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Aspiring polymath since 1982

1001 Movies To See Before You Die

Seems like it is the season for lists. Another list that I came across courtesy Kottke, on the 1001 movies that you have to see before you die. Now, I do find this list a lot more dubious than that on books, because can there be honestly 1001 ‘great’ movies in the short span of time that cinema has been around as a medium? Anyways, the list is here for you to see.

Out of the list I have slogged my way through a grand total of 170, most of this done over the last four years. Now I begin to see where most of my time has been going. The movies I have seen are given below. Some changes were made to the list, and they can be seen here.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Collateral (2004)

The Aviator (2004)

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Sideways (2004)

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Lost in Translation (2003)

Chicago (2002)

City of God (2002)

Gangs of New York (2002)

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Moulin Rouge (2001)

Amelie (2001)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Memento (2000)

Traffic (2000)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Amores Perros (2000)

Meet the Parents (2000)

Gladiator (2000)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

Being John Malkovich (1999)

American Beauty (1999)

Audition (1999)

Three Kings (1999)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Ring (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Run Lola Run (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Titanic (1997)

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Trainspotting (1996)

The English Patient (1996)

Independence Day (1996)

Fargo (1996)

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Seven (1995)

Heat (1995)

Clueless (1995)

Braveheart (1995)

Babe (1995)

Toy Story (1995)

Casino (1995)

The Last Seduction (1994)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Forrest Gump (1994)

Clerks (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

The Lion King (1994)

Schindler’s List (1993)

Philadelphia (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Total Recall (1990)

Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Pretty Woman (1990)

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Goodfellas (1990)

Batman (1989)

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Rain Man (1988)

Die Hard (1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

The Naked Gun (1988)

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

The Untouchables (1987)

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Top Gun (1986)

Platoon (1986)

Aliens (1986)

Brazil (1985)

Back to the Future (1985)

Out of Africa (1985)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Ghostbusters (1984)

Amadeus (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

The Right Stuff (1983)

Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

Once Upon a Time in America (1983)

Scarface (1983)

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

The Big Chill (1983)

Blade Runner (1982)

The Evil Dead (1982)

Tootsie (1982)

Gandhi (1982)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981)

E.T.: The Extra-Terestrial (1982)

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Airplane! (1980)

Raging Bull (1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Manhattan (1979)

Mad Max (1979)

Life of Brian (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Alien (1979)

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Annie Hall (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Star Wars (1977)

All the President’s Men (1976)

Rocky (1976)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Jaws (1975)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

The Godfather Part II (1974)

The Exorcist (1973)

Papillon (1973)

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Solaris (1972)

The Godfather (1972)

The French Connection (1971)

Dirty Harry (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Patton (1970)

M*A*S*H (1970)

Woodstock (1970)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

The Sound of Music (1965)

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

My Fair Lady (1964)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Apartment (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Ben-Hur (1959)

North by Northwest (1959)

Vertigo (1958)

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

12 Angry Men (1957)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

The Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Rashomon (1950)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Casablanca (1942)

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The obligatory links to other lists are below:

Filed under: Movies, , ,

1001 Books To Read Before You Die

I came across a post about a list of 1000 books that you have to read before you die on one of my daily stops on the Internet, Kottke. The full list is available here. Out of the 1001 books, I have read a total of 128. I have marked my favorites with an asterisk.

Some of the authors that I think I have egregiously missed out on reading are Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, JM Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro and Italo Calvino. Lots of reading to catch up on.

Life of Pi – Yann Martel

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood *

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson *

The Ground Beneath Her Feet – Salman Rushdie

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Underworld – Don DeLillo

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry *

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres

The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx *

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

The Robber Bride – Margaret Atwood

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul – Douglas Adams

The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

Watchmen – Alan Moore & David Gibbons *

Contact – Carl Sagan *

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

Neuromancer – William Gibson

Rabbit is Rich – John Updike

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco *

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams *

The World According to Garp – John Irving

Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon

Rabbit Redux – John Updike

The Godfather – Mario Puzo

Cancer Ward – Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez *

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John Le Carré

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey *

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Franny and Zooey – J.D. Salinger

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Rabbit, Run – John Updike

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

The Last Temptation of Christ – Nikos Kazantzákis *

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway *

Foundation – Isaac Asimov

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

The Rebel – Albert Camus

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

Animal Farm – George Orwell *

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

Thank You, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence

The Castle – Franz Kafka

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Siddhartha – Herman Hesse

Tarzan of the Apes – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Nostromo – Joseph Conrad

Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Kim – Rudyard Kipling

The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells

The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells

The Island of Dr. Moreau – H.G. Wells

The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy

Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne

Erewhon – Samuel Butler

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There – Lewis Carroll

The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoevsky

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy *

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Les Misérables – Victor Hugo

Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turgenev *

Silas Marner – George Eliot

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

Walden – Henry David Thoreau

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

Moby-Dick – Herman Melville

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

The Count of Monte-Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

The Pit and the Pendulum – Edgar Allan Poe

Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo

Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper

Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott

Emma – Jane Austen

Mansfield Park – Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

Candide – Voltaire

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

The Thousand and One Nights – Anonymous

Aesop’s Fables – Aesopus

Some more “lists” to peruse if you have the time are:

Update: Came across another interesting list on Spread The Word. They have a list of 50 books under a shortlist for their 2009 “Books To Talk About” competition. You can see the full list here.

Filed under: Reading, , ,

Being Atheist

In today’s religious climate, its not very easy to rise up in front of a crowd of your peers and elders and have to state the uncomfortable fact (for them) that you do not believe in the things that they believe in, and that your belief system actually consists of an emphatic lack of belief in theirs. There are the usual exclamations about landing up in hell, wise elders shaking their heads and saying that its just a growing-up phase and that you will revert to believing in God again, just you wait and see. Scandalized aunts whispering loudly that that boy was always weird and different. Peers tittering or staring incredulously, as if your pronouncement was the verbal equivalent of a Girls Gone Wild (mildly NSFW) video.

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Why is it so difficult for people to accept that there might be someone who does not believe in God and actually has very good reasons backing him up? Why does an atheist not only have to explain his belief (or lack of it) in front of everyone at every given opportunity, but also have to deal with people who think that their faith is being put to question by your lack of it? After all, we are all atheist in some way or the other. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins from his talk at TED, “If you ask someone who is a Christian if he believes in Allah, Vishnu or Odin, he would definitely say no. As atheists, we just go one god further”.

We don’t become atheist because its something that can get talked about at cocktail parties, or because its a laugh scandalizing people. We are atheists because that is the only frame of reference that explains and satisfies the recurrent question of who we are and where we belong.

As a person born and brought up in a mildly conservative Hindu family, its been a question that I have grappled with myself for a while. My interactions with the faith that I was in mostly consisted of weekly or monthly trips to the nearest temple and reading up on the works of well-known Hindu philosophers. The more I read, the more it struck me that even as Hindus, the belief systems and philosophies that they worked with had so much variation (as Hinduism lacks any dogma)

If there was so much variation in their beliefs, then the only logical conclusion I could arrive at was that all or nearly all of it had to come from a man-made source. That religion itself was a man-made construct, adapting and evolving itself to meet the requirements and needs of its adherents over the centuries of its existence. So if it was a man-made construct, then where could God arise out of, except from a blind devotion to the central dogma of his or her existence?

My realization was not a Hindu-specific realization, because if you were to examine any of the other major world religions you would seem the profligacy of man-made construct in their belief systems, their religious texts, their rituals and dogma. How else could any one explain the sheer proliferation of sects in stridently monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity?

The second realization that I arrived at was that religion needs unquestioning belief. That it brooks no questions and rarely, if ever, accepts speculation. Religion could never be like science, accepting nothing unless it had passed the gauntlet of academic scrutiny, empirical testing and validation. Even in economics, while there might not be a mathematical equivalent of 200805051210.jpg for the relationship between supply and demand, there is still a very clear and unambiguous correlation between the two. Religion has nothing of the like.

The third realization that I had which was to push me even farther, was the realization that science and religion are essentially antithetical to each other. As a person who was deeply interested in science and its questions, the sheer impossibility of any form of logical reconciliation between religion and science was something that made me realize that it had to be one or the other. That for me, there could not be an uneasy truce between the two like Human Genome Project director Francis Collins was able to arrive at very publicly, in his books as well as talks.

Like Pascal’s wager, I tried making my peace with the incoherence of organized religion and my growing lack of belief in a higher power by hiding behind the convenient skirts offered by agnosticism. And it did work for a while as long as I kept myself away from any discussion regarding religion or faith that would re-ignite the doubts all over again. I stifled any close-blasphemous verbalization regarding religion that came to my lips now and then. The surprise for me was how accepting people were of my agnosticism.

It was kind of like being treated as the befuddled aunt at a party who mixes everyones name up without any recognizance of her errors. Indulgent smiles from religious people who in their hearts would have been hoping that I would find God as long as it was their own. Nods of understanding from other agnostics who might have seen in me, a reflection of their own reconciliations and journeys. Things would have continued in this fashion if I did not make the decision last year that I could not be truly free till I acknowledged who I was, because otherwise I’d be living a lie that I really had no reason to continue living.

