Monday, March 26, 2012


This is NOT a good photo. But this is the only one I have managed to take till now.

Anyone who has the slightest interest in nature photography probably wants to take a photo of a hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower. There is something magical about that sight. How they manage to hover just on the spot with frantic flipping of their wings, and smoothly glide from one flower to another. And they are pretty.

In spite of seeing them so many times, I hadn't managed to take any photos of them doing that till now. Because they don't hang around for too long. (I did manage to take a photo of one sitting on a branch. And also of a nest with eggs.)

So when I saw a hummingbird near the peach tree in my backyard on a weekend - this is what happened.

1. Frantically ran upstairs.
2. Got the camera out of the bag.
3. Removed the prime lens.
4. Put in the big 300mm zoom.
5. Set the mode to "Tv"
6. Adjusted shutter speed to max to see their wings clearly, not just a blur. This is at 1/4000.
7. Tried to find the hummingbird again. (Why are they so tiny ?)
8, Zoomed to max.
9. Click, click, click like crazy. (Thank you digital camera, no worrying about film cost.)

This is the result. Out of all the photos that had a hummingbird in it, only one turned out to be OK.

What I didn't realize was - with the shutter speed so high, the aperture is going to be wide open (it was f/5.6), making it difficult to get the focus right. So it's not very clear. Plus the zoom magnifies any shaking. But hey, it's still a photo of a hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower ! So it's at least a partial success.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gary Kasparov on Gary Kasparov

Book Review : Gary Kasparov on Gary Kasparov Part 1 1973-1985
Author : Gary Kasparov
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

Gary Kasparov, the 13th World Champion, is often considered the greatest player in the entire history of chess. I am in agreement. When chess was my passion, Kasparov was my hero. Later, my favorite player became Anand, whose natural talent is perhaps a notch better. But Kasparov would always command a special place in my chess brain, however small that brain might be. I used to anxiously wait for the morning newspaper to discover the result of his championship games and the list of moves. It wasn't easy to get access to latest games in those days, when there were no computers, and chess books were hard to come by in India. But whatever games I got to see, were jaw dropping. This young man was from a different planet.

So when he writes a series of books about his own life and games, do I even have a choice ? Of course I am going to buy it as a Christmas present for myself, and of course I am going to love every page of it. But for the sake of review, I will keep my adulation aside and try to be objective. No guarantees though.

In case you don't know, in last 10-12 years or so, Kasparov has been working on a massive project - "My Great Predecessors" - a series of books about the past world champions and their challengers. The aim was to cover their games, a bit of history, and also the impact on the evolution of the game itself. A far-reaching and audacious goal. These books have been a huge success. They are not perfect. Famous chess historian, Edward Winter, has noted a few historical inaccuracies. The translation, from Russian to English, has created some uncomfortable sentences. But overall, these books are simply phenomenal. There is nothing else comparable to the encyclopedic nature of the entire series. I have them all and I am totally in love with them.

Later, he wrote another series of 4 books, Modern Chess, out of which 3 are about the 5 world championship matches between Kasparov and Karpov. Yes, these matches deserve that kind of treatment. Their importance on all aspects of chess, from theory to politics, cannot be overstated.

Why am I mentioning all this ? Because his latest series, about his own games, follows the same style. Lots of games, great analysis, helpful explanations, ample diagrams and the same fantastic production quality. And punctuating the games, is gripping historical narrative. This time, since it's about his own life, the book is in no small part, also an autobiography.

A collection of games by one player is rarely meant to be instructional. True, you can learn a lot about chess by studying how the great masters played the game. Some such works, like Alekhine's or Fischer's, have been suggested for improving your own chess. But that's a side benefit. The main reason is to get great enjoyment, and know more about that player. A lot depends on the quality of the games and the annotations. Well, these are games by Kasparov. The quality is naturally high, amazingly high. Goes without saying. The annotations are superb too. For an expert, there are enough variations, and for an amateur like me, the explanations are very accessible. Kasparov often points out the non-technical aspects as well, such as time trouble, or the psychology behind many key decisions. This has been true for all his books, and that's one of the main reasons to read them.

