book gets overwhelming. I learned a lot about Cleopatra, and even how life was in Egypt. Some of the insights were surprising, and I am happy to know them now. Nevertheless, I think the length could have been reduced to half, and I would have still gotten all that knowledge.

The strength of the book - the amount of detail - was precisely what turned me off, and I started skipping sections to get to the finish. I really wanted to like this book. Sadly, I cannot recommend it, unless of course you are studying Egyptian History, in which case, I have no authority to make any recommendations to you anyway !
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