That realizing one thing and accepting it are two totally different things, is something that I have gained as an experience truly my own. Arriving at the conclusion that I could not in all conscience consider myself a part of the religious majority was easy. Making a clean break from religion and the comfort and security of its community was for me the most difficult part of my transition.

Starting off with irrational fear of uttering anything bordering on blasphemous, being tight-lipped about religious orientation or interest, avoidance of any discussion on religion or faith, the convenient subterfuge offered by agnosticism were all the different steps that I went through before arriving at the courage to publicly verbalize my atheism. A courage required for me to scale the barriers raised in my mind and psyche by my upbringing in religion rather than the courage required to face the public eye.

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This post of mine is not raise questions in the eyes of people who do profess a faith in God and/or religion. The purpose is basically to chronicle in a small way the journey I undertook to the port of call where I’m right now. There are atheists out there who propound that all atheists should be out there proselytizing the truth about atheism, the irrational belief of God and the corrupting influence that religion has on the daily lives of billions. While that might be motivation for some, for me it looks very much like the religious evangelization that I have come to dislike.

I do not seek to “convert” anyone to atheism and I do not engage (as much as possible) in arguments for atheism unless dragged or provoked into it by someone. I’m an atheist because thats what’s fulfills me as a human being and not because of any sense of self-righteousness on my part. I believe that people should be free to believe in anything that they want to even if it involves fairies and leprechauns and I do wish that religious people had the same attitude of understanding when it comes to other belief systems. After all, does it take a stretch of imagination to go from angels and demons to elves?

I do think that atheists out there have a responsibility though. And that responsibility involves being more open about our atheism, about not hiding behind words like agnosticism and making the public more aware about what atheism means and what it means for them. After all the known enemy is better than the unknown (at least for religious fundamentalists). In the sublime words of Donald Rumsfeld, let us not be “unknown unknowns” but “unknown knowns” to start with and slowly make the transition to “known knowns”.

Lets make sure that there is enough material out there regarding transitions made by people from a religious belief system to atheism. Material which will serve as guideposts for people out there too confused and maybe also scared to make the transition on their own. Prominent people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have their part to play but so do we. At a smaller, grassroots level, we can take baby steps also to ensure that there is a support system that people can use. Especially for people who are letting go of any that they ever had.

Most importantly, keeping in mind that we do not ever want to be equated as an “Atheist Church”. Nearly all of us have arrived where we are through logical reasoning and introspection on our part. Proselytizing or evangelizing of any kind would just undermine the journey of any people who would care to join through such a drive.

I have collected some links that I think would of use to anyone interested in this topic. This page will be continually updated with new links and material, as and when I come across them.

Websites:
  • Why Won’t God Heal Amputees : Website examining systems of prayer and religion and refuting them through simple logical reasoning. Slightly Christian-focused but that might be because its an US website
  • Internet Infidels : Promoting a naturalistic worldview, namely “the hypothesis that the physical universe is a ‘closed system’ in the sense that nothing that is neither a part nor a product of it can affect it. So naturalism entails the nonexistence of all supernatural beings, including the theistic God.” Good reading material and references
  • Positive Atheism : Another website containing a lot of material and references for use by atheists and people stuck on the cusp. They promote activist atheism which should be self-explanatory to anyone
  • Richard Dawkins : The great grand-daddy of atheists out there in terms of visibility and activism. Site contains reading samples from his books as well a very active discussion forum on atheism. Great resource, highly recommended. Be prepared to lose a lot of your time on the site though (it’s that engaging!)
  • Atheism in India : The only good resource on Indian Atheism that I could come across. Web site collates material from over half a century of the Atheist Center’s existence. Based out of all places in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh. The official website is here
  • Flying Spaghetti Monster : A parody religion cooked (pun intended) by an activist in Kansas to protest against the inclusion of Intelligent Design as a theory in science textbooks in the state. Spread like wildfire across blogs and the news networs and now has its own approved Church and Bible.

Books:

  • The God Delusion : A distillation of Richard Dawkin’s work involving atheism and refuting the claims of intelligent design, its a great read for people like me. Might not bring smiles to the religious majority out there
  • The Blind Watchmaker : The book that really started it all for Richard Dawkins. An examination of evolution that puts down the argument for intelligent design cogently and decisively. A great read again, even for the religious right
  • A History of God : This is another book which really shook my core. Former nun Karen Armstrong examines the evolution of monotheism from its roots in paganism to its current avatar of devout bureaucracies. If this will not shake your questions about religion as a man-made construct, nothing else on this page will. Brilliant read.

