Radiolab

Quick heads up: I had heard about Radiolab before as “a cool science podcast” but it was Ira Glass’s admiring essay that really made me want to take it seriously, and I am so glad I did! He’s right, it IS the best podcast ever! It’s almost like the platonic ideal of podcasts*. When I first started listening to podcasts, I heavily favoured the easy conversational style of, say, the Overthinking It podcast (well worth listening to if you’re into pop culture and a certain hipster aesthetic) and for a long time I couldn’t get into the much more slickly produced nature of Freakonomics or most other “proper” shows. Radiolab, as Ira explains, easily captures the best of both worlds.

And the music! And the topics! I don’t like to think of myself as a cynical man but I have come to the conclusion that I probably am, all the same. Well, most of the time it only takes a good xkcd comic to arouse a sense of “enchanted naturalism” in me, but that is fickle, and Radiolab seems like it could do the job quite consistently. I’m really looking forward to catching up on their shows.

*OK, so the voicemail-as-advertisements/sponsorship messages thing kind of turns me off a bit, but other than that… it’s really good!

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant. The movie is not. Oh, it’s fine if you need a big screen and comfy seats to rest in for 2.5 hours(!), but it will likely disappoint many hard-core fans.The fact that my seats were 10 feet from the screen and the assholes behind me who insisted on laughing during scenes that were meant to be poignant might have had something to do with why I didn’t enjoy it as much as you might; but considering that I had to work from memories of the book to evoke said poignancy myself, I don’t think I need to reserve judgement.

It’s not the cast, who generally acquit themselves quite well. It might be the direction- too many close-ups, too many quick pans and cross-cuts, too many of various other problems that I could feel but do not know enough film theory to explain. It might be the marketing: “Team Peeta” and “Team Gale” did sound a bit foreboding. But most of all I think it’s the “flattening out,” the appeal to a queasy mainstream: as Andrew O’Hehir hints at in this Salon piece ,

The problem really isn’t the lack of explicit violence; far more important, we get no sense of the hunger, thirst, cold, disease and harrowing physical torment undergone by Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the shy, blond District 12 baker’s son who has long loved her from afar. OK, they get a few superficial nicks and scratches, but they look as well-fed and runway-ready in the second half of the movie as they did at the beginning.

(I should note that the rest of his issues with the franchise don’t bug me as much, though.) Because while “The Hunger Games” is, in many ways, rather typical (good) YA speculative fiction, the books managed to retain a sense of calculated brutality that was quite jarring, considering the intended audience.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[MINOR SPOILERS] The one-line hook of the series, for those few who still haven’t been exposed to it, is: “Teenage girl is forced to fight in a televised free-for-all fight to the death between children by a tyrannical state and eventually leads a revolution against it” but the structure is not quite that simple: Katniss has no intention of being a rebel leader, she just wants to save herself and her family, and the nature of war (the “glorious revolution” that most of us were rooting for as soon as we were introduced to the world) and its resolution depicted in the third book is… not pretty. The ending tries for a certain hopefulness but the philosophy espoused is deliberately inward-looking, as the author simply can’t think of a positive spin on the way the world is going, both within the book and by the barest of analogies the world today. But for all that it is an incredibly gripping series, not nearly as much “work” as I might have made it sound like, and I finished all 3 of the books in a week. Overall, well worth a read, but only worth a watch if you don’t expect too much.

PS: I did have a problem with the book initially: namely, an  instinctive rejection of the idea that anything quite so brutal as the premise could become so thoroughly legitimized within the context of the story. But as soon as the aptness of the dominant allegory- Panem is the Roman Empire, of course- stuck I realized that that was my problem, not the book’s. Of course brutal things can happen on a wide scale, and of course they can be normalised: it happens every day! Every war-zone, every “Killing Fields”, produces societies with  hierarchies of repression far less veiled than the ones our more extreme liberal brethren are inclined to see (not without reason) everywhere. In retrospect, I’m rather surprised at my initial naiveté, even though that was barely a month back.

UPDATE: Check out Yglesias’s post on the viability of Panem’s economy and some other interesting ideas.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The book is excellent and so is the movie, which glosses over the very small parts where John le Carre bemoans (through his characters, principally his villain, thereby never actually betraying the thought incontrovertibly as his own) the passing of Empire into history, at least for the Brits. George Smiley is an excellent character, I can’t say as much for the rest in the movie but they all rather shine in the book. Principally both are brilliant at evoking the atmosphere of the age, the “Great Game” and these quite human gentleman-spies. There were descriptions of the movie as principally being “long lingering shots of manila folders being passed from hand to hand” and while it is rather slow, you might prefer to use the word sedate. In any case it is hardly devoid of action and I found the plot quite thrilling, even if a lot of the really interesting parts happen inside the character’s heads. Avoid too much context or moralising “outside the box” while reading (not much chance of it during the movie), even though moralizing within it is apparently the chief draw for many of its fans.

