Friday, December 24, 2010

The Documentary Debate

So here's another debate story. This one is between me and my friend Vatsal; we'll call him Vats for brevity's sake.

Vats is a good mathematician and physicist. However, he belongs to the group which I call as the "derivationalists", which means to say that Vats does not find any fun in science that is explained without the rigor of mathematical derivations and deep physical laws. In short, Vats is quite against popular science.

I have had this debate with Debanjan (Deb) earlier too. Deb is also a "derivationalist" and completely against pop-sci. He feels that it is a complete waste to time to read about an overview of something from a magazine or Wikipedia without starting from the basic principles of physics (we are talking about physics here), reading tens of publications and deriving everything in that field out by yourself.

As a result of these views, we often have clashes on our view of scientific documentaries that are presented in educational media like Discovery or NatGeo. We are specifically talking about documentaries in pure science rather than engineering ("Megastructures" and "Extreme Engineering") because we do agree that the presenting of enigineering design on-screen, be it a Porsche car or the Tokyo Int airport, does hold some merit, because these constructions are "nice to see", and there is really no big point in telling people how an IC engine works or how the strength of materials is calculated to bolster the beams and columns.

Vats (and I believe Deb too) has a strict no-no on pure science documentaries. Being "derivationalist", he raises objections on the way the content is organized. It is obscured in several perspectives. Supposing the documentary starts from the basic principles, then it is difficult to cover the latest philosophies in the course of a single hour. If they intend to touch the latter, they begin half-way, and the uninitiated viewer has no clue about what hit him, and he goes for the schoolboy's approach of "accepting what is on the board to be god-gifted truth". Well, it is true that certain in-depth documentaries have attempted to span the entire horizon of historical development of the subject matter - like the set of 6 documentaries on Astrophysics and Stephen Hawking's theory, which started from the days of Tycho Brahe and ended with Black Hole radiation. But in going into such a vast coverage, one risks the fundamental point of "jumping the steps", as it were.

In such documentaries it is not unusual to come across Einstein's General Theory of relativity explaining gravitation as a "cloth fabric on which the heavenly bodies are located". If you have watched these, you would know that the narrator proceeds to say that the "weight" of the Sun depresses the "fabric" - creating a funnel-like curvature, into which the planet gets pulled in, and the revolution of that planet may be shown to counter the gravitational attraction of the Sun. You might have seen a construct like this at science fairs or exhibitions too, although I doubt whether they did mention Einstein.

At any rate, this interpretation may be looked upon as a culmination of Vats' dissatisfaction with documentaries. And its not without reason. About 90% of the viewers who have been wowed at such a lucid explanation of such deep principles have not considered the most obvious flaw in this argument. The reason we think that a sphere placed on a stretched extent of cloth would depress it is becuase we are used to thinking the sphere having some "weight" which is nothing but a manifestation of the Earth's gravitational force on the sphere. So essentially you are using gravity to explain gravity.

Even if we did accept it as a "visualization aid", the curvature that mass essentially produces is a curvature in space-time, and nothing in this analogy can bring that factor in (unless you carefully describe a light synchronized clocking mechanism in each intersection point of the grid). Furthermore, and Vats tells me this for at this point it really gets beyond my knowledge, there are fundamental roadblocks to one's thought processes if one starts with the belief that gravitation is like the depressing of a fabric. He tells me there is some matrix, when when diagonalized and blah blah gives some parameters. From these parameters emerge the gravitational constant and other factors, which tell you the effect of a mass on space-time. Vats being a derivationalist, this over-simplified approach disturbs him a lot, as it misses out on key concepts and insights into the true origins and ramifications of the theory. The viewer feels that he has "got the thing" when he is as far away from it as he always was, if not more.

Vats' points are logical and true. I do not challenge his points, for being trained in science (though not to his level of detail in these matters), I can see how the links are missing in such documentaries. But my basic argument is not about the excellence of the content, but about the people who watch these documentaries.

So who watches documentaries? Students for one, both from high school and universities. With university students, the trend lies more in watching documentaries from a different area of human knowledge rather than their own. And, mostly, common people who have an interest in science. Imagine this. You were once greatly interested in physics and math. You were an ardent student of these in school. You moved on study engineering, and then in due course of fortune you ended up working to develop algorithms to calculate risk in stock market trading (think GS or MS). Now you have neither the time nor the level of training to indulge yourself in all those topics in physics that they never taught in school. From your perspective, what would such a documentary bring? A refreshing way to fulfill all those dreams, in my opinion. Sure, you cant go teach relativity in the next college lecture. Neither can you sit and derive all those wonderful laws and principles. But if nothing else, you could manage to hear and know a little about those things which you would have otherwise forsaken for good. You did not become an expert, but you had the fun of reliving your physics days, and gain a little more perspective in the process, for all of it is not hogwash.

From the point of view of students, we have to be a more careful. And this is where a good documentary stands out from the rest. For students, documentaries do serve as some of our first insights into the subject matter in many cases, and the concepts and ideas gained thereof stick with us like childhood memories. So some day if we end up actually studying those topics in detail, we would not want our mental roadblocks to get in the way - like the sphere on the cloth conundrum. Neither would we like to talk about half-learned ideas before an educated audience, if the occasion so arises.

In this way, a good documentary is like a good teacher. It sets inquisitiveness aflame. It does not claim that what it is saying is the sacrosanct facsimile of the philosophies of the topic. It tells you, "Well, this thing is actually complicated, but just for starters, you might want to imagine it like this..." It always tells you what is the flaw in its simplified view of looking at it, and warns you against taking it too literally. In doing so, one must be very ingenious and crafty in thinking of the most apt analogies, so that they capture as much of the complexity of the real scenario as possible. Where such analogies are impossible  - like the "spin" of an electron - they should be avoided for good. At the same time, a good documentary does not go into unnecessary piles of math to try and be precise. That is not the intent of the show, and in more ways than one, a documentary with truck-loads of data and number-crunching turns out to be boring, non-intuitive and scares people's interest out of the topic by telling them "This is just not your cup of tea".

As a citation, I'll point to the BBC4 documentary called "The Music of the Primes" - a show on the search of pattern in prime-numbers. This documentary caught my eye in terms of content and organization. It started from the fundamentals, introducing why prime numbers are important, why there are an infinite number of them, etc. Then they spoke of how Gauss went about trying to find a rhythm in the probability of a prime number showing up in logarithmic progression of numbers, and how it did not turn out to be perfect. Then they spoke of the Riemann zeta function, and most tactfully avoided saying anything about plotting functions on Argand planes and all, yet they said that the "valleys" (zeros) of the "contours" of this function in "that other world" (complex domain) held the key to correcting Gauss's step-approximation to precision. They spoke of the conjecture of alignment of zeros, and the difficulty people have faced in trying to prove it. Yet they did not let the show reach a dead end, and spoke about the immense importance of primes in code breaking (Alan Turing), nuclear energy levels and online commerce (encryption). The other show - on the final proof of Fermat's last theorem - did have a definite ending, but was not that well organized and had too many logical "jumps" to make me feel comfortable.

For that matter, books have suffered from the same flaws. Nobody told us that Gauss' Law was more fundamental that Coulomb's Law (some state boards left it out for good). Nobody said that the "g" is actually the gravitational field of the planet. Some even said that an electron "spins about its axis", and went on to equate the atomic structure to the solar system (its like believing Santa Claus actually spends out of his pockets to give children gifts). Just like we have to be wise in our choice of books to learn the correct and the best, so is it when it comes to documentaries. And the joy of a well-set documentary is a lifelong interest in a subject matter that may have just completely eluded us in this lifetime.

