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Aspiring polymath since 1982

Getting back

Wow. It’s been nearly three years since my last post. Despite lots of ideas for and resolutions to get started on blog posts, work and personal life ensured that there wasn’t much time left to reflect and put down thoughts to paper.

No complaints.

Here’s hoping Round 2 progresses in a much more regular manner.

Filed under: Ramble

MobileMe = Apple+GMail

When I bought my first laptop, a 12″ Powerbook G4 (still chugging along nicely), I was asked by the salesman if I wanted a .Mac subscription also. Hmmm, while the vanity of having a @mac.com address was attractive, paying $99 annually for it was not. Irrespective of the free storage, webpage creation facilities and all. GMail had also come out around that time so it made doubly no sense to pay for that which was available for free. Reading about the introduction of Apple’s new replacement for .Mac called MobileMe, it seems that Apple still fails to address the needs of the Apple fans and users with this service. MobileMe (and .Mac) can be called the biggest duds in the Apple ecosystem which is sad, because they present a great outreach opportunity for Apple.

A person buying an Apple laptop or desktop is not buying it out of a simple feature and price comparison with other PC manufacturers out there but is making a lifestyle choice out of his purchase. Is there a premium? Well, there are a lot of comparisons out there with regards to cost of Macs versus Windows, ranging from significantly more expensive to comparable and so on. For me, it boils down to whether I want to pay a premium for an icon of industrial design, an operating system which works perfectly well out of the box, and the convenience and security of a platform not subject to outages caused due to junkware, malware, viruses and the other nasties that profligate on the Windows platform. For me, this is worth the premium.

I’m sure that other non-professional Mac users also have the same logic. (I exclude professional users who might be using the Mac to access programs not available or not as efficient on the Windows platform such as Final Cut Pro, Shake and other professional applications.) So what you have is a large number (and growing as per reports) of users buying not only into the “Cult of Mac” but also into the completely different way of working that the Apple OS and applications encourage. It’s a pleasure to be a Mac user and we show this by buying deeper into the Apple ecosystem. We upgrade from OS to OS, we start ditching Microsoft Office for all but official work and transition to iWork, we start building our digital memories and diversions around ILife and our hardware purchases also revolve around the inter-operability with the Mac. How many Mac owners have a Zune?

The PC blogger might call this the “fanboy” syndrome or disparage Apple users as being befuddled by Steve Jobs’ “Reality Distortion Field“. If so, there must be a really small number of Apple fanboys because nearly everyone I know who has a Mac, has it because it just works better for them than the PCs that they have used so far have. Therefore, its very clear that most Mac users are buying into Apple not just because its the cool thing, but because it increases their productivity and fits well into their computing lifestyle. There is a big gap in the Apple ecosystem though, and that is in online services.

Increasingly, paid online services are transitioning to free (for the consumer) ad-supported services. This holds true for the entire spectrum of services from commodity services such as mail, calendaring, social networking etc. to “premium” services such as online magazines like Salon, The Atlantic and others. By transitioning to a free ad-supported model, what most of these services have been able to do is reduce the bar for consumption to zero. As a consumer, I can now try 10-15 different email services, 10-15 different social networking services and then decide which best suits my needs and my persona (relevant, in social networking sites). Once that decision is made, the company knows that as long as my needs are met, I will be a regular consumer of their services, providing them with a steady click-through rate and pageviews (important for advertisers).

In this scenario, a paid product like MobileMe loses its relevance because all its functionality is duplicated or done better in free services. For example (focusing primarily on the Google and Yahoo empires),

I’m not going into an apples-to-apples (pun intended) comparison of features here, but excluding the integration with Mac software such as Address Book, iLife and Mail, I do not think that there is any significant difference. What about Push Mail you say? Both GMail and Yahoo Mail have IMAP functionality. You pipe up with, “Don’t you have to pay hosting charges for Google Sites & Yahoo Site Builder?” Nope, only for Yahoo Site Builder. Plus, if you have your own domain name, you can get the entire suite of Google services available at your custom domain for free, thanks to Google Apps. The only area where free online services do not match up to MobileMe is for backup, and its a moot point of how many people actually use online backup for essential data. I think it should just be dropped.

Since its clear that most of the MobileMe functionality is duplicated in free services and therefore not attractive to the average Apple consumer, its also clear what needs to be done. Apple needs to collaborate with these services, not create alternatives for them. A lot of the functionality of MobileMe is based on its Ajax-based interface for services and seamless integration with the Mac OS and with Mac programs such as iTunes and iLife. What Apple can and should do is separate these unique features from the commodity business of running data centers that is the forte of companies like Google. I doubt if there are any companies out there who know how to run data centers and online services better than Google and Yahoo.

