Saturday, May 25, 2013

Life in Feb 1 - May 25

This would be one of the longest gap in my "Life in" series. Truth be told, i just wanted a break.  But now i am ready, the break is over. Lets recap major events.

After a very hectic last year travel-wise, i intentionally decided to take a break. So for the month of Feb and march, i was at a self imposed restriction to not leave the city. But come April, the flood gates were again opened.
~Weddings : Attended Namrata didi's wedding at Bhatinda. Good fun to meet relatives. Train ride to Bhatinda with all people in family was also fun. Liked the wedding venue, the small town awesome feeling was there.
Attended Gursharan's wedding. A simple Punjabi wedding. This was the first Punjabi wedding that i attended and it was good to see how simple and timely it all was. Also, it felt more relaxed. Also, at his reception, there were no rajgaddi, the couple say on a simple sofa. No DJ either at wedding or marriage. Very very good punjabi food. Just to give an idea, there were 12 kinds of halwa.

~ Trip to Cochin. Surprised everybody by a weekend to Kochi. Went to beach with Naniji, Mami, Numo and Aarti. Good fun. It is always a pleasure to be there.

~ Trip to US. Bentonville, Las Vegas, Utah (Zion national park), Bay area and back. Hectic but a lot of fun.

House shifting:
What a waste of effort it is - Meet brokers, see houses etc and how much hassle it is if you want to optimize on budget :)
~Shifted from Ashok Nagar to Koramangala. Distance to office is now 7 kms but time is 15-20 mins. Love being in close proximity again.
~ Had to buy pretty much everything. Fridge, microwave, dining table (got an Ikea one, second hand, imported from Australlia), carpets, tv stand, mattress etc. Still need to buy a sofa.
~ Parents visited to help me out.

~ Antifragile: Review
~ Listened to the audio book: The story of O. Review will come at some point.
In the middle of:
~Thinking Fast and Slow.
~Blood meridian: I don't think i will be able to finish it. Found it too bland, nothing is happening. Even though the writing is good. I will have to pick it up sometime later.
~India After Gandhi. As part of our book club. Read first half, review coming soon.
~Wolf Hall. It is getting interesting day by day.

~ Didn't finish Game theory. Only the last one remained but lost interest as they were just introducing more type of games.
~ Need to get back in focus on the law one.

~ The Good:
Rewatched Les Miserables. Changing the rating to 5/5.
Bernie by Richard Linklater (4/5). Jack Black is a treat to watch.

Silver linings playbook (3.5/5) Review
Superman of Malegaon (No point of rating)
Robot & Frank (3.5/5) Decent one. A camera cinema club selection.  
Star Trek: Into the darkness (3.5/5) Well done Sci-fi flick. 
Django Unchained (4/5). Love the fact that Tarantino can do it over and over again. 
Argo (3.5/5) Well done, not sure if it was a Best Picture winner. 

~ The Bad
Jack the Reacher (2.5/5) Not much to root for anything.

~The Ugly
Iron Man 3 (1/5) Horribly bad. Even worse than 2. 

Game of thrones tv series is back again. Enjoying it. Also played the board game at office. There are significant people who follow it now. 

~Azim Premji University. Applied to MA in development, written test, interview. Was not sure if i wanted to join them, wanted to see the process. I thought that the interview went bad as they seem unconvinced about my answers. But got an admit. Sometimes life has its own mechanism of choosing its path. The email about the admit went to my spam folder. The follow up email came just one day before the deadline and i was in US at the time, and busy so couldn't think about it. Hence, naturally the deadline passed.
~eb stuff is happening.
~ Registered for Goechala trek in Sept end. Very excited.

Book review: Antifragile

Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder
Author: Naseem Nicholas Taleb

This 500+ pager can be summed up by this one line : What does not kill you, will only make you stronger. Huh! Sounds familiar? Indeed it is. However Taleb does deserve credit to give a name to this phenomenon. Taleb also deserves praise for recognizing its vitality. The book shines as Taleb lists instances found in nature, observed in human past and present where Antifrgaility is commonly observed.