There is a great deal of personal detail, and it's such a joy to read. Kasparov is illuminating his life to show how he became Kasparov, the living legend. How did he start, who helped him, the turning points in his life and the emotional impact of every win or loss. To those who are unfamiliar with his persona, the great thing about Kasparov is, he is very human. He is not a chess machine. His emotional reactions during the game are well known. His attitude is famous - he wants to strike fear in his opponents' heart, he wants to dominate, he wants a crushing victory. He is a fighter who makes chess a sport rather than a game.

Please don't let that give you an impression that this book is used as a platform for bragging. The opposite is true. The tone is absolutely honest and humble. All successful people need a lucky hand once in a while. Kasparov writes freely about how luck played a part here and there. At a very young age, his talents were noticed by the great teacher, an ex-champion and a legend himself - Botvinnik. This patronage was crucial to Kasparov's success. In those days, Soviet Union had more talented chess players than there are fish in the Caspian Sea. Who was going to invite a young schoolboy to master tournaments ? Botvinnik put his respect on line, when he lobbied for Kasparov's inclusion on many occasions. Of course, Kasparov proved him right by winning in a spectacular fashion. But without Botvinnik's training and help, Kasparov would have undoubtedly taken longer to reach the pinnacle. And he admits it gratefully.

And not just about Botvinnik, Kasparov also talks about the guidance and support he received from many other players. And he talks about his losses. Yes, there are games here that he lost ! He explains how the losses he suffered at the hands of ex-champions, Spassky and Petrosian, helped him grow as a player. This is a rarity, and transcends the book into more than just "My Best Games" type of books.

We also get to glimpse how life was behind the iron curtain. Kasparov is Jewish, and had to change his last name to have a shot at success. Chess was more than a game to Soviet Union. There was always politics and intrigue. Ever since Kasparov was a teenager, he was on Karpov's radar. Karpov actively avoided playing him, but his assistants were always present at Kasparov's tournaments, studying him, assessing his strengths and weaknesses. Incredible ! There are many juicy tidbits - again like his other books - that make this series such an interesting read.

I highly recommend this book. Perhaps his best so far. Now I am waiting for the next two parts. And I hope, Kasparov will eventually write about his successors - Anand, Kramnik, Topalov and so on. If you have any interest in chess, get this book. Now.

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's a little too late

This is the first country song I remember hearing on the radio and I can trace my liking of Country music to this song, almost 10 years back. I was trying different radio channels while driving. The interesting words caught my attention, as well as the catchy tune, that I later learned is so quintessentially Country. This is the also first Country song I bought on iTunes !

Love, religion, family, pain and humor are recurring elements in Country lyrics, often within the structure of a story. This is a good example of wrapping a sad situation in humor. The video is kind of funny too.

This song topped the Country charts in 1997. But by then Mark Chesnutt was perhaps past his creative prime. Many of his previous songs were quite good. Especially songs like "Almost Goodbye", "I just wanted you to know" are really superb at showcasing his Country talents with smooth simple music.
Last night I came home at a quarter til three
And to my surprise she wasn’t mad at me
I thought she finally realized not to worry, I’d be home
And then I realized this morning she was gone

Oh I shoulda done this and I shoulda done that
I shoulda been there then she’d-a never left
I shoulda been hangin’ on every word she ever had to say

But it’s a little too late, she’s a little too gone
She’s a little too right, I’m a little too wrong
Now would be a good time to change
But it’s a little too late
Although You Tube labels this as "Official Video" the sound and picture are not in sync. Still enjoyable.