Of lost traditions

This year on the Bishnupur trip I came across a rare example of Indian heritage. So rare indeed that it is only available here of all places in India. Just as a background, let it be mentioned that Bishnupur is a little town some 200 km to the north west of Calcutta. It is located close to the town of Bankura, which is the district capital of the same name. Bishnupur used to be the capital of Bengal at the time of the Malla kings.

Bishnupur is known for temples. The temples do not house any deities. Rather, they are noted chiefly for their unique style of architecture. In general the temples are based on a rock foundation, which is followed by a four sided structure held by pillars on each side. Each of the walls a richly decorated by earthen panels that are thoroughly worked with engravings. Engravings originate from the Ramayan, Mahabharat or from the general day to day life of the people of the time. The top of the structure is a curved roof - something like a tent. One may imagine it to be a four cornered handkerchief held at four corners, and buffed by the wind. The top is usually a single peak, often not very richly decorated, but examples of design with more than one peak exist.

What is truly remarkable about these designs is their indication of cultural origins. One may note the pillars to be not the typical Bengal style of architecture. Their girth, relief and contours seem to indicate towards some other origins. The allusion becomes clearer when one considers the design of the door panels along the walls. The doors, divided into small square panels, and having rich decorations in each block, are strongly reminding of the design of doors in forts and palaces of Rajasthan. This realization does reflect back on the design of the pillars, although their correlation is far lesser to the origins.

Another immensely interesting and yet intriguing observation came to my notice here. On one particular temple (Madanmohan) we discovered a carving containing a dragon inscribed on to the wall. I have not yet understood this well enough, and have no idea about how such an object can come into a predominantly Indian architectural style. Maybe those with greater expertise may be able to explain the same. Or again maybe it is a misinterpretation of some other creature which was originally intended to be drawn. But what could be most intriguing is whether Indian myths ever covered creatures such as dragons, or whether this could actually be the impression of some Chinese traveler in those far-off days whose own culture came to influence the symbolism of our own.

But this is not really the object of this writing. This writing is intended towards that one thing which is unique to this town. The object - an artwork for that matter - is called the "Dashavatar cards". These cards are fabricated by one particular family of artists in the town - called the Foujdar family, and they are the only ones in India in fact who have this expertise. The Foujdars - as one might suspect from the name - were once employed at high ranks of the military structure of the Malla kings. On the order of the king, they devised these cards.

The cards are essentially depictions of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. The main pack comprises a central card denoting one of the incarnations - the "King", along with another primary card, called the "minister". This a backed up by a set of floral cards - 10 in number, having progressively 1, 2, 3 etc flowers, up to 10. This makes for 12 cards per incarnation, and a total of 120 cards for all the 10 incarnations combined. There are some secondary sets, of 10 cards (incarnations alone), 48 cards, and some other varieties.

The cards themselves, are not made of paper, but of cloth. Each card comprises 6 layers of fine woven cloth, held together by specially fabricated glues made from natural sources like seeds and fruits of plants. The picture of the cards is painted onto the cloth, and the colour too is made from indigenous rocks. The rocks (like sandalwood) are soaked in water and rubbed onto a surface to produce the colour. Some other varieties of colour some from flowers and leaves. The final product is glazed in lacquer and sealed into a circular shape. The general diameter of these circles is around 10 cms, but some varieties of larger or smaller sizes are also produced.

The card game is based on the set of 120 cards. Now comes the real problem - only the Kings of the Malla dynasty knew the rules and methods of the odd game that they invented with this pack of cards. The makers did not know how to play - they only prepared the cards as per order. The kings played it with a select group of people from the town - those who were close to the kings. This group of people treated the game as more than merely a game - they considered it more of a worship of Vishnu - and thus surrounded the game with elaborate rituals. The players had to sit in special seats, could not smoke or drink while the game was in progress, and neither could they leave from their seats without taking a bath to come back. To preserve the sanctity of the game, they refused to pitch it out before the common public.

Recently - somewhere in the '80s, the last of the Malla kings passed away. After that only the people from the families of the other players were left with the knowledge. The makers, now desperate to preserve this culture, as well to hold their business, tried very hard to learn the game. But they only managed to learn the basics, following a lot of persuasion, and this really did not get them anywhere far. The elderly players outplayed them easily, and refused to divulge the deeper secrets of the strategy of the game.

It so happened that one copy of this set of cards somehow made its way to a museum in Germany, and a woman there was intrigued by its possible origin and uses in course of her research. She came over to India after she maned to make contact with the makers of the cards, and tried to speak to the elderly players. Naturally they were reluctant to put out the ideas, especially to a foreigner, but finally she persuaded them to come and play in front of her for a regular payment of a large sum of money to each of the players. After 3 months of the labour, she managed to understand how the game was framed and she took back the knowledge to popularize this odd version of cards in Germany. This in turn spread out the game in France and USA, and the makers now mostly export the cards since very few people have the money to buy the cards in India. The price of the total set ranges from 6 to 12 thousand rupees, the cost mainly arising from ingredients like the colour and the gum which is very expensive to prepare, along with the great amount of labour that goes into its finalization.

What is really shocking and surprising is that almost nobody in India is ever aware that something like this exists. Someday we might go to Germany and be very surprised to find a new version of the card game, and marvel at their expertise and ingenuity. But we may never know that this wonder actually originated so close to our own homes. Not just all over India - people all over Bengal hardly know about this in general. For all its worth, its a tradition, a heritage, which is well on its way to being forgotten in the pages of history, and will only be glorified in the west through some other name. The poor card-makers, for all their skill and expertise, will one day fade away into hunger and poverty.

The marks of this nonchalant attitude are rampant all over the place. Many of the heritage sites are not well maintained. Timings of opening and closing are seldom properly observed. The temples are plagued by officious guides and irritating beggars. Overall, at least from a foreigner's point of view, the site does not produce an impression which it should for the worth of its content. I am not sure if we can do something about it directly, but I guess indirectly we certainly can, and we should, at the earliest.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Man and Horse

Just had a most illuminating discussion on how man came to the decision that a horse is surely the best character to be rode upon. I remember in school I read that when chemists were trying to find the best catalyst for some Haber / Contact / Non Contact process, they experimented with the rest of the periodic table (come to think of it now, that's rather dumb!!). So.. err.. lets imagine...

Man sits on tiger:

"Hey cmon...  aaaaaaaa time out time out NO BITING!!"

Man sits on deer instead:

"Oh my god antleeeeerrrrrsssssssssssss...."

Man sits on lion:

Lion: "You really did not learn your lesson with the tiger thing eh?"

Man sits on hedgehog:

"OUCH!! Anybody got bandage? M-seal would work too.."

Man sits on crocodile (huh! nice boat!)

"Super MEGA OUCH. Anybody got a spare hand?! How about Luke Skywalker?"

Man changes idea.

Man sits on Goat:

"OUCH again! Anybody got a spare goat?"

Man sits... on second thoughts, decides to forgo the pig.

Man sits on cow:

"Aaah! Bliss! Nice creature. No violence."
"Hmm. For that matter, no movement either"
"Oh cmon you've eaten like a barnful of grass since I climbed on! No I dont want any, thank you"
"Now that you have eaten all that grass, you want to bring it up and eat it AGAIN!! Thats plain sick I tell you!!"
"You blessed cow, you just have to go till there. THERE man!! Its right THERE!!"
"OK fine I'll walk"

"I could sit on a cow all day long and smoke a pipe but its not gonna get me anywhere. All for that grass. OH WAIT brainwave!! How about smoking grass??"