I watched the movie first and then read the book (and then was inspired to start on a list of le Carre’s other major spy novels; so far my expectations have been fulfilled) but for any readers of mine who wish to go about it the proper way here is a suggestion: first, read the book at whatever pace you normally employ. Then either alone or with a quiet friend or significant other- someone you are comfortable with and do not need to be careful around or impress- watch the movie with either a steaming cup of tea or a warm alcoholic beverage (I recommend ginger tea with dark rum, as a matter of fact) in a slightly-too-cold room under a blanket. Expect a slow but steady pace, watch out for the scenery, and you will be pleasantly surprised. Go in expecting early James Bond and, well, you’ll still be surprised.

I should probably provide more of an introduction for the work itself but I will outsource that to Wikipedia:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a 1974 spy novel by British author John le Carré, featuring George Smiley. Smiley is a middle-aged, taciturn, perspicaciousintelligence expert who has been forced to retire. He is recalled to hunt down a Soviet mole in the “Circus”, the highest echelon of the British Secret Intelligence Service. In keeping with le Carré’s work, the narrative begins in medias res with the repatriation of a captured British spy. The background is supplied during the book through a series of flashbacks.

Film:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 2011 Anglo-French espionage film directed by Tomas Alfredson, from a screenplay written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan based on the 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré. The film stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley, and co-stars Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciarán Hinds. Set in London in the early 1970s, the story follows the hunt for a Soviet double agent at the top of the British secret service.

The film was produced through the British company Working Title Films and financed by France’s StudioCanal. It premiered in competition at the 68th Venice International Film Festival. The film was a critical and commercial success and was the highest-grossing film at the British box office for three consecutive weeks. It received three Academy Award nominations including a Best Actornomination for Oldman.

Flash Reviews

Limitless:

Never watch this film sober. Not because it’s a bad film, but because a certain level of disorientation greatly enhances your ability to appreciate the basic premise of this movie (Bradley Cooper gets hold of a “super-intelligence” drug that lets him do a series of implausible things that he couldn’t do before, but with a catch: it only lasts a day and you die if you stop taking it.) Otherwise, a perfectly serviceable if not all that realistic (which is?) thriller.

Midnight in Paris:

I don’t know why people like Woody Allen‘s characters, because none of them have the faintest bit of subtlety (at least in this movie). It is, however, an absolutely wonderful film despite that, and I’m not sure if it even counts as a flaw when you consider that the extraordinary characters that inhabited 1920s Paris are the major draw of the film. Although the ones I found irritatingly stereotyped were all from the present day- even “anybody want to FIGHT?” Hemingway is handled with a certain respect. And now I really want to finally read something by Scott Fitzgerald.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner:

I cried! Which is possibly because I was a teeny bit drunk and because I’m just that sort of person, because this is actually very much a feel-good film. Given the premise- white girl wants to marry a black guy- the movie is set up in such a way as to ensure that going ahead with it is the most obvious decision ever (wiki tells me that this was very much intentional: “the young Sidney Poitier, was purposely created idealistically perfect, so that the only possible objection to his marrying Joanna would be his race, or the fact she had only known him for ten days: the character has thus graduated from a top school, begun innovative medical initiatives in Africa, refused to have premarital sex with his fiancée despite her willingness, and leaves money on his future father-in-law’s desk in payment for a long distance phone call he has made.”) In any case, it’s a very enjoyable film and is heartily recommended.

Shit My Dad Says (pilot episode):

It’s not like it’s any worse-definitely no better- than a lot of sitcoms, but I can certainly understand why it didn’t gain a major audience. There’s a certain shock at finding, well, shocking things in your twitter feed that makes the original medium far more conducive to this sort of humour than a sitcom, where it’s actually a very conventional sort of premise- Shatner might as well be Frasier‘s dad!

I’m pretty sure there was at least one other movie that I watched recently, but I can’t seem to remember it, so I’ll just assume that it can’t have been very good.

In defence of Chetan Bhagat

Photograph of Chetan Bhagat, Novelist, while h...

