Thursday, December 03, 2009

When We Were Very Young

Twitter beats love, reports NPR. 'When did twitter take over the Universe?' asks the Baltimore Sun, and the Huffington Post inquires if twitter is more addictive than facebook. Even though some skeptics question whether anyone is listening, everyone, apparently, is tweeting.

Which should not surprise me at all, since this is exactly what the venerable seer and prophet A. A. Milne had predicted more than 85 years ago in his inspired poem Corner-of-the-Street.

xxxDown by the corner of the street,
xxxxWhere the three roads meet,
xxxxxxAnd the feet
Of the people as they pass go "Tweet-tweet-tweet--"
Who comes tripping round the corner of the street?
xxxOne pair of shoes which are Nurse's;
xxxOne pair of slippers which are Percy's...
xxxxxxTweet! Tweet! Tweet!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rooster-Licking Parent-Fornicator!

Is it scary that I find this to be almost equally revolting as well as appealing, both oddly repulsive and compelling at the same time? Sometimes an uploaded digital image says so much more than just a thousand words & is so pure that it doesn't require any annotation - and, in any case, I am too busy rolling on the floor hysterically laughing my ass off right now to even attempt any further commentary.

A moderate amount of research reveals that a chicken flavored version is also available (see the complete line here), apparently for the discerning consumer who would appreciate the delicate difference in taste. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess at this point that I had at one time contemplated - not entirely in jest - a scratch and sniff product line that would market, shall we say, the various personal odors of celebrities.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Feeding Blue

In 2001, the philosopher Roger-Pol Droit published his book Astonish Yourself! (subtitled 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life), which is based on the premise that philosophical insight is achieved when one looks at everyday actions - which are usually taken for granted - from a slightly different perspective. The simple exercises in this book, while at once playful and profound, irreverent and wise, have the potential to challenge and shake many of our preconceived notions about the meaning of words, the stability of the outside world, and even our sense of identity. The idea, through these mostly simple everyday adventures, is to provoke tiny moments of awareness that produce astonishment and encourage us to explore further.

Take this quirky example (#13) - Drink While Urinating: just have a large glass of water at hand and start drinking when you begin to urinate (trying, as far as possible, to drink the water straight down without pausing). The sensation is quite bizarre, as Droit points out: The water you evacuate seems to be synchronized with that entering your mouth. In a few seconds you will feel directly wired, from throat to urethra, from stomach to bladder - a physiology that is impossible but that you inuit, directly and unquestionably, to be real.

One of the most intriguing experiments, for me, is #64: Look for a Blue Food. I had never realized that while there is a phenomenal amount of blue on earth (which even looks blue as seen from space) and food exists in all colors, there is nothing blue to eat in nature. Droit calls this a very straightforward and yet a very considerable mystery, and there is a suggestion that we may have even evolved to find blue food repulsive; it is as if we can't digest the sky, the ocean, or the planet itself.

Which makes the following fact even more interesting than it already is: according to a study published July 27, 2009, by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a derivative of the common food coloring Blue Number One (found in M&M's and Gatorade) was found to reverse paralysis in rats and, unlike existing treatments, there was no toxic clinical side effect other than a somewhat adorable blue skin and eyes. The substance may someday be the first major intervention available for people with spinal cord trauma, said study co-author Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. (But until then, she suggested that patients with spinal cord injuries might want to drink blue Gatorade.)

And you know what else? The rats in the experiment also enjoyed improved bladder control - which would not only be a big deal for humans with spinal cord injuries, but would also be rather helpful should one desire to try out the first experiment described in this post!

Article in National Geographic

Monday, September 21, 2009

With the Help of International Filmmakers

What first caught my eye was the name: an item song called Akira Kurosawa in what looked like an eminently forgettable typical masala Bollywood B-movie? And, just as I had suspected, I was hooked right from the first guttural shriek of 'Tarantino!' For the next couple days I couldn't stop myself from playing the song over and over again while uncontrollably & hysterically giggling the whole time. I have probably regained my composure somewhat since that initial shock, but the song is still constantly playing in a loop within my subconscious. This is a keeper.