There are some great books out there by Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens also but I’ve focused on Dawkins as he seems to be more readily available here in India.

The atheistic difference is and should always be that it offers a path based on humanism and rationalism, not one based on the very tools and techniques that started pushing us away from the folds of our religious backgrounds in the first place.

Filed under: Society, , , , , , ,

eDemocracy and Participatory Citizenship

The idea for this post came from an event called eDemocracyCamp held in Washington DC that I happened to come across. As the name might tell, eDemocracyCamp is based on the BarCamp model, and its purpose according to their website is “eDemocracyCamp will connect citizens, researchers, developers, practitioners and anyone else interested in the topic to learn about the current state of e-democracy and share their visions for its future direction”.

Going through their website and the sessions that they held, made me realize that for all our talk about being the world’s largest democracy, for most of us our duties as citizens ends with the casting of a vote (if at all). I’m equally culpable as I finally got around to getting my Voter’s ID Card issued this January only. And this, when I do not consider myself an apathetic citizen.

Civil Society and Participatory Citizenship is a theme that has really interested me over the years though like most Indians of my generation, a general fatigue brought on by constant reminders through Tehelka, TV sting operations and the general perception about the political class, that the pervasive rot in our political system is enough to put us of any interest or involvement in governance, local or otherwise.

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The introduction of the Right To Information Act (RTI) was supposed to improve transparency and serve as an instrument for civil society to monitor and critique the functioning of the government. Though how aware the general populace is about RTI and how to go about using it for their benefit is still moot. Even in urban India.

Easy access to simple details such as land records, birth and death certificates, caste certificates, would enable the common man to break free from the grip of the lower bureaucracy was the rationale behind e-governance services in many states. In reality, several villages that I have had the opportunity too visit over the last one year are not yet aware of the availability of their government’s e-governance services.

Therefore access to information alone cannot be the “killer app“.

Mediation of information will be the “killer app”

I don’t know how many people are aware of it, but all the questions asked by MPs in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sessions and the government’s responses to them are available online here and here. There might even be a similar system in some State Assemblies though I’m not aware of it. All this is fine till some actually tries to find some information on the website. It’s just not possible. Mainly because of their total reliance on search queries to go through the data

The organization that implemented this data, the National Informatics Center (NIC) has absolutely no clue (or interest) in tagging questions with relevant tags, creating a taxonomy of the data collected in the Parliament so that a person interested in knowing if the government has been asked any questions about uranium ore mining in Jaduguda can easily navigate to the relevant portion of the site.

Take the case of another NIC website, Agmarknet. The aim of the website was noble. To capture agricultural commodity prices from across the nation and disseminate them as far as possible so that a paddy farmer sitting in Kerala during the harvest season, will have an idea of the prices for the same paddy in Punjab. Again, an idea which looks far better on a presentation rather than in execution.

Mainly, because there is no assurance to the public about the quality and verifiability of the information being collected and then disseminated. Several times, impossible prices have been reported on the website because the people entering this information are clerks and peons at local agricultural marketing committees, who obviiously have no incentive or interest in ensuring that the information being entered is perfect. And as for dissemination, the less said about that, the better.

Most of my efforts online trawling through Indian Government websites has made me realize the sad fact that if we are going to wait for NIC or another government agency to improve eDemocracy and e-governance services, we will be in for a pretty long wait. Another realization that I came to was that efforts need to start in urban India first and then percolate to rural India. If we cannot make our urban citizens less apathetic about their local governance, expecting rural India to do so is expecting too much.

My third realization is that for transparency and participatory democracy to take off, we as a nation need to take back control of our data and our information, as thats what our choices and causes will be based on. It’s always stumped me why its easier to get data about our country off of multilateral websites rather than Indian Government websites. And when even the UN is setting up a common pool of data across all its constituents, it’s high time we did the same for India.

Fourth realization is that in India, Web 2.0, wikis, blogs have little or no role to play in the implementation of an eDemocracy system. India requires an Indian solution and an Indian medium, and as of now there is no media more pan-Indian than the cellphone and more in use by people of all social and economic strata. When they write the story of India’s rise in the 21st Century, no one technology will be in the spotlight, all the way from humble Nokia 1100 incarnations to Blackberrys.

My final realization is that participatory democracy, literally has to start at home. Don’t start with the creation of an application that tracks how and where the Indian Budget is being utilized and the efficiency of utilization. Start somewhere simpler, like finding out what your local Municipal Councillor is doing with his funds and why isn’t there a garbage bin in your street, for example. This is why Janagraaha has such a strong model.