Chetan Bhagat-Image via Wikipedia

So the man isn’t really a good writer, all right? I mean, he can string sentences together in a perfectly competent manner, but you would never read a passage from his books and think it came from Rushdie or Roy, for instance. But nonetheless, it rings throughout with- and I hate using this word, but for once I mean it- authenticity. Now, there currently exists in the front sections of most Indian bookstores rows of perfectly authentic (Indian) writing that also happens, alas, to be unreadable excrescence in many cases (I would have said most, but I couldn’t bring myself to try out a larger sample size, and saying most would be intellectually dishonest.) But Chetan Bhagat manages to pull off authenticity and still not grate, which is a rarer achievement than you would expect. Of course the fact that most conversations are in fairly colloquial “Indian English” means there’s at least one thing “wrong” in most paragraphs, but you only have to tune out your pedantic inner self a little, not stuff red-hot pokers up every possible orifice until it finally stops screaming.

Authenticity, however, isn’t even the main thing that makes him worth defending. The reason he is unambiguously a “good thing” to happen to this country is that he is a reasonable man, in the most obvious sense of the word, who also happens to be enormously popular. I’m not really familiar with his political positions in any detail but his books- books that literally millions of Indians who have read practically nothing else of a similar length in the English language- pushes mostly secular, liberal, universalist views on a populace that cannot by and large be described using those words[1]. I have no idea how much of an impact he’s having, if at all- I do know that the man sees himself as more than just a writer, perhaps as an activist of some sort, and I remember articles mocking him for his “pretensions” when what he does, essentially, (at least according to that reviewer) is sell pulp- but every bit counts, right?

[1] Do I sound like a tool here? I’ll admit that it sounds classist to paint such vast swathes of his readership with the same brush, but I’m pretty sure it’s applicable to a good portion of them.

Who’s Screwing Who in Bleach (And Who Wants To)

Bleach is the anime series that I’ve been watching obsessively- I started on the 24th of May, right after I got back, and (although I’ve skipped between 30 and 40 episodes) I am now at episode 253. Considering that these are 20 minute episodes, that means I’ve been watching for roughly 5 hours a day. Because sometimes that’s just what you do.

I get the feeling that there’s a lot of romantic/sexual tension in this storyline, but at the same time, literally none of the characters have formal relationships with one another. There are, however, several implied relationships. I can’t find a place online where these are described on one page, and I’m sufficiently bored that I care about filling that void.

This list is clearly not exhaustive. Quite a few of these are not very obvious, and some people will just about ship anyone.

Anyway! All that was by way of saying that most of you probably don’t want to read this if you don’t already like (or watch despite not liking) Bleach, which I’m willing to bet is a very small percentage of my current readership. On to the list!

1) Yoruichi Shihōin

Is screwing: Urahara Kisuke.

Now, this is never even mentioned in the series so far, but it’s pretty damn likely, isn’t it? Not just screwing, but probably in some sort of long-standing arrangement with. I’m predicating this on my Non-exclusivity of Other-Gender Friends theory, which essentially states that if your bestest friend in the whole wide world is a girl (and you’re not), sooner or later you’re going to have to either add a romantic dimension to your relationship or pull back, at least a little bit. This does not, I hasten to add, mean that you can’t have really close friends of the opposite gender. It just means that if your closest friend by a wide margin is someone who you might conceivably be sexually attracted to, then, well, you will be. This is also really only applicable considering traditional concepts of “gender” and sexual attractiveness, but I think that’s wide enough for now.

2) Urahara Kisuke

See above.

3) Ichigo Kurosaki

Wants to screw: er, Rukia Kuchiki, I guess? But the theory doesn’t actually call for this, considering that he has a lot of other female friends, who are probably closer, too. Inoue Orihime would be the other candidate, of course. You do get a certain sense that there’s some sort of tension within him, but nothing even remotely definite.
Is Desired By: Inoue Orihime.

4) Inoue Orihime

Wants to Screw: Ichigo Kurosaki, of course, and this is made about as clear as it could be, given the constraints of their relationship. (Citation: the episode where Ulquiorra allows her to bid farewell to one person.)
Is Desired By: Every red-blooded male in her class and the sole aggressive lesbian. (Aggressive but harmless, which I thought was a somewhat new stereotype.)

See What I Mean?

5) Rukia Kuchiki

Wants to Screw: Very unclear. Either Renji Abarai or Ichigo.
Is Desired By: Defintely Renji, maybe Ichigo.

