Thursday, December 14, 2017

BookMarks #29: Catch-22

Title: Catch-22
Author: Joseph Heller
Genre: Fiction, War, Satire
Setting: An American air force base in Italy, during the 2nd World War
Published: 1961

Short Summary
This is the story of Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier in the US Air Force based in Italy during the Second World War. The novel narrates the experiences of Yossarian and his fellow airmen, as they go about doing their “duties” while planning to return home.

BookMarks
Catch-22 – The title itself is the book's single biggest contribution to the English language. It describes an impossible situation, a set of paradoxical conditions from which there is no escape. The pilots in the novel need to plead insanity to escape flying any more missions. But their very act of making an insanity plea shows that they are sane and are thus fit to fly more missions. Thus showing that there is no escape.

The narration is pretty weird (probably the reason why it is in most “greatest novels” lists). The story moves in the form of a “jalebi”. One event doesn’t necessarily lead to another. But one incident refers to a previous narrative, sometimes taking it forward, sometimes filling up the backstory and sometimes hanging out as a loose thread to be tied up much later. Overall making it slightly difficult to keep track of the happenings in this non-chronological tale.

There are attempts at humour even in the light of tragedy, making the tragedy even starker. After all, it is a tale of war. There is blood and gore and black humour. As the novel proceeds, it grows grimmer, as we see our characters die one after the other, while also coming face to face with the horrors of war. There is an attempt of the airmen to retain their sanity in light of the goings-on. They question war itself, but carry on with their”duties” while also fighting their own bureaucracy, which at times is an even bigger enemy than the Germans (whom we never see). They are just a bunch of weary men eager to go back home. Nothing sums it up better than the contrast in attitude between Yossarian, a war “veteran” and his roommates who are fresh joinees. 

My favorite line from the book – “that men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance”. A reminder to the warmongers the world over – that the soldiers dying in the war are also real people. Especially to those who think that bringing up soldiers dying at the borders is a good analogy for any cause.

One word about Milo Minderbinder and his M&M transportation using fleets of fighter aircraft from both sides. There is war and there is business. Sometimes they go hand in hand. And somebody can run a profitable business empire at the sidelines of a world war as well.

Previously on BookMarks: A Feast for Crows

Sunday, December 10, 2017

LearnNBlog #12: The Shortest Chess Game

I learnt the basics of chess at a relatively young age of 6 years. (I say relatively because there are kids who go on to become Grand Masters by the time they are 13!). Always found the 64 square board fascinating. Was quite a passionate follower of the game (Woke up in the middle of the night to watch live the Kasparaov-Anand World Championships Match in the 90s). Over time, chess took a backseat. However, recently, have rediscovered chess - thanks to a combination of chess.com, a longer commute and 4G data connection! And this has led to some interesting learning.

All this while, I thought it took a minimum of 4 moves to win a game of chess - the Scholar's Checkmate. Basically attack the king's bishop pawn through a combination of a bishop and queen to win via mate. So this used to be my standard opening attempt. Try to arrange my pieces to attack the king's bishop pawn (regardless of which colour I played), while also ensuring that I am not the victim of the same attempt. Sometimes would also need to throw in a knight which would delay the proceedings. However, four moves was the minimum requirement to win this. Also being a victim of this combination was one of the basic chess learnings!

Recently I learnt that there could be a complete game in just 2 moves (!) with Black emerging the victor. And there are a few options in this as well.
Move sequence
  1. g4 e5
  2. f3 Qh4+ Black wins by checkmate!
Alternately - White can move either g or f pawn in any sequence and the f pawn can be moved either to f3 or f4. Black can move the e pawn to e6 or e5. 


And just like that realized that there are so many things we can learn and keep learning.

Links & Other Readings
Previously on LearnNBlog: 14th February & Bhagat Singh

P.S. Also remembered that it has been months since I post a LearnNBlog! Need to show more sincerity here. After all it's not the "Learn" part which is an issue but the "Blog" part!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

MovieNotes: Thor: Ragnarok

Title: Thor: Ragnarok (IMDB)
*ing: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson et al
Director: Taika Watiti
Language: English
Genre: Comic Books, Fantasy

Basic Premise
Thor finds a new claimant for the Asgardian crown, his older sister Hela, whom he was not aware of.

MovieNotes
Just when the Marvel movies were getting a tad repetitive and boring, comes Thor: Ragnarok, a great mixture of action and humor.