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As for solutions that can be used in India, thats where I’m really stumped. There are some great solutions that I have come across, mainly through the eDemocracyCamp site. Some of them are:

  • They Work For You : A British website where entering a simple pin code will present you with information about the local MP of that area, his voting record in Parliament, his Parliamentary budget and expenses, and other pertinent information. A great, great idea.
  • Fix My Street : Another British website where entering your pin code will present with you information about your area and where you can lodge complaints regarding graffiti, garbage and road repairs required. Made by the organization called mySociety which also made the site above
  • Stemwijzer.nl : A Norwegian website which allows citizens to test their political preferences, compares them to the manifestos of the contesting parties in the elections, and calculates which party has opinions the closest to you
  • Legistorm : An American website that makes public information on staff salaries, privately funded trips and financial disclosures of members and staff of the US Congress. Something like this which clearly allows us to see what each MP is doing with his Constituency Development Fund would be relevant in India

Some interesting blogs on eDemocracy and participatory citizenship that i came across are:

Free (as in beer) and great reading material on this topic can be found at:

There are some Indian solutions that I have come across also, though they are mainly restricted to participatory mapping. There is an interesting project in Mumbai called Mumbai Freemap run by an organization called Collective Research Initiatives Trust and one run by Janagraaha here. Another project based in rural Andhra Pradesh that comes to mind is the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System Project.

I’ll keep updating these links as and when I come across something interesting. Like my earlier post on information visualization, I want to make this post into a braindump of all the related and relevant information and literature on this topic that I come across.

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The way to move forward as I see it, is to start a discussion forum on not just eDemocracy, but also on Participatory Citizenship and the strengthening of civil society. Preferably, start of an with an online forum so that people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies can iron out their differences and arrive at a common plan of action (or atleast, a list of common grievances) to take forward in meatspace.

We should then think about organizing an event like eDemocracyCamp or Social Innovation Camp, where the different ideas and approaches that come out through the online forum can compete for more public validation and even funding for pilot projects from sources interested in civil society action and advocacy such as the Center for Civil Society, the Omidyar Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the like.

Create a foundation to run these activities so that there is an element of professionalism as well as continuity for these activities. Have a stellar advisory board for this foundation on the lines of what Janagraaha and the Bangalore Agenda Task Force have been able to gather, to provide critical inputs on functioning, funding and the future of the foundation.

It’s time for us as a generation to start taking small baby steps at creating a new public culture for our nation and our polity. And those first steps have to start with information. After all, Thomas Jefferson’s saying back in 1776 that “Information is the currency of democracy”, is an adage far more relevant and achievable in these times of pervasive electronic media.

To end, check out Hans Rosling’s brilliant presentation at TED where using publicly available data, he presents information in a manner easily understood and appreciated by common people. His project called Gapminder is striving to make the vast amounts of data and information collected by multilateral organizations available in a mediated format, increasing both usage and understanding.

This is the mediation required to generate information that is truly engaging and actionable for the public. Let’s hope that we see similar Indian initiatives coming forward soon.

Filed under: Society, , , , , , ,

Indie Inglish/English Music

My playlist over the past two years has steadily been dominated by indie & former indie bands from Canada, the States and the UK. Bands such as The Arcade Fire, The Killers, The Shins, Interpol, Death Cab for Cutie, British Sea Power to name a few, and lots, lots more. To hear the directions that these bands have taken sonically and musically especially compared to Top 10/20/30/40/50 bands that used to be part of my listening schedule, was both an auditory experience as well as an emotional one.

My first brush with indie music was with that of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. I really can’t recall how I came across them (might have been from The OC), but from then on it was flitting from one band to the other (thanks Amazon) as I compiled a larger and larger playlist and devoted more and more time into my listening. Thankfully, I have not made Pitchfork or the other great Indie music blogs out there a staple, or my time and hard disk would have given up on me a long time ago.

Meanwhile, over the same period, my exposure to Indian music dipped further and further away till I reached a point where I could (would) not even place the latest Indipop out there. And when it came to Indian music in English (i’d like to call it Inglish) , what ever little that came across my way through the numerous college festivals out there was all that I cared to be aware of.

There was a point in the past where I did follow the main Indian rock bands out there, though not through a regular forum such as the Rock Street Journal. Mainly from recommendations from school friends, flitting through my elder cousins collections and far removed reviews of Indian rock albums in the mainstream media. Even now, there are a few names that stick through from that time. Names such as Agni, Rock Machine, Orange Street, Mother Jane and obviously Parikrama.