6) Renji Abarai

Wants To Screw: Rukia Kuchiki, who he finally almost asks out before all the fighting takes over.
Is Desired By: I want to be kind here and say maybe Rukia?

7) Uryu Ishida

Wants to Screw: I’d say Yoshino Soma, but I have no idea if that’s supposed to be sexual or if she’s some sort of mother figure, which is hinted at rather strongly. It’s quite clearly one of those two. I really hope it isn’t both.
Is Desired By: Several of the girls in his class, apparently.

Sui-Feng (Soi-Fon)

Wants to screw: Shihouin Yoruichi. Again not implied strongly in the text but definitely there in some of the omake bits…  and well, it’s always possible that I just have a dirty mind.

9) Momo Hinamori

Wants to screw/was screwing: Captain Sosuke Aizen. Maybe?

Black Swan, abridged.

Black Swan: The Abridged Script

VINCENT CASSEL

Natalie, you are perfect as the White Swan, but terrible as the Black Swan!  Meanwhile, Mila Kunis is the ideal Black Swan, but she’s no White Swan!  If only there were any way at all to remedy this predicament, but there is no solution at all!

MILA KUNIS

Actually, it’s not really that uncommon for Swan Lake to have two different dancers for–

VINCENT CASSEL

No solution at all!  Woe is me!  Natalie, the Black Swan is supposed to be seductive!  Benjamin, would you f*ck this girl?

BENJAMIN MILLEPIED

Natalie Portman?  No, I’d kick Natalie F*cking Portman out of bed because she can’t dance perfectly.  For the record, I’d also tell a naked Mila Kunis to go pound sand if she couldn’t name all fifty states.  Jackass.

PS: Should I just get a tumblr or is this not that weird?

Totally True

Ten catch phrases you swore you’d never use (and when you used them)

1. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
What it’s from: Princess Bride
When you say it: Twenty minutes after you saw The Princess Bride. With a ruler in your hand, and your only pair of boots while your very-much-alive father shaves in the bathroom down the hall. Oh please, like you weren’t all dying to say this one as soon as you heard it.

Read the whole thing.

Manhattan

…past midnight on the coldest night in November.

This is the main component of my hostel’s entry to the inter-hostel (lit-soc) creative writing contest here in college, written by Slicer and me. For the full pdf with all the frills and to check out other hostel entries, if so inclined, check out The Fifth Estate’s coverage, here. It’s worth it-our design’s rather nice, and it’s not particularly large. It’s the Alakananda hostel entry, right on top of the list.

I don’t think anyone will “get” the title until they’ve read the whole story, but it would be interesting if somebody did get it afterwards 🙂 . Also, assuming you get the idea, do tell if we were too subtle, not subtle enough, or just right (the “with frills” version has a few more light non-verbal hints, but they shouldn’t make all that much difference). I’m not entirely happy with the way we executed it, but I was immensely excited by the premise 🙂 .

UPDATE:We got second!

The full story is under the fold: Continue reading

Disillusioned with Discworld

I just don’t like Granny Weatherwax that much as a main character. She is, first of all, a leader who does not know how to lead. For someone who is described in the text several times as someone who has a phenomenal grasp of “headology” (psychology) she doesn’t really seem to know that much. She doesn’t know how to negotiate with people, she just knows how to manipulate them from above, and in any realistic situation that should present a number of difficulties, but they simply never come up in the books.

Ever noticed how conservative (in a very British nanny sort of way) Terry Pratchett is? Several of his protagonists have “practicality” as their chief virtue. I didn’t mind this in Sam Vimes, because even though he grumbled a lot he always seemed genuinely nice to most people. But with Granny Weatherwax all her kindness is off-stage: this is even lampshaded in the book, when Magrat is complaining (with some reason) about her, Nanny Ogg reminds her of all the nice things she’s done, which we don’t actually get to see.

I re-read “Men at Arms” yesterday because I didn’t want to continue with Maskerade (or study), and the more I think about it, the more Granny Weatherwax seems almost like the anti-Vimes. She bullies everyone else; Vimes gets bullied more often than not, although he finds ways to deal with it.  She knows what other people are thinking but doesn’t seem to know herself particularly well; Vimes is exactly the reverse, although in a less extreme way. None of this is necessarily a reason to dislike the books, of course… I think my biggest problem is simply that I’m (yes, still) too fresh out of high school (which had many similar characters, different only in that they weren’t as smart and couldn’t do magic, thankfully) to be able to appreciate a bullying old woman as a central character.