Man sits on dog:

"I would like to note a revision of public opinion. Dog is not always man's best friend. At moments of awkwardness, they can be vicious enemies too."

Man sits on donkey:

"Bloody ass."

And so man chances upon horse.

To err is human of course. So in the 19th century, more British cavalry force perished from the kicks of horses than at the battle front in action. Apparently this was the smoothest compromise we could hit upon.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dulcet Discoveries

Music has always been a great passion for me. Perhaps it is due to the fact that I used to sing at one time. Perhaps it is because my father is an ardent fan of eastern classical music due to which I have always grown up listening to music. Whatever the reason, music is something i fall upon whether I am happy or sad.

I was not much enthusiastic about many of the musical "reality shows" hosted on TV over the past one decade or so (slightly less actually). Most of it, I felt, was nonsense. The unnecessary loads of lachrymose drama that unfolded almost regularly were most intolerable. Then there came a stupid trend of judges quarreling and fighting amongst themselves. But worst of all was the "voting" procedure which was a boon (boon?) of 21st century proliferation of mobile communications (read SMS). In the 90's there used to be music contests too (which, in case you are unaware, are responsible for spawning gems like Sunidhi Chauhan and even Shreya Ghoshal), but there judges had the final word. Although it sounds nice for people at large to be choosing the singers of the future, this is fallible to all the problems people with being, well, common and ordinary people.

We are bogged down by issues of regionalism and religion. We vote for singers that "look good", or, with "reality shows", the ones that appear most smart, lively and jovial. Hardly we give the fact a thought that these people are vying to become playback singers. Other than some basic smartness and good manners, nothing other than their voice and voice only should matter. But of course, thats asking for too much. Add to it the fact that you can send SMS'es voting for the same person multiple times from the same mobile phone. Oh cool. Given enough time, I alone can make someone win a contest, unless there are other dunces like me. Which there always are.

So I thought I would pay a back-handed tribute to the music shows of the 21st century by acknowledging some of their truly great finds. It happens that no matter how much shit you throw into a system, the gems still do stand out, at least to a certain extent. We IIT'ians know this too well (for completely different reasons though). So here are the top 10 best finds of musical shows who actually never won in the major contests. This if course means I'll have to leave out some really talented singers who DID win, like Abhijeet Sawant, Debojit Saha. But then everybody knows them anyway, so lets highlight those whom we might commit the mistake of forgetting.

As I have said before, I dont care about how a singer looks and all. So in all the list below, there will be no fancy pictures, not even a mention of where this person is from. I am sure you all understand.

10. Mauli Dave:

She participated in Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2007. Not a very top-notch singer, sings well on some typical styles (peppy and energetic songs in particular) and sometimes has an overly pompous diction. Nevertheless, there is one thing that catches my attention each time I hear some of her better performances. In the songs that she did, she can TRULY put emotions, and feel what and why she is singing. As a top example, I enclose this song below: Namak Ishq Ka from Omakara. Not a very remarkable song, but the way she puts it makes it special.

9. Abhaas:

You might know this guy if you watched the Amul STAR Voice of India, Chhote Ustaad. He was the anchor of the show. For many days I did not know where he dropped from, he did not seem a familiar face. Then I stumbled upon it on the net. Abhaas participated in the show Star Voice of India, which was a while before the children's version came up. Once again, not a consistently great singer, but at times, his performances were stunning. Specially this one, which was just after his elimination, when he was required to sing something in the lines of a farewell song (which I always found rather a cruel thing to ask of somebody). This is Nanina Thagg Lenge from Omakara:

8. Jayant Singh:

Dont fall for the name - this is just a kid. The only reason I had to place this guy at 8th was because he almst exclusivein one genre only - ghazals. Now comes the surprise. Ghazals? Very unusual choice at this age!! Indeed, and how!! You hear him singing and you'll agree with me that we have never seen a guy of his age sing with the mood and perfection that he does in this genre. And who are we to say it when the likes of Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan acknowledge his talent. Have a peek, this is in a ghazal special episode at Amul SVOI Chhote Ustaad. This is the very famous "Hungama Hai Kyun Badpa":

7. Amanat Ali:

Another one from the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2007, but a bigger gun. Amanat is quite young, but sings really well on a wide variety of songs. He went quite far in the contest but did not manage to win it. This and another guy (named just after), however, made this contest worth remembering at least to me. Here is a sample of his singing, and judged by the masters themselves - Jagjit Singh and Pandit Jasraj. This is Albela Sajan Aayori from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam:

6. Mussarat Abbas:

Mussarat has been accused of the same problem that I mentioned with Jayant above - he sings in only one genre (almost). But when he does, I promise you, your jaw will drop to the ground. Mussarat specializes in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's songs, and can murder any contestant when it comes to this. The power of his voice and his intricacies of tune are so well set in him for this style that he is, at least in my view, unbeatable in this genre by anyone I have seen. Numerous samples are there on youtube, I chose this one in particular. This is Saanwre from Bandit Queen:

5. Hmm, now we are really heating up...

5. Hemachandra:

Hema was a contestant in Zee TV's Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2005. This particular installment of the contest was a truly killer one, with some of the best singers on this list coming from here. Debojit Saha won this finally, and I cannot say that he did not deserve it, but the competition was unbelievable. Among them was this guy, really young, but with a truly unique voice, wonderful sense of tune and the courage to do things out of the ordinary on live performances. Many of his songs have been lauded considerably, but perhaps this one takes the crown. This is Nahi Samne from Taal:

4. Nihira Joshi:

Nihira is also from the same contest as Hema. As I said, the competition was killer. This girl has an accuracy which is almost unbelievable. Nothing seems to go wrong with her voice. Every turn, every nook and every intricacy is perfectly rendered, its like a painting. Its really sad she (and the others I name here) had to get eliminated, most probably for some rather stupid reasons. But people did take notice. At least I most definitely did :) Many wonderful sampler from her too, almost all equally precise. But I decided to put this one. This is Rangeela from Rangeela (and please dont compare to Asha Bhonsle, its utterly stupid to compare one who is singing for 6 years to someone who's been in the industry for almost 50):

3. Now we are down to the top 3.. the creme-de-la-creme...

3. Rahul Vaidya:

Rahul is so insanely dynamic (forgive me, I had promised I would not mention personal traits) that although he lost the first installment of India Idol almost nobody could forget him. A brilliant singer, with a rich variety in voice, style and diction, he was one complete singer among his contemporaries. Sometimes tends to get a little to peppy, but that can forgiven given the fact that he sings soft, emotinal, or sad numbers with equal beauty. I can imagine that Rahul did give Abhijeet a run for his money every time he took the stage. This is one sample performance from a later contest, Jo Jeeta Wahi Superstar (which he won, but then I said no "major" contests). This is Ramta Jogi from Taal:

2. Himani Kapoor:

Himani too (phew) was in Zee TV's Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2005. I mentioned Nihira to be accurate. In that scale, Himani qualifies as a cardiac surgeon. Her voice is SO DEADLY accurate and precise .... I have no words to express it. I feel a strange sense of security when I click on any link leading to her song. Its like, when I click someone else, I wonder whether this is one of his/her better performances or a not-so-memorable one. With Himani it never fails. Everything I click, its the same accuracy and same unfaltering voice. Its amazing. Or even more. The rare few songs where she does not sound THAT good is only because her voice is powerful and has a sharp edge to it, so certain songs are not so suitable. Here is a sample among many (they all seem equivalent to me, as I already said).This is Chitthi Ye Le Jaa from Heena (that's name of a movie):

