Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Books That Made My 2014

Throughout the latter part year, I had been of the impression that I was reading a lot of books this year. That impression was shattered when I just checked my Goodreads statistics and realized that in sheer numbers, my reading has been pretty ordinary. But in quality, I am proud of some of the books I read this year, and I believe their memories will stay with me for long. I decided to succumb to the December habit of creating unnecessary lists by mentioning the best ten of the lot.

10) The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson : This Swedish crime novel has two interlinking stories, one a darkly tragic murder mystery, and another a battle against corporate swindlers. Though the presence of an additional plot is off-putting for a few people, I was fine with it. What surprised me was to learn that women lead dangerous lives even in a country like Sweden. This book made me reconsider a lot of things about women equality. My short Goodreads review is here.

9) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak : Previously reviewed in my blog here.

8) I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak : Two books by a single modern writer in the list! I Am the Messenger is lesser known of the two. It is about unremarkable people leading mundane lives in Australia. It has logical loopholes and an ordinary ending. Fortunately, logic does not affect my choices (in all things) as much as it probably should. I loved this book because of its uniqueness in having an unexceptional guy as a protogonist : a misfit who reads novels and drives taxis. Like Churchill described Atlee, our hero is a "modest man with much to be modest about". He has Zusak's sense of humour though. Here is my Goodreads review of I Am the Messenger. I hope to write a complete post about it sometime.

7) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy : Leo Tolstoy's epic novel, Anna Karenina is not an easy read. But it is the sort of book that you read and ponder upon, and then realize its beauty. With two protagonists who are alike, yet totally different, Leo Tolstoy guides us through the Aristocratic Russian society. We witness a proposal, a marriage (the best literary marriage I have come across), a childbirth, a suicide, a few extra-marital affairs, and numerous intellectual dining room conversations. Another book I might write about some time. Here is my hastily written Goodreads review.

6) Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry : The setting is Bombay of 1972. Gustad Noble is a conservative, religious, yet an open minded Parsi man. His adolescent son is rebelling against him, his daughter is ill, his best friend who deserted him in the past wants him to take part in a clandestine mission for RAW, the Indira Gandhi government at the centre is rumoured to be corrupt, there is war brewing in East Bengal -- soon-to-be-Bangladesh, his new best friend is battling an ailment, a man from his colony creates nuisance in his life, the right-wing RSS is becoming hostile, and the compound wall of his colony has gradually taken the form of a public urinal. In Mistry's skillful hands, Gustad Noble's ordinary circumstances are coloured by Indian-ness. Who cares about the lack of a central plot when we have an engaging tale with a wonderful, warm-hearted hero? Goodreads review here.

5) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque : The best war novel I have come across. This novel banned by Hitler depicts the brutality of war and its effect on soldiers. The detached tone multiplies its impact. A sad, sad book. Goodreads review here.

5) The Martian by Andy Weir : A science fiction involving an astronaut struck in Mars, narrated with unmatchable wit. The only book I was able to finish this year at a pace I am proud of. Unputdownable. Goodreads review here. Read the book before its movie adaptation is out.

4) The Stranger by Albert Camus :  Short and powerful. With an amoral protagonist, Camus questions everything we know about life. This books contains the essence of Camus's philosophy of existentialism. Also, this is the book that taught me my recent-favorite phrase : "tender indifference". 

2) The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph : Reviewed on my blog here.

1) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky : Reviewed on my blog here.

Outside books, it has been my most memorable year till date. Also, this happens to be the year where I inundated you all with a personal record number of blogposts. I will try not to repeat it :) Thanks for putting up with me. Wish you all a great year ahead!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The grass better be greener on the other side

I accompanied a friend and his companion to a mall recently. It was one of these malls where you press a button upon entry to generate a time-stamped parking slip and settle the parking charges while exiting the mall. We were surprised to find on our way in that the vending machine didn't work and, since the gates were open, my friend just drove in. We parked and shopped; my friend and his companion shopped whilst I walked roughly behind them starring at my mobile screen. On our way out, we were stopped and asked for a ticket. The attendant was extremely polite and as soon as my friend explained how we had entered, he was flexible enough to just ask us the time of entry and collect a rough amount. My friend though, was righteously outraged at being asked to pay for a system fault. He did pay eventually, but he kept raging on all the way back home about the missed opportunity to teach the mall authorities a lesson. It must have slipped his mind that he had used the parking facilities, for which it is only natural that he pay.

On another day a family I know ordered pizzas from a popular outlet. The pizzas came on time but it was found upon unpacking the boxes that the pizzas were cold. They were about to heat the pizzas on their own microwave oven when it occurred to them that as paying customers, they did not deserve to be treated poorly. They placed a call to the outlet, ignored the apologies, and asked for some sort of compensation. The only way out was for the pizzas to be boxed and sent back to the outlet, when the outlet sent out another dispatch of the same order to be delivered a few minutes later. The family contemplated this, and were coerced by their hunger to simply drop the issue.