Loki has moved over to the right side (he can switch back anytime, though). So the good folks at Marvel found a better villain in Hela. Biggest hamstring of Marvel movies has been weak villains, but this one certainly was not. Also, less screen time, limited dialogue and strong action for Hela helped in building up the right menace. Hela even threw in some management jargon for her "executioner" to be an executioner of her vision!

Special highlight was the background music while Thor, Valkyior and Hulk take up the fight. Fight sequences should be entertaining.  As should the one-line exchanges between the major characters. After all this is a comic book adaptation.

Enough material to build on the Universe. And lots of questions. Did Hela die? Why does the Grandmaster look uncannily like the Collector, although played by different actors? What about the Infinity Stones? Does Thor get a new Mjolnir? Will Hulk change back into Dr. Banner again? Did they land up in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" planet?

Many new questions. And they did not answer how Loki was still alive?

And finally, about the play within the film. A pretty strong starcast for such an insignificant scene! Was that an Easter Egg or do we just take it at face value of some big names having fun?

Rating - 8/10. A fun watch.

Previously on MovieNotes: Newton

Monday, October 23, 2017

The "Thumbs Up" Hill

You never know what wonders you can get to see during a train journey. e.g. during a recent train ride, got a glimpse of this structure. And on the return journey, made sure that I get a better view of the same.
Image Source: https://dreamzquizclubs.wordpress.com/2008/11/04/daily-question-32/
Post some research, found out that this is the famous "Thumbs Up" mountain near Manmad, in Nashik District, with the closest station being Ankai. The train was moving too fast to click a proper photo of the structure. But it did provide a stunning view. A hill with its top shaped like a thumb, making it to appear as the universal good luck symbol. The marvels of geology - wonder what all forces of nature must have been at play to form this shape!

On doing some additional research, found a blog claiming that this structure is also the inspiration behind the cold drink brand's logo! That would be an interesting take. However, it does seem a bit far-fetched. More likely, its the other way round. The place is now popularly known as "Thums Up Mountain" after the brand!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

MovieNotes: Newton

Title: Newton (IMDB
*ing: Rajkumar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Raghubir Yadav, Anjali Patil
Director: Amit Masurkar
Language: Hindi & Gond
Genre: Satire

Basic Premise
An idealistic young man is appointed as the presiding officer to conduct elections in a region disturbed by Naxalism.

MovieNotes
A great insight into what goes behind the massive exercise that is conducting elections in India. We hear tales from the political rallies, see the voters on TV, but rarely hear the story from the perspective of the men and women conducting the election.

Highlight - Brilliant acting by the “star” cast. Also, the fact that the story doesn’t go over the top in preaching mode.

Each character presents their side, sometimes seriously sometimes in jest. Seemingly there is no right or wrong side. Each have their own shades of grey. The story also doesn’t take anyone’s side openly. Empathy is shown for the ordinary local residents, who are caught in between the wars of the Naxals and the Armed forces and are then showcased to the foreign media as "champions of Indian democracy".

I don’t think, anyone has ever explained Newton’s law of gravity with so much eloquence and simplicity as Sanjay Mishra’s character does to Newton.

A misplaced sense of idealism leads nowhere. Probably that explains the feeling of happiness on seeing Newton getting thrashed by the Army team supposed to be protecting him.

The movie seemed a bit incomplete (just my opinion). Guess not closing things out helps in keeping it more real.

Random Thought – Nothing better than English movies to learn the English language.

Rating – 9/10. Fun to watch. A light-hearted satire on one of the key elements which make "Incredible India"

Previously on Movienotes: Spiderman Homecoming 

Friday, September 29, 2017

BookMarks #28: A feast For Crows

Title: A Feast For Crows
Author: George RR Martin
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Setting: Fictional Continents of Westeros & Essos, in medieval times
Published: 2005

Summary
At the Citadel in Oldtown, the maesters hear rumors of Denerys and her dragons. One of the apprentices is duped into giving off the archmaester’s key to a stranger.

At the Iron Islands, Balon Greyjoy dies and his throne is claimed by his brother Euron and daughter Asha. Euron takes over the throne ahead of his brothers and starts harassing the rest of Westeros. 

In Dorne, the Sand Snakes, daughters of Prince Oberyn seek vengeance for his death. Oberyn’s brother Duran thinking of their potential rebellion puts them in custody. Duran’s daughter Arianne wants Princess Myrcella to be crowned as the sovereign. However, her plans are thwarted by Duran and Arianne is imprisoned while Myrcella is injured.

