Just Landed

An Outsider’s Perspective From The Inside

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Martin Gardner, R.I.P.

Posted by anandrr on May 23, 2010

When we were little, perhaps 9 or 10, our dad would bring home old issues of Scientific American from the large library at his work. I believe the driving reason for this was the Mathematical Games column in each issue. I eagerly devoured each of them, and when Dad took back the issue waited eagerly for him to come home that evening with the next issue. That column opened up a whole new world of maths and thinking. It also led to a lifelong love with maths, numbers and a lifelong preference for logical and analytical deduction. I don’t remember enough of his writing, and perhaps I will now go and rediscover it, but they clearly made a much bigger impact on me than the other books that we had at home or the similarly themed columns in Science Today, the other magazine we got at home.

Mathematical Games had other indirect impacts on me. Sometimes he had guest columnists, two of them have remained with me through the years: Raymond Smullyan and Douglas Hofstadter. Raymond Smullyan’s columns led me later to read his books starting with What is the Name of this Book, where he used mathematical and logical puzzles as a starting point to talking about and proving Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. For a young teenager, this was heady stuff. Douglas Hofstadter renamed the column Metamagical Themas, and used them as a starting point to explore the themes of recursion, logic and eventually Artificial Intelligence. Between the three of them they were part of the life experiences that trained me so I could get into the Maths Olympiad, and also prepared me for my eventual career in computers. Under slightly different circumstances I would have ended up entirely with a life in mathematics.

Martin Gardner died yesterday. Thanks Martin, and most of all, thanks Appa.

Posted in Nostalgia, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Why no new posts?

Posted by anandrr on April 18, 2010

We’re house hunting in tony Palo Alto. So it’s not that books haven’t been read that need to be blogged about: In Cold Blood, The Millenium Series and so on. Of course movies have been watched: The Ghost Writer, Un Prophete and such. But house hunting sucks everything out of you. So we blog that instead: Adventures in Real Estate. Also of course a part of the ever-growing Blandings Media Empire.

Posted in Timeout | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Friday Flashback: The Older You Get

Posted by anandrr on February 27, 2010

Normally, I would have been content to relegate some of this story to a sidebar in my last post, but this really does deserve a post of its own. In my last post, I briefly mentioned a memory of Vijay Amritraj playing Martin Jaite in a Davis Cup match. I shall now try to memorialize that moment and another equally important moment.

Those of us born in India and of a certain age (mostly in our 30s) have good reason to look sympathetically at the younger generation. They might have 100 channels on the TV, they might have opportunities that we might not have had, they might have a lot more of a lot more than we ever could, but there are some sporting memories they will never have. India beating the West Indies in the Prudential World Cup in 1983 marked the start of India’s dominance of world cricket. India’s victory in the mini-world cup in Australia in 1985 (Ravi Shastri – man of the series and an Audi to boot!) continue that trend. Of course with these warm memories, we also have the traumatic one: Javed Miandad hitting Chetan Sharma for a six off a full-toss last ball when Pakistan needed four to win in Sharjah. Those of us of a certain age haven’t really recovered from that either. We can all remember where we were when those events occurred, what we were doing and the joy or crushing sorrow that followed each of them.

But besides these, two other memories stand out. And having arrived at a riper age, I am now able to appreciate those memories and sporting efforts much more than I did in my callow youth.

It was 1987, summer was approaching, and I’m not entirely sure how I managed to watch so much sporting action in that week of March, final exams must have been in a week or so, but yet I did and I’m quite thankful for that.

The Indian tennis team in those days comprised Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan. Vijay was 34 or 35, his glory days were well past, but the Davis Cup always seemed to bring out the best in him. He was a natural on grass and could serve and volley with the best of them. This was around the time that tennis was transitioning away from the Borg/Connors style of play to the current style that was introduced by Becker, Edberg and the rest. Ramesh was always a curious anachronism, his serves so soft, his volleys silken smooth, his baseline play all touch no power. One imagined Rod Laver playing that way, but a player in the age of colour television? But there they were, Vijay and Ramesh waging battle against younger, more powerful, and higher ranked players in a sport that seemed not have room for them any more.

India was playing the Davis Cup quarterfinal against Argentina (in New Delhi perhaps?), and at the end of 2 days of play, Vijay had won the opening game, Ramesh had lost his to Martin Jaite, Argentina had won the doubles, and Vijay was now playing the return singles match against Jaite.