What is Anti-fragility?
Anti-fragility is a very simple phenomenon that can be explained by this simple example (paraphrased from the book): There are two brothers, one of them works in a 9-5 desk job while the other one works as a cab driver. Both have been working for over 30 years. While the first one has a steady monthly income, sick leaves, vacation days, insurance etc,  the second one's  income varies from one day to another. There is no guarantee for the second brother that there would be client on a given day and if he falls sick, there is no pay. Taleb analyzes these two brothers in detail and then rightly claims that the first brother is fragile while the latter is Antifragile. Say some extremity happens, such as the economic depression that we saw in last few years, the first brother would be laid off and would find difficult to get a new job as his skills are now obsolete in the current competitive market. Being used to a steady income, now he feels afraid/depressed to the sudden change in situation. At the same time, the second one has been living a life of uncertainties, he is much more averse to the swings in income; his lifestyle includes saving for rainy days, preparing for extremities etc.

Antifragile elements/concepts are the ones that are more risk averse, they will not only survive adverse conditions but even come out stronger. Antifragility has the power to withstand change, welcome it and then adapt to it. Antifragile has strong deep roots, their foundations are solid. They are built to last.

Taleb  goes further in extending the definition of Antifragility. According to Taleb, nuclear power is antifragile and he uses the recent Japan earthquake disaster to  prove his point. The Japan nuclear power plant was considered to be highly resilient, it was designed to withstand any natural/manmade calamity observed in Earth till date, until the Earthquake hit. Taleb has two important points here (a) One can not accurately predict the risk. There could always be a bigger earthquake, a worse Tsunami or who knows a meteor hitting Earth. Second, (b) The foundations of nuclear technology are weak. There is no safe means to dispose off the nuclear waste, its production requires high control and safety standards and no matter how much we anticipate, there could always be risks beyond our expectations that could threaten the production and things around it. Taleb thus argues that nuclear power production is fragile while power production from renewable sources is antifragile.

 Nuclear power is considered a necessary evil to meet the current energy needs, a shortcut until we figure out how to scale up renewable sources etc.  By doing this, Taleb is also making a stronger claim: Any shortcut whose sole justification is to meet today's demands at whatever cost are fragile things and they will hurt us back, one way or another. These things will perish eventually and may take with them anything or everything. Through numerous examples, Taleb argues that antifragility is pervasive and ignoring it will have consequences that we may not like.

Antifragility and us

If we break it down to lay man terms, Taleb is arguing is something that has been known for generations. Get out of your comfort zone, if things become too cozy, it is time for change; these are known adages, easy to acknowledge but difficult to execute.  Be independent, be simple.

Do not be afraid of failure. Failure makes us antifragile, provided we learn from it. Next time, we understand it better and then overcome it. As you can guess, Taleb has high praise for the silicon valley startup culture where people are not afraid of taking risks and building things. Consequently, Taleb has a lot of disdain for those in the financial industry. Being an economist himself, he is able to look through their complex models and devices and see how they are all geared up for short term profits, their assumptions are prone to risks and hence will fail eventually. Taleb gloats with pleasure and claims that the economic depression in 2008 was a good thing. For one, it proved him right as he was rooting for the house of cards to fall down, but his uber point is that it exposed the fragility of the entire system.

Through antifragility, Taleb is also arguing for a change in lifestyle for all of us. He insists that we should make risk a part of our lives instead of something to hide it under the rug or behind the curtain.  Taleb argues that we should identify fragile things in our day to day lives and then shun them.  One example, he cites it the 24 hr breaking news phenomenon of our news channels. Terrorism now accounts for less than 1% of deaths while diabetes/heart attacks is somewhere around 10%. Yet, the coverage is exactly reverse. We rarely get to hear about things that actually matter to us such as policy. These news sources are making us fragile, they are hiding the genuine risk we face. News channels in its present form must be changed.