Except for a small coterie of people, I wonder how many people out there actually remember these bands any more. And for the bands out there right now, I wonder how many of them will still be remembered outside their own circles several years from now?

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Why is Inglish music still a cottage industry?

Now, I’m definitely not a person who will be qualified enough to pass a summary judgement on this question but I do have my theories that I will present. My first theory is that the Inglish music scene is still dominated by bands who play covers. A lot of this also has to do with the fact that in India, most bands still make their money out of playing college festivals where it is difficult to avoid the barely-washed screaming out “Playing fucking Megadeth man, yeah!!” or “Machan, Maiden play punna da!!” and the like.

The second theory I have is that in India, people are still getting used to English music. Most people are still diving their linguistic loyalties from situation to situation and role to role without being firmly ensconced in one language. After all, our generation might be the first generation in India that was/is being schooled from toddlerhood in English (and this theory obviously ignores rural India totally).

Therefore I think for a lot of people, their exposure to English music is fairly limited to what is available on the TV and to what is available in the local music store (which obviously are not the places where you will get to pick up Indian English music at all). Which is why most people listening to English music follow what I like to call the Bryan Adams Curve™ or the Now Music Curve™ (patents pending).

If you’re into the rock sound you are on the Bryan Adams Curve™, where you start your progression with Bryan Adams, move on to Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Nirvana at which point you choose your stream and decide to either matriculate in Iron Maiden and Megadeth or in Nickelback and Limp Bizkit.

If you’re into the pop sound you are on the Now Music Curve™, where you start your progression with Britney Spears or Shakira, progress to either the Black Eyed Peas or Christina Aguilera, at which point you choose your stream and decide to either matriculate in Nelly Furtado and Paris Hilton or in Nelly and 50 Cent.

This is the reason why people like Bryan Adams can come to India every 2-3 years to be greeted with stadia bursting at the seams, replenish his retirement account and head off back to Canada. Where if I might tell you, if he were to die of asphyxiation because an elephant sat on him, it would not even make the headlines (I concede that it might make the day for some Canadian cartoonist though). I can imagine Bryan Adams shaking his head and wondering if it were some great cosmic joke that his greatest and maybe only fan following, is Indian.

Of course, I realize that this theory is a gross generalization but I’d like to invoke my patron saint for arguments such as these, Pareto, and invoke his great generalization that 80% of the people are drivel-listening sheep and the remaining 20% are the sheepdogs who bravely venture forth into musical territories where no sheep or dog has been before. Okay, I made the last part up but you get my drift.

My third and (thankfully) final theory is that in India, even the Inglish bands are getting used to English music and playing Inglish music. And this fact can be confirmed by listening to the inanity which passes as lyrics for most of the original compositions being made by bands out there and the utter lack of experimentation in most of the sound out there. Seriously, who wants to listen to lyrics and music that rhyme?

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So, what should Inglish bands do?

There seems to be some signs of change out there in the Inglish scene. Bands like Thermal and a Quarter, Orange Street, Them Clones, focusing purely on original compositions, putting out professionally produced albums, getting record company contracts and in some cases coming out with music videos also to push CD sales.

There are a few internet sites such as Gigpad, Muziboo and Radio VeRVe have come out which though not having a focus on Inglish music alone, have made it easier for bands to spread word far and wide. Also, there is an emergence of informal spaces for performance now. Opus in Bangalore is one that comes to mind, Turquoise Cottage in Delhi is another. Spaces where bands are given the freedom to come and perform their best in front of a well-intentioned, knowledgeable and usually appreciative audience.

And then there is the emergence of a band like the Raghu Dixit Project. Which through great music created a word of mouth demand, got opportunities to play at big events and is now not only into the mainstream but making great progress there too. A little window into what viral marketing can really do for a great band and what other great bands can also aspire to reach.

I think the main thrust has to come from the bands themselves. They need to innovate, in terms of their music and their lyrics till they arrive at a voice or a sound that is uniquely their own. And unique not just for India but across the world. With innovation will come the creation of their own niche, and along with that will listeners and patrons who are truly involved in the success of the band. Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick of Wired Magazine puts it best in his post about the creation of “1000 True Users“. I think its a must-read not just for bands, but for everyone interested in exploring new trends in business models. (remember to read his follow-up posts also).

The second suggestion would be to look at new ways of distribution. An Inglish band looking at making a mark should not get caught into the mindset that a record company contract is the meal ticket. Look at bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails who are experimenting with new forms of distribution and pricing for music. Distribute music yourself in the beginning, either through CDs or paid MP3 downloads. Make sure that your pricing is right so that listeners out there will be tempted into an impulse purchase.