Post the murder of Lord Tywin. Cersei and Jaime discover Tyrion and Varys have disappeared from the King’s Landing. Cersei tries to fill her loyalists in King Tommen’s council. Margery Tyrell and Prince Tommen are married. Cersei brokers peace with the sect of Sparrows and the High Septon by agreeing to let them raise an army of Faith Militant. Cersei tries to implicate Margery for adultery. However, her plan backfires and she is imprisoned. 

Jaime is despatched to take over the Riverlands from Brynden Tully, taking Ilyn Payne & Addam Marbrand as his companions. On the way, Jaime learns that Lancel has become a member of the Sparrows faith. Jaime reaches Riverrun and attempts to negotiate with the Brynden. He learns about Edmure Tully being kept hostage and having a child on the way. He releases Edmure and in persuades him to give up Riverrun in exchange. Meanwhile Brynden manages to escape during the handover. 

Sam is sent by Jon to the Citadel to become a Maester, alongwith Gilly, her son and maester Aemon and Dareon. On the journey, Sam learns that Jon had swapped Gilly’s son with Mance Rayder’s. Along the way, Aemon passes away. Sam reaches Oldtown and tells the stories of the Wall to the Maesters. 

Arya reaches Braavos and finds her way to the House of Black and White, a temple of the many-faced God. She serves in the temple and learns selling oysters in the city. All the while trying to become no one in the company of the waif and an old man. On her trips outside she runs into Sam and Dareon. On finding that Dareon has deserted the others, she kills him. Next day, she wakes up blind. 

Brienne continues on her quest for Sansa Stark. On the way she is joined by Podrick Payne, who was earlier Tyrion‘s squire. Brienne and Pod are captured by the Brotherhood Without Banners, where they are presented to Lady Stoneheart (Catelyn Stark brought back to life) for sentencing. 

At the Vale, investigations into the death of Lysa Arryn are carried out. Lord Baelish passes on the blame to Marilion, which is accepted by the Knights of the Vale. Baelish plans to marry off Sansa (known as Alayne) to gain control of the Vale. 

BookMarks 
4th Book in the series “A Song of Ice and Fire” following A Storm of Swords. Also provides the basis for 5th and 6th season of the shows. Although, now the stories seem to have almost nothing in common except the names of the characters.

Funnily it covers only half of the lead characters of the series. We don't see Jon or Daenerys or Tyrion. However we are introduced to Dorne and the Greyjoy wars. 

Onwards to A Dance of Dragons now 


Previously on BookMarks: Angels and Demons 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Road to Tokyo

A day after the National Sports Day. Couldn’t think of a more apt day to finally publish this post which has been in the works for quite some time now.
Just under three years to go before the next Olympics at Tokyo. It’s the Olympics. So it’s never too early to prepare for the big event, even if you are just a fan sitting at your home. 

Nearly a year has passed since the Rio Olympics. The Indian performance was a little underwhelming, especially coming after the relative high of the London Games. We had sent our biggest contingent ever, but the final result was a big letdown although there were quite a few last step heart-breaks as well.

Rio produced its own fair share of “stars” – PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik, Dipa Karmakar, Lalita Babar et al. But with the exception of Sindhu, the rest have seemingly disappeared from the sporting arena (if you go by the media following). There were mega felicitations for the big winners, but then what next? Most of the Olympic sports have been seemingly forgotten and disappeared from the public eye. Probably to re-appear just before the next Olympics. Badminton being the sole exception – thanks to sterling performances by the players.

Why this apathy for sports other than Cricket (and to a certain extent Badminton and Hockey). As Joy Bhattacharya writes in this article, we tend to follow the stars and not the sports. And that is precisely why our performances at the biggest stages seems so underwhelming. 

Meanwhile, me, the self-described sports tragic had decided to regularly update this blog with features on Olympic sports (from an Indian perspective). Had envisaged a monthly frequency for the updates, progressing to fortnightly and weekly in the run-up to the Games. However, it took one whole year, to bring the first post in this series! 

First a look back at the year gone by!

Post Rio, the Government announced the creation of a task force for the next three Olympics. Probably the first time ever, we seemed to be planning for the long term and not just the next event. However, the results will only show in due course. Yet, it did begin with the right intent. 