Once Apple passes on the crud work of dealing with data centers to Google or Yahoo, it frees up a lot of its own internal resources (financial and technical) to focus on its unique strengths which are interface and integration. Converting MobileMe into a layer above the online service provider or data center provider, allows Apple to maintain its user interface, its branding, reduce cost of service provision and distinguish its offering from the base service provider. Does the person using Yahoo Mail care where his mail is stored? Not likely. What about a business model? How about a two-tier pricing model:

  • MobileMe Personal: $10 per annum gets you a @mac.com or @me.com (as per your preference) email address, all the MobileMe services up to a 10GB limit (combined), all the snazzy integration with the Mac that you crave and near 100% uptime and access to your Mac whenever and wherever you travel
  • MobileMe Family: $50 per annum gets you a @mac.com or @me.com (as per your preference) email address for your entire family, all the MobileMe services up to a 50GB limit (combined), all the snazzy integration with the Mac that you crave and near 100% uptime and access to your Mac whenever and wherever you travel

Is it necessary that Apple makes significant profits out of this? I would think that the MobileMe service should be seen as a lure, adding the functionality of basic online services and integration to ensure that Apple users do not have to go out of the ecosystem to meet their needs. Creating a cheaper MobileMe service through a partnership with Google or Yahoo also allows Apple to transition more and more of its buyers to this new platform creating the critical mass to monetize this user-base later on in the future. Imagine a new Macbook buyer getting a complementary Personal membership to MobileMe for a year. What do you think the chances are that they won’t renew it at the end of that year? Little I would guess (unless they have invested heavily in another platform like Google/Yahoo).

Apple has always been known in the past for its strident user evangelism through the offices of people like Guy Kawasaki (and now unofficially, John Gruber and the like) and this should be the focus of their online efforts. MobileMe should be the online Evangelical Church of the Mac, bringing together Apple users scattered across cities and countries together onto a platform that allows for seamless transition between their online and offline lives. This becomes more significant as more and more of us start moving our memories and presence online, through photo sharing sites, scrapbooking sites, online email and chat etc. For us Mac users, we have given up most of our digital offline presence to Apple. With a reasonably priced online service, there is no reason that Apple can’t expect its users to do the same with their online presence.

Filed under: Computing, , ,

The Merchant-Ivory Reviews

I had written in a previous post about joining a new DVD subscription service started by the Reliance conglomerate called Bigflix. One of the main attractions for me was that there collection seems to have a good smattering of what is called “world cinema”. Though euro-centric, it’s great to be able to watch the complete Merchant-Ivory oeuvre or that of Ingmar Bergman without having to wait for an annual film festival or trying to score copies from friends and family or the friendly neighborhood bootlegger. After watching my first Merchant-Ivory film “The Perfect Murder”, it struck me that what better way to sum up the experience then watching all of the Merchant-Ivory films available at Bigflix and reviewing the movies as well as my reactions to them.

I will be updating this post with the movies as and when I have finished watching them, so I guess this post will keep getting bigger (after all, there are 30-odd movies under the Merchant-Ivory banner). So here goes.

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The Perfect Murder

The DVD blurb calls it a crime caper set in Mumbai based on the award-winning novel by H.R.F Keating. Inspector Ghote, the main character in the movie is an earnest yet ineffectual Mumbai cop, deferential to seniors and people in power such as politicians and big businessmen just like others of his ilk. The film starts off by following Inspector Ghote at his botched attempt to catch a member of a prominent diamond smuggling ring. From the get-go it becomes obvious that Inspector Ghote, the movie as well as the characters are just Indianized versions of the Pink Panther series. Inspector Ghote as the Indian Inspector Closeau.

This would be all fine and well if the capers were up to the same level of those in the Pink Panther but sadly, its far from it. Though the film does have some light moments, I do not think there is any certifiably “laugh-out-loud” moment in the movie. Maybe its because all the characters except for the Swedish Inspector Alex Svensson are Indian, and their reactions and dialogues can be surmised at, being an Indian myself. Secondly, I have not read the original book so I cannot comment on the screen adaptation of the story but is there a story? If there is one, i think its less than a few sentences in length based on what I have seen. This really brings down the movie as there is not much in terms of a plot at all.

There are some really good actors here but most of them are wasted because their characters are too cliched to be taken any seriously and most of them are given too little screen time to flesh out their characters in any way. The only exceptions to this are Naseeruddin Shah, Stellan Skarsgård and Amjad Khan who do get the required screen time. Naseeruddin Shah shines in this movie as Inspector Ghote but what were the other two thinking? Stellan Skarsgård spends most of the time in the movie behaving little more than a star-struck tourist and little as the Swedish criminologist he is supposed to be. Amjad Khan is wasted spouting inane dialogues such as “hubble-bubble” or “double-trouble” and Madhur Jaffrey? This film should have been called “Where in the world is Madhur Jaffrey”.

My last criticism about the movie is that it focuses too much on the Indian-ness of the characters and not at all on the plot. True, this is a caper based in India and therefore the characters have too reflect the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Indians and the country, but by focusing on it too much, the movie becomes more like a sociological documentary than a crime caper. Similarly, by focusing too much on the Indian setting (the proverbial Indian cow makes an important appearance) as a part of the plot, it reduces the whole film to a sly product placement move by the Indian Tourism Ministry.

The only enjoyable thing about the movie is the cinematography and the production which really makes settings shine. I don’t think I have ever seen a more colorful and vibrant representation of Mumbai on the screen or in real life and I live here! In this film, Mumbai and the Indian-ness of the characters can be called the star character of the movie instead of the human actors. At least for me, its what kept up my interest in the movie. For my first Merchant-Ivory viewing, I have to rate this as a damp squib. If this was brought out by Bollywood to tap the English market, I would have understood and not been so disappointed. Looking online, it seems that the Merchant-Ivory had little to do with this movie other than to underwrite it. It shows. Can be skipped.

