Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wikileaks, Barkha Dutt and our ability to feign outrage

Recently, we have seen two revelations that have outraged people enormously, and I use that term lightly. The US cables leak and the leak that Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi stretched the ethical boundaries of journalism.

What I have been most surprised by is how, we the public are outraged by this. US cables suggest that Pakistan ISI might have been helping terrorists. They also discuss the possibility of Iran going nuke. No shit Sherlock. What did you expect them to be doing? Discuss diapers and pregnancies?

The second issue is even more of a joke. PR person massages her journo contact to get something published. TV presenter crosses line in a bid to be on the news-creating side instead of merely on the news-disseminating side. Again, what did you expect these people to do?

Nobody needs to tell journos about regular boring news. So, PR people essentially give them some scoops in exchange for favourable press. This practice has been alive and kicking for years. If PR people had job descriptions, it would read something like "Keep scratching back, one day hope for return back-scratch". The media-PR-bureaucrat nonsense is nothing new. Just because it happened to people who are famous does not mean we should all act surprised and outraged.

Barkha Dutt has time and again shown that she has a weakness for being at the center of it all. Even her 26/11 coverage was filled with equal amounts of Oh-my-god-this-is-bad-for-India with Still-I-am-glad-I-am-the-one-talking-about-this. She has even tried to milk the accusations against her for TRP ratings. The lack of irony is stunning.

I am not condoning either the actions of the US foreign ministry guys or Barkha Dutt and co, am just amazed at the ability of the public to express outrage at this. The Open had a decent post on this issue as well sometime ago.

What are we going to be surprised by next - Military men kill, Santa Claus does not exist, Traders will punt on any rumour, Hedge funds spread rumours to make money. Should we not have become immune by now?

For those feigning outrage, don't bother. Your outrage will have an impact for about 6 seconds and then the parties will find better ways to do what they were doing all along. Barkha will probably do all her dealings in person rather than on the phone.

For those, who are really outraged, get over it. Get a reality check.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Enthiran - Genius

Enthiran - Now, this movie is pure genius. It is very clear that Shankar was never told about the law of diminishing marginal utility. The movie is based on "You think one Rajnikanth is good, two are better, what about this?". Shankar essentially looked at Kamalhasan's Dasavatharam and said "I see your 10 and raise you 1300". I am hoping Kamal did not blink.

Now, people would have told you how the plot is inane, that the chemistry between Aishwarya Rai and Rajnikanth more than matches India's contribution to the world of numbers - zero. But, remember, a Rajnikanth movie is not about all that, the last Rajnikanth movie with a plot was Thalapathi, and that was stolen from the dude Vyasa. And heroines are usually mere props for defining that thala is the thala of all the thalas in the whole world. Anyone who is not ok with this can go take a walk, and that is that.

Now, if only these overreacting, elitist, hyper-analyzing, jealous north-Indian film critics were not there, we would picked up an Oscar or two by now. The film critics just dont get it. They think a review is about appearing pseudo-intellectual. A film review about a Rajnikanth-starrer is straightforward - say it is the best ever and get on with it.

Now, there is just this one crib I have about the movie and the reviews. Before I get into that, let me give some background. I am bona-fide South Indian - dark, Rajni-loving, hindi-bashing, supertam with a hint of paunch to get closer to 100% certification. As is mandatory for all Tamilians, I did my tamiltriotic duty and watched the movie at the first opportunity. I also promptly did the 'totally worth a watch' and "Thala is awesome". I would have even gone on to the now obligatory 'the Hindi guys can never create quality cinema like this' in 1-2 weeks. But, this time it was different. I was brushed aside by this amazing love in in Tamil. It was like the state had been taken over by the TV channels (this is partly true) and they were organizing a wedding show co-directed by Karan Johar and Sooraj Bharjatya. There was just so much love.

And this has got me very pained. Why did I not get an invite for the love in? Who assumed that I would not have been able to trump K.Balachander's paen to Shankar? Am I any less Tam than these others? Don't I believe that Sadagopan Ramesh did not go on to play 100 tests purely because he is Tam?