1. So who's the winner among people who never won?? Before that, just a "commercial break" - an on-the-spot improvised rendition of Dam Mast Qualandar by Nihira and Himani together:

1. Anwesha Dutta Gupta:

She's a kid. But that is perhaps as wrong an adjective can get. Prodigy would be somewhere closer. I could not mention Aishwarya in parallel with her only because Aishwarya won, and she did not. But for over a month (or more) the two of them contested each other, and no one seemed better than the other, at least to me. At this age, the performances they gave were just unbelievable. We are truly fortunate to have singing talents like these 2, and we can imagine what is to come in the years from this star-studded collection I have enumerated. No, nobody's gonna forget them, their talent is too great for that. Here is Anwesha singing on the final say of SVOI Chhote Ustaad one of her most famous songs on the contest, Mere Dholna from Bhulbhulaiyya:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Let's Talk About Science

I have a friend, who, although quite close to me, differs significantly from my view of science. His name is Debanjan; I'll call him Deb here to save myself the trouble of having to type out the full name every time I make a reference to him. Deb is a brilliant student, and I believe he has quite a future ahead of him in physics. He is an ardent student of quantum physics. But that is beyond the point here. Deb has very strong opinions, and he holds to them and defends them to great depths with much logic. This I find particularly delectable, because when I enter into a technical argument with most people they back down before my own expressiveness. As a result, time and again we have very interesting conversations.

One particular topic about which we differ greatly is the aim of science. I hold a belief that science is meant for the benefit of the common people and to improve the life and living of the masses. Deb on the other hand believes that science is a natural outflow of the joy of discovery, "the pleasure of finding things out", quoting Feynman. As a result of this, we come to rather contradictory conclusions and tiffs regarding the nature of modern research. For one, I acknowledge that for an innovator, the kick of finding things out is like a drug. It gives you an addictive pleasure from which it is indeed very difficult to draw yourself out. Due to this, researchers go deeper and deeper into more and more esoteric topics, to hunt out the intimate details of the truth behind things.

The negative of what I find in this is that researchers, especially modern researchers, overlook the fact that they have some, even if very little, responsibility to the society from which they come and to which they belong. By saying this, I mean that modern research goes so deep into so difficult things, that what they do seldom benefit the common man at all. Much of the research that goes on today, if you see reports in good technical journals, will have a title that in unnerving enough. As soon as you read the title you know that you are as far away from it as one could possibly be. Worse still, I have discovered topics which are somewhat related to my own field of interest, and yet it has gone to such a depth of specialization that indeed I can understand very little about it. I am not against such research, mind you. I appreciate the intelligence and knowledge it requires, and respect the fact that the people involved in it get some great enjoyment in doing it.

The problem I placed before Deb in our debate was thus: imagine such a man, maybe yourself, who knows "very much about very little" and is doing great things in that. Now suppose a simple man, who works 10-to-5 and goes to the market everyday morning, meets you on the street one fine morning and asks you what you are doing. You explain to him, as best as you can (there is a difference in opinion between us here too, but lets leave that aside for the time being), that you are trying to figure out the probabilistic path taken by the electron cloud  between two contacts in a quantum transistor, and how the same maybe modified by the use of magnetic fields (actually it is perhaps far more complicated, but lets suppose we bring it down to this). Mr. Simple Guy frowns his brow, tried hard to understand, breaks into a sweat, gives up and finally asks, "I am sure it is very great, but how is it going to help me, or those like me?" What answer do you give?

Deb is of the opinion that the pursuit of knowledge in science in a natural process. If scientists had to worry day in and day out about fulfilling the expectation of the farmer, the laborer and the quintessential family-man right here right now, life would become very difficult for them. They would be forced to think about things and find solutions to problems that really do not interest them, and would perhaps make a mess out of it because they did not put their hearts to it well enough. Deb believes that researches are best left to themselves, doing whatever they please and however they please, without worrying about the fact that whether they are benefiting people or not in the present scenario.

But what about the people, I ask him. What about the thousands of people who live around you. We studied in a college whose fees were greatly subsidized, and if I am not wrong, the subsidy came from the taxes paid by those people about whom you are not willing to spare a thought. Is that morally correct, and do they not have a right to ask you to what effect they invested their money in educating you? Was it not in the hope that you, being brighter and smarter, would show them a new, perhaps better way of living? How can you so casually evade your responsibility to the people behind your success and move on to "whatever you please"?

Deb feels that it is out of context to ask for benefits right now. He believes that what science achieves today benefits people in very tangible ways a few generations down the line. For example, when John Bardeen and Walter Brattain worked hard to develop the first semiconductor transistor, I am sure nobody felt how useful this could be (perhaps not even they themselves). But look now - the transistor, a few generations down the line and with more innovations, has made possible today the computer and the mobile phone and a host of other things that every other person is using. The esoteric has become the pedestrian, and people are reaping the benefits of what once might have been considered to be pursued in "pure academic interest". It may be humorous at this point to note that when the first telephone was invented, the then-president of the USA said "Its a wonderful gadget, but who would want to use it anyway?" Funny as it may sound, it is the root of this argument - what seems to be mere fanciful inventing today may turn out to be instrumental in a mass technical revolution just a few years later.

True. But I have more to say. What about astrophysicists? Prof Hawking for example? What he has done is marvelous, and has richened our understanding of the universe in ways that cannot be explained in the mere words of a fool like me. But how many generations and how many more innovators down the line will it ever become useful to common people? Besides, how many researchers can boast of having done seminal work which has brought in a revolution a few generations down the line? What about the loads of rubbish people produce every year (which perhaps includes many of the undergraduate dissertations we scripted ourselves - God knows whether anybody even reads them) and pass of their entire lives in the name of "futuristic research? Or the people who work on number theory? As of now, I know no application of the practical world where that field has ever proven to be useful.

Deb tries his defense here too. He counters by saying that in that respect many of the greatest discoveries should be called useless. The Special Theory of Relativity, for example. Probability and combinatorics. Even quantum mechanics!

No its not true, I argue. Special theory of relativity is useful, although we may not be aware of it. This theory tells us how to harness nuclear energy, and bad as that may sound, it may well be our prime source of alternative energy a few hundred years down the line, considering the rate at which fossil fuels are getting depleted. Special theory of relativity has its uses in modern aeronautics and allows pilots to drive people home safely, talking of more immediate impacts. Probability and combinatorics are almost the backbone of the world of finance and speculation, the basis on which billions of dollars of forex trading take place and people make or break their fortunes in stock exchanges. Quantum mechanics has allowed us many things, not the least of which is to understand solid state physics well, abstract it to a simpler lever and happily teach it away to undergraduates in the name of electronics! Even molecular reactions owe their full understanding to quantum mechanics, and although many genetics engineers may not be aware of it, the discovery of the structure and thereafter artificial production of life-savers like insulin are, in the history of development of science, an offshoot of quantum mechanics in the name of crystallographic studies (remember Bragg's law, anyone?)

Deb takes these points in his favor and strongly sticks to the fact that such esoteric practices must go on, because that is the way progress has been ushered in in the past and perhaps will continue to be in the future. But who are the recipients of these benefits? The elite? The people who are directly or indirectly funding your research? USA and Europe, to be more in-the-face? What happened to poor India? What about the people here, who will come back for them and benefit them, even if it is 7 generations away in the future?