Filed under: Movies, , ,

The Verge Manifesto

The first Wired magazine that I read was in 1997. My father being a journalist had obtained a copy from someone he knew, magazines like Wired being practically unobtainable in India at that time. For a person brought up on the shoddy design and print quality of Indian technology magazines of that time, Wired was like a revelation in bright light and quadraphonic sound. Its articles about computers, the Internet (which I had just started using, first with Lynx and then with Netscape), technology and its effects on society were like reading about science-fiction, albeit in reality.

Since then, I have continuously bemoaned the lack of good Indian magazines to all and sundry, eliciting responses as varied as puzzled looks to bored grunts. My diatribe picked up a few notches when thanks to the offices of my dad, I was introduced to The Altantic, The New Republic (in its Stephen Glass era), Foreign Policy and a few others that he had received from colleagues and friends from the States. Therefore, when I took up my first job in Singapore, I was primed to embark on a magazine buying spree, with The Altantic, Utne Reader, Reason, New Yorker, Harpers, The Virginia Quarterly, and others piling up under my bed on a near-monthly basis. Its then also that I came across Edge, a pure online-based magazine that brought together the best minds from science to talk about their ideas.

All this would have been fine and well, since I could access these magazines over the Internet (if not, fully) and not feel left out when I came back to India. What really was the final nail for me was coming across TED, its videos, and more especially Sir Ken Robinson’s talk about education which is absolutely brilliant. I realized then that the lack of good magazines is just symptomatic of a larger malady. Namely, the fact that India does not have a public intellectual tradition. We seem to have given up the right to the public discourse and debate of and on ideas and ideologies to the commentators, the columnists, and the “intelligentsia”. In India, it seems we take our cues from the soundbites of others. I guess a lot of this has to do with the lack of any real “liberal arts” education in India but that is the topic of another post.

Anyways, it’s around that time that I decided it was better not to bemoan the lack of good magazines in India, the lack of political and ideological debate among Indians, and the fact that debates and interactions with regards to civil society and its shaping were in the hands of a small sliver of Indian society. The reason was simple. In a small way I wanted to create something that would fill this vacuum I perceived, and the instrument of choice was obviously a magazine.

Why a magazine? Well, my reasons (in no particular order or coherence) for choosing a magazine are:

  • Magazines allow for more in-depth exploration into ideas and issues compared to other media sources
  • It’s possible for a small group of people to bring out a good-quality magazine over other media, quality here being narrowly defined as good production and design
  • A good quality magazine puts you higher up on the credibility scale, with respect to readers as well advertisers
  • Magazines can be distributed over the internet as PDFs, can be printed, can be read anywhere and distributed anywhere
  • An e-magazine can be brought out for the price of a few lattes (even in India, and especially if the contributors are willing to be paid in lattes also)
  • Podcasts/Vidcasts are interesting, but still too niche for India and to be done professionally, require more than just a PC

Now, I have had some very primitive experience working on magazines, if you can call coming out with the Selaiyur Hall magazine valid experience. Even during college, I had ideas of working on a magazine and had even written a note on what it would stand for, its masthead, designed a mock cover and all. There was also some work that I did with my good friend Amit, to revive the Madras Christian College Journal which for a brief period in the late-50s and 60s was considered one of the best academic journals brought out in India. But thats the limit of my knowledge and of my attempts so far.

I’m hopeful though that through some weird osmotic intelligence gleaned from my father’s experience as a journalist as well as my extensive experience of reading magazines, I will be able to cobble together a magazine that I would at the least read. And the big assumption or leap of faith (I cant decide which) is that there will be other people who would share the same tastes and curiosities as I do. My girlfriend and I sat together to see what we could name such a project and the name we decided on was Verge. We were looking for a name that would express newness, of ideas and discourse and discussion. A name that would be able to express the fact that we were not looking at the mainstream for our ideas, but at the fringes because thats where change starts and affects the center.

So what will Verge be about? Verge will be a magazine that focuses on science, technology & society and the intersections and interactions between them. Verge will strive to be ideologically-proof and will not be involved in rhetoric. The purpose is not to jam opinions down throats but to let the reader decide for himself. It will be a magazine available both digitally and in print with quarterly digital issues and end-of-year box-sets in print sold to enthusiasts, collectors and institutional buyers. Verge will be a “mook” (a magazine in book format), something like Granta. As in all new magazines, the first writers for Verge will be “family & friends” till there are enough stories in the open and in the bank,, for established writers and journalists to show interest in contribution.

I have always been a fan of “zines” (which are practically non-existent in India), and if there is one thing that I can learn from those talented and slightly self-obsessed writers is that you need not be a Michael Kinsley or Andrew Sullivan to bring out an interesting magazine. All you need is your wits, a little creativity, a lot of patience and pure stubbornness. If I can bring out one issue which meets my expectations and then the whole thing folds up, I would still count it as a victory. So wish me luck as I refine my initial concept and start filling up the story bank for Verge. And if you would be interested in writing, do write in. Any and all help is appreciated.