In my short -- albeit seemingly extremely long --  career, I have not been perfect at my work. In my first year at an IT company, I kept making a series of mistakes. More experienced people stuck with me, and kept giving me more opportunities, and I committed more mistakes. With time , I learnt - not exactly to avoid mistakes -- but to handle them, and to reduce their frequency. When I find other people committing minor mistakes in their own jobs, I feel a healthy camaraderie towards them. "What, you forgot that? Haha! So, I am not the only imperfect person around." Naturally, it amuses me to look at others who expect no mistakes at all when they pay for things.

Of course, I am not Buddha (despite my occasional claims to that effect). I do get irritated at bad service, and I often take it out on an unfortunate representative. The justification for it is simple : the company makes so much money, why shouldn't they serve me well? But often, we don't hurt the company. Yelling at a pizza delivery guy who is late by a bit doesn't change much. Yelling at the outlet about the tardiness of the delivery guy could reward us with free dinner, but chances are that the dinner is involuntarily sponsored by the lowly paid delivery guy. A phone call to the customer service of any popular telecom company yields only a self-gratification as we harangue a helpless (and irritatingly repetitive) customer care executive. A I-pay-for-it-I-deserve-to-be-treated-better mentality is dangerously close to a class mentality, where class is defined by how rich you are.

And why this obsession with flawlessness -- especially in other people? Every corporate looks towards a zero defect product. Let's face it, most of our jobs are not, for my inability to think of a better term, "mission critical" (supplementary question : What is this mission? What is the purpose of human existence?). Most of our jobs are useless, contributing absolutely nothing to humanity. Yet we go around with a demeanor of self-importance as if we are Atlas, bearing the whole brunt of the World on our shoulders. Of course, there are professions that are critical. In the science fiction novel Martian, thousands of NASA scientists work around the clock for the survival of a single man, and despite their stress, they are acutely aware that a single mistake would be costly. Bus drivers (a thankless job), doctors, judges, juries, pilots, certain programmers, safety device manufacturers are a few professions I can think of where perfection is an absolute necessity.

But should we really insist a machine-like perfection in every walk of life? Or is it the quest for such perfection that makes humanity what it is today? I seriously don't know. But often, I wish that we just have the ability to take people's imperfections lightly, and be polite while pointing them out.

PS : In case there are typos in this post, you know what to do.

Image Source :

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Guest Post Series : Interstellar and my 120 Bucks

Note : This post is a part of the Guest Post Series.

A minor setback kept me away for a little from the blog. Now that I am a wee-bit more confident that things outside the blog can be set right, I am back to doing what I like doing the most - forcing you all to momentarily pause your furiously paced life, and make you think about things that would never ever prove useful to anyone. Here is a guest post that has been laying dormant with me for a long, long time, waiting to be introduced by me.

Balaganesh was my bench-mate in my first day of college. "Hi, I am Balaganesh. My friends call me Bala". For some indecipherable reason, I pointedly addressed him as Ganesh for a few days until I realized that he wouldn't respond to anything other than Bala. He did eventually become one of my better friends. Bala is known for his sense of humour. We all need someone who is willing to play themselves down for the entertainment of others. Bala is one such person. Lots and lots of people feel good about themselves by teasing him, and he lets them -- most of the time. To be fair to them, Bala can be irritating, especially when his attempted jokes are terrible. But sometimes (the success rate is quite low) they come off, with hilarious effect. When asked to submit an assignment in Genetics, the whole class wanted to submit print-outs. Our lecturer was adamant, and wanted it to be hand-written. "OK, no print-outs. At least Xerox, madam?", he quipped.

Underneath all this, Bala is quite a serious person. A lot of things make him angry. But most of all, that his very good knowledge in politics and current affairs go ignored makes him furious at most people. And Bala reads a lot too. As far as I know, he started reading English novels quite late (but he has been reading in Tamil for long), but devours them hungrily to keep up. Around the time I started to blog, he too started his own blog, and we had an unspoken competition between us. He would write random snippets and send them to me, and as he kept writing, he kept improving. Ignoring some punctuation, there are some enviably well-written snippets, but they are so random that nothing can be made out of them. My favorite piece of writing by him is The King and the Truth, a fine piece of historical fiction. A more suitable example of the randomness in his writing is this. I expected such a post from Bala, but he decided to write a movie review. And on that note, I finally managed to catch up with Interstellar yesterday. The science is beyond me, but I connected with the movie emotionally on so many levels and I loved it for that.

Interstellar and my 120 Bucks

What is a science fiction?

The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.              
 –Arthur C Clarke

To evolve base science, futuristic novel ideas in to next level, pushing the boundaries of logic all the while keeping foot on the ground.

In short, Imagination with or with in the grasp of logic is science fiction.