Deb says science and scientists serve mankind as a whole, and are not limited by political boundaries. Nobel as it might sound, it is fallacious, because if you disregard the political boundaries then you become only more strongly answerable to every common man in the world. The poor farmer who rides on his wooden plough trying to bring his unruly oxen under the harness beneath the burning sun to till his field perhaps gets only more right to question the outcome of your research and its impact, if that be the way. I am yet to receive a satisfactory response to this question.

It is difficult to come to a conclusion on something like this, but what I feel about the topic is this: it is undeniable that research cannot be put under the yoke of day-to-day concerns, and the creativity of innovators must be allowed to run free if discoveries like the recent artificial development of genetic material to bring to "life" an otherwise inactive cytoplasm are to become reality. Needless to say, this research, no matter how esoteric it may seem to the plain eye, has immense significance which I, being a gob-smacked idiot in the world of biology, can also appreciate. But perhaps it would be good if all these great minds sat up straight and decided, that out of 12 months of the year, I shall put 10 months in what I want to do, and think for 2 months about what the people, my people, mankind at large, need, right NOW. And I shall use my mental faculties to find some practicable and useful solution for them, to make the world a better place.

And above all, no great mind should ever become blind to the impact of his discovery on the practical world, in the name of "the pleasure of finding things out". Feynman himself said that when he started working on the Manhattan project, his chief concern was that if Nazi Germany beat them to the race of successfully making the bomb, then the losses to human life would be incalculable. Thus it was a necessary evil to put their minds to work for the bomb. But when Germany was defeated, he regrets that not once did it strike him as to what point was there in continuing the work he had been doing, so lost he and the team was in the kick of discovery. He admits it was perhaps the greatest mistake a scientist could ever make, to allow his brain to be used by the "worldly wise" for unscrupulous purposes while allowing himself to be fooled under the "pleasure of finding things out" syndrome. People around us are too smart, unlike what we "educated" ones think, and they can manipulate us in ways we cannot imagine. In view of mankind, then, let us indulge in the joy of discovery, but not become blind to what it may mean to, and how it may affect, our people, and lets spare a little time thinking for them too.

PS: I am not sure if my readers will find this interesting. If you do, let me know, there are several other equally, if not more, interesting debates, that we had, which I shall be glad to share with you.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The ways of the Almighty...

There is a popular line in drama in my mother tongue (Bengali, that is) which goes as "Kotha bolo na; tomra keu shobdo koro na, bhogobaan nidra giyechhen golojog shoite paren na; kotha bolo na!" Translated to English, that stands as "Dont talk, dont make a noise, the Almighty is asleep, and he cannot stand being disturbed, so keep quiet". Every time I hear this line, I feel something very queer, which is perhaps not noticeable in the lines in a hurried read.

The surprise element lies in the statement that the Almighty is asleep. Think about it. Someone whom we visualize as our guardian above, who watches over us, protecting us from harm, noting our deeds and punishing or rewarding us accordingly at the end of our mortal lives (at least so says mythology, of almost any religion) is asleep. ASLEEP. HE is not watching over you. HE does not care about who is doing what, the good the bad and the ugly. Is HE at all interested?

Its a philosophical thought, but it brings to my mind the question "what if?" What if all that we were taught was wrong? What if values, virtues and the fabled "triumph of good" do not exist in reality? What if the good do not get rewarded in any way and die miserably, and the bad who manage their way all the way up are the ones who end up with everything they want in life? What if there is no grand record book of earthly doings? Worse still, what if the judging criteria of a man or woman on earth is not what we imagine it to be? What if it is exactly reverse?

What about the old guy who lives down your street? The poor man spent his life working hard at the local post office. Little did he earn, but spent it unflinchingly to educate his son. Great was his joy on the day when his son finished school. Unbounded was his pride when his son studied in a good college by a scholarship. He held hands with his elderly wife, sitting at the park bench, sighing at having successfully raised a family and served his nation, waiting for his son to come to him with visions of a better life.

The wait never ended. His wife perhaps realized its no good waiting, she quietly passed away one day. Heartbreaking it was, yet an occasion with a silver lining, for on this excuse his son did come home for a week. But then it was all gone, and the shroud of loneliness descended upon him. He waits still, but suspects that his wife knew better, and hopes that one night he too will pass away in his sleep, unnoticed to the rest of the world.

And then relatives will come and say "He was a good man. God rewarded him, he passed away painlessly." Painless, was it? Was that all the reward he deserved? Oh the folly! But the topic changes soon, to more important things like inheritance.

In a Bengali movie called "Kori diye kinlam" (among the better ones) there is a silly old man, who says two lines of great wisdom. When a girl about to be married asks him "Will I be happy in life?" he says "Oh you silly girl, dont you know? In this world he who is rich is happy". And when the girl asks him about punishment after death, he vehemently protests "There is nothing after death. Nothing. With death its finished. Its all gone, dark and hollow". Remarkable. Why have people not thought about this in greater detail?

There is a little girl at the corner of street where I turn. In ragged clothes and dirty hair she scrubs away at the cups and plates piled high and deep at her feet. She works fast, because her angry employer shouts at her when she does not. But in her heart she knows another reason. Everyday when she finishes her work, she gets a dry biscuit from the owner of the ramshackle dhaba. She tries to time this precisely at the hour when her 3-and-a-half foot high hero comes with a holder full of tea glasses. If she succeeds, she manages to share the biscuit with the urchin, who in turn manages one extra cup of tea everyday for this little intimate brunch. The owner looks suspiciously at the pair, and seems to be in an unusual hurry to close shop and go home. She hates it, the moment of separation.

God's children, aren't they? Well they'd better be, for there is nobody else alive who would call them their children. And what is the fate of God's children? Somewhere below the wheels of a car? Or are they to succeed the beggar a little further down? Who keeps note of their tender feelings, and where will those take them?

Don't seethe your temper against the owner of the shop. He does not earn much himself. Has an ailing wife, and a promiscuous daughter who ran away from home for ... He shivers at the thought. God knows where she is now. His wife weeps every night secretly for her. He weeps every night thinking of all the money he owes the street ruffians who threaten him in different ways every week. They are backed by the police, who share in the earnings. Its no good fighting crocodiles in water, so he tries to accommodate. And when bereft of all hope he stumbles along the lanes of the red-light area dead drunk shouting out the name of his daughter, not knowing whether to be happy or sad at the lean prospect of a reply from one of the windows above, a little feeling stretches out for the pair of urchins back at his shop. He'll scold the girl even more the next day, he tells himself. Maybe that way she wont lose discipline like his daughter did. And he'll keep the boy away from her, this is where it all begins. But maybe, just maybe, he'll get her a bigger biscuit.

And in contrast we have God's privileged child. The symbol of Hinduism. The god of the state. He who brings great investments and great industrialization. He who, not so long ago, was charged of inactivity, or rather instigating activities between 27th to 3rd February of 2002. He who was, possibly, indirectly responsible for the death of almost a thousand innocent people, orphaning of children, rape of women and numerous such atrocities. He who was accused of having systematically planned government and security level inaction against a terrible carnage. Numerous aging parents like the one who recently passed away down the street have been pushed to wait forever for their children to return by him. Countless little girls and tea-carrying urchins have been purportedly produced by him, who loiter the streets with no place to call home, and nobody to call dear. Perhaps even today, the graying hairs and the wrinkled brows of some father like my dear dhabawala try hard to conceal the screams of imputation to the Almighty against him, only to break down in the comfortable numbness of inebriation.