Filed under: Magazine,

Delving Into Fantasy

For the longest time imaginable, I have been fascinated by fantasy – whether it be the science-fiction staples of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick or the lands of elves, dragons, and gods as laid down by writers like JRR Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, Neil Gaiman and so many others. As a person who spent most of his classroom hours staring out the window daydreaming, its obvious on hindsight that stories of alternate realities and worlds would have a special hold on me.

The reason for writing this post now is that as my collection of fantasy books has grown, I find that I’m less and less enamored by the stories I read. A certain kind of fatigue has crept in, an allergic reaction if you will to the same hackneyed portrayal of squat dwarves, lithe & androgynous elves, certain mystical objects which tie the whole tale together etc etc. If you have read any decent amount of fantasy, you would know what I’m talking about. My bile has especially been raised by the fact that I was unfortunate enough to read the latest Christopher Paolini book, Brisingr.

Now, I do not hold any great opinion about his earlier books titled Eragon and Inheritance. It’s just that I have this unfortunate affliction of not being able to resist buying the remaining books in the series once I have started the first one. Let me tell you, it results in severe economic and logistical challenges if you have this affliction and you have to shift. Back to the topic, I bought Brisingr despite my earnest attempts to avoid doing so. And what awaited me when I opened the book? The news that Paoloni has decided to expand the “Inheritance Trilogy” to an “Inheritance Cycle”, which means I still have to buy one more book!

I remember jokingly posting in a forum that there should be a Fantasy Regulatory Commission which would ensure that the interests of the readers are looked after, and that fantasy series are capped at a maximum of 3 books unless extraordinary talent has been exhibited. After all, not anyone can write like a Robert Jordan (I have all 12 of his books, and looking forward to the 13th which will sadly not be entirely his) or George RR Martin (all four of his from the “Ice & Fire” series).

Therefore, what I have been assiduously doing for the past two odd months is to get my hands on as many different types of fantasy as I can, steadfastly avoiding the usual cliched staples. Think of it as taking as a running jump into the deep end of the fantasy pool with no lifeguard in sight. To what end you might ask. Simple, to understand what makes me tick as a reader and to expand my horizon beyond the usually read and recommended. Thanks to the efforts of friends and some nice bookstores, my tally stands as follows (in no particular order):

  1. Orphans of Chaos – John Wright
  2. Fugitives of Chaos – John Wright
  3. Titans of Chaos – John Wright
  4. Consider Phlebas – Iain Banks
  5. His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik
  6. Throne of Jade – Naomi Novik
  7. Black Powder War – Naomi Novik
  8. Empire of Ivory – Naomi Novik
  9. Victory of Eagles – Naomi Novik
  10. The Sword of Shannara – Terry Brooks
  11. The Elfstones of Shannara – Terry Brooks
  12. The Wishsong of Shannara – Terry Brooks
  13. Nine Princes in Amber – Roger Zelazny
  14. Guns of Avalon – Roger Zelazny
  15. Sign of the Unicorn – Roger Zelazny
  16. Hand of Oberon – Roger Zelazny
  17. The Courts of Chaos – Roger Zelazny
  18. River of Gods – Ian McDonald
  19. Anathem – Neal Stephenson
  20. Brisingr – Christopher Paolini
  21. Nightside of the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
  22. Lake of the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
  23. Calde of the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
  24. Exodus from the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
  25. The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe
  26. The Claw of the Conciliator – Gene Wolfe
  27. The Sword of the Lictor – Gene Wolfe
  28. The Urth of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe
  29. On Blue’s Waters – Gene Wolfe
  30. The Good Fairies of New York – Martin Millar
  31. Pavane – Keith Roberts
  32. The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie
  33. Before They Are Hanged – Joe Abercrombie
  34. Last Argument of Kings – Joe Abercrombie

Another good resource for free ebooks (of the legal kind) is Tor.com which for the past six odd months has been generously giving out two ebooks every fortnight as a promotion for the launch of their new website. Through Tor and again in no particular order, I was able to read the following books:

  1. The Outstretched Shadow – Mercedes Lackey, James Mallory
  2. Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson
  3. Farthing – Jo Walton
  4. Spin – Robert Charles Wilson
  5. Crystal Rain – Tobias Buckell
  6. Lord of the Isles – David Drake
  7. Through Wolf’s Eyes – Jane Lindskold
  8. The Disunited States of America – Harry Turtledove
  9. Reffein’s Choice – S.C. Butler
  10. Sun of Suns – Karl Schroeder
  11. Four and Twenty Blackbirds – Cherie Priest
  12. Spirit Gate – Kate Elliott
  13. Starfish – Peter Watts
  14. A Shadow in Summer – Daniel Abraham
  15. Touch of Evil – C.T. Adams, Cathy Clamp
  16. In The Garden of Iden – Kage Barker
  17. Flash – L.E. Modesitt
  18. In the Midnight Hour – Patti O’Shea
  19. Soul – Tobsha Learner
  20. Darkness of the Light – Peter David
  21. Butcher Bird – Richard Kadrey

What lessons have I learnt other than the simple fact that I have a lot of free time on my hands? The first is that yes, fantasy as a genre is heavily weighted by the usual cliches of dwarves, elves, trolls and their numerous other anthropomorphic equivalents. And this is definitely something that excludes a lot of potential readers because of the juvenile connotations that it arouses in their minds. The result of this is that a lot of radically different, well-written works of fantasy get left by the roadside except in the minds of enthusiasts.

