Friday, March 25, 2005

Psychobabble

Wishy one moment, washy the next.
Have to work, want to blog.
Want to watch a random movie, have to finish work.
Book tickets, cancel them.
Transient analysis on one computer, optimization on the other.
Walk out to have dinner, come back with a pack of Maggi.
Reading The Gold Bat, choose The hitchhiker's guide for dinnertime.
Want to call this girl I used to like, end up calling an old college friend.
Feel like listening to fresh new songs, can't bear not listening to the old ones.
Hate my laziness, love not having an ambition.
Thirsty, want to eat dry biscuits.
Want to be coherent, break out into nonsense.
Want to blog, have to work.
Washy one moment, wishy the next.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Gremlins

One would not expect inanimate entities like electricity or the weather to have a sense of humour, but trust me, they do, and they are forever playing practical jokes on me. In fact, one of the reasons I am here now is because of that great practical joker - electricity.

Now, if you are in Pune, you would know that there are these three-hour power cuts five days a week. We thus equipped our UPS to supply slightly more than three hours' power supply for two computers in the office. And well, the diabolical sonofanelectron ensures that it stays away from the circuits - four four and a half hours - till one (I switched off this one in a bid to outwit my aggressor), and then the other computer conks off, thus dumping a solve running on it. And then, when the cooling fans in the CPU come to rest, and my curses cease to bounce off the office walls, back comes the electricity, and don't tell me I was only imagining the gleeful cackle under the conduit wiring. That was when I ditched everything - for a while, at least (my bosses read this blog) - and turned to my Blog for comfort.

At home, the most common prank is in the form of a power cut when I've just entered my apartment with my packaged dinner. Then begin a series of chaotic events I have come to call "find the plates, candles and matchbox before the food becomes cold and soggy". I stumble over the odds and ends strewn across the place - shoes, books, newspaper bundles, the occasional cockroach trying my socks on, et cetera - attempting, in vain, to find the candles in the feeble light of the ancient Panasonic GD75's LCD display. I seriously think my candles are also involved in this little joke, because each time when the power is back, I think of the most logical place to find the candles, store the things there, and even attempt a dry run with the lights off, to see if I can really find them in the dark. After all this, the candles simply scuttle away on the backs of those cockroaches I mentioned, or roll off into the recess between the kitchen stove and the wall, or find a way to disappear into tears in the fabric of space-time, until my food gets cold and soggy.

After finally locating the candles, lighting enough of them around to be able to read (I cannot eat alone, so I always carry a book around to kill time and the taste of bad food, something that the waiters in the restaurant close to the office find very amusing) , I settle down with my latest novel, and try and chomp down the cold, soggy daal-chaawal and scrambled eggs which taste like the hen never, ever sat on them. And without fail, - and I am not making this up - when I have swallowed the last morsel with superhuman effort, I hear the familiar, contemptuous buzzing of the fluorescent tube just before it floods the living room with light, seeming to say, you fell for that again! How thick can you get?

Sometimes, just for variety, the power would go off unexpectedly, just before I press my office clothes in the morning (I finally got ahead of this one by joining a company where I am not required to wear formals), and after I'd selected the least wrinkled shirt, donned it, tried ineffectually to "rub" the wrinkles away, and finally preparing for the final sprint down the stairs and the screaming ride down to the office so I could swipe in on time, the power comes back just when I'm flipping the switches off.

And that is just one half of the story. Wait till I tell you about the weather. Oh, the weather.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Sci-fi gripes...

I recently read Rama II, the sequel to Arthur C. Clarke's timeless classic, Rendezvous with Rama, and found it a bit of a let-down. It had none of the awe-inspiring elements that fired up the imagination as frighteningly as Rendezvous did. I cannot recall any work of Science Fiction I have read which overwhelmed me as much as the original book, published way back in 1973. It was science fiction in its purest form - with the alien artifact - Rama - occupying centrestage throughout the book. No obligatory villains, no heroes - at least, not the stereotypical ones, and no creepy aliens leaving a trail of slime. Just the passive, fifty-kilometre-long cylinder hurtling toward the sun, and the incredible mysteries that lay inside it.

The execution of the book reminded me of another of my favourite Science Fiction works - this one is a movie - Close encounters of the third kind. Though the movie is not as awe-inspiring as Rendezvous, there are many common elements, the most striking one being the way the extra-terrestrials are depicted throughout the movie. Till the end , we are unsure whether the ETs are malevolent or benevolent, just as we are unsure about Rama. I liked the movie for the same reasons I liked the book - everything is so well-knit. Take away the setting and you are left with nothing.

On the other hand, I also like movies like Gattaca, where the futuristic setting can be changed to a contemporary one without seriously harming the movie. Movies like Gattaca succeed because of the way they unobtrusively use the sci-fi part of the story as a backdrop. The movie is not about the protagonist getting to fly to Titan, it is about the triumph of his spirit, against his own physical shortcomings, as well as the prejudice against his kind. If you have not watched this movie yet, watch it, if only for the inspiration.