But is HE listening? His ideal demagogue came through clean. Of course he did, the Government found nothing wrong. They even got him a better rank and position. And I am quite sure, after death, if he stands before HIS court, he'll come clean there too. "Pichhpaa noy bidhatao dudhete jol meshate" we say in Bengali - Even HE does not hesitate to mix water in milk. HE could with with a little more money and power HIMSELF.

Maybe in the Christian schools when the kids line up in the morning for their prayers, they should just say:

Dear God,
Are you watching?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Those 4 years...

This is a tribute to all those with whom I started a wonderful journey, but shall be compelled by circumstances to end the same without them.

Fig. 0: The haluest guy is the writer of this blog

Ayan Sengupta:
Fig. 1: Ayan files a petition demanding worse weather (sunshine, rain, etc) along with Bhalu
Ayan is mentioned first because (i) he is the institute topper, unless he horribly screws up his last endsems ;) (ii) not mentioning his eminence first may have consequences like DC etc. Mr. A Sengupta (B.Tech version), also known as Prof. ASG among the junta, is the living personification of how people conceive, chase after, hunt down, skin alive, roast, devour and finally ingest dreams. One fine morning in Salt Lake, ASG in presence of a catalyst named Debangshu Mukherjee, suddenly realized how poor his academic concepts are. And then there was no stopping him. Immersing himself in super human pressure (measured by a special unit named after him and his partner-in-load Debanjan – 1 “Chaap” – which approximately equals the pressure exerted by an elephant trying to balance himself on a pin) ASG chased relentlessly after the gilded circlet of glory. We who have been fortunate enough to witness the precise mechanism of that phenomenon (a queer mixture of comedy, tragedy and oodles of the aaaaarrrrrrgggggghhhh factor) shall remember him for years to come, and uphold him as an example for our kids not to follow. :P
Ayan can be currently found around EPFL in the Swiss Alps, staring hard at the snow until it melts in fear.

Nachiket Desai and Tanaya Sahu:

Fig. 2: Nachi (right corner, green t-shirt) delivering his electronic sermons

When God wanted to try his hand at electronics, the Nachiket avatar was born. Known as Nachi to the department and Nochi to Ayan in particular, he is one guy who learned something out of the 4 years spent here. Secret news is that first year students play trump cards in which Nachi features as a prized possession, with statistics like “744 pages of notes photocopied from him, 87 assignments distributed by him, 17 people passed with his help, 8 codes shared with all” glittering the parchment. Not to mention “current residential status” set to “MIT” and “current relationship status” set to “committed” (you think that’s not an achievement?? Just come to IIT!!). Sitting beside Nachi in the classes is a recursive call to a class in itself, with information flowing more densely from your right (or left) than from out in your front. Nachi’s phone serves more customers in trouble than a reputed BPO, especially the night before examinations. Everybody is in awe of him, except one, who has marked him as “liar liar” on the back cover of the digital VLSI notebook.
Which brings us to the topic of Tanu. Tanu started her career most benignly by chasing birds and roaming around the corridors in school in utter ignorance of the fact that she was supposed to sit in one place. From that, the damsel with the beatific smile, whose left hand is longer than her right (or maybe the other way round), promoted herself to the Goddess of Good Handwriting, and the Chair(wo)man of the NDC (Notes Distribution Committee). SN Hall’s gate is always crowded by boys for her. Don’t get me wrong, it’s for her notes, which circulate the department till the dire emergency of its return to its rightful owner emerges a few hours before the examinations. Add to that her culinary and singing skills, and you will be as confused as I am about which trait exactly won Nachi over.
The immense intelligence of the God and his Goddess took a backseat when they placed themselves on diagonally opposite ends of USA. Never mind. Bless their (going-to-be) children; I would have been born psyched with parents having a combined CGPA more than 19.
Nachi is currently busy belittling Profs at MIT. Tanu waits for Prince Charming in UCLA California, singing Tere Bina Jiya Jaye Na… while scrutinizing Nachi’s income and expenditure statement for possibilities of optimization.

Fig. 3: Nachi and Tanu insisted that no picture of them together be put up. Obviously they underestimated my smartness

Dhaval Chudasama:

Fig. 4: Gujju either shouting "Yo Gujrat" or "Yo Nehru" or "Yo SBI ka khata"

Unlike his name, the Gujju isn’t sexy. Gujju openly flaunts his Gujju-est accent in class, shamelessly confesses having left his khata in State Bank and has a fetish for sleeping on his infamous gamcha at arbitrary locations in Germany. But Gujju is so sincere about his studies that for every class he misses (no! he doesn’t bunk!!) Gujju reads the notes and writes them down in his own notebook manually, but never photocopies them. Gujju is a big shot in Technology General Championship for Nehru, and missed out on the GC by a hair’s width of poltu in his final year. Gujju however, has found his place in J.P. Morgan Chase, and intends to chase success henceforth with full concentration (in preparation for which he took a special course on algorithms and regretted it later).
Gujju can be currently found in JPMC Mumbai, contemplating the economic impact of converting cotton mills of Gujrat into semiconductor fabrication labs, and the investment required for the same.

Aayush Prakash:
Fig. 5: The "Zara Zara Touch Me Touch Me Touch Me" Boy
Everybody calls him Juice, I call him Chhamiya, for which he calls me gay in return. But trust me, Giselle Bundchen would have wept after seeing his waist. Juice made the mistake of his life by forfeiting a lucrative (read juicy) career in modeling and aiming to become an engineer. Almost every guy in EC Department has a crush on him (including me). Juice stays indoors in fear of us, plus that of getting blown away by the wind. Juice has a smile that can start a thousand IC’s. And Juice has a strange telepathic connection with Prof IC, so that every time he decidedly announces “Aaj Sir nahi aayenge” IC walks in through the door.
Juice is currently following in the footsteps of Linda Evangelista and Yasmin Ghauri to try and re-orient himself in the Canadian modeling industry. His studio is in Waterloo.

Prabhu Pritam Dash:

Fig. 6: :P :P :D is now after Hakim. You can see "prank" written on his face

Convert his initials to smileys: :P :P :D , and that’s the best estimate of the department’s electronic monkey. It has been claimed that :P :P :D at some time was a quiet and serious guy soaked in his books. We all think it’s a blatant lie. He is the biggest and most heartless prankster to ever roam the ramparts of EC department, including the most horrible Amma repeats examination joke which made us want to hang him. :P :P :D is permanently after everybody, and takes special interest in irritating Shaunak Mishra in particular (covered later). :P :P :D goes to classes (if at all) to find a quieter environment to indulge in his i-Pod related activities, and has a chain of alleged girlfriends / crushes whose names end in “-ta”, only exception being Gaurav Srivavastava. And what :P :P :D did in Amsterdam is still a fill in the dash for all of us.
:P :P :D is currently with erection… err.. Ericsson in Gurgaon. The typo may be correct too, it’s the Dash part of him.