The third suggestion would be to create a community around the band and its music. Use the power of social networks such as Orkut, Ning, and Facebook to spread the word about the band’s music, about gigs that you are playing (be careful not to spam).

Use them to create member-only gigs where people who are really interested and passionate about the music attend and give their feedback and encouragement. Solicit marketing and revenue generation suggestions from your community. If they really care, they want you to be commercially successful so that the band will be around making more music for them. Make these people feel special and exclusive! They need to be, they were around when there was no one else.

The fourth and final suggestion is that if you’re in the business of music, then you need to treat it as seriously as you would any other business. If you just want to let your music do the talking, then you need to have the patience to wait around till it reaches the right ears. But, if you are looking at music as a career which pays the bills and some more, then you need to get acquainted with all the subjects that any proper entrepreneur would cover.

Marketing the band, sales and promotional activities for your album, designing the album cover and CD, forecasting sales of the album, estimating expenses and breakeven sales, creating and managing a relationship with your customers and your community, public relations are all activities that you will have to get familiar with. Read some basic books to provide you with a direction.

In the end, the direction for the Inglish music industry will have to come from the bands themselves. Listeners like me can at the most be early adopters. Here’s hoping the next big sound comes out from India.

Filed under: Music, , ,

A New Visual Grammar

One topic that I’ve followed quite regularly since I became aware of it is information visualization. My first brush with this field was through Edward Tufte’s website and specifically the page where he analyzes the visualization created by noted French statistician Charles Joseph Minard to represent Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. The visualization is shown below. To say that it left an indelible imprint on my mind would be an understatement.

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(click through to go to Wikipedia page with more information on the graphic)

From Edward Tufte’s book “Envisioning Information” to the work of Casey Reas, Ben Fry and others, a little knowledge of Processing NodeBox GraphViz and a lot of respect for late 19th century statisticians such as Francis Galton, William Playfair, William Farr and Charles Snow who set the first standards for the visualization of information.

For me, language is a graphical idea expressed through voice. When I have a conversation, my brain is working rapidly to convert the auditory information its receiving into visual representations. Gossip about someone’s sexual peccadilloes is transformed into a luridly lit soft-core set, the word Apple conjures about dual images of the fruit in question as well as the company.

Therefore its been kind of surprising as well as mystifying that the visual acuity of my brain slows to a crawl when represented with a visual representation of some information. Seconds are spent in resolving squiggles, whorls and spirals into a whole in my mind.

Then the brain zooms into the finer details. Sampling pieces of information from different sectors, analyzing it to arrive at an assumption regarding what is being represented visually. More seconds spent in validating the assumption in other sectors of the diagram before the brain signs off with a pithy response regarding the purpose of the visualization and the data encoded in.

Slightly difficult, time-consuming and rarely satisfying. I usually do a circuit of the main information visualization blogs once a month or so. After the initial euphoria of coming across interesting topics, I find my interest slowly dwindling.

Seeing a visualization, understanding its purpose, admiring the cogent coding of data that has gone into it and the warm feeling of clarity that I get at the end of it, has unfortunately, become few and far between.

It could be the general fatigue that sets in after hearing and seeing a little too much about Social Media and Web 2.0, as most information visualization blogs seem to focus more and more on these topics now.

It could also be (and this is where the topic of my post really starts) that there isn’t a visual grammar for information visualization that we as laymen can access. (See Leland Wilkinson’s “A Grammar for Graphics” for grammar created to meet a practitioner’s needs)

A grammar that clearly sets the syntax, morphology and the semantics of visual representation out into the open for clearer public access, understanding and debate.

The reason why the verbal communication of ideas between people is easy is because of the presence of a grammar for the language used for such communication. There are little, if any, ambiguities about the meanings of words used in the conversation, and the meaning of the conversation when the words are combined together.

Maybe, information visualization is an emerging field. Maybe it still has to resolve its purpose and efficacy. Maybe, like most other grammars, there is a latent one that is being evolved at through Darwinian natural selection. Let’s hope that there is, because accessible information visualization has the power to make abstract topics lucidly clear, to reduce ambiguities in interpretation and to introduce a new manner of cognition in our daily lives.

It would be unfair to leave without the proverbial wash-basin of links related to information visualization at you lovely people out there. So here goes:

Collection of links
175+ Data and Information Visualization Examples and Resources
Data Visualisation Blogs You Might Not Know About

Examples of Information Visualization
Visual Complexity
Simple Complexity
Flowing Data
Information Aesthetics

Good blog posts
Reading with Edward Tufte
Kottke’s collection of Infoviz-tagged posts
The Data Artist

I’ll keep updating this post with good posts and links on information visualization I come across. Will also help me in collating all of them into a central repository of a kind.