Simultaneously, India was playing Pakistan in a cricket test match in Bangalore. This was going to Sunil Gavaskar’s last test match, at 37 years old and many cricket records deep, Gavaskar was finally going to call it a day. The Bangalore pitch was a disgrace. Mostly loose dirt and cracks, the ball was unpredictable from day one. Pakistan was skittled out on day one for a pitiful score (116) and it wasn’t clear which way the match would go. Would India manage to pull it off or would the pitch truly wreak havoc getting worse from day one to day four? On day two, India managed 145, Vengsarkar managing a 50 in the process. Pakistan came back in, and set India a target of 221.

In the meantime, things were getting exciting at the tennis game. Vijay was playing Martin Jaite in the reverse singles game. Vijay was 35 years old, playing a 21 year old Jaite and getting beaten up. Down two sets to one, we were at set-point and match-point in the fourth set. The match had gone badly, Vijay was probably looking at going down badly and India was on the verge of getting kicked out of the Davis Cup for the year. Again. Jaite served for the match and the tie, Vijay returned serve, Jaite returned beautifully. The game was on the line, the Davis Cup tie was on the line. At this juncture, Vijay played the sweetest drop volley in the history of the game. What a shot to play at this juncture! The visual from that shot is burned into my sports-memory. Vijay plays the drop shot, Jaite rushes to the net, but can’t make it in time, match-point is lost. Jaite fell to pieces after that point as Vijay went from strength to strength. As an adrenalin-fueled Vijay recovered, fist-pumping his victories, the Indian supporters went crazy in the stands. At the end of it all, five sets later, Vijay had just handed Jaite the thrashing of his life. A match where Jaite had tasted victory had now ended with India having a fighting chance in the last match of the tie. Ramesh Krishnan went on to win that match as well, India won through, then played Israel in the quarter finals, won against Australia (including Wimbledon-winner Pat Cash) in the semi-finals and went on to the finals. The finals were against Sweden. In Sweden. In December. Sweden at the time featured Mats Wilander and Anders Jarryd, both unstoppable on clay. Of course they played on clay. India didn’t have a chance. But the memory of that unbelievable display by a 35-year old player stays with me. As I get older, I realize what it really meant for a 35-year old to play at the level that he did. As I think about it today, I still get the goosebumps.

In Bangalore, India was in chasing 221 on the fourth innings of a disastrous pitch. Nothing would go right for India. Losing to Pakistan was unthinkable but India was falling apart. In Gavaskar’s last test match yet. But Gavaskar, 37 years old, was not about to go away so easily. I remember sitting at home and watching him inch his way towards his century. At the other end, the batsmen wouldn’t stay long enough to give him company. As the wickets fell, the situation got more dire. Gavaskar was our last hope. At 96, if Gavaskar could manage to hang on for a century and then some, India would be home safe, Gavaskar would have one final century in his last game, and Bangalore would be happy. But even Gavaskar was no match for that treacherous pitch. All innings-long the ball had been obscured by the great mounds of dust kicked up every time the ball bounced or any other action took place. Even the great one would succumb to this treachery, and he did at 96. Four short of a century, and a victory that India could just about taste. But once Gavaskar was gone, so too were all hopes of a victory. The Indian tail was wrapped up shortly thereafter, 16 runs short of glory.

And thus over a weekend and a bit, a young adolescent watched some great sporting action that would stay with him for a lifetime. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate a lot more what that must have meant for Amritraj and Gavaskar and also what it must have taken out of them to put in the physical and mental effort that they did. It didn’t matter that India had won just one of the two ties at stake, what I had witnessed was some of the finest sporting action to which I would ever be privy.

Posted in Cricket, Sports | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Meditating For Moolah

Posted by anandrr on January 28, 2010

This being my very first trip to an Ashram of any kind, I was expecting to run into a strong cult of personality, but little that would annoy me. The surprises started at the get-go.

The ashram is a huge swath of land in San Ramon covering many hills, valleys, lakes, and what appear to be moderate-sized farms. We visited on a Saturday, the only weekend during Amma’s two weekend-Bay Area visit that she would be meeting with the public. “Giving darshan,” as we Indians say.

The main action is centered around an auditorium, a  middling barn-like structure built on the side of a hill. The area around the ashram had been converted into make-shift parking lots, each with a jarring title: the Kailash lot, the Rishikesh lot and so on.