Shaunak Mishra and Sunav Choudhary:
The BB – Bokaro Brothers. They studied in the same school, with one coming first and feeding samosas to the other as a token of consolation.
Fig. 7: Load takes the onus of 4G Matched Filtering upon himself
Had I known Shaunak in my first year, I would have found a perfect example of a DC motor running on full load. Load is psyched about anything and everything that has remotely something to do with acads. Which has reached such an extreme that he runs to the toilet at the end of every class, and jumps up in fear when someone pings him with a picture of RVR. Load has an amazing record of messing up interviews, including one occasion when he casually walked out of the room before it was actually over. Load searches Google for everything, including the definition of frequency (you know what I mean) and picture of a blonde Oriya Brahmin girl who he dreams to marry (don’t mistake the blonde part, the first comment Load passes on an insanely hot girl is “Abbe uska baal dekha??”). Load is the God of communications, curses his choice to no end, and played football till he dropped after finally landing the dream university. Load is terrified of policemen. And Load teams up everywhere with Sunav.
Talking of Sunav, he has no nickname. Sunav was under the impression that the world is composed of men, and some people who somehow don’t look like men. He also condescended to marrying one of that sect under pressure from his father way back in first year (for the future, I mean). Sunav takes electronics real seriously, going as far as getting himself electroculated in the rain while wading through a puddle. And then, one fine morning, Sunav’s Gtalk status message announced “Vegas Baby Vegas”. Thus Sunav became aware of women. But it has not affected him much. His first favorite music track (to which he secretly tried dancing in his room) was Jhalak Dikhlaaa Jaaa(n)… by you know who. He still talks to the jhaal mudi seller in Hindi within West Bengal and in Bengali while in Jharkhand. And he remains the God of Mathematics till today, when all of us have happily removed it from the tiny hard disks residing in our heads.
Load can be currently found in one of the toilets of UCLA sending wireless signals to Sunav, who receives the same from USC Viterbi. Content of those messages is suppressed.

Fig. 8: Sunav (camel t-shirt) visibly upset at being separated from Load

Pritam Mukherjee:
Fig. 9: PM reflecting peacefully about life
Had PM been a little shorter, he would have beaten even Juice in Miss India contest. PM is the God of peaceful affairs, and it has been commented that unless one day PM realizes that there is a time bomb ticking away inside his trousers, he won’t get excited. PM is another God in Mathematics, and claims the most esoteric and byzantine theorems to be “obvious”. PM rides a cycle which is older than him, and respects the venerable object dearly, and a working model of the first mobile phone to hit the Indian markets still vibrates in his pocket. PM assumes a circular topology beneath his famous chaadar in winter and goes into hibernation. PM is also our suggested future replacement for PM senior, save the fact that PM junior feels a little out of place among poles and zeros.
PM currently lives his good old halcyon days in Maryland. No cute girl has excited him as of yet.

Sharad Sensharma:

Fig. 10: SSS uses Colgate every morning. Aur aap?
SSS is the management guru of the EC department. The dude is so freaking awesome, he maintains a CGPA well above 9 despite being a member-turned-head-turned-S.Comm. of Kshitij (although we know how he does that :P). Plus SSS is a deft swimmer and a real good TT player. Contrary to popular opinion, SSS does not smile, his face is set into a contortion that resembles a smile at all times. Such is his glamour, SSS leads the way in interns and placements alike, sidetracking the Gods upon every opportunity. And despite all this, SSS roams the campus in a discolored orange T-shirt bowing his head and meekly smiling. SSS is seldom there in class, and when he is, he makes sure his presence is noticed by suddenly starting to ask doubts. SSS is a highly eligible bachelor (as are 80% of the people reading or mentioned in this blog - plus the writer), and apparently SSS would love to fall in love, but as is the way with women, they fail to recognize the real gems.
Currently SSS can be found in the BarCap office in Singapore. His employers suspect he is under an advertising contract with Colgate from his never-ending smile.

Anandaroop Chakrabarti:

Fig. 11: Andy being given the Best Biceps Award
The hitman /bouncer. Somewhere in 2nd year, Andy decided to have long hair (thankfully he got rid of his mane later on). And then came the gym. No man has shuttled with so high a frequency between classes and the gym as him. The effect showed. Andy blew up like a hot air balloon, and latest news is that Andy no longer finds the weights in the machines in the gym sufficient, thus lifts whole machines for his daily exercise. Andy apparently also lives under the oath of reticence, with the answer to almost any question under the sky being a mere “Hmm” from him. Andy does not miss classes, and in addition to that does not miss sitting in the first row right next to Stud Matka, although he has been caught shamelessly sleeping at times. But the greatest thing about Andy is nobody dares to tease him in any way. Effects can be lethal, as had been demonstrated by a “friendly fist” upon our dear bear brother in 2nd year which promptly landed him up in the hospital.
Andy claims to be at Columbia University, but trusted sources inform us that he stalks the streets of New York by night and works as a bouncer in Las Vegas in summer for extra cash.

Devi Prasanna Pati:
Fig. 12: See how happy (not gay) Pati is?
Pati (also called Devi at times for his ineluctable femininity) was not in anyway one of the winners of Kaun Banega Crorepati. But he does have a secret resemblance to Sunny Deol. Pati resembles a smiling gunny bag, and the sunny side of him lies in his "dhaai kilo ka haath". Not that it has landed on anybody, but rumors are the Santa (Santanu Mandal) has been threatened more than once with the same (upon which he screamed out his passionate love for Pati to win his heart over). A sheer opposite to Load, Pati has never been seen tensed - be it an extra assignment, an increased end-semester syllabus or an extra class called at 8 PM. Pati has a watch which people believe to be the core portion of a broken down grandfather clock, and the huge rectangular dial is frequently consulted for the moment of emancipation while Pati is in class. Pati has also been accused of under-utilizing his glasses; more often than not Pati peers from above the frame than from through it; but such effects may have been imbibed out of admiration of the departmental post office with not-so-admirable services (you know who..).
Pati now "think"-s at IBM Bangy. Whether it is for mankind or for formally assuming the status of pati is an entirely different debate though.

Kunal Datta:
Fig. 13: Little Ribald Red Riding Hood KD
Small is the new big, they said. And right they were! KD is the smallest organic chronometer ever designed. KD wakes up at 6:50 sharp, brushes his teeth for precisely 2 minutes 37 seconds and has breakfast 7 minutes 13 seconds starting at 7:20, upon which he leaves for classes. KD held an astounding (and, let’s admit it, extremely irritating) record of 100% attendance till his 7th sem, and only in his 8th did he finally decide to give it a break. When KD’s door-lock cranked with the noise of being locked while KD was in the process of leaving for classes, I would mostly be rolling beneath the sheets, trying to contemplate whether today’s lecture would be worth attending. KD supersedes Tanu in the matter of notes distribution, only that in his case it is intended for his juniors (check the wing dustbin right after the exam, you’ll find INR 1000/- worth notes enough to make you a nehli). KD’s assumes a pose on the mess chair which makes one suspect that he is awaiting a lap dance. A firm believer in 2 fundamental and highly controversial principles – “Love is lust” and “Life is a race; if you don’t run fast you’ll be like a broken anda”, KD continues the dilemma regarding whether he is human or an android even today.
KD now resides in USC, stalking Los Angeles latinas twice his height with the immense confidence that his stipend is twice her salary.