Meanwhile, NRAI, one of the better managed national bodies, immediately set up an independent inquiry to assess the Rio performance. And came out with a recommendations too, and all this in an open manner. Something which the other sporting bodies should also have done. [At least, I haven’t heard of any such enquires by any of the other federations]. (NRAI Introspection Report)

Rio presented its share of controversies. Most notably the Narsingh Yadav doping scandal, OP Jaisha’s racing controversy, Anirban Lahiri’s accusations of official apathy. All that’s water under the bridge, but hopefully the task force has taken note. Doping headlines become a national embarrassment and make the low medal count appear even more shameful. 

But what next? The medals cost money. Just look at how much Great Britain spends invests on the Olympic sports - by some estimates nearly ~5.5 Mn Pounds per medal. That is a huge amount. And the money has yielded results. From 1 Gold in 1996 to 27 in 2016. 

Well, India might not be able to fund this much (from its current sports budget anyway). But we can open up alternate revenue options. Why not legalise sports betting? And put all the revenues earned into development of sports at grassroots and dedicated training for the top performers. A side-advantage is betting agencies are also becoming good at detecting match-fixing. (e.g. Tennis). But given the “ethical” issues involved, it may not be the most palatable solution. Guess we have to stick with corporate sponsorships for now.

At the Olympics, the margin between fame and anonymity is very fine. Every little thing matters. Hopefully, actions taken from the task force recommendations might be good enough to bridge that gap.

The multiple World Championships held during the last year have brought mixed results. Badminton is good, Shooting is dicey (as always), Athletics failed to live upto the usual hype in the run-up, Wrestling drew a blank slate (the biggest disappointment), while Boxing is looking better again. Hopefully these are looked at more as preparations for the big event coming in 3 years time.

So to the question of What Can I (an average fan) Do? 

Well, as a starter follow more sports. 
  • Want to know where Indian sportspersons are participating - follow this guy on Twitter. There's no one better!
  • Build your own sports calendar for upcoming events. Wikipedia helps here as well with a couple of dedicated pages for current and upcoming events 
  • Watch more games in the stadium. And not just the big ones
  • If you can, make a monetary contribution to causes like Olympic Gold Quest.
  • Cheer for our performers on social media. (It raises the profile of the game e.g. Our women’s cricket team) 
Just a starter. Next episode (hopefully soon) will cover the event changes changes from Rio to Tokyo

Monday, August 14, 2017

India @ 70

Happy Birthday, India! And it's time for my annual round-up of many things that is India.

Usually, the perennial optimist in me would always find the silver lining in the clouds hovering all around. But, with every passing year, it is getting a tad harder to do so. Maybe the times are troubled or simply because I am growing more and more cynic.

There is a sub-clause, in the Constitution, under the section of Fundamental Duties: "To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. But that was before the era of Whatsapp and Facebook. Judging by the amount of blind faith in Whatsapp forwards, there is a large deficiency of "scientific temper" and the "spirit of inquiry" in us Indians. Why do people have a tendency to share and be willing bearers of sensationalism without a basic fact check? Something which has now been exploited to the hilt by the creators of "manufactured" news and and those rewriting history to propagate their own devious agenda. Even more worrying is the speed at which the "anti-national" tag is being thrown at people who do not conform with the "official thinking".

Coming to the most recent and shocking "news" - over 70 children die in a hospital in Gorakhpur because the oxygen supply was shut-off. A simple mechanical act leading to a tragedy. Somebody did not ensure payments even after multiple reminders leading to a "massacre". As if the tragedy wasn't bad enough, we now have to witness the vultures (politicians and media) swooping in to feed on the frenzy. Some downplaying, some outraging, some just intent on blaming others and finding a convenient scapegoat. The entire system needs a brutal shake-up.

The current state of India is such that there are more people ready to take cudgels on behalf of the members of "Bos taurus" species than for fellow Homo Sapiens. Somehow the bigger crime is "consuming and transporting beef" than the public lynching of the alleged "criminal".

Last year, we witnessed the grand exercise of "Demonetization". Almost one year down the line, we have still no clue why it was carried out (there are theories) and whether any of the promised "benefits" (and there were lots of them) actually were brought forth. And there were poeple who believed about the tracking chip in the currency notes!

Every few months, we hear of Chinese sneaking into Indian territory. A clarion call to boycott Chinese made goods is raised, ironically often via phones made in China. And then it dies down, to be raised again following the next Chinese "incursion".

