Thursday, October 29, 2009

Quantum Of Solace

Movie Review : Quantum Of Solace
Release : November 2008
My Rating : 5 out of 10

I am not a big James Bond fan, but I thoroughly enjoy the James Bond movies. Over the years, the formula has kept many constants while tweaking some variables over a much wider range. The previous offering in the series, "Casino Royale" was decidedly a significant shift from all previous Bond movies. I am one of those who really appreciated the new take on Bond. While watching the promos for "Casino Royale" I was unsure as to how Daniel Craig would carry the Bond persona, but when I watched the movie I was extremely impressed. A new actor and a new presentation style won me over.

Not so fast. The "Quantum Of Solace" was a big disappointment. It has nothing to do with raised expectations by its prequel. This is just not a good movie. The action scenes - especially the chase scenes that are part and parcel of all Bond movies - are simply terrible. Instead of imagination, director Marc Forster decides to shake the camera, then shake it again and then shake even more.If the intention is to make Bond into an action hero (and not a smart, witty, suave debonair) then action scenes need to be exiting, not confusing.

There are very few bright moments to write about. The story is continuation of sorts from the previous movie and it tries to highlight the transformation of Bond into a cold, killing machine. That's about it.

Bond movies are to be watched on the big screen, but I am glad I did not spend my money to watch this in a theater. I really cannot recommend this movie to anyone.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Review : Forces of Fortune
Author : Vali Nasr
My Rating : 4 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World".

I came to know about this book while watching my favorite "The Daily Show". I liked the premise of the book and decided to try it out.

Vali Nasr is now considered a prominent thinker and scholar about the Middle East. In this book he presents his approach to solve the issues that plgue the Middle East and especially its relations with the Western World. His suggestion is to foster free market society in the Middle East and empower its middle class. By doing this, Vali Nasr argues, the Middle Eastern populace will have a vested interest in promoting long term stability in the region, and eventually give rise to democracy.

This is a logical argument and the author presents it convincingly. His knowledge about the region's history and political system is impressive. The thesis is supported by combination of hard data, interviews, anecdotes and personal interpretations of the historical events.

Nasr starts with explaining the inroads Capitalism has made into this region - with the obvious example of the trading hub of the region - Dubai. As one businessman summarizes how Islam and free market co-exists there - it's a city of five star hotels and five star mosques !

This is the theme that appears many times in the book. Nasr argues that Islamic societies willingly and easily embrace capitalism when given the opportunity. When secularism is forced from above, it has failed, as it happened for example in Iran during Shah's regime. This gave rise to the dangerous extremism of Khomeini. But if free market ideas take hold, the society gravitates towards a much more tolerant society - like Turkey. Turkey appears numerous times in this book. Not just about itslef, but the Turkish model or Kemalism is discussed frequently in different social contexts - for example how it fared in Pakistan.

In the introductory chapter, there is a bombardment of data and it overwhelms the readers with different statistics. Thankfully, all the other chapters glide very smoothly. The narrative becomes very engaging as the author starts presenting his case. Considering the sensitivity of the topic, a "matter-of-fact" tone is maintained almost through out the book. This is different than "fair and balanced" which is either an euphemism for political correctness or used to hide cluelessness of the journalists. Nasr is on the other side of the spectrum. He clearly has a great grasp of the issues and has no qualms about presenting things as he sees it. He masterfully avoids the trap of apologizing for the Muslim world. For example, he mentions that poverty is not enough of a reason for terrorist breeding grounds and points out that many terrorists come from well-to-do families.

He also avoids the pitfall of "who is to blame". His focus is on how to solve and what's the best way to move forward. So there is not much mention of the meddling done by Russia and the Western World - which is also one of the many reasons for the instability in the region. This leaves some questions insufficiently answered. I am not sure I came out completely convinced with the reasoning for the lack of democracy in most of the region.