Not that a mere listing of the lyrics can do it any justice, since the catchy foot tapping tune and all the voice effects have to be heard to be properly savored; however, here they are, for mainly academic interest (and also because I am a little obsessive compulsive). It is curious that Bertolucci is the only director to be mentioned separately in two different places, and there are as many as four Japanese directors who merit inclusion in the pantheon. Also, in a bit of breaking news, Danny Boyle apparently missed out on being in the song due to bad timing: since the song was composed before Slumdog Millionaire made him such a household name in India, Ranjit (director/lyricist) and Siddharth Suhas (composers) opted for Woody Allen instead, who was thought to be much better known. Also, for all of you wondering whether this song is supposed to make any sense at all, here is what has been provided by the way of an explanation: It's a tribal song and thus the lyrics were supposed to be gibberish. However, Ranjit's idea was to make the song with the help of international filmmakers rather than gibberish.

Tarantino Wilder Capra
Ozu Bertolucci Peckinpah
Fellini Visconti Oshima
Coppola Coppola

Wyler Hitchcock Wajda
Mizoguchi de Palma
Wyler Hitchcock Wajda
Brian de Palma

Akira Kurosawa Vittorio de Sica (repeats 4 times)

Bertolucci Bertolucci Lumet Aha Lumet
Bertolucci Bertolucci Oh...
Sergio Leone Sergio Leone Truffaut Aha Truffaut
Sergio Leone Sergio Leone Oh...

Woody Allen Woody Allen B. DeMille C B. DeMille
Woody Allen Woody Allen Oh...
Milos Forman Milos Forman Godard Aha Godard
Milos Forman Milos Forman Oh...

Film: Chintu Ji (2009)
Director: Ranjit Kapoor
Singer: Anushka Manchandani
Lyrics: Ranjit Kapoor
Composer: Siddharth Suhas

Why is Danny Boyle's name missing?
Listen to full song: YouTube, bollyfm, radioreloaded

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Is That A Broomstick Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

It's official, The New Yorker says, hormones are now coursing through every corridor in Hogwarts. More than just the corridors, apparently: am I the only person who finds this image mildly offensive but mostly just mind numbingly (and hopefully unintentionally) ROTFL hilarious? (Especially when you factor in the expression on poor Rupert Grint's face and the way he is holding his, er, broomstick and thrusting into the strategically placed orifice.) I can honestly say that this scene provided possibly the only fleeting moment of pleasure, if one can call it that, in what was otherwise more than two and a half hours of almost unadulterated torture. As Richard Metzger tells it like it is: Well, there is simply no beating around the bush about this one. No mitigating factors. Nope, none. The new Harry Potter film, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is absolutely fucking terrible. Not a disaster, just a total bore, which is worse. (Read the rest of his review here.)

To be fair, it is not like absolutely no one is picking up on the subtext here. Anthony Lane points out in his New Yorker review that Dumbledore himself seems to have a quiet thing for Harry, forever putting an arm around his shoulder. “Wands out, Harry,” he commands. And according to this rather amusing compendium of examples of its use in popular culture, the or-are-you-just-happy-to-see-me trope never did directly occur in the Harry Potter series but at least one fan thinks that it should have.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Sound of Silence

