Sunday, November 25, 2012

Introduction to Sustainability

In the last week of October, i finished my yet another coursera course - Introduction to Sustainability taught by Dr. Jonathan Tomkin of UPenn. I am quite glad that i took (and finished) this course, although i would have liked it even better if i was more rigorous at it. 

Introduction to Sustainability adds a scientific basis to the the concept of sustainability. For example, we know that over-population is bad but can we define it quantitatively? What has been the historic impact of population on other indicators say,  nutrition (food) or what are the projections of population growth of our planet. Primarily, this course helps you go one level down and adds more data/background to concepts that one agrees with (more or less)  and helps you make informed arguments.

Here in this article, i would like to talk/refer to concepts/articles that i found to be informative.

1. The Tragedy of Commons  - I may have heard of this phrase before but i never knew its meaning or origins before this article - Please read the article completely to understand the phenomenon. Having read and understood it, to take everything around us and give a foundational reading and to name it so aptly, it was almost like a intellectual "Eureka" moment.

2. Climate change and Global warming - Do you believe in Global Warming? Yes, i do. Many Republicans/Americans/even a few academicians do not believe in it, do you know why? Because they are morons.  I never understood how come anybody will not believe in Global warming.  This course clarifies this concept by explaining (a) many  natural processes that participate in keeping our environment as it is.  (b) How do we measure past / present data ,  (c) Why the skeptics do not believe in global warming and (d) Why they are wrong or in other words, why indeed there is global warming. A recommended link -

3.   Geo-engineering - A process by which we can slow down global warming artificially. See this ted talk - What followed was an interesting discussion on why we are even discussing techniques such as this when we do not know its unintended consequences.

4. From the energy lecture, i am sharing the TED talks which are very interesting -

5. Policy and how to evaluate - Pigovian Tax, Externalities - Positve and Negative, Willingness to Pay and Willingness to Accept, Property Rights, Command and Control Regulations, Incentive based Regulations, Cost benefit analysisPrecautionary Principle, Polluter pays

6. Economic Invisibility of Nature -

7. Shocking -
India's water crisis
9 billion-people question and No easy fix

At the end of the class, the general sentiment was that everyone agreed that we are in a very bad shape but there is small hope. A hope that comes from the fact that atleast we understand the problem, there is a wider acknowledgement about it and we will act on the knowledge that we have now.  The greatest fear is that perhaps it may be too late by the time we come to our senses.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Flight movies - BLR to SFO

There is sheer joy in watching movies on a long flight. Very akin to reading books on a train. After all, a faster mode of transport deserves a faster mode of media as well.

To me, the flight seat is nothing but a mini theater. You have got a semi-reclining chair, a small tv personally for you, headphones and a constant supply of drinks and food whenever wanted. Lastly, a collection of films to choose from. It is not only the setting that counts here but also the opportunity. In any season, there are very good movies that you watch out in theaters, but there are many good/decent movies which you couldn't watch because of time constraints or they were not deemed good enough to be watched in theaters.  Flight time gives you that opportunity to catch up to these good movies, a time when these movies are not threatened by competition vying for my time. And ofcourse, there is always a scope to rewatch one or explore a totally random one.

So, without any further delay, here is the list from BLR to SFO.

Beasts of the Southern Wild - Let me start by saying that you have not seen anything like BOTSW before and it is unlikely you are going to see anything like it in future as well. Watching this movie is like watching a natural disaster in action - it is scary, emotionally draining, and gigantic but at the same time it is beautiful to watch - beauty that comes with shades of sadness, serenity and inner peace. The 6 year old protagonist, Hushpuppy, is a tour-de-force on herself; on one side we are enchanted by her energy and positive outlook but on the other end, we are shit-scared for here because after all she is just a six year old. She is the beast of the southern wild,  a beast that has to fight to survive but at the same time knows that the wild has to be cherished as well.  BOTSW is a triumph of making movies with imagination, it is a triumph of execution on a vision that the director wanted to share with others.  Watch it if you love movies because this is a movie which values this medium for what it is and nothing else.

Where do we go now - Nadine Labaki's Where do we go now is a Leabanese movie on how women in a village try to resolve conflict between muslim and christian men. Their approaches are hilarious, weird and as one says it in the movie - "it might just work".  WDWGN is a decent effort. It lacks in depth both in story and performance. It feels that the movie is unsure whether it wants itself to be a realistic portrayal of the religious tension or a comical take on a issue which should never have happened in the first place.  However, the localization in the movie is indeed commendable and it transports us back into the era where TV watching was communal and community was the biggest entertainment there was.