However, more often than not, meaningless drivel is presented on paper and on celluloid in the name of science fiction. Rama II falls into this category. It merely presents the alien spaceship as a backdrop against the petty struggles of a few humans. Not unlike movies like Screamers, Event Horizon, Alien, etc. where the futuristic setting is merely in order to introduce a new environment for the characters to get killed in. Now I admit that I did enjoy the claustrophobic effect of the spaceship in Alien, but I would never categorize it as a science fiction.

And then there are movies like Minority Report which have an excellent premise, but the director seems to want to show off - transparent displays, organic-looking robot probes, the strange new Lexus... all of which distracted me, and served to unnecessarily increase the running time. Not to mention the Star Wars 'prequels', where Lucas seems to be silently screaming in every frame, "Look, I can do this, and that, too!". A far cry from the almost-spartan-in-comparison look of the original A new hope.

Books with promising premises like Timeline, The ghost from the Grand Banks, 2010:Odyssey two, Prey, and other half-hearted attempts by otherwise good authors hurt all the more because you can see how excellent concepts have been ruined by slipshod writing. And unlike movies, as far as books are concerned, I am yet to see a sequel which lives up to the promise of its predecessor.

Thus, what remains is a handful of books and even fewer movies which would pass the criteria of pure Science fiction - The epic-like 2001: A space odyssey, the open-ended time paradox of Twelve Monkeys, the virtual reality of the first Matrix, the documentary-like record of the threat of The Andromeda Strain, and Contact, with its half-scientific, half-theological arguments, to name some. And each time a good science fiction book is made into a movie, I fervently hope that they won't over-dramatize it and cater to the PG-13 audience, and am often disappointed, and sometimes, shocked, like I was when I watched the movie adaptation of Sphere. Over time, it's become my favourite example of "books that should remain books".

I hear the movie adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama is scheduled for release next year. Mr.Freeman, please don't alter the script...

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Doodles

In an earlier post, I have explained how I have been plagued with the lack-of-concentration problem. When I was a kid getting some primary education, I have often drifted off, and have had the misfortune, when the mists cleared, to find myself looking into the angry eyes of the history teacher.

"Boy, are you drawing in my class?"

Looking down at my notebook, I realized that I had done it again - drawn a vase (minus the flowers - I dislike flowers, much less actually drawing them) on the corner. The light source in the drawing was, as usual, above and to the side of the vase, thus enabling me to shade the vase asymmetrically, in an attempt to hide the fact that I always have had a problem with drawing symmetrical objects. The shadow seemed a bit too short and thick... if I could just-

"BOY!"

This cry was usually followed by a sharp pain in my right earlobe. Another note would be scribbled in my diary, and my mum would then look through my notebooks, textbooks, the last few pages of my diary, there would be some amount of strain in the household that evening.

My mum has always been rather artistic - a talent that sadly skipped me and passed on to my younger sister, who is putting them to good use - she's learning to be an architect, and God help the skyline of Chennai. I, on the other hand, have inherited my father's style of drawing weird cartoons and some of his sense of humour. I still remember the day he was trying to demonstrate how easy it was to draw a cartoon - I was about eight, my sister was to be born in another month or so, and my father took a sheet of paper, a pencil, drew a set of ovals - a small oval on top of a HUGE oval, added arms, legs eyes, nose, ears, hair, etc. in his deceptively easy style, and when it was done, he said, "See? That's your mother!" I was immensely amazed by this display of skill and told my mum so, showing her the sketch. Being a keen observer of facial expressions, I could gather that her idea of art was considerably different from her husband's.

I don't remember when I started doodling in class, but I do remember getting into a lot of trouble over it. I have been whacked on the head, rapped on the knuckles, and one particular teacher - we used to call him "George Sir" - took pleasure in pinching the underside of the upper arm. If you have been pinched in this area, you would know that it is rather painful and makes you stand up like a bolt of lightning just shot through your chair.

On the bright side, there were some guys who used to like my doodles ( I started calling them 'cartoons', because over time they moved on from the corner of the page to occupying the entire page), and were interested in what form of violence I had inflicted on my subjects this time. Though my childhood was not disturbed at all - it was mostly happy, barring uncomfortable moments like the time when my mum found that her instruction of "when the milkman arrives, take the milk and put it in the large vessel of water (we did not have a refrigerator at the time) on the kitchen platform" followed to the letter, the result being that when my mum returned from our neighbour's place, she found a large vessel of highly diluted milk on the kitchen platform. My arguments on how I was unaware of the fact that milk is NOT supposed to be diluted and how she had not explicitly told me to put the whole packet into the water and not pour the milk, fell on deaf ears. To this day, she continues to tell all my friends about the time "your engineer (heavy sarcasm dripping off this word) friend poured milk into water".