Talking without speaking, hearing without listening: read these words aloud in your mind silently. I still haven't been able to completely wrap my brain around the fact that this is even possible. Isn't sound, and our perception of it, a purely physical phenomenon? Physical waves have to physically excite certain internal parts of our ears which would then translate to the sensation of hearing. How can we possibly perceive sound without this activity, then? Especially when I can actually even say it softly or loudly with varying pitch and intensity - but all of it internally, without really making any audible noise. (And thus the reverse paradox: when you say things aloud in your mind, do you make a sound?) I mean, what does sound even mean if it's not a result of molecular disturbances in the ear cavity? What makes it more strange is that I am unable to recreate this with the other four senses (six, if one includes motion and balance). I can certainly remember a face, but I cannot actually see it with my eyes closed; I can bring up the memory of a touch or a taste or a smell, but cannot voluntarily recreate the specific feeling in the absence of the actual physical stimulus. So what makes sound different? How is it that I can actually recreate the neural pathways in the brain that produces hearing (if that is really what is going on) when the actual source is absent? Going even further, when we read a word, are we necessarily always making the sound in our brains? Do we ever just read, or are we always reading aloud silently without being conscious of it? What do congenitally deaf people feel when they read? Can we isolate the sound of the letter A from the letter itself and perceive them separately? No, I don't have the answers; all I can do is silently wonder, turn, and toss.

Oh, and for those of you already bored out of minds by this entry (you know who you are), here is a hilarious parody of the Simon & Garfunkel classic that inspired the title.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Cover Story

Satyajit Ray designed every single cover of the Bengali literary magazine Ekshan starting with its very first issue in 1962 until his death about 30 years later, and this little montage above is a small sample of a few of those sublime covers. Among all film makers, Ray is my personal favorite, and the empathy I feel with the body of his work is difficult to quantify or describe. Ray was my own personal film school while I was growing up in a small town with no access to international cinema, and I couldn't have asked for anyone better. In this era of specialization, he was the last true auteur who kept a detailed eye on each and every aspect of his films, from scripting and pre-production to post-production and even designing most of the publicity material. As Andrew Robinson, one of his biographers, explains: "Ray has a strong claim to be the most versatile of film-makers. He was personally immersed in every aspect of production. He wrote the scripts of all his films, which were often original or near-original screenplays. He designed the effortlessly convincing sets and costumes down to the smallest details. He acted out the roles for the actors and actresses with consummate nuance. He operated the camera throughout the shooting (after 1963). He edited each frame of the film. He even composed and recorded the music after scoring it in a mixture of western and Indian notation, for all but his earliest films." However, as if that wasn't enough, he was so much more than the complete film maker; that he was an extraordinary composer and prolific author is now somewhat well known, but many of his admirers outside of Bengal still don't know that he was an amazing graphic designer, and almost single-handedly revolutionized book cover designs in the Bengali publishing industry.

His cover designs for Ekshan never fail to amaze me to this day; working with just three letters of the Bengali alphabet and usually just two colors, he managed to build a repertoire of tremendous diversity and freshness. It almost seems to me that a parallel could be drawn between the range of these covers and his oeuvre as a film maker, in the manner in which he almost effortlessly managed to scale the heights of artistic excellence repeatedly while working under unbelievable technical and financial constraints.

More Ekshan covers here.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Global Politics of Shit

The Big Necessity (subtitled Adventures in the World of Human Waste, in the UK, and The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, in the US) by Rose George, which has been called 'The most unforgettable book to pass through the publishing pipeline in years' by Mary Roach, is unquestionably one of the best books of recent times; very funny, very scary, and occasionally truly tragic.

If you are like most people, you are probably already disgusted; you have turned up your nose, your body and mind is on high alert, and you are secretly thinking that I have a scatological fetish. (I may or may not be a scat freak, but that is irrelevant.) In fact, Rose herself has, by now, had to spend many months answering the question of why she decided to write this book. In spite of the fact that defecation is as much a fact of life as breathing (everyone does it, after all, and an average human spends three years of their life going to the toilet), it is considered to be very lowly unlike most other body-related functions. Indeed, rules governing defecation exist in every culture at every period in history and may even be the foundation of civilization since potty training is nothing but an attempt to turn a child into an acceptable member of society. The result of this neglect is clear: 2.6 billion people in the world have no sanitation (four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box) and poor sanitation causes one in ten of the world's illnesses with fecally contaminated water killing a child every 15 seconds.