Secondly, my own tastes I see have changed from a liking for Tolkien-ish worlds with their focus on languages, cultures and creatures rather than on the story, to novels where the story has to be heading somewhere by the second chapter if it does not want to face the risk of summary dismissal. I think this is because as a reader and as an employed person (instead of as a student, where most of my fantasy reading happened), I need a quick fix. I just cannot be bothered now to learn the lingua franca of the fantasy world, its theology and cultural evolution just to be able to appreciate the novel.

Thirdly, I find that books based on alternative realities keep me quite engrossed. Novels like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series with its dragons set in a realistic Napoleonic era are engrossing because of the heavy element of realism that they imbue. As a reader, the mind does not have to stretch its imagination beyond accepting that there are dragons in that era to enjoy the novel. It’s because the characters in the novels, whether human or dragon are fleshed out so well that all the reader has to do is just read along with the author and enjoy the story.

Alternative fiction would also include novels like Farthing by Jo Walton which is a story about the successful rise of fascism in England during World War 2, or Harry Tutrledove’s The Disunited States of America which is a part science fiction, part alternative reality tale of the failure of the federal structure of the United States of America and how each state becomes a country in its own right with a separate military, currency and patois. I would also recommend Pavane by Keith Roberts which is a novel based on the English being defeated by the Spanish Armada and the entrenchment of Catholicism in 20th century England.

Finally, I think my taste has shifted towards characters who are painted with shades of grey rather than the usual monochromatic cast of characters we find in fantasy novels. Some works which have characters that fit this bill exactly are Joe Abercrombie’s series, Daniel Abraham’s first novel from his Long Price Quartet and Gene Wolfe’s “Tales of the New Sun” series. What makes these novels so attractive is that the characters are real human beings, with fears and desires, circumspect and wavering. If there are heroes, they are anti-heroes or very reluctant at donning the mantle of the hero. All these combine to make a narrative which is easy for the reader to get subsumed into.

There definitely is a lot of good fantasy out there for any reader to lose himself in. The problem I think most face is finding it and appreciating it. As mentioned above, Tor.com is a good resource that people can look at for recommendations though its obviously limited to Tor authors. Browsing through Librarything I have found is a good way to find new recommendations as is Amazon. In the end, the best recommendation I can give is that if it has elves and dwarves in it, just push it away. You will end up reading a lot more good fantasy if you follow that simple maxim.

Filed under: Reading, ,

Watch Some Cinema Today

Being quite new to a city has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages mainly being the simple fact that everything you experience in terms of sound, sight, taste is coated with a thick varnish of newness. This sadly though doesn’t last as long as it should. For a person like me who usually finds himself pretty bored and that soon, its absolutely imperative to be able to find a suitable distraction. This is especially pertinent when one finds that there is nothing to do in the long wait between getting off work and sleeping. Our forefathers had hobbies, our generation has Tata Sky, mall tourism and the eternal question of “Where do we eat out today?”

This is how I found myself joining the membership program of BigFlix, an online as well as store-based DVD rental service started by the ubiquitous Reliance conglomerate. If you saw Wall-E and wondered which company would ever become like Buy & Large, well, Reliance would definitely be the top Indian contender. Anyways, the plans available seemed decent and pretty close to what’s being offered by competitors like seventymm.com and Catchflix. The only reason I went with BigFlix was that being a Reliance concern, I have the fond hope that they’ll throw a lot of money at the problem and build a gargantuan DVD library double quick.

I have no hopes that it will ever reach the breadth and depth of a Netfix but living in India, I’m willing to make a compromise for second best or third or fourth or well let’s just say that I hope they give it a good shot. From what little I’ve seen, I think they might be moving in the right direction. For e.g., the nearest BigFlix store near my place has the complete Merchant-Ivory oeuvre on the rack. Complete, I kid you not. Last week, my mind boggled at the sight of seeing Ingmar Bergman films in the rack next to Saw 2 and The Grudge. As an average Indian who still gets sticker shock on seeing DVD prices here, BigFlix and its ilk might be the best way to cop a feel at world cinema and not get burnt in the process.

Of course, for the tiny minority of us blessed (or formerly blessed) to be studying in the “elite” institutions of India and thereby doubly blessed by the presence of fat pipes to the Internet, such problems matter not at all. In less advanced institutes like where I studied, a small minority of us derived our sense of achievement from having watched (or having tried to watch) the entire IMDB Top 250 through the munificence of BitTorrent. In places like IIT, I have it from good sources that the levels of achievement are even higher, with attempts being made at the IMDB Top 500 and a very few intrepid souls even attempting to scale that lofty and distant peak named the IMDB Worst 100.

While I did have the fortune (and the curiosity) to have seen quite a number of movies over the years, there are still some that got away, quite like the cliched girl. Then there are some that I studiously avoided, after seeing the reviews on IMDB and their large groupie fan following on sites like Orkut and Facebook. For example, i gave a wide berth to the films of Wong Kar Wai, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and similar others, because I did not want to become the cinematic equivalent of the Proust-spouting “intellectual” in the corners of parties across the world. I belong to the clique which studiously avoids all cliques.