Polisse - Polisse is a realistic portrayal of SVU-like unit in France. It is a docu-drama aka based on real stories but portrayed fictitiously. After merely three minutes into the movie, you realize that it is not going to be an easy one to sit through.  Yet, Polisse must be watched, just to remind ourselves that there are real people doing this tough job, to understand that it is not easy to mix professional and personal lives for them. Polisse does feel cliched at times but it rarely feels far from reality. It has been compared to The Wire which is next on my watchlist.

The Odd life of Timothy Green - I had only one reason to watch this movie - Jennifer Garner. It felt like Garner's Juno like character again, so i decided to watch it. It is a cute little movie which always feels far-fetched, too fantastical and never moves you like other good movies in this genre. The storyline is bad, predictable and does not go anywhere. Garner's acting is the only thing that is good for the movie. It is a family movie to be watched with your children who have not entered their teen years.

To Rome With Love -  I never wanted to watch TRWL because i knew i will be disappointed. I know Allen wants to make these short movies but there is no reason why they should be combined altogether. After midnight in Paris, which was so awesome in its plot and structure, TRWL feels like Allen made this movie just because he promised someone that he would do it. There are elements which give this movie a feeling that it is indeed an Allen movie but like his other recent attempts, it lacks a holistic feel. Allen may be paying homage to the city but the stories are so far out there that other than the location, there is nothing Rome-ish in it. TRWL in the end feels like an American's view of Rome than what it ought to be. The fact that it is an Allen movie just makes us, Allen fans, sad, very sad!

Brave - In the nascent years of animation medium, good animation and a decent plot was good enough for people to love it. But off late, with such amazing story lines coming into it, the genre has been redefined in particular for the mature audience. Brave has good animation but its story potential is only good for children. Few years ago, even adults would have enjoyed it because it was primarily the medium that was being cherished. But now, the expectations are higher. Brave is a good children's movie. For children, it has elements of fairy tales, comedy and be--good-do-good plot which goes well. But compared with its contemporaries, it has to do a lot better to appeal to me.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fantasy and Science Fiction

OMG! Literally :) This should have been a October post. Not even October, it should have been in September. But November it is.

Fantasy and Science Fiction - A course on coursera taught by Prof. Eric Rabkin.
I like the way Eric describes the nature of fantastic - "...the diametric, diachronic reversal of the ground rules of the narrative world."  
After reading Harry Potter series, LOTR and more recently GRRM, i knew that i loved fantasy genre. After all, i am a true escapist at heart. (And why not in this real world.... more on this later). But it was not any kind of fantasy that i like. Political drama like GRRM with good prose is always a favorite. I reread LOTR last December just to remember how good it was. I liked HP series never for its prose but how the jigsaw puzzle unfolded and connected everything in the end. 
According to GRRM,  people don't like fantasy because of magic spells or dragons.   In LOTR, when there was war, Gandalf was not fighting with spells and curses, he had a sword in his hand. My thesis here is that (a) fantasy shakes the ground rules of our world and that is what makes it so appealing and (b) It is not the props that matter, it is the interaction between reality and those props.

(As a sidenote, herein lies why the battle scenes in Harry Potter movies do not work because there is no excitement in watching two people fighting with muted breaths and words with a broken stick on their hands).

As far as Science Fiction goes, the genre never appealed to me. I have never really enjoyed Star Wars. I read Ender's game last year and found it to be too young adult-ish (read childish). Battlestar Gallactica was impressive but again not due to its SF elements but because of its political drama. I believe that the whole SF genre is way more popular in US that India because of the cultural context that they grew in.  But, it is not to say that i am not amazed by SF. I truly believe that the power of science as a fantasy tool has endless possibilities but just that  before this course, i had not come across any good SF writing. 

I also believe that mythology is  an extension of fantasy. Having read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Mahabharatha and Illiad before,  i didn't see them as religious texts but as one of the best writings of fantasy ever possible.

So, my motives for taking this course was to know more about great writings in this genre. The course description had Dracula and Frankenstein. I have never been a fan of horror genre either, so i thought it was a good way of getting into its roots as well. It was to be a demanding course - 10 novels in 10 weeks. The course outline is copied below - 

Grimm — Children's and Household Tales
Carroll — Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
Stoker — Dracula
Shelley — Frankenstein
Hawthorne & Poe — Stories and Poems
Wells — The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, "The Country of the Blind," "The Star"
Burroughs & Gilman — A Princess of Mars & Herland
Bradbury — The Martian Chronicles
LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness
Doctorow — Little Brother

Off the above, i didn't get time to read Poe. I couldn't finish Island of Dr. Moreau and i read the wrong Bradbury (idiotic mistake) - I read a graphic novel adaptation of The Martian Chronicles instead of the actual book.

The course is designed intelligently. Not only it goes from fairy tales to horror to SF to modern fantasy, the writings selected are also in chronological order.  This shows how the genre has evolved over time. The books chosen are the ones that has helped in shaping the genre. I especially enjoyed the fact that i read Dracula and Frankenstein back to back.