And that all is just the tip of the iceberg. Each person I met in EC department was (is and will be) a genius. Ok, the profs would disagree, but I have seen much more of them than they have after all. Michaelangelo (Pankaj Chaukikar), Michael Jackson (Shishir Narayan), Usain Bolt (Kaustav Hakim), the Webmaster (Sai Krishna Tejaswi), the Passionate Othello (Sunil Sharma), the Smiling Wonder (Sushant Kondguli) or the Dark Knight (Kolluru Vinod) - name the masters and you shall find a budding maestro in EC department. Studying (studying???) alongside you has been an honor, a privilege, and I stand by my statement any day - I have learned much more from my friends outside the class than within.
Fig. 14: A bunch of crazy people I'll miss every single day of my life
And so. After 3 years of having braved every threatened punishment to proxy each other’s names in the attendance register, copied from each other in assignments, class tests (and semesters too) with unobtrusive shamelessness, jhapofied treats from the unsuspecting nerds at the slightest pretext, crashing into rooms for GPL’s with reckless abandon at weird hours of the night, photographing and sharing lab note books with greater gusto than a marriage ceremony and falling asleep on one another’s shoulders through lectures, it’s all over. The terrible times we spent together in labs, the morning tea Meherda bought us (actually he never paid) almost every day, the lab-bunked afternoons spent lolling on the Vikramshila grass, the late nights spent ogling the occasional samples of pulchritude, the endless frustapa of waiting for that damned BTP simulation to give the correct results and then pinging each other desperately for sources to copy from, the photo sessions, the punctured tire and the hitched ride, the laughter, the screams and the tears… it’s all gone.
Or is it? People who design memories can never forget them…

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Dreamz Unlimited

After the bout of seriousness on my last post, I decided to go easy this time round and take up something light-hearted. So here goes my tribute to the diadems of animation, Walt Disney animation studios, Disney Pixar and Dreamworks, and the wonderful dreams they have instilled in us to cherish for years.

Before I immerse myself into the dreamland, a recognition is due for the predecessors and contemporaries of Pixar, who have been no less instrumental in building our most cherished childhood memories. Hats off to Hanna-Barbara (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) for bringing the evergreen joy that is Tom and Jerry in our lives. Kudos to the "originals" of Disney, Mickey and Donald, who are household names in almost any family round the world. My respects go also to Warner Brothers for the inimitable wit of Bugs Bunny.

I enlist below some of the most notable films, short videos and concepts of Walt Disney Studios, Pixar and Dreamworks. A little reflection easily reveals that although the target audience has been children by and large, there are fundamental lessons to be learned for all the media and society in general

1. UP (Pixar):

There has been a good deal of contention among fans about which movie is closer to people's hearts - Wall-E or Up. I personally have felt that Up's storyline, though charming, falls slightly behind the appeal of Wall-E. But I enclose here a little video, which occurs in the beginning of the movie. These few minutes are, by far, the BEST I have ever seen in any animation, and really brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it.

Nobody has ever, in my knowledge, captured the little joys of married life more beautifully than this on screen. Its painful and endearing at the same time to see how a couple, on whom Provenance refused to bestow Her complete blessings, found an alternative way to be happy by chasing a simple dream... Pixar knows what is important in life, no doubts about that.

2. Wall-E (Pixar):

Very widely praised as one of the best Pixar films ever, although avid fans of Up would disagree. I personally liked this even more than Up, but that may be due to my technical predilections. But the magic that Pixar brought on screen is unquestionable. Pixar made it clear that you dont need to talk a lot to let someone know your feelings. A little puppy-face, a raised eyebrow, a hesitant twitching palm, and some awkward quirky actions. And its history. Wall-E speaks more than anyone else without uttering a clearly discernible sound throughout the film. Love has never been the same again after I watched Wall-E and truly, this coupled with Up defines in Pixar's own unique way how deep emotions can be without going into all the complications and ostentations that are considered concomitant to any relationship today. And on the backdrop, Pixar does not miss raising the concern for the ever-growing pollution in the world, our increasing dependency on machines and inherent laziness settling into our lives. I have enclosed here a couple of clips telling the wonderful love story of two robots :) and the most famous space dance scene:

3. Cars (Pixar):

As far as a movie goes, Cars is not a member of the top-notch. But there are a few moments that take your breath away. Among them undoubtedly is the song "Our Town" by James Taylor. This song got the Oscar for best original score. Kudos to Pixar again for blurring out the line between mainstream cinema and animation. Here is the video:

4. Finding Nemo (Pixar):

The relationship between a caring father and a rebellious but loving son has never been explored more beautifully. Add to that Pixar's legacy of creating unique and unforgettable characters, and we have Dory with short-term memory loss, Bruce the shark on a twelve-step no-fish diet and Crush, the tortoise who lived 200 years. But what comes through most strongly is the never-ending love and affection between father and son, for which they are ready to go any distance to find each other again. Karan Johar may have made K3G with the tag "its all about loving your parents", but he sure has a lot to learn from little colored fish. Honorable mention also goes to "Shark Tale" by Dreamworks.

5. Madagascar (Dreamworks):

Dreamworks has gifted us wonders like Antz and Shrek, but over and above these, I think Madagascar is closer to our hearts than any other. The main reason for that being the awesome variety of characters they had. It was not just the lead characters of the lion, zebra, giraffe and the female hippopotamus. Rather Madagascar will be remembered for the inventive genius, military discipline punched with juvenile idiosyncrasies of the unforgettable Penguins, the oh-so-cool-so-arrogant-so-irritating yet adorable King Julian (my favorite character by miles) and the terrifying Grandma who does everything most unfitting to her age. And every time I hear "I like to move it move it.." I just cant help but shake a leg along. Here are two clips for you: one testifying the genius of the penguins and the other - obvious - "... we like to - MOVE IT!!"

6. Ratatouille (Pixar):

Its a simple idea - "anybody can cook". And perhaps only Pixar could take this as far as a rat with unmatched culinary and gastronomic skills. Remy the mouse cooks, and cooks real good. Its unbelievable, but Pixar makes you believe that its possible. Add to that the charm of Paris and the budding romance of Linguini and Collette. Plus there's the ever skeptical Anton Ego to find faults and belittle chefs. There is a certain feel of culture about the movie, and Pixar has mixed it beautifully with all the weird characters :)

7. Ice Age (Blue Sky Studios):

Once again, not a very top-notch film, at least in terms of emotional content. The first one was definitely better, second one was good too, but the 3rd one was more of a wild adventure game. But the fossil who really made a permanent impact was the acorn-crazy Scrat. Scrat is probably a pre-historic squirrel who is crazy for acorns, and will go to any end to preserve and acquire them. Ok he did develop a soft spot for Scrattle, but then first love took over :) I put a little video, actually a short film, showing the tragedy of Scrat and what all misfortune makes him endure for his prized acorn:

8. Disney Princesses (Walt Disney Studios):

We have undertaken great movements to establish women's rights. India in particular has tried in various ways to convey the importance of the girl child. But Disney has done it in the most adorable style of all. "Within every girl there is a princess" - and Disney brings the charm of royalty true to the screen. Disney's princesses are not the quintessential snooty prim pulchritude. Rather, each girl is a lively embodiment of the desire for freedom of speech and action, artistic grace and cultural integrity occasionally interrupted by awkward emotions, childish laughter and the sweet craving to love and be loved, which brings them much closer to everyday girls than any royalty. Be it the royal Snow White or Aurora, the sweet Ariel, exotic Pochahontas or Mulan, the dashing Jasmine or the benign Cinderella, Disney has celebrated and cherished the girl child like no other.

9. Pixar Short films:

Many are unaware of this genre of films produced by Pixar, but these are some of the best short animations I have seen. In particular, I am enclosing here a short fim titled "Geri's game". Its a simple story about an old man who plays both sides of a chess game all by himself. His change of expression and emotions are amazing, but what is even more amazing is how Pixar has so sensitively and humorously brought out the shattering loneliness of old age:

There are several more amazing videos of this genre available online - be sure to check them out! Some of my favorites are:

Here's a little medley of short films:

Call them cartoons if you will, but animation movies have brought us the dreams and emotions which many mainstream films have failed to deliver. With the simplest of gestures conveying hearts out, animation remains an art beyond any parallelism, and will continue to engross us, make us laugh, cry, cheer and fantasize for years to come. :)