Having then seen Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express after finally breaking my rules, all I can do is kick myself for not having seen as much of his work earlier as I could. The movie was amazing because it showed that cinema is not just about the story but about the presentation and imagery, the setting of mood, the right music kicking in at the right time. Parts of it were multimedia art with the colors, the motion, the music and the dialogue popping out of the screen, flirting with 3-dimensionality. It wasn’t the greatest story ever told but you could see how the imagination of the director had taken the narrative to the next level. I’ll stop gushing now.

On my menu yesterday was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s Amores Perros or “Love Is Dogs”. Please refer above to kicking myself. Though I had steeled myself to the prospect of disappointment, in the end I was up till 2 AM watching. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu also happens to be the director of 21 Grams and Babel, both of which I have seen and which he directed after Amores Perros. The underlying technique that he uses in all three movies is that of following parallel narratives that come together or diverge from one single event and the consequences thereof. It’s to his credit that it never comes across as a gimmick and that it actually helps in moving the movie forward.

What I really loved about the movie was the moral ambiguousness of the characters. There is no black and white in the movie which is what makes it so real and believable. If there is any moral redemption, then its wisely kept off the screen. The characters in the movie are flawed and it shows some of them being able to rise above these flaws and how some are still victim to its demands. In the end, its impossible to pass a moral judgement on any of the six principal characters because the dilemmas, emotions, urges that they pass through mirror our own. It’s difficult to watch the movie without seeing shades of ourselves in it. Or maybe its just me being all anthropic about it.

As you can expect, I have setup my queue on BigFlix to keep supplying me with whatever it can offer in terms of world cinema as well as less mainstream titles. Once these get over, my plan is to wade through the Merchant-Ivory collection with brief respites for commercial films. My usual sources of cinema recommendations are IMDB and Amazon’s “You Might Also Like” for films on the lesser side of the commercial film spectrum and Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes for the ones on the other. One good source for documentaries is Kevin Kelly’s True Films website which I would heartily recommend. If there are any other good sources out there, do let me know.

Filed under: Movies, , , , , , ,

Back To Work

Well, am now back to the world of the living and the gainfully employed. I have taken up an opportunity to work with a startup microfinance organization based in Mumbai For me, the attraction is two fold:

  • I get the opportunity to work in a startup organization in a pivotal role and help in shaping its future prospects, its culture and its success
  • I get to continue working in the field of social ventures even though this time round it is as an employee rather than as a potential entrepreneur

Urban microfinance is quite a nascent field in India because the focus of the government and the NGO sector has traditionally been on the less developed hinterland. The fact that is conveniently ignored is that migration to urban areas has intensified over the past decade of liberalization and that urban poverty is as omnipresent a problem as rural poverty. Interestingly, last year it was declared that for the first time in the history of the world, urban population had exceeded the rural. It just shows the increasing urbanization of the world is a process that is not going to end any time soon.

In India, the population in cities is increasing so rapidly that the average population of an Indian metro today begins to rival that of small European and African countries. There is a study which shows that Delhi adds on an average 665 migrants daily and Mumbai around 236. Thats over 300,000 people annually added to the Delhi population and over 200,000 to Mumbai’s. It is no wonder it is projected that by 2015, Mumbai and Delhi will rank as the 2nd and 3rd largest urban agglomerations in the world. Thats just another 7 years away.

There are a smattering of organizations, mainly in the NGO sector that are working in the urban microfinance space but none of them have actually been able to create a model that is self-sustaining and that achieves exponential growth. Its obvious that this is because they have not been able to understand what the consumer for urban microfinance services requires and actually, the problem might actually be even more fundamental, that these organizations do not view people accessing these services as customers in the first place.

This is the reason why there are no urban microfinance organizations that have reached the scale of players in the rural microfinance space like Spandana, Share Microfin, BASIX and others. Of course, one hears frequently of microfinance organizations that have been successful in setting up rural projects talk about entering the urban space, but it still remains to be seen how many of them will be able to successfully translate their learnings and in-house processes to reflect the realities of urban India.

In the end, urban poverty is something that requires as much attention from the policy makers, civil society and other institutions as rural poverty. There is an interesting UN-HABITAT report that urban slum dwellers are actually worse off than their rural counterparts. As usual, any such report should be taken with a pinch of salt but it does corroborate my own experience in both urban and rural settings of poverty. Of course, my experience is as sketchy as they come and should be taken with an even bigger pinch of salt.

At the end of the day, the success and viability of our society depends on how well we can patch together the disparities in its fabric created due to economic and social circumstances. Microfinance in all its avatars is definitely an important tool at addressing these disparities and bridging the gulf between them. In the packed slums and chawls of urban India, the financial returns, security and social validation that microfinance can bring to the people living in them will go a long way forward into bringing people out of the vicious circle of poverty of opportunities that afflicts them now.

And in the course of doing that, if urban microfinance in India is also able to create a microfinance praxis that can be easily translated to urban third-world settings across the world and do so in a financially and socially sustainable manner, it would do no less than change the world. Let’s see how this innings goes then.

Filed under: India, , ,

After A Long Hiatus

Well, I have been away from this blog for more than two months now. My resignation from the current job as well as the myriad complications arising out of it, the piles of work from the transitioning process and the general sense of ennui with life has kept my hands and mind full over the past few weeks and more.