The critics of Antifragility

Critics have argued that Taleb wants us to live like cavemen. Their point is that doing things completely in antifragile manner would result in giving up all forms of technology, would result in zero advancement and we will be back in dark ages.  To some degree, they are right. Antifragility does impose some severe restrictions, but calling us to live like cavemen is simply blind exaggeration.

In an antifragile world, there are always exceptions and it is completely fine to have exceptions, completely acceptable to have deviations away from mean But the moment, we accept the state during an exception as the normal state, that is when it leads to trouble. In the two brother's case, having a steady job is good but not for 30 years. One should be in a given state and then adapt to move to a different one. That adaptation will require learning, advancement and eventually bring progress both to the individual and society in large.

My critic of the book comes when Taleb applies the phenomenon to anything and everything. Taleb despises theoretic academicians as he claims that they just write papers to increase their bibliography. Taleb justifies killing of Socrates as he was just preaching things in a round about manner without adding anything to it. Taleb claims information is antifragile but data is antifragile but does not offer any concrete means to differentiate between the two. He bends every other theory out there that works and brings it under the fold of antifragility.  At many points in the book, especially in the later part, Taleb comes off as a salesman trying desperately to sell a product.  While it is true that there are several American academia is very much driven by publishing but it is not the only purpose, it is true that antifragility is a global concept but it is not an only one. This overemphasis makes this book verbose and makes one question the phenomenon than accept it willingly, thus doing more harm.

Even with its drawbacks, the book is still a must read. It asks us to move back to our foundations, realize what makes us strong and what hurts us and implores us to understand this phenomenon and internalize it. If we ignore it, we will surely perish.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Zion National Park

The decision to visit which national park, between Zion and Smoky, was a tough one and by a chance freakiness, Zion won. With 4 days in hand, zion now seemed perfect to live in solitude away from all people.

Day 1: Morning started early with me driving from vegas to Zion. The drive amidst the desert outside vegas is always fascinating. What made it even more interesting was the audiobook with me - The story of O (Not complete yet, review some other time). By the time i reached Zion, i was sleep deprived and exhausted. Visitor center pitstop helped clarify my schedule for next two days. Then, i went to the Zion lodge and slept at the lush green grass right outside it. Sun was almost up but the thick bark tree, standing at the center of the park, provided cool shade. I did a quick hike to Lower Emerald pools, then to Upper Emerald pool via the Middle Emerald. The Upper Emerald pool was a delight. Surrounded by canyons from three sides, it was totally therapeutic to sit there and just watch those large rocks. There were a lot of visitors, today being a saturday, hence, the tranquility of this place was getting disturbed. So, i moved on after about 20 mins or so, walking to the Grotto. A short 0.7 mile trek, but it offers great views of the Grotto, its nice collection of trees on this desert soil. It was a sight to watch. From Grotto, i took the shuttle to Temple of Sinhawa and there did the 2 mile round trip hike that takes you to the entrance of narrows. The hike was ok.  The trail is flat and paved for the most part.  

Day 2: To avoid the Sunday crowds, i decided to go for the 14 mile round trip hike to the arch at Kolob canyons. Kolob canyons are located at a 45 min drive. Even though they are close to Zion, they get much less crowds and are equally scenic. The trail was interesting as it criss-crossed a creek 17 times, yes i counted. Trails at these canyons change from rocky to sandy, and sometimes proper ground if we cross a forest. Sand comes mostly from disintegrated rocks over time. The arch at the end of the trail was not as scenic as one finds in photographs, nevertheless the hike makes up for it. I was tired after the hike and came back to the lodge to sleep and watch game of thrones. 