The Punyam Trail to the Parking Lot

The Punyam Trail to the Parking Lot

The Kailash lot is connected to the auditorium via the Punyam trail that cuts across the intervening hill. No word on whether those who take the longer scenic route to the auditorium are missing out on the short cut to salvation.

As you walk to the event, you are surrounded by cars whose owners proclaim both their love for the mother as well as their extreme liberalism (2-heart-Amma license plates cheek by jowl with bumper stickers sloganeering for Peace) You also find that you are surrounded by a wide variety of Indians, some non-Indian Asians, and a large number of Caucasians dressed in white kurtas, salwars, and donning beads and necklaces. It is then that you realize that this combination of Indian and white is only seen in one other type of event in the Bay Area: classic rock concerts. Those who have been will recognize this readily: if you went to a Roger Waters or Mark Knopfler or Jethro Tull concert in the Bay Area in the nineties you would have come upon a curious demographic mix, old baby boomer Americans with tie dyes, pony tails and young twenty-something Indians raised on a steady diet of  classic rock. Replace the older hippies with a younger version, and you have the demographic mix of the “mother” events. As you approach the auditorium, you realize that the similarity to a rock concert is not entirely incidental, the business model seems to be almost entirely copied. There is one vital difference: the main event, the meeting (and embrace!) with the “mother” is free. But this event is surrounded by commercial merchandising that will take your breath away. To start with, just as the Stones go on tour with the prominent “lick” logo, so does the “mother.” She comes complete with a swooshy logo that would make Nike proud, as well as a slogan for the North American leg of her tour (Embracing the World, natch). Everything is on sale with a high markup. Books, tapes, CDs, holy water, holy ash, holy sandal wood, holy incense, holy puja material, holy everything, all duly blessed. Pictures and paintings of doubtful artistic value but incalculable blessing value. Food of doubtful nutritional and even less culinary value. But the one that had me gasping for air was the table with the offerings to the mother. Devotees like to take offerings to the mother when they gain darshan. Towards this, they can buy at this table a small box of Hershey’s kisses for $4 or a large bag of the same candy for $7. This is chutzpah that would make Donald Trump proud. Buy the items at Costco for a cheap $1-$2, sell them to a devotee at around 4x the price and then, follow me carefully here, get it right back from the devotee as an offering.

‘I don’t understand why you buy eggs for seven cents apiece in Malta and sell them for five cents’
‘I do it to make a profit’
‘But how can you make a profit? You lose two cents an egg.’
‘But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don’t make a profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share.’
Yossarian felt he was beginning to understand. ‘And the people you sell the eggs to at four and a quarter cents apiece make a profit of two and three quarter cents apiece when they sell them back to you at seven cents apiece. Is that right? Why don’t you sell the eggs directly to you to eliminate the people you buy them from?’
‘Because I’m the people I buy them from’, Milo explained.

– Joseph Heller, Catch-22

At least Milo would be proud.

Once you’re past the curious demographics, the branding and the commercialism you finally find the groupies. You can’t have a rock concert without them, and the same goes for a  darshan. There they are, overcome by the mere sight of the lovely lady, alternately rapturous and stunned into speechless wonderment. I was put in mind of this one time that I ran into Vijay Amritraj at the Leela in Bangalore and my jaw dropped to the floor as I stood there and reminisced about his game-changing performance at the Davis Cup against Martin Jaite. I found myself strangely immobile, overcome by the dueling emotions of wanting to fall on my knees and kiss his ring and simultaneously unable to do anything lest this heavenly apparition suddenly disappear. I’ve never  been much for the divine souls myself, but I must imagine the feeling on encountering the amma is somewhat similar.

All told, I suppose the most egregious aspect of the experience was encountering such a blatantly capitalistic enterprise cloaked in so much anti-materialistic spiritualism. In a sense, it is a matter of  some not insubstantial aspiration and achievement that a mere girl from the fishing villages of Kerala has ascended to the head of a huge multi-million (billion?) dollar enterprise, and who am I to fault her for her enterprise and gumption if this is how she chose to get there. On the other hand, it leaves one with the realisation that perhaps nothing is really sacred any more, not even the sacred. That takes getting used to, when I get there, perhaps I’ll have true zen.