Filed under: Design, , ,

The New Ultra-Mini Revolution

I’m sure anyone who is even a remote follower of gadget blogs would have seen the steady trickle of ultra-mini laptops over the past six months or so. The first culprit to emerge was the Asus EEE PC, followed by the Cloudbook by Everex and now HP’s sleek-looking Mini-Note laptop.

I’m excluding the XO and the Classmate PC in this evaluation because of their target segment being totally different. Getting back to ultra-minis, there is one heartening trend that I see in the introduction of these laptops, which I hope percolates down to the rest of the electronics industry.

Less Bloatware!!

And that encompasses bloatware in both hardware and software. Now, I’m not a neo-Luddite, Amish or a Gandhian. Gadgets like the IPhone and the IMac still make me utter low moans of pleasure in the sub-sonic frequency range. I see that purely as a reflection of their design and not the hardware and software included in them.

Seeing how laptops over the years have evolved from 9″ VGA Toshiba Porteges to 19″ Ultra-Glossy-Superblack-Carbonite Widescreen!!™ equipped behemoths, I wonder whether we are sacrificing usability and portability at the altar of the gadget-equivalent of a nuclear arms race.

I have been using a 12″ Powerbook for the past 3 years now. At the time I bought it, I looked around all over the place for a laptop that had a screen 12″ or lower. Just two manufacturers met my criteria, Apple and Asus. Everything else I could find was 14.1″ and above. I finally chose Apple even though it was more expensive because I fell in love with its build quality.

Over the past 3 years of usage I’ve realized that except for brief forays into computer games and graphics usage, my main application usage has been restricted to Microsoft Office, IWork, Safari and now Firefox, Mail, ITunes and DVD Player. Not exactly usage that would require the bleeding edge in Core 2 Duo processors, dedicated 512MB-equipped DDR RAM video cards and the like.

There has been a very slight sluggishness that has set in to the system, and my reasoning is that it might be because of my heavy hard disk usage. And this might be Mac-specific also, but I usually keep my laptop up and running for over 15 days without a single crash and/or restart.

Now I’m sure that it will be a stretch without any scientific polling or survey backing it, but I’m willing to make the bold claim that nearly 80% of laptop users across the world mirror my application usage patterns. Thanks Pareto.

Since I seem to be getting into the habit of making assumptions, lets add one more to the list. I’m assuming that over the past 3 years, similar applications on Windows XP based-PCs have not increased their hardware requirements. On the Mac, all the revisions of Tiger that I have installed so far have not uttered a murmur about increased hardware requirements.

So if, commonly used applications on both platforms have not increased hardware requirements and that most users have not significantly altered their application usage patterns, then what is the psychology driving people to throw their hard-earned dollars, rupees, kwachas and what-have-you at Moore’s Law?

Why are users still on the hamster wheel?

There are some trends that I hope will start with the introduction of these ultra-mini laptops, namely

  • Emphasis on low-power and as important, low-heat emitting 1.2-1.5 ghz processors such as the Intel Atom
  • Users realizing that 60-80 GB hard disks are really enough, unless you are doing non-linear video editing, audio production, running a BitTorrent haven or taking a full-time plunge into becoming a warez (sic)baron
  • Sub 1.5 kg weight limit for laptops
  • An end to glossy screens. There must be a reason why anti gloss returns 677,000 hits on Google after all
  • Ultra-mini battery lives hitting 3 plus hours on the road. Looking at reviews of the Asus EEE PC and HP Mini-Note, this is yet to happen
  • No more bloated software and crapware

In short, lets hope that laptops become less like swiss army knives and more precision knives.

If you want to get more information about the different products out there in this burgeoning space, follow through to this link from a site on ultra-mini laptops called appropriately, Liliputing

(Update: Head on over to my review of the Asus Eee to see what I had to say about using it as a full-time laptop)

Filed under: Gadgets, , ,

Welcome to Scubed

The genesis of the name for this blog is simple. Its just the initials of my three names put together – S S S. My purpose for starting this blog is also as simple. Keep honing my limited writing skills on topics as far-ranging as homebrewing beer to the Large Hadron Collider.

I’m a work-in-progress autodidact with a voracious appetite for reading, an extremely refined and an essentially snobby taste in music, with poor people skills and an even poorer attention span. Since my posts will reflect all of these….

You are warned.

Filed under: Ramble,

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