What is wrong with the movie?

Nothing is wrong with the movie.

And I have nothing against Nolan; In fact I am a die-hard fan of the Dark Knight series and Prestige, I haven’t watched Inception though, but have heard the same annoying clichés from friends, “Wow whatta movie, I had to watch it 5 times to understand, how can a person think like this” etc.., and I decided against watching it.

So, when people who hardly watch or read science fiction speak about ground breaking ideas, new physics Nolan has come up with the movie (Yeah Righttt…); I am like “had physics always been so primitive before Nolan started making movies”, because Space-time continuum, Gravitational Singularities and probable worm holes are the grounds on which any DC or Marvel comic and real ground breaking movies such as the highly acclaimed and unknown to today’s Nolanites such as Akira, 2001:A Space Odyssey, The Solaris or even  The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy (People perceive it only as comedy which itself a tragedy) are built upon, so it’s not new level of thinking for many of my friends and me, and I’m naturally and quite rightly annoyed.

The movie itself is a delight with the delicate emotional quotient shouldered by Matthew Mcconaughey, Mackenzie Foy (Little Murph), and Jessica Chastain (Murph grown up), excellent if not grand music by Hans Zimmer (The constant hum of Grandeur), thankfully not in latex-Anne Hathaway (Highly Distracting in latex and leather :P:P :) ), Michael Caine who wasn’t used as much as he should have been and last but not the least the TARS and CASE robots weren’t a humanoid but had humor which was kind of cool and awesome, lazed with great lines, Kudos to that. But they too are replicas with improvements from a lot other Sci-Fi’s (I’ll give Nolan the benefit of doubt for not saturating the idea)

Now anyone can see the potential of this cast, I’d say their presence in itself guarantees Oscar nominations, so when someone says great acting and music, no surprises there.

Note: I refrain from commenting on specific sentiment scenes as I’m prone to giving up the main plot, not that it has many twists, but below this I may not be extending the same courtesy for science will always be science. And if you have not seen the movie by now I assume you ain’t so keen a Nolanite.

In terms of Science-Fiction:

“What had happened is also yet to happen, what will happen in the future though; had already happened”
*And also happening right now*

The amazing and widely acclaimed visual effect/treat of the Black hole in fact has over-shadowed the most incredible notion and complexity of the movie. The simultaneity of time, if you watch it closely you will know it never was about time travel but about events occurring simultaneously, it was refreshing to see that Nolan didn’t point it out as in many other Sci-fis but trusted the audience to figure it. Matthew who has travelled in to the space is already present in his daughter’s bedroom but also in the future (Namesake) which also is the past (Namesake).
Awesomeness of science has been barred by the stunning illustration and effects of the Black hole

The place where he ends up is with time as a physical dimension, one can simply take a stroll and end up in his past or into the future, though grandfather paradox would prevent any physical interaction that might impact the events happened/happening. Nolan bypasses it conveniently with Gravity. But all these wonders of physics have been sidelined by the glory of the black hole.
Yet, if I were allowed to be brutally honest for a minute I’d say “it is an overrated Sci-fi, every idea in this movie has been already experimented upon, in better and flawless movies”.

We all want our heroes to win, we want all the movies we watch to have happy endings, so naturally laws of physics and logic is betrayed in the script (hardly the qualities you will want in a genuine Sci-Fi), no one (Including Nolan and Kipp) can explain how the three planets are compatible to life in any sense without a nourishing star near but with a black hole (you don’t need a masters to spot this) and the exaggerated effects of relativity like slowing down of time ratios, yes this is intriguing to common minds but to create a perfect sci-fi we’d have expected better explanations than gravity, especially with Kipp thorne by his sides.

The only new idea however preposterous, (I will reserve my comments on that) is the suggestion that Love might be a great power which we haven’t really have tried to explore on, by which Nolan is suggesting how Captain cooper ends up being able to help his daughter (It took me great effort to not reveal this scene, though I doubted the possibility when the movie decided to tread upon space-time distortions)

And what finally broke my resolve to not be annoyed or write a review on this movie is when Mathew Mcconaughey ejects (The computer actually screams “EJECT”,  LOL….) and survives from a spaceship being torn apart in to shreds by the gravity of the black hole inside the blackhole, seriously what the hell is that. Oooops spoiler :P:P


It’s a great movie, but overrated and with a lot of facts gone wrong (Quite common when imagination is mixed with science, so it’s fine and forgivable in many places) and with fans who worship Nolan and talk non-stop in theatres and clap for not so great scenes while missing the real good ones (Unforgivable), is annoying to real Sci-fi readers and watchers.

PS: Black holes are being depicted as friendly and life -nourishing in the movie which is the best(or worse) humor I stumbled upon in the last couple of years :P:P (LMAO)

Courtesy: Title from RJ Balaji’s take it easy with Balaji and Arthur C Clarke for the quote.

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