Time to catch up on the writing and the rambling. Expect to see regular posting from now on. Cheers.

Filed under: Ramble,

The Indian Trinity

A few weeks back I got my hands on a book that shook my perspective on how engaging non-fiction could be. That book happened to be Richard Rhodes‘ “Making of the Atomic Bomb“. A 900-odd page look into the genesis of the idea of the bomb and its actual birth in the parched womb of New Mexico as Trinity, the first atomic bomb to ever be set off on the face of the planet. Its a fascinating look also into the lives of the bombs’ midwives, from Teller, Oppenheimer, Szilard, and a host of others.

I have always been a fan of the genre called “historical reimagined fiction”, a genre that blurs the line between fiction and reality to an extent where you start accepting the author’s account of historical events and narratives. One of my favorite authors and series in this genre happens to be Neal Stephenson‘s “The Baroque Cycle” trilogy. Another favorite was Patrick O’Brian‘s “Master and Commander” series, starting from the eponymous book to the final one in the series.

To actually then read a work like “Making of the Atomic Bomb”, where you know that there is no line to be blurred, that what is actually being narrated is reality, transcribed and collated from thousands of hours of interviews and research, is to take a look into the mind of genius. I also happen to have Richard Rhodes’ book on writing called, well, “How To Write“, where he mentions taking five years to pen this work. If you were to take a look at the bibliography at the end of the book, you would have a pretty good picture of where those five years went.

I am yet to come across any work taking the erudition and detail present in Richard Rhodes’ work to the subject of the Indian nuclear-military-space complex. As an Indian, its a fascinating topic which few people have ever explored, in terms of matter for books as well as for personal exploration. For a newly-independent nation to develop a competent nuclear power and associated research sector, create a whole military complex based on the principle of self-sufficiency, and also setup a space research organization that is one of the cheapest space launch providers out there, is a laudable feat.

So where are the books then? Now, I’m aware that there are biographies/hagiographies of the people who fathered and sustained these complexes, people like Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Bhabha, APJ Abdul Kalam, MGK Menon and others. There obviously is a reason that most people have not read any of these (excepting numerous ones on Kalam that must have got publicity during his stint as President). Some reasons that come to mind are poor or dry writing, little or no publicity, and little or no availability.

I’ve gone ferreting around in some of the biggest bookstores in India but have yet to come across any book on this topic. There are one or two writen by foreign authors though but available only through Amazon. It’s sad that some of the most inventive and self-sufficient stories to come out of Independent India are out of sight and out of mind of the Indian public because there aren’t authors talented or interested enough to take this chapter in our nation’s history and convert into a compelling narrative that would interest readers of all ages and backgrounds.

Of course, a criticism that most people would aim at me for shortlisting Indian achievements in the nuclear, space and military sciences is that it totally neglects the work done by our agricultural scientists such as MS Swaminathan and supporters like C Subramaniam. What of the achievements of Indian scientists in radio astronomy, neutrino detection and other esoteric fields? In my defence, all I can say is that these are the three areas that I’ve followed closely and am most able to say something about which won’t be moronic. It’s times like these when I really wish I had the gift and more importantly the patience required to write.

Filed under: India, , ,

Eee, It’s My Eee Review

Sorry, I just could not resist that. Getting to the point, I have in my hands an Asus Eee PC that I have been using for the past two days. My office has just bought two of them for evaluation purposes so thought I’d do a quick evaluation to see if it really is worth buying as a laptop replacement or not.

The model I have is a black Asus Eee PC 4G laptop. Specs are standard and are as given below:

7 “800×480 TFT LCD screen

900Mhz Celeron Processor clocked down to 700

Intel GMA 900 graphics processor (shared memory)

4GB SSD Storage

512 MB RAM

It’s a really appealing laptop to hold. Light (weighing in at 920 grams), it’s easy to carry around with you from room to room, with absolutely no strain. The black finish also feels good with a very matte Thinkpad-like finish to the plastic enclosure. No worries about this laptop slipping through your fingers and disintegrating on the floor.

The Eee had come re-loaded with Linux, the Xandros distro going by the reviews on the net. Unfortunately, I’m not able to comment on the performance of Linux on this machine as my Sysadmin promptly replaced it with Windows XP.

With Windows XP and Microsoft Office Professional installed, there is just over 790MB usable space left. If you through Eee specific sites, then you will find that a lot of people have stripped down XP and Office to reduce the space taken on the laptop. Your mileage might vary.

I haven’t timed the boot up and shutdown times to gauge responsiveness. Let me just say that with 790MB of free space left, it’s still very snappy. Definitely far more than most Windows-based desktops/laptops that I have used. Microsoft Office opens pretty quickly, even Outlook, but I haven’t had the opportunity of using my GB-plus inbox to test though.

There are two standard resolutions for the desktop on the Eee, 800×480 (the standard) and 800×600 (conventional). With 800×600, the screen will scroll to accommodate the increased desktop and that can be slightly problematic especially when using the cramped keyboard and touchpad.

800×480 is a good compromise with Microsoft Office applications fitting neatly in the available screen space. Touchpad-based scrolling will be necessary for webpages though, especially news sites like the New York Times. Also, readability is slightly better at this resolution with crisper text and images.