I was just not in the loop. Whoever is giving out the messages, please drop me an email next time around. I would not want to miss the opportunity to participate in any attempt at creating a self-fulfilling prophecy (I wake up every morning and chant - "I am really good" 108 times). The whole country is anyway in on this one now - replace the I am good with "India is great" and you could be on the media by end of the week. I would hate to be a non-conformist. I do not want to miss out. Because as I said, I am awesome.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Open Magazine: Good magazine whose standards are beginning to fall

Over the past year, I have come to really like the Open Magazine and have recommended it to many of my friends. The magazine is surprisingly free of cliche and aims to entertain and inform. It sits right in the middle of the spectrum of Indian magazines - far from the textbook-like Frontline and equally far from the Tabloid-ish India Today.

Some of their articles are provocative, some are funny, and some are very informative. Generaly, the quality of writing is of a reasonably high standard.

However, after the bright start, the magazine has started writing articles for which I can only assume they are being paid by the protagonists. The last two issues had an article each on Shashank Manohar and John Abraham. I can only hope that the Open got paid well by these two.

Sample this on Shashank - Positively cringe-worthy

When asked what he observed in the way Manohar handled the Modi/IPL issue, Ratnakar Shetty, the Board’s chief administrative officer, says, “He was firm. He is one person who cannot be pressured.”. Hahaha - What is he? An sllrounder who has to score 12 off the last over?

On that hectic 26 April afternoon, Manohar showed that he had the smarts, the conviction and the larynx to be a worthy president of the country’s most powerful sports federation. The smarts, the conviction and the larynx?! Really?!

Even if some of his answers seemed unsatisfactory, he demonstrated a grip on facts and an ability to argue a case. (How does one do that).

He was unreadable, a walking-breathing BS Chandrasekhar delivery. This is awesome.

He is atypical because he does not seem to hanker after the trappings of power and wealth. He already has them. Manohar owns a couple of Mercedes E Class cars. He has two Merc E class, then he must not want more money

True, Shashank Manohar is not the first BCCI president who is rich. But somehow he does not show it. And he is not driven by naked ambition. So, when everyone around him is overdressed or busy looking busy and important, Manohar strolls in wearing a half-sleeved shirt. What about the Merc E class then, that too two of them?

What is Manohar’s special talent? “Administering the game in a clean, professional manner is what is important to him,” says Rajan Nair, This is a classic. Spoken like a Miss World contestant. Guys, he is an administrator. Not a rocket scientist. Reminds me of an immortal piece from Catch-22

"Flying combat missions for General Dreedle is not exactly what I had in mind," he explained indulgently with a smooth laugh. "I was thinking more in terms of replacing General Dreedle, or perhaps of something above General Dreedle where I could exercise supervision over a great many other generals too. You see, my most precious abilities are mainly administrative ones. I have a happy facility for getting different people to agree."

"He has a happy facility for getting different people to agree what a prick he is," Colonel Cargill confided invidiously to ex-PFC Wintergreen in the hope that ex-PFC Wintergreen would spread the unfavourable report along through 27th Air Force Headquarters. "If anyone deserves that combat post, I do. It was even my idea that we ask for the medal."

"You really want to go into combat?" ex-PFC Wintergreen inquired. "Combat?" Colonel Cargill was aghast. "Oh, no - you misunderstand me. Of course, I wouldn't actually mind going into combat, but my best abilities are mainly administrative ones. I too have a happy facility for getting different people to agree."

The old VCA Stadium, however, has a tragic history. In 1995, during a Test between India and New Zealand, a wall collapsed, killing nine spectators and injuring over 70. Manohar, who was very much a force in the VCA then, was criticised for the condition and handling of the ground.

Manohar also faced public condemnation after his son, Adwait, was chosen to play for Vidarbha in the 2000-01 Ranji Trophy. Vidarbha experts say that Adwait was drafted in the team even though he had not been playing much or with any consistency. Manohar has characteristically kept quiet about the issue. Characteristically kept quiet about this issue? What could he have said? I tried it, but you guys caught on.

Shashank Manohar is a filthy rich lawyer from Nagpur who presided over one of the worst tragedies in Indian cricket, who tried to get his son into the domestic circuit by underhand means. He has accomplished nothing of note as cricketer or administrator but presides over the most powerful cricket body in the world. The way Open magazine has spun this story to paint him as being second only to Moses is brilliant. I thought the Open Magazine was above this kind of random trash. Looks like they are falling away.