Day 3:  Hike to Observation point is one of the most recommended hike at Zion and please add my vote to this as well. As usual, i started early, took the the 7:15 am shuttle and at the trail head by 7:45 am. Observation Point trail has an elevation gain of 2100 ft and round trip distance of 8 miles. The trail is carved out from the rocky sides of the canyons. At a point near the middle, it even goes through a tunnel and by the looks of it, it appears humans have made it. In other words, the trail is very interesting, one of the best trails to hike. It is similar to trails at Yosemite, fascinating views as one goes up. The view from top is worth all the effort when going up. You get to see the entire valley. On the day that i hiked, it was a partially cloudy day, by the time i was returning down, it even rained few drops. It was a perfect day to hike.  Overall, i would highly recommend this trail. I did a Thai lunch at Thai Sapa just outside Zion. This was followed by the movie - Zion - Treasure of the gods at the Zion theater where the screen is as big as a six story building. Movie was decent (little bit on the bad side).

Day 4: This was a relaxation day. It started out by a nice breakfast at Bear Claw cafe at St. George. Their waffles look amazing, i had the french toast with Chocolate filling and i still remember its taste. That good! But they didn't had wifi, so i went to a cafe nearby - 25th Main and cupcakes and sat there writing blog and reading stuff, while drinking coffee, ofcourse. At around noon, i headed back to Las Vegas and once again, The Story of O, playing in my car. 

Photos can be seen at -
Zion National Park

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Superman of Malegon

Superman of Malegaon -
Directed by Faiza Ahmed Khan.

Superman of Malegaon is a documentary covering the making of a film called Malegaon ka Superman. Malegaon is a small town in Maharashtra obsessed with films. Shaikh Nasir is a local director who wants to adapt popular movies/genre into the local context of Malegaon. Previous, he had made Sholay in Malegaon and his latest project was Malegaon ka Superman. Made in a shoestring budget of 1Lakh Rupees, Malegaon ka superman has all the special effects expected in a Superman movie. Malegaon's Superman is seen flying above the town, saving innocent people, fighting the local goons, a romantic relationship with a local girl and showing her around while flying.

To rate a movie like Superman of Malegaon is a superfluous exercise. It is equivalent to rate first time marathon finish of any runner, or to rate the beauty of natural canyons, or to review home cooked food. They are not made for reviews, they don't give a damn about ratings. There are some things that are made out of heart/nature.  These things serve a higher purpose, a calling that has come from within; these people have surpassed all expectations because there were none; they have borne pain, sacrificed their lives for it. There is an inherent passion in their work, an energy whose potential is unlimited and finally a will that will not rest until it is done in a way they want it to be. For these works exist just because these people wanted to make them and everything else just happened along the way.

Superman of Malegaon beautifully captures the process behind the creation of such an effort. The people behind Malegaon ka Superman are not professional artists, instead a tailor is a costume designer, a carpenter is set director, the local orchestra provides background score and a wedding videography maker is the cameraman, director and the editor. The movie is produced by these people, their families and friends. Story writing is a collective process, generally written during night when everyone has finished their daily duties which is how they manage their day to day lives.

Creativity comes best when you have nothing. The special effects with Superman flying, flying over Malegaon, flying while chasing an Auto, and flying with his love interest. These are no easy tasks but as they go about doing them, you just marvel at their process. Some of the techniques were used in early Kurusawa films before they became mainstream, these guys are creative at that level.

The documentary shines as it is able to reflect the passion of these small town people. In all the domain of arts, the final product conceals the effort that has gone in making it. In rare cases only, the process is equally important as the outcome. In this case the making is much more interesting, inspiring and liberating than the actual movie itself. How many movies can boast such a claim? I am pretty sure you can count them in your fingers.

Watch Superman of Malegaon, but its dvd and share it with your friends. The spirit is indeed infectious.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Silver linings playbook

Disclaimer: The reason i choose to review this film among so many others that i saw recently is not because i liked the film better than the rest. It just that this film aligns itself with a though that had been with me for sometime now and i wanted to share it.

Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy film wherein the hero suffers from bipolar disorder and the heroine is a sex addict, both coming out of a broken relationship and trying to cope up with their lives. The story works sheerly because it is made to work through many small small sub plots and quirkiness of its actors. Jennifer Lawrence is a brilliant actress and seeing Anupam Kher was a treat as well, at least for me.

Silver Lining Playbook also extends the boundary of Romantic films. In reality, the only movies that work in this genre are the ones that go outside the box. Gone are the days where rich girl/poor boy made a good story. The early formula of young birds falling in love but family against it, inter-caste affairs, inter-color relationships have all been explored and gone. All that was for a generation earlier. Our generation brought its new complexities, Jerry Maguire explored the theme of two co-working adults drawing towards one another, one of them was also a single parent. You've got mail extended the boundary wherein people feel in love on internet.  Romantic relationship between adults sharing workspace, in competing workspace (Mr. & Mrs Smith etc), in matchmaking business (Hitch etc) are also coming to a closure. The truth is that in order to make a fresh, genuine romantic film, it has to go into further niche segments and explore what true relationship is all about. If it means extending the boundary or to come up with quirky situations, it has to be done.

 Silver linings Playbook works because it simply keeps the chassis of a romantic comedy film, the three part structure - (a) The initial meetup where girl/guy does not get along or are hesitant to break the barrier (b) They do get along but there is some issue (c) Everything is well in the end.  Other than these three pillars, SLP fills the details in a completely unique way, something that none of us can think off and what gets it going is just our curiosity on how the story will match each pillar as it unfolds.

While at the subject of romantic comedies, i think a film that i would call romantic but it breaks the three pillar definition are the Before Sunset/Before Sunrise movies of Richard Linklater. There are so many movies about romance but so few on cynicism while both these are so related to each other. Richard Linklater brings these two together to create his masterpieces and leaves it to audience.

Bollywood still has to learn its lessons. It is still living in the early days, remaking classics, same wine in a new bottle, but the bottle has to change and the wine in it as well. Amal is a great example of how it could be done - layer the wine with cheese, add more flavors to it.  The days of same old crap may not be over at box office but they will be soon once the sheen is off.

Back to SLP, watch it for Jennifer Lawrence and some really sensible directing. It gets a 3.5 out of 5 stars in my world.

Bentonville 2013

Bentonville in April is a mixed bag of emotions. In my two week stay, i saw the weather go from awesome pleasant, to cloudy with no rains for couple of days, from extreme rainy one day to extreme heat (90F) for next couple of days and then it snowed couple of days later.

This BV trip was full of events. Days were filled with meetings and evenings were spent in exploring different restaurants and cafes. I reached BV Friday evening, on saturday while thinking of best ways to beat my jet lag, i remember somebody's suggestion that if you spend the day under the Sun, the jetlag will go away. In order to test this, i decided at the last moment to go for a hike A quick search showed Devil's den state park only at an hr's drive, Somnath joined in at the suggestion as well and after 1.5 hrs, we were at the park. We did two short trails and then returned back after 4 hrs.  It was beautiful to see the Ozark trees, up and close.

The Devil's den hike did little to my jetlag, i think it actually had a detrimental effect,  as at 6:30 pm i was completely exhausted both physically (from the hike) and mentally (from being up for 15 hrs), that i went down to sleep. I was up at 3 am next morning and spend Sunday morning in Zombie state. I tested the Sun theory again to beat jetlag by going for another hike to trails around Crystal Bridges museum but this time we went at 2:30 pm and hiked the area for about 2-2.5 hrs. Trails around Crystal bridges museum are beautiful, perfect for running and spending your evening. That you can get to these trails at 15 mins drive from your workplace is enough for me to switch my place of work. From one point on the trail, we could see a String quartet playing some beautiful symphony under a clear blue sky, next to flowing water.  The trees were not as beautiful as they were in Fall when we visited last time but the beautiful weather made up for everything. Walking near Crystal Bridges is a must-do thing in BV.