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Corruption, Culture, Economics, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Film Review: 3 Idiots

Posted by anandrr on January 17, 2010

3 Idiots starts swimmingly, a gentleman on an Air India flight gets a call that his friend Rancho whom he has not seen for almost 10 years has recently been found, this new information causes him to fake a heart attack thus forcing the plane to head back and he then scurries away from the emergency personnel as soon as he is on solid ground. It ends quite beautifully, set against the shore of a clear blue lake with the Himalayas for a backdrop, it seems like cinematographer heaven. Between these bookends, the film is filled with such fetid garbage that one wonders what the film makers were thinking. It reminded me of those not-so-rare piles of garbage on Indian streets that one walks past and struck by the sudden stench of the situation, one walks past again wondering if it really stank as much as it did, and yes it stank, in fact it stank worse than it just did a moment ago. Every successive scene in 3 Idiots is like that: can it really stink any worse, why yes it can, just wait for them to serve it up to you.

Superficially, it is a movie about one Rancho a smart student at ICE, India’s best engineering college, and his two friends who are less smart but at the same premier engineering college, trying to get through their four years as best as they can while at the same time having fun. It is supposedly a jolly ride through college, nostalgic scenes about hostels and dorm rooms abound, but it is also a vain attempt to take the education system to task for taking some of our best people and turning them into something they would never have wanted to be.

Spoilers after the jump!
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Education, Films, Reviews, Showbiz, wtf | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Film Review: Incarnations

Posted by anandrr on January 2, 2010

Avatar is the unfortunate consequence of taking a large dose of white liberal guilt and adding half a billion dollars overseen by a master of visual style who couldn’t write to save his life. The story deals with humans out to plunder a new found utopia (named Pandora) that is full of a great new mineral, Unobtainium. This name is announced to us very early in the movie, perhaps we are to realize now that Cameron doesn’t really enjoy writing so we should give up now and just sit back and take in the luscious special effects. But this is a long film, and we movie watchers do not live by special effects alone. You cannot help but hear nails on the blackboard every time you hear people say the word with reverence, “Unobtainium!”

The “avatar” in the movie refers to a trance-like state that humans enter when they are asked to “drive” laboratory-made specimens of Pandora’s native people. When they enter this trance, their avatar wakes up and “lives” in the “outside world,” when the avatar goes to sleep, the humans wake up out of the trance and live in the “real world” inside the lab. Pandora is a beautiful world full of lush greenery, wonderful animals, pretty blue people, and plants and trees that are all connected to each other via their roots. It is a wonderfully imagined world in which one can lose oneself, one imagines repeated watchings of the movie would reveal new rich detail that one had previously missed, the effort that went into the design of this world is obvious. The viewer is easily lost in this beauty, almost trance-like one might say, until he hears a clunker of a line and is jarred back into the harsh reality of an especially poorly written Hollywood blockbuster.

We recommend that this movie be watched in Imax 3-D, preferably with the sound turned off. As a spectacle this movie has no peers. It reminded us of the first time we watched Toy Story, or the Matrix, or even, Terminator 2, each of those times we left the movie theater feeling as if we had just participated in a very moving experience, but even those movies are not a scratch on Avatar’s beauty. With a less obvious plot and better writing, Avatar could have made our list of greatest movies of the decade, as it is, it makes the grade of movies that must be watched, but once only.

Many people have written quite eloquently about the obvious anti-imperialist white-guilt message of the movie. We have but one thing to add. Not all societies plundered by the white man were like the native Americans. That is all.

Sita Sings the Blues is available for high quality download on a Creative Commons license on the film maker’s website. In a world of poor-quality torrents downloaded by eager yet thrifty flat-screen-TV-owning movie buffs, that alone would qualify it for a dekko. Of all the characters in the Ramayana, Sita cuts the most tragic figure. She loves deeply and is married to God-incarnate, the most just and pious man as well as one of the greatest archers in the history of the universe, and yet she is always forsaken by Rama, until she finally takes matters into her own hands and leaves him (and the Earth) forever. This movie is dedicated to telling Sita’s story, as a universal story of womanhood. The movie is animated by Nina Paley who inserts her own story in parallel, one of having her heart broken by a man who leaves her for good when he gets a job in India. The animation is of varying quality, sometimes it is represented by Mughal-era and other ancient Indian paintings speaking the lines of Rama, Sita and so on, sometimes in crude drawings of a South Park like quality, and at other times by an impossibly curvy Sita and equally impossibly muscular Rama doing their Bollywood-inspired movie singing to the backing blues-vocals of Annette Hanshaw. But at all times the animation works. All along, the story of Sita (and Rama and the rest of the Ramayana cast) is told by apparently India-born youth trying to recollect as best as they can the story of the Ramayana, interspersed with musings on a childhood story by adults as they try to mine hidden-depths and back-stories of an ill-remembered epic. A certain irreverence pervades the movie, but it never descends to crude parody or atheistic preaching. Mostly it sounds like the story of the Ramayana as would be discussed by Indian youth today when they are sure their parents are out of earshot. The movie comes with an incredibly beautiful soundtrack. Almost all the songs are by Annette Hanshaw whose turn of the early-20th-century songs seem to have been written precisely for use in this movie. One of those that are not by her, the Rama-praising song sung by Lava and Kusha is comedic genius. We hummed it for days afterward.