The John Abraham article is even more cringe-worthy. I am seriously considering stopping my subscription.

All of us know Indian media is bit of a joke. I just thought there was a purple patch somewhere. Looks like another false dawn.

It is on occasions like these that I like to revisit this Ram Jethmalani tirade. I have become a big fan of this guy purely because of this. Anyone who can bury a journalist like that deserves a fan club.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Arvind Adiga's White Tiger - A very good book

I read "White Tiger" over the weekend. Excellent book. I found the book to be different from the stereotypical hi-funda Indian author book. In my mind, there are two categories of books by Indian authors. They are either written in such fantastic English that they become heavy reads. Or, they are stabs at "wit"/different topic that become boring/repetitive by about page 40.

This one is different - the fiction is well-woven into the narrative on India. The setting is not based on confident, resurgent India but on the other India. The author could have gone to town narrating horrifying stories about poor Indians. That would have become repetitive and boring, and in the end left the mind numb to the suffering. Adiga's style of conveying the starkness is refreshing. He has chosen a setting that strikes home because it is very realistic. It strikes at the very root of Indian oppression - the indifference of the urban middle class. And this without sounding sanctimonious and preachy. The pace is good, the book is laced with dark humour. Excellent read overall.

The one comparison that sprang to my mind when I finished reading the book was of this Balachander-kamalhasan movie called Varumayin Niram Sivappu. Awesome movie depicting the struggles of aspiring, educated, unemployed youth in India of the 80's. Stark setting, but one in which the protagonists poverty is depicted without resorting to cheap tricks. One of the best scenes in the movie is one in which the hero and his two friends pretend to be having a big meal while the heroine waits outside in the living room. Awesome scene. A lesson in using humour in critical scenes.

Beautiful movie. No other movie captured the angst of the 80's youngster better, in my view.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Global Warming - When will science stand up and speak for itself?

Global warming is a bandwagon like few others. Almost everyone is green these days, and whoever is not is planning to turn green . Corporates are doing it, associations are doing it, even individuals are doing it. Tom, dick and harry (and of course Al) is going around giving advice on how one should be careful. Couple of guys have picked up nobel prizes for it as well. It is such a fantastic thing that almost everyone in the world is happy that something like this has come along. I am bl00dy sick of it. I have had enough of this global warming love-in.

I resent the idea that even investment bankers can take it upon themselves to provide the moral compass when in comes to global warming.

I hate it when people who have little to no knowledge about the scientific back-drop start thinking that they 'get' global warming because they have read two scare mongering articles. Dont even get me started on the scare-mongering articles.

I ran away a little bit from religion because of the fundamental role guilt plays in it. On the issue of guilt-tripping, religion cannot hold a candle to climate change.

The scientific basis to global warming is a mountain of conjecture. Thats about it. There is nothing incontrovertible there. In fact, there have been theories that state that cutting down rain forests could help fight global warming. And this from an article from The Economist. The environmentalists try desperately to make everyone feel guilty by repeating conjecture after conjecture. Remember, only 40 years ago, we were paranoid about Ice Age. And in climate pattern change studies, 40 years is nothing.

This latest mail from from Professor Harold Lewis is fantastic. Talks about how money is influencing research.

Excerpts -

It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist. Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare. (Montford’s book organizes the facts very well.) I don’t believe that any real physicist, nay scientist, can read that stuff without revulsion. I would almost make that revulsion a definition of the word scientist.

Awesome stuff. Climategate was another episode that laid bare the fact that vested interests of a huge scale were operating all over the research world. Someone, somewhere realized that religion was somehow not doing enough with people's ability to feel guilty came up with climate change. So far so good.