On the Wednesday evening, our calendar got free early and we decided to go for a trip to Eureka Springs. Being a weekday and being in Arkansas, it was almost empty. Being unknown to the area, we decided to checkout the springs on foot and it was a very smart decision. Walking through the historical area, with empty roads, silence all around us, big open homes with trees in their backyard, architecture reflecting what it was to live there 100 years ago, water coming out of springs as clear as it can be - A perfect way to de-stress after a busy work schedule. We ended up walking to almost 6 of the springs. At Eureka Springs where Indian population would be less than 100 and most of the Indians even living in BV would not have been there, there is a New Delhi cafe serving Indian food, their definition of Indian food means serving dished primarily with garlic :) but they have samosas in their menu as well. I had soup and sandwich and it was amazing. The surprising fact is that i will not find an equivalent cafe in New delhi but i found one in Eureka Springs.

Butterfield hiking trail is a 15 mile loop trail that goes through the Ozark national forest. Starting at Devil's den park, it is an almost flat trail (450 ft of elevation gain) about 12 miles of the trail is into the forest and it crosses couple of springs in between. It was my plan to do it on Saturday but BV weather forced us to change it on to Sunday. The cloudy weather with just enough Sun made it a beautiful day to hike. Ozark trees were lush green in color and waterfalls were flowing with water at this time of the year. We finished it in 8.5 hrs which included a 25 min nap time for me in between. Napping under the shade of trees with the sound of flowing water right next to you, giving rest to tired feet, is an experience not to be forgotten. 20 min nap invigorates like a deep sleep of 6 hrs. The trail overall was decent.
From Bentonville 2013

We also saw a musical called Next to Normal at the Walton Arts center.  Next to Normal is a story about a family where the mother is depressed as their son died when he was very young. The play revolves around the dynamics of this family where everything is just next to normal.  Good story, well acted and very good lyrics, the only downside was that the music was not that exciting to me. I was constantly thinking about music in Les Miserables and how good it was. I think couple of background scores in les Miserables are so generic that they could be applied anywhere. If they were played in Next to Normal, it would have been much better.

On other days, i checked out Cabella's a outfitting showroom which also sells guns. I think it was for the first time in my life that i help an actual rifle in my hands. The craze here is indeed incredible. On the last day, i checked the Native American Indian museum for about an hr. Pretty well done, need to spend more time there next time. Thai food is aplenty in BV and i ate 4-5 times and enjoyed it. Mexican food was also quite authentic.  Atlanta Bread Company became my goto cafe as they also had great internet. Working from cafe was back in fashion and i also tried to infect Somnath with it but i don't think i succeeded.  But thanks to Somnath for the company in all my hiking ventures.

Photos can be seen here -
Bentonville 2013

Observation Point

Observation Point

ऊपर चदते हुए सांस ऐसे हाफ्ती है 
जैसे एक  ट्रेन घने जंगल से गुज़र रही हो 
नीचें उतरते हुए जोड़े रो देते हैं 
रुक जाओ , थोड़ी देर के लिए, ज़रा रुक जाओ 

मगर उस चट्टान की चोटी पर 
जिसे observation point  के नाम से जाना जाता है 
एक सुकून का आलम है 
यहाँ समय रुक गया  है
ऐसा दृश्य जो आँखें बंद करने पर भी नहीं हटता  
ह्रदय देह से कहता है - "धन्यवाद । बहुत बहुत धन्यवाद "

उस पत्थर की चोटी पर 
जीवन का निष्कर्ष , 
हमारे अस्तित्व 
का  पता चलता  है 
अपनी रूह देखने को मिलती है 
अतीत, भविष्य, सब चिंतन व्यर्थ है 
अभी । ज़िन्दगी है अभी 

नीचे उतरने के पश्चात,
एक संतुष्टि की भावना बस जाती है 
होटों पर मुस्कुराहट चाप जाती है 
आज ज़िन्दगी उम्दा है 
आज ज़िन्दगी सफल है