For those of us of a certain age, the Channel-V promotions featuring Quick Gun Murugan hold a special place in our hearts. The 30-second parodies of Westerns, Rajnikanth, and south Indians in general made in the service of our MTV variant captured perfectly the adolescent zeitgeist of early 90s India. We were very excited when Quick Gun the movie was released and finally got a chance to watch it recently. The film delivers on every count: as a rich parody of Tamil and other South Indian films, as a parody of Westerns and most of all as a way to lose yourself for an hour and a half in well written and almost always well executed comedy. Dr Rajendra Prasad is brilliant as Quick Gun Murugan, he even manages to parody himself very effectively. Both Sita and Quick Gun are well-timed reminders that one does not need a lot of money to make a great movie just good writing, good acting, and a lot of imagination.

Posted in Films, Reviews, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Perfidious Google Maps

Posted by anandrr on November 4, 2009

Over the weekend, I find myself at the intersection of Mathilda and Maude in Sunnyvale and I decide I need to go to a Walgreens or Longs or something. So I duly type in “pharmacy” into my Jesus Phone Google Maps and what does it show me?

Google Maps screen shot Google Search PageThere’s a Walgreen just off Fair Oaks. The location looks a little dubious, why would there be a Walgreen just off the main road, but maybe it covers an entire block. I haven’t ever seen a Walgreen at the location indicated, but maybe I haven’t been paying attention. So off I go to this location, and of course there is no Walgreen at this place. Quite annoying, to say the least. I assume that perhaps Google Maps is confused and get on with the rest of my life. On a whim, I pull up Google on my iPhone the next day and search for pharmacies in sunnyvale, and I find that Google search on the iPhone also thinks there’s a pharmacy at that location. Only it’s a Longs. And here’s what’s really cool about this. The address says El Camino Real, but the location on the map says Fair Oaks and just north of Maude. WTF? Seriously, WTF?

Posted in wtf | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Thoughts About the Nobel Peace Prize and Obama

Posted by anandrr on October 9, 2009

I’m not sure that awarding the prize to Obama devalues it any more than it has already been devalued by being awarded to Kissinger and Arafat.

First they gave the prize to the guy who lost to G.W. Bush. Now they’re giving it to the guy who succeeded him. Next year, give it to W’s parents and Jeb and they will have made their point abundantly clear. Talk about your soft bigotry of low expectations.

What, did the world suddenly run out of polio-eliminating and poverty-alleviating organizations?

As my friend Ravi says, they should have given Obama the Literature Prize instead, for the artful and innovative use of language to try and create world peace.

Posted in Politics, wtf | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Obama’s Secret Muslim Handshake: Revealed!

Posted by anandrr on September 13, 2009

All along you liberals thought it was just a right-wing canard that Obama was a secret Muslim trying surreptitiously to take away our precious Christianness and convert us all into Meccaward-praying, non-interest-charging, Ramadan-month-long-fasting, oil-drilling, loose-fitting-clothing wearing believers in a different way?

Muslims around the world are rejoicing, and he even gave his likeness to a Quran give-away promotion. He’s obviously planning on starting with converting us multiple-God believing Hindus before he charms his way across America. Found on Airport Road in Bangalore:

Obamas Secret Muslim Handshake

Obama's Secret Muslim Handshake

Posted in Advertising, Funny, wtf | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Arnie Pulls a Kim Jong Il

Posted by anandrr on September 2, 2009

Yet again a foreign state-head with a liking for Hollywood action movies has imprisoned a citizen of the free world on what the victim claims are made-up charges. We tried to send our ex-President to rescue the poor sod, but he was unreasonably frisked and detained at the airport and never made it off the ground. The bastards! They thought of everything. Perhaps we should send Shah Rukh (his name is Khan!) to distract the prison guards with his dancing while Mr Jon sashays away to freedom.

Posted in Airlines, Business, Films, Funny, Showbiz, wtf | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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