Previously ... Remember When

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Ghost Writer

Movie Review : The Ghost Writer
Director : Roman Polanski
Genre : Mystery / Thriller
Staring : Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams
Released : 2010
My Rating : 7 out of 10

When The Ghost Writer finished, a lot of small details came back to me - oh that's why that character did this or said that. Those small realizations made the movie worth the time. In spite of the outlandish premise, few convenient coincidences and at least one "oh, come on" moment.

Based on a novel, The Ghost by Robert Harris - which I haven't read - this is a genuine mystery movie. Very little action, no smart alec one liners, just a focused plot that lets the viewers connect the dots.

Retired British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is writing his autobiography. When his ghostwriter is found dead, another writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired in a hurry. We never learn his name ! My guess of the novel being told in first person was correct. When this new ghostwriter arrives, he finds himself in a tricky situation. Lang's marriage is breaking and at the same time, he is being charged for torturing suspected terrorists. As our protagonist tries to work hard given the circumstances, his investigation puts his life in danger.

Most of the story happens from the point of view of the ghostwriter. We know what he knows. That's how a good mystery should be. But it poses a tough challenge for the actor to carry the entire movie. Ewan McGregor is a perfect choice for this role. The ghostwriter wasn't that keen on taking this assignment, it's just thrust onto him. He slowly gets interested in finding the truth. In his typical style, Ewan McGregor underplays it well.

It's obvious that Adam Lang is loosely based on Tony Blair, with enough references to Iraq war and supporting USA. It's possible that your political views may distract you from the story. For me, it didn't matter at all. In any case, Pierce Brosnan does a superb job with the limited screen time. He has really moved beyond James Bond, proving how good he is as an actor. See Seraphim Falls as an example.

Olivia Williams, perhaps gives the best performance of the movie. A bitter wife, with ambitions of her own.

Another great performance - so to speak - is how and where the movie is shot. The location is absolutely perfect. Serene, posh and lonely. Maybe a bit scary too. It's worth watching just for this aspect, which has a sizable impact on the impression of the movie.

I know some of you might be turned off because the director is Roman Polanski. In spite of all his troubles, and personal flaws, he has definitely produced good movies. This is not his best, but it's quite good.

In case you are wondering - and I won't give any spoilers - the "oh, come on" moment for me was when someone uses Google search to connect the dots. Really, if this information was publicly available then why did no one else made good use of it ? Well, it's a movie, so let's just leave it at that.

As you can see, the movie has some flaws. Almost all thrillers seem to have some. It's still lot of fun and worth watching, and gets my recommendation. This maybe OK for older kids, if they like reading mystery/thriller/intrigue type of novels.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Whole Wheat Artisan Loaf !

Baking a good whole wheat bread is much harder than baking regular white bread. Whole wheat flour is heavy and not easy for the yeast to break into. As a result, the bread doesn't rise as much and is denser.

I have been trying to perfect the whole wheat bread for a long time now. In my bread machine, the 100% whole wheat bread always comes out amazing. But that doesn't give me as much satisfaction. I want to do all steps by myself and bake an artisan loaf using only whole wheat flour.

Now, I cay proudly say that I can bake a 100% whole wheat artisan loaf, that looks good and tastes good. Of course, it's denser than white bread, but still has a very soft and airy crumb.

I used the same proportions mentioned in the recipe I have given before. I made one modification, based on idea given by Peter Reinhart.

I boiled the water needed in the recipe. To that, I added 1/3rd of the whole wheat flour required in the recipe. Then let this mixture sit overnight. The hot water kind of cooks and breaks down the tough flour and makes it easy for yeast to extract sugar.

Next day, I added rest of the dry ingredients - remaining flour, salt and yeast. And followed the rest of the steps as is. I am very used to handling wet doughs, so I can shape it well and score it. Scoring not only makes it look beautiful, but also helps it rise to a good shape when it's in the oven.

Now, I have to crack the sourdough. Next would be the whole wheat sourdough. Then I would achieve everything I wanted to achieve in bread baking !
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