The most disappointing thing about all this is that the mainstream debate (in as much as handwringing guilt-mongering and chest-thumping can be called debate) has been dominated by politicians, environmentalists (what do they do for a living. who pays their wages?), and page 3 jokers. Reputed scientists have been conspicuous by their absence. Is it because their agenda has been hijacked, or is it because having a scientific outlook has prevented them from talking about anything without proof. The few voices that have come out, have cautioned us against this bandwagon-jumping. But, when mob frenzy takes over, reason goes out. Everyone is turning green with a vengeance these days. If you cannot beat them, join them.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Catch-22 - A magnificent book

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is one of all-time favourite books. It is an extraordinary satire on war. Although the book focuses on the futility of war, some of the statements made by the key character, Yossarian, are applicable in many other contexts. (For instance, this)

I have been thinking more and more about one classic conversation that appears towards the end of the book. This is a conversation between Yossarian at his aggrieved-and-cynical best and his colleague Danby (a dope, in Yossarian-speak).

"You must try not to think of them," Major Danby advised affirmatively. "And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture."
Yossarian rejected the advice with a skeptical shake of his head. "When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don't see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy."
"But you must try not to think of that," Major Danby insisted. "And you must try not to let it upset you."
"Oh, it doesn't really upset me. What does upset me, though, is that they think I'm a sucker. They think that they're smart, and that the rest of us are dumb."

The last two sentences are the best. It captures that fleeting moment of utter self-revulsion that the set of we-are-nice-guys-its -alirght-if-we-finish-last face when we see someone else unreasonably cashing in. It is not the finishing last that bothers us, it is not even the sight of some undeserving character getting ahead of us. It is the fact that the we can picture the undeserving moron who broke the queue laughing all the way back thinking to himself how these other guys are big losers. It is when every decent impulse is perceived as another sign that we would be willing to lie down and take more that gets to me.

It is the one reason why I quit my first job. I had thoroughly enjoyed my first job although I was posted in a godforsaken location. My boss asked me if I enjoyed the job and the HR team took my "Yes" to mean that I would be willing to work in godforsaken places for the rest of the decade. The HR team in this company evaluated every employee's location preference in conjunction with how much he/she is likely to quit if given a cr*ppy location. And I, naive, fresh out of college eager employee had told them that I loved the company and was promptly posted to godforsaken location 2, post the mandatory "You are a great asset to the firm, we are posting you here only because we need you to sort out his mess". I hated myself for being naive and honest for 24 hours and quit within the next 48 hours and the exit interview was something that brought me great joy.

Anyway, enough ranting about my sad personal stories. Great book. Utter delight to read (and reread any number of times). I must confess that when I first read the book I just did not 'get' it and did not understand what he big deal was. It was only on the second read that I could appreciate the satire. Joseph Heller is a genius. Cynicism laced with humour is the style all no-hopers aspire to. But only few get it right. Joseph Heller, in my mind is the best at that.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The morality question

Read a decent article on the Open magazine that got me thinking about morality. The article is by this pretty good writer called Manu Joseph. Scores of people jump on to the morality bandwagon every time a celebrity has a bout of infidelity. Though it is a lot of fun to watch people get all gagged up when they are expressing their utter disbelief over the latest transgressions of some so-and-so, I think people miss one critical detail in this whole fidelity-morality extravaganza. Opportunity.

Let me explain. Fidelity is a function of two factors - opportunity and morality. This is why it is easy to say "I would never sleep with Sophia Lauren as I am married and with two kids. And therefore it is morally wrong". If you are a witless fat slob whose idea of a good joke is to quote something from this blog, the likelihood of sleeping with Sophia Lauren is, well, pretty low (And I am being very kind here). So, the limiting constraint here is the lack of opportunity, and not the presence of morality.

Celebrities cross the line more than you or I do because they can, and less because they are less morally anchored than you or I. Or, to put it differently, average Joe would not even have an idea of how difficult it would be to be morally right when the opportunity presents itself.

One of my friends put this beautifully. One fine morning, whilst in college, with this deep thoughtful look on his face, he pronounced - "Samaj saktha hoon be". This elicited the inevitable - "Kya?" from the gang. "Soch ke dekh na, tu hero hai, Sonali Bendre ke saath baarish me naach raha hai, uske baad woh tere saath aa ke pyaar se baat karti hai. One thing leads to the other, etc".

Tum bhi soch ke dekho, samajh jaaoge. :)

Tiger Woods had the opportunity, he crossed the line. The only peeve I have with him is with regard to his bad taste.