Nevertheless, his message is clear and easy to understand. He wants free market forces to nudge the area towards a stable, tolerant, democratic society the same way it did in Europe many many decades ago. This is a refreshing clean approach and hopefully reshapes prevailing view points.

This book is a great example of scholarly work and I recommend it to anyone interested in political issues of our times.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

When you gotto go, you gotto go

Rancho San Antonio has some nice hiking trails. Simple enough for the entire family and extremely easy to reach.

You start here ...

And later depending on what trail you take, it may look like this

Or to something much more shaded

Just beware of the spiders weaving their webs on grass :-)

There are a lot of deers around this area. One particular deer was not shy of being photographed.

Obviously it was very comfortable with people. And quite shameless to answer nature's call right in front of the camera :-)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Magnus Carlsen

Earlier this month Magnus Carlsen won a major chess tournament held in China. See the report of the final round here.

Carlsen will now be the 5th player to cross the rating of 2800. The other 4 being Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik and Topalov.

Carlsen is now being trained by no other than Gary Kasparov. But even before that it was certain that he is destined to be one of the best players.

I can claim some clairvoyance :-) as I wrote the following email in March 2008, on a mailing list shared by some friends.

The beginning of the year has 2 important chess tournaments. The Corus at Wijk An Zee in the Netherlands and Linares (Mexico-Spain). These are by invitation only, and you need to be a superstar in order to get invited.

Anand is in great form. He came in at 3rd place behind 2 new stars (Aronian and Magnus Carlsen) who shared the first prize. And he won Linares outright. He played more aggressively than his usual style, and was intent on making a statement like a World Champion should. It was joy to watch his games. His usual rivals Kramnik and Topalov were left far behind. They haven't been able to keep up with the new warriors. That's what makes Anand and Kasparov so remarkable. It's near impossible to handle that stress for such a long time when so many youngsters are constantly challenging the status quo.

And that's the real story here. It wasn't Anand whom I wanted to write about. Chess and music are probably the only 2 fields where a young genius so often makes a tremendous mark and creates a storm. So how about a Mozart of Chess ? Here we saw the coming of age for Magnus Carlsen, whom I have no problem referring to as the future numero uno.

He became the youngest grandmaster at age 13, by defeating Karpov and drawing with Kasparov in 2004. Just 4 years later, at 17 and half he won the above said prestigious Corus tournament ahead of Anand, Kramnik and Topalov. He is expected to become one of the top 5 chess players when the April ratings come out. In Linares, he mated the previous world champion Topalov. Now Topalov committed a serious blunder, but that was because the stress created by Magnus's play.

If you want to check out just one of his games, I highly recommend playing over his game against Aronian which Magnus offers a counter queen sacrifice. Anand called it "one heck of a game". You can find it here.

We may have another Magnus Carlsen in India - Negi. Negi was second in Group C of the same Corus tournament. That's how Magnus also started. But it's too early for that call. Currently it's all about Magnus.

You can read more about Magnus at his Wikipedia page.

He is good looking, young and destined to rule the chess world. He is one chess player who won't have problem finding girls to date ;-)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sinister Shorts

Book Review : Sinister Shorts
Author : Perri O'Shaughnessy
My Rating : 1 of 5 stars

I saw this book in the library, noticed that the author has been on the bestselling list of New York Times and got interested because it's an anthology of short stories. It's been a long time since I have read a collection of short mysteries.

I have been disappointed by many fictions which appear on New York Times bestseller lists. I still decided to try this one, as I could gauge the book by reading just a couple of short stories and decide if I want to read any further.

And that's what I did. After first 2 stories, I just couldn't continue. I cannot say that the first one is badly written, but there is simply no mystery solving in it. It's a story of coincidence. The second one left me saying "duh". This is simply not how I expect mystery fiction to be. There is no "aaha" moment, there is no cleverness, there is not much of a plot, there is not much of anything.