Moving on to the keyboard. As is obvious in a laptop of this size, it is a big compromise in terms of writing efficiency and comfort. You can forget about touch-typing on this machine. The keys are cramped up together and it takes a good amount of time to get used to the layout. It’s possible to get used to the key size in some time, but what is really an irritant is the placement of keys.

Case in point is the right shift key, which is totally useless due to it being sized like a regular key and placed right above the cursor keys. Try pressing shift and you land up typing on some other end of your document. Another irritant is the space bar that is placed in such a manner that it cannot be accessed without pressing an Alt key accidentally, which again leads you, elsewhere from you document.

Otherwise though, the keys are good once when you get used to the layout, with good feedback and feel. Horribly dull looking though. For a laptop that is aimed at pure mobility, it would have been good if they could have provided a backlit keyboard that would have increased the usability in an appreciable manner.

Next few things that I would like to focus on are the gripes I have with the laptop.

One thing that really sticks out is the amount of space wasted around the display due to the speakers being placed there. I think this is one area that has been addressed in the Eee 900, the next version of the Asus Eee 4G that I am reviewing. Asus has increased the screen size to 8.9” by removing the speakers. I’m sure that the difference between usability on a 7” screen and a 8.9” screen will be significant.

Second gripe is the touchpad. It’s way too small and would have been better if it was a little wider. For a laptop where a significant amount of scrolling is required, it is surprising that Asus has not stolen a sheet out of Apple’s playbook and incorporated double-fingered scrolling in the touchpad. Less about the touchpad buttons the better. Suffice to say that they look and feel cheap.

Third gripe is the heat generated by it. You would not expect such a small laptop to generate as much heat as it actually does. For something aimed at mobility, it gets so hot at times that it’s unusable, on your lap or in your hand. I’m hoping hat this is an issue that will be addressed through adoption of Intel Atom processors as and when they become available.

I wish I could open up the laptop to see what kind of heatsink they have inside and also if its been pasted on properly. From what I gather online, it’s not an issue isolated to my unit. (Update: It seems that there is no heatsink per se, but there is a steel cover for the motherboard acting as one. No wonder.)

A niggling gripe is that there is no indication lights for the Lock keys, so if you have accidentally pressed the Caps Lock, Num Lock or Scroll Lock there is absolutely no way of knowing what you did till you start typing. How much money can Asus save by omitting three LEDs or is just a simple oversight?

Final gripe and one of the most important according to me is the case of the Eee. Since it is so light and also bottom-heavy, due to the placement of the battery at the back, it has an unfortunate tendency to tip over at little provocation (slight nudge to the screen for example). This can get really annoying especially when you’re in the middle of doing some work on it. It is also nearly impossible to use when it’s resting on a soft surface like a bed or sofa.

Coming back to the million-dollar question? Is the Eee worth buying as a secondary laptop? My answer to that would be an emphatic no. Unless you are using a 17” or 19” desktop replacement monstrosity as your primary laptop, you would be hard-pressed to make a logical case for buying an Eee. (But then, which gadget buying geek would qualify as being logical when it comes to gadgets)

Is it worth it as a desktop replacement or road-warrior laptop? Hmmm, slightly more difficult question. It all depends on whether you have big meaty fingers or not, whether weight is a very significant parameter in your choice, and whether you can live with the compromises of working with limited storage and no optical drive.

It is definitely not a laptop where you will be playing Half-Life 2 LAN parties but for the basic usage of accessing the web, using Office applications and listening to music or watching videos, it more than adequately meets the demands raised by the user.

At 18,000 rupees in India, it’s definitely not going to be an impulse buy for most, unlike the US where the Eee is available for less than USD 400. Also, unlike the US where Asus is targeting markets such as primary and secondary education, first-time computer users and parents, in India most of these markets are still very nascent.

Also in India, computer purchases are still driven by the “value” mentality rather than the “gadget” mentality. Even for me, making a laptop purchasing decision depends on a complete comparison of hardware in the market, and assessing the differential price that each brand name is commanding. It is very difficult for me to see how Asus will penetrate the Indian market in any effective manner or even expand the market to include first-time computer users.

Would I buy it? No. Not even if I had the money to spare. This is mainly because while the Asus Eee was a revolutionary way of thinking about portable computing and reducing hardware clutter to the basic minimum required to get the job done, it has also attracted a whole new batch of competitors into this market, most notable being the HP Mini-Note series.

As prices and hardware configurations start getting better, the Eee’s basic values of cheap and simple computing start to get more devalued. Therefore, while my vote is against the Asus Eee as a product, I would definitely vote for the new crop of ultra-mini laptops coming into the market. And we all have to thank Asus and the Eee for that.

Hopefully, I will be able to get my hands on the HP Mini-Note laptop for a review as well as comparison with the Asus Eee. Until then, some more links that might be of use to a person looking into getting an Eee:

By the way, this whole post was written using the Eee. It did take longer than my usual time but I’m sure that in some time typing speeds will even out. In all it was good fun, but I could not imagine using the Eee on a daily basis.

If you want some more information regarding the different ultra-mini laptops out there, head over to my earlier post on this topic called The New Ultra-Mini Revolution.

Filed under: Gadgets, , , , , , , ,

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