The Indian soldier was also in the news throughout the year. Sometimes for dealing with skirmishes at the border, sometimes for having stones pelted at them at home, sometimes for raising the occasional complaint about their conditions. But they were kept in the news mostly by the jingoistic jokers who would bring about images of soldiers at the border even for mundane day to day activities like withdrawing money from a bank account.

A cartoon to sum it all up
Enough ranting for now. We are still better off than many parts of the world, but much worse than others. After all, I still have the freedom to post this.

भारत माता की जय !

P.S. 2016 Edition

Monday, July 17, 2017

BookMarks #27: Angels & Demons

Title: Angels & Demons
Author: Dan Brown
Genre: Fiction
Setting: Modern Day Rome & Vatican
Published: 2000

Summary
Robert Langdon, a symbology professor is called in at CERN to help in investigating a death in the campus. Certain marks from a mysterious organization the Illuminati make an appearance at the crime scene. Also missing is a mass of anti-matter created at CERN which can annihilate an entire area. The anti-matter canister is reported to be in Vatican where a conclave to select the next Pope is being held. 

Langdon, accompanied by Vittoria Vetra, the daughter of the deceased CERN scientist arrives in Vatican. There they receive the news that the four leading Cardinals are missing and a Hassassin informs them of the imminent murders of the Cardinals at the designated time and place. Langdon undertakes a chase across Rome following the clues regarding the mythical Path of Illumination, but is unable to save any of the Cardinals.

In a dramatic scene, broadcast to the whole world, the deceased Pope’s Camerlegno manages to find the anti-matter canister and save the city from destruction. 

However, it is revealed to Langdon, Vittoria and the remaining Cardinals that the Camerlegno himself had plotted the entire chain of events starting from the previous Pope’s murder due to a misunderstanding. On finding the truth, the Camerlegno commits suicide while the newly elected Pope keeps this information away from public knowledge.

BookMarks
Re-reading the book, after a trip to Italy. It was fun to read about places and artefacts mentioned in the book after having seen them in real life. 

The book marked the first arrival of Robert Langdon on the literary scene. A successful arrival which has seen the launch of more such adventures, combining art interpretation with crime fighting.

Moral of the tale – Take in all facts before setting on a course of destruction. And the most hard-core believers are the ones who can shake up the foundations of the very faith they believe in.

Also, while the author begins with “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual (as are their exact locations). They can still be seen today”, there are some discrepancies. e.g. the uniform of the Papal guards were not designed by Michelangelo, but by Jules Repond. Better to do your own research as well!

Previously on BookMarks: A Storm of Swords

Monday, July 10, 2017

MovieNotes: Spider-man: Homecoming

Title: Spider-Man: Homecoming (IMDB)
*ing: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr.
Director: Jon Watts
Language: English
Genre: Superhero, Comics

Preamble
And here comes one more superhero movie. And this one is about the rebooting the Superhero which launched the superhero craze of the last 15 years. 

Basic Premise
Peter Parker, fresh from his adventures with the Avengers is back at school. Trying to save the world while also attempting to survive growing up in the real world.

MovieNotes
  • Given Spider-man’s age (he is 15), the movie seems a cross of superhero and teen movie genres. And providing the best of both worlds at the same time. 
  • Spiderman: Homecoming is set well within the Marvel Cinematic Universe with multiple references to the previous ones, while setting a platform for the future ones as well.
  • The Acting – Tom Holland is superb as the boy who would be Spider-man. Reducing the protagonist's age was the best thing done by the makers. (Apart from not killing Uncle Ben again in the reboot).
  • Finally we get to see a decent villain in the Marvel Universe with Michael Keaton putting in a good turn as the Vulture [Aside – from Batman to Birdman to Vulture, interesting turn of roles]
  • Plot Hole Alert – How does Spider-man survive the flight and its landing?
  • 15 year old Spider-man tries to tell the world about the evil forces, yet nobody seemingly takes him seriously. Reminds one of Harry Potter in the Half-Blood Prince.
  • The use of Captain America to provide Public Service Announcements is hilarious to say the least. Especially the post-credits one, which does test your “patience”.
  • Pepper Potts appears for a few seconds and yet Gwyneth Paltrow makes it fourth on the Credits List!
  • Random India Connect – Tony Stark attends a wedding in India while at the same time “remotely” rescuing his mentee from the evil forces.
Rating – 8/10. Fun to watch. A light-hearted affair instead of the brooding superheroes that we are getting increasingly accustomed to.

Previously on Movienotes: Bahubali 2