I am glad I didn't have to go through the whole book expecting some redeeming part at the end. Unless, you specifically enjoy utterly bland fiction, avoid this book.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pesto Bread

Baking bread is a joy. Especially if you are interested in experimenting. There are as many combinations of flour and liquid as you can imagine.

My self-imposed restrictions are to use only whole grain flours, no butter (use olive oil instead) and try to avoid sugar completely (replace with molasses, honey etc) if possible, or use as little sugar as can be used in the recipe.

This was a simple modification to the basic whole wheat bread recipe. Instead of oil, I just added a few tablespoons of pesto sauce.

The loaf was tall and spongy.

Looks nice, tastes nice !

Omnivore's Dilemma

Book Review : Omnivore's Dilemma
Author : Michael Pollan
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

The complete title for this book is "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals".

Most of us are blissfully ignorant about the food we eat. Well, we of course know what we are eating. And in this age of health conscious eating, morally right eating, organic eating etc. we think we know a lot about what we are eating. Hence reading "Omnivore's Dilemma" is a real eye opener !

Do you know the history of how we came to eat what we are eating ? Why did we start eating in a way that is now considered unhealthy ? Even if organic is really organic (!) is it really what you think it is (as in "natural") ? And how about the environmental effects of your eating choices ? Do you know how many calories of energy were spent in getting you a calorie of food that you are eating ?

Those are the questions surrounding the "Omnivore's Dilemma". As Pollan says, unlike a Koala who only knows eating leaves, we can choose from a much more diverse set and hence have to answer this question - "What's for dinner tonight ?". As you can expect Pollan's question is not about what recepie to use. The questions that we directly or indirectly face are quite deep. How do we get our food ? How do we know that the way we grow our food results in food that is good for us ?

In searching for answers to these questions, Pollan takes us on a tour with him. Or 3 tours. To 3 different ways of aquiring food. Industrial, organic and hunting-gathering. On this tour we meet corn farmers in Iowa, trace the journey of an animal from a ranch to a slaughterhouse, visit organic farms in California, spend days on the "beyond organic" Polyface farm and finally end up hunting a wild boar to eat with gathered wild mushrooms.

It is impossible to review all the information packed on these tours. I was surprised how much I learned from reading this book. The discussion covers a range of eclectic topics. Sceince, agriculture, politics, ethics of eating animals ... and so on. Everyone knows that US society is heavily dependent on oil, but do you know what role corn plays in the obesity epedmic around us ? We all know we live far away from food, figuratively speaking, but how far ?

This book is not just information. Oh no, it's way more than that. First and foremost, this book chronicles Pollan's journey in search of these answers. He is not afraid to express his biases, views and opinions. This gives the book a strong personal flavor - this is not a common practice - and I found that very refreshing. I do not have to agree with everything an author says in order to like the book. As long as the views and opinions are expressed in a thought provoking manner, I enjoy the book. This is definitely the case here. The book also gives proper share to the personalities that helped Pollan along the journey. This aspect helps the book avoid the label - "dry".

Not that Pollan needs that help. The writing is really engaging, and the entire book is an absolute pleasure to read. There is no preaching at all. What's more, the book is eminently quotable. Pollan asks, have we domisticated the corn plant, or has it domesticated us ? Reading his analysis on the dependence of the industrial food chain on corn, will make you understand that this question is quite serious. And if you are a proud consumer of Organic food, note that the farmers on the Polyface farms wouldn't use it even for compost !

One mild warning. Pollan worked on the Polyface farm to expereince it first hand and describes how he killed the chickens. And he hunted a wild boar to go through the hunter-gatherer experience as well. He is definitely an adventurer. I did not find anything objectionable in those descriptions, but given the hyper-sensitivity of the age we live in, I wanted to mention this to prospective readers.

The only quibble I have is about the ending. It seemed hurried. There is no "typing it all together" chapter. But Pollan has been presenting his conclusions through-out the book and maybe a chapter for it really wasn't essential.

Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Informative, opinionated and a joy to read. What more you want from a book ?

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