Among the list, the ones that i disliked the most was Burrough's A Princess of Mars. I found it to be too YA and lacking completely in prose. Followed by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which outside of the wordplay (which is excellent), i found it falling abysmally  short in plot and story elements.  My favorite were Stoker's Dracula (oh how much i enjoyed reading it) and Wells' stories. I liked how Wells deconstructs the grandeur perception of super-hero abilities.  The one that surprised me the most was Gilman's Herland. I had never read a utopian novel and to read a feminist utopian novel was simply a treat. It was a very refreshing read and it was the one that broke most of the ground rules.  Doctorow's Little Brother was the most "masala" book of the lot, it is an ideal summer beach reading. But as Eric explains in his lecture, it is not at all an easy task to write in this manner. The craft is much more appreciated after attending the lectures.

We had to write a small essay on every book offering an insight about the book which will be useful for others. It was a good creative exercise to do so. Reading peer responses was also quite informative. Coursera has done a good job in creating a platform to do so. The discussion forums were too noisy but some of the popular posts were a delight to read.

Forrest Gump

I do not remember what was my reaction after watching Forrest Gump for the first time. All i recall is that i liked it. Especially Tom Hanks. Forrest Gump was also one of my early movies when i realized how powerful this medium can be. Over the years, i have watched Forrest Gump multiple times. There are so many favorite scenes in the film,  so many concepts that strike at heart. For example - The one when Forrest starts running  just like that, or the one where Lt. Dan joins Forrest on his  shrimp boat and the scene where he is challenging the storm. The one when he meets Jenny at Washington, and the one when he realizes that he has a son. The movie is layered with scene after scene that just makes it a treat to watch. But the one scene that stays with me even after the movie, long long time after the movie is this one -

Jenny is on her deathbed and is afraid of her dying. She asks Forrest if he was scared in Vietnam. Forrest answers it and so naturally transitions on to a broader theme of beauty in this world. This scene epitomizes the genius of this movie. To start with, it summarizes the essence of this movie - the beauty and the goodness.

What is Forrest Gump about? What is its genre? Wikipedia describes it as Romantic-comedy-drama film. It is and it is not. It has all the three elements in it but it is not like any other rom-com movies of this genre. It is a very difficult feat. to genre-ify this movie. It is not a biopic as it does not cover a true person, yet it is a biopic. As a novel (which i have not read yet ) it must be an incredible piece of fiction. But to take the story on paper and convert it into this kind of film is brilliance. (PS: Forrest gump - the novel is going to be my next book.)

But coming back, what is Forrest Gump about? Is it about a fantasy story of an autistic boy? Is it about the purity of heart and soul? Is it a feel-good movie with a message that hard work pays?  Is it about the recent events in American History ? Its about all the above  and more. To take the historical events and marry them with the plotline gives an epic feel. Most novels or movies take one or two events (like World war 2 or 9/11)  and create plots around/after it. But to show a journey of time through the lens of an individual and that too in fiction is quite a rarity. The only other instance that i know where its done is Midnight's children by Salman Rushdie. And i liked that novel as well.

Coming back to that scene, in those few seconds we get the entire gist of the movie. Yes, the movie is about the beauty and the goodness. But there is a lot going on there. The movie is also about loneliness as well. Forrest even despite his best intentions does not have many friends. He is lonely and often wonders why. In the shot of the Bayou, it is not only the shot of Sun setting down but it is a shot of a lonely Forrest enjoying the natural sunset all by himself.  But, and here lies the masterpiece, the movie does not pity loneliness. The final two words of that scene "You were", quickly fills the void created by a lonely Forrest.

Often, i have wondered the practicality of the running scene. Is it doable? Where was he eating, how he kept himself hydrated? Being a little bit of runner myself and knowing the joys of running, i can feel the escapist pleasure in doing so but the practicality of it is questionable. It is interesting to observe that i do understand that Vietnam, Ping pong, Shrimp boats are all fantastical elements but somehow i want this running episode to be real.

In that scene, the background sound also changes, i do not think that it is an OST but that sound-byte adds another dimension. The music is there when needed.  Alan Silvestri's score has a powerful effect of slowing down time, it gives breathing room in a movie where so much is going on all the time.

November blues

Aah, the guilt,
the internal pain,
anxiety, restlessness
the constant pressure.

Of not updating a blog.

When the rate of production is less than the rate of consumption,
then the consumption is not getting assimilated.
No reflection, no introspection.

Reminders, steady reminders,
As i wake up.
in all those actions when brain feels under - utilized
Like taking  a shower.

Do it! Now.
I am not in the right mood.
Then when?
Tick tock. Tick tock.
This month will be over soon.
Lets do it, then.
Today. At this moment....