But I digress. The point was that the violence in my cartoons had nothing to do with my childhood being unhappy. It was quite happy. And the cartoons were a bit funny, if you like cartoon noir. So I had a few friends who liked the stuff, and there was one guy - Harsh (not the english "Harsh", but the hindi one - pronounced "Hur(as in Ben Hur)-sh") - who used to give me ideas on new hilarious cartoons we could produce. We had our small group of friends who shared the sense of humour, comic books, and G.I. Joe toys that would have done any geek of the eighties proud.

Sadly, just when I was starting to impress the girl next to me with some "cute" fingerprint cartoons, my father got transferred to Tirunelveli, and that is where I spent the rest - and that means the most - of my adolescent life.

It was only when I got into engineering college about five years later, did I get back to doodling idly on the corner of my fluid mechanics notes. Though I never had quite an admirers' society again, the doodles filled time, and space (I later learned that these are one and the same, and the term to be used is space-time) of which there was a lot lying around in the four years of college. By space, here, I refer to the blank space of my notes, not the personal space available in my room, which was too small to swing a cat in. Not that I swung a cat in there, but a cat is not very different in size from a Nunchaku, and I did swing the latter in the room - once - with slightly distressing results. Other distressing results on swinging the Nunchaku included multiple injuries to my face, hands, and ribs, and the subsequent reduction in the confidence my Sensai had in me, which was not much in the first place. His final comment on the subject of the Nunchaku was, "You do not need an opponent at all."

Anyway, apart from doodling in class, I also tried my hand at 'serious' sketching, but realized that they attracted more laughs than my cartoons had ever did, so I dropped the idea.

Landing in Pune at my first ever job, I realized there was still plenty of scope for my doodling, in the form of department meetings, monthly review meetings, quarterly meetings, annnual meetings, brainstorming sessions, etc. So when I was not playing hangman with Shahina, I was amusing Swati or Mini into giggles with (they did not know it at the time) my "serious" artwork.

After I realized that Peanuts actually made a lot of sense - I had read the strips as a kid and had found them vaguely depressing, I think it was because almost all dialogues were followed by those three dots (...) which leave a sentence hanging in the air - I believe the technical term is 'ellipsis', and upon being introduced to Gary Larson, I once again decided to try my hand at cartooning, and the result is displayed here.

The background to this is the following: each year, all of us employees had to go through this rather painful process of "performance appraisal", also known as "What the heck were you doing the last 2,318 hours in this company?". A large percentage of our rating depended on how we displayed that we have indeed inculcated the company's core values - one of which was "Simplicity". Now please look at the image below.



Please let me know if you do not see an image here.


Now please laugh. The only chap who has, to this date (I sketched this one on a summer night about two years ago) laughed because he actually got the joke was Kakkar, and he is considered quite weird by some of his close friends, including yours truly. Which is pretty much what he thinks of me, so it was rather disturbing when no-one got the joke here. I thus refrained from creating any more cartoons, which was a bit of a wrench, especially as I had thought of one involving a medical student pondering over a semicolon...


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The rejected editorial

I have a belief that if I do not post something or the other on a slightly regular basis here, this blog will meet the same fate of my last one. Thus, I'm indulging in a slight bit of cheating by posting pre-written material like this when I'm too busy/ lazy/ both.

My old company made the mistake of including me in the editorial board for its first-ever newsletter. Ignoring my protests, the rest of the ed board thrust the boring work of writing the editorial on poor me. I did my best, and turned up the piece that follows, but it was rejected outright... after wiping the tears from their eyes, they made me sit and write a tame, watered-down, run-of-the-mill editorial. My exhortations of "please publish this - you can even call it the rejected editorial!" fell on deaf ears.

Hehah. Thus I publish my own stuff.

Editorial

This editorial is supposed to tell you about why we are having a newsletter, and how having this newsletter is going to help us, and how this newsletter is going to grow over the years. To the first, our initial answer was “well, because everybody else seems to be doing it.” Apparently, that was not a good enough reason. So we followed the advice of an old Guru: “When in doubt, Google it.”


You’d be surprised at what we found. Apparently, t
he newsletter had been accepted as a conventional form of correspondence between officials or friends in Roman times, and in the late Middle Ages newsletters between the important trading families began to cross frontiers regularly. Also, there seemed to be a belief among those who indulged in the occult that people who worked on newsletters lived longer, became rich, and enjoyed exceptional popularity among members of the opposite sex.


No, seriously, now that TACO Engineering has branched off into TFDC, too, a newsletter is a pretty good idea to stay in touch with the who’s who, what’s what, and when’s when in the general Engineering family. And with our company growing at a healthy rate, this would be the next logical step in communication.


Also, Shahina threatened to fire us if we did not do it.


We were just kidding (honestly, Shahina? Fire us?). Well, actually, the purpose of the newsletter would be best explained if you take some time to go through the next few pages. We promise not all of it is boring. Honestly.


-The ed board.