In 2007, readers of the British medical Journal chose sanitation to be the biggest medical milestone of the last 200 years. The toilet is probably the single biggest variable in increasing human life span: proper disposal of human excreta can reduce diarrhea by nearly 40% and modern sanitation has added 20 years to the average human life. But even the reality of the rich toileted people can be a myth, and the affluent have a bigger effluent problem than they may care to admit. While most Westerners put the thought of human waste out of their minds once they flush it out of their sight, it makes sense to scratch under the surface of this complacency. Until about three years ago, Milan, Italy's cultural capital, discharged its raw sewage into the river Lambro; Brussels, the EU's administrative seat, only started building a sewage treatment plant in 2003; In the United States, 1.7 million people have no sanitation (and that does not just mean that they have no toilet in their house - even an outhouse that empties into a rickety drain counts as sanitation; it means that they have nothing).

And yet the subject remains unmentionable. Even though defecation, and the rules governing it, easily encompass the whole spectrum of human behavior, it takes a brave academic to address it and discussing it openly is probably the last true taboo. Sex and death may have both become conversational, but not shit; Steven Pinker, in his explanation of taboo words, explains how the acceptability of excreta-related words such as spit, snot, fart, piss, and shit are approximately in the same order as the acceptability of eliminating these substances from the body in public.

Sigmund Freud, who thought the study of excretion essential and its neglect a stupidity, wrote that humanity's wiser course would undoubtedly be to admit [shit's] existence and dignify it as much as possible. The Big Necessity fills a very big necessity by attempting to do just that.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Illusions of Grandeur

It's not every day that someone calls me a Ph.D. and a CFA, and mentions Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Noam Chomsky in the same breath as yours truly. If only all spammers knew how effective a little flattery can be!

Incidentally, and almost completely irrelevantly, a trio of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada have found that couples are most satisfied with their relationship when partners see each other through rose-colored glasses; mutual delusion & a certain degree of self-deception result in the happiest relationships. (Don't ask. This fact just came up in a Google search I did with the title of this post.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I <3 xkcd!

I, completely and totally and irrevocably, heart Randall Munroe. Randall is just this guy who, in his spare time, climbs things, opens strange doors, and goes to goth clubs dressed as a frat guy so he can stand around and look terribly uncomfortable (at frat parties he does the same thing, but the other way around). His favorite astronomical entity are the Pleiades, and oh, he also draws this webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language full-time, supporting himself from merchandise sale (so go buy something already). Which is all for the best, if you ask me, because I cannot - and indeed do not - want to imagine a life without a regular dose of xkcd to keep me grounded, happy, and sane. Actually, I don't know that there is anything I could write about it here that could possibly add to its appeal. I mean, its a no-brainer; if you already count yourself among its legions of fiercely dedicated fans then I would just be preaching to a very passionate choir, and, if you are unaware of it (because, come on, if you were aware of it then you would be in the former group, duh) then I actually envy you because now you would have the chance to blow your world by experiencing the awesomeness that xkcd is for the very first time.

So what is it that brought me out of years of blogging hibernation? Well, just when I thought that things couldn't get any better, I find out that the comics (all of them) have mouseover text! How cool is that!! (Alright, you don't have to tell me that all of you knew this already, and, like always, I am once again the last one to find out.) But look at the silver lining though, now I get to go back and enjoy my favorite ones all over again, and finally get answers to some of life's persistent questions that I have always had about a few of the strips. It's almost like finding a previously unknown Easter egg in a dearly beloved DVD. Or the Universe turning from black and white to color while you were asleep. You know, one of those.

Some of my favorite xkcd strips, in no particular order:
Students (I still have this dream all the time.)
TED talk (I stay awake nights thinking about this problem.)
Angular Momentum (This is perfect - It appeals almost equally to the science nerd as well as the romantic in me.)
Useless (I did major in Statistics, after all.)
Dream Girl (This one still makes me cry every time I look at it...)

Update: And now, the xkcd book! Also, on a dissenting note, here is someone who thinks that xkcd sucks.