The Stage is Set

I now blog at Thanks.

Toastmasters Icebreaker Speech

I delivered my first speech as part of Toastmasters, an organization that helps with public speaking. Here's the transcript of my speech and the video. There's a little bit of artistic liberty in the speech.

Good afternoon everyone. My name is Prasad and today I’d like to tell you how movies shaped me.

I grew up watching watching a lot of Indian movies. Of course, I wanted to be the hero of my life - help my sick mother, joke around with my comedian friend, sing a duet with my beautiful heroine and finally when the villain kidnaps her, I’d go fight the villain, rescue my heroine, marry her, happy ending, right? Well, I then turned 4. I figured that my father hadn’t danced with my mother before marriage. They weren’t good singers either. I decided to take the plots of cinema with a grain of salt.

At the risk of generalization, I’d say that most of the Indian movie audience either did not care or chose to ignore that movies stereotyped women, glossed over religious segregation, perpetuated superstitions and encouraged blindly following traditions as a virtue. Discussions with my friends on how these aspects of Indian cinema were detrimental to the society were the earliest seeds of my critical thinking. This disillusion with Indian movies at an early age gradually spread to other forms of media and caused me to question the authenticity or intention of the source of anything I consumed.

One day I saw a film by Satyajit Ray, an Indian filmmaker with international credentials. It was about life in rural India. I had grown up in a village and I was blown away by how close the film came to reality. Though I knew I liked the film, I wasn’t able to articulate why I liked it. So I read what the film pundits, culture critics and historians had to say about the film. It was eye opening to me to grasp that there was so much packed in a 2 hour movie. I made it a habit to seek award winning movies or movies generally praised by critics and tried to educate myself through them.

Watching an acclaimed cinema and reading an intellectually rigorous commentary about a good movie immensely added to my knowledge base. Believe it or not, movies like ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and the vast number of reviews I read about them doubled as history lessons.

I realized it was not enough to just read and watch copiously, but also record my reactions and observations to movies. I started paying attention to the craft of writing. I learned a new word everyday. I consciously worked on improving my grammar and sentence construction. And then I started a blog to write movie reviews. Writing did wonders to my critical thinking. If I’m writing about a movie based on a historic event, I’d read about the event to compare how much was factual and how much was artistic liberty. If it’s a science fiction, I tried to familiarize myself with the scientific concepts. When I would ruminate on how to describe a character from a movie I had just seen, I would put all the events associated with that character and then I would realize that the writer or director had sneaked in something extra that wasn’t obvious on the first viewing, added a layer of complexity to the character. I’d have a light-bulb moment: “Oh! Is this why she did that. Now I get it”. Essentially, writing did not allow me to be intellectually lazy.

While the digital media is gravitating towards Twitter and Facebook status updates, I’m falling for long pieces published by magazines like New Yorker. I have been blogging for a few years now and the process of writing has allowed me to appreciate long-form journalism even more. It takes great clarity of thought to convey one’s observations coherently in a few paragraphs. To be able to organize a load of information or observations or reporting over many pages without diluting the content and at the same not shooing away the reader is an extraordinary skill. Reading a well researched well composed article well edited piece is not only richly satisfying but it also drives me to dig deep and wide in my research and analysis before beginning to write.

I’d like to conclude by noting an interesting paradox. Growing up in the 1980s India, in a middle class family in a small town, all the parents believed that movies were degrading and would spoil their children. They constantly complained how vulgar modern movies are and how pristine and family-friendly the movies of 1960s were. Some Indian parents today say the same thing and point to family-friendly cinemas of the 1980s. From a personal experience, I’d say I’m a better person because of movies and I look forward to taking my daughter to the theaters when she’s ready.

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Future Computing: Microsoft, Google & Apple

An oversimplified primer: Personal computing has taken off at a hockey-stick rate in the last few years although the idea of a 'computer at home' for pleasure or work really came into being some 25 years ago. The cost of all the components that make up a computer has come down, and that certainly helped the consumer. But there's been a huge leap in the way users interact with a device. Had the visual interface remained a monitor that can only display green characters on a black background, no graphics whatsoever, your customers will be restricted to just geeks and nerds.  It doesn't matter if you have a genie for a processor running your commands at the speed of light, the common man & woman wouldn't care. So it's the progressive ease of use when it comes to input, output & navigation and the sheer aesthetics of the visuals that made computers more accessible to the likes of journalists and accountants.

Now, on to the point: We've moved on from pure text keyboards to mouse controls to touch screens and now onto voice recognition. Here's Microsoft's vision of a future home/office, released last year:

Sleek electronic sheets that can recognize voice and register touch from devices the size of business cards to wall-mount screens. This vision is not set in the near future of 2 or 3 years but in about 10 years, roughly. The problem with such a long range vision is that you have no idea what's going to happen between now and the desired disruption.  15 years ago search wasn't a multi-billion dollar industry. 10 years ago social media wasn't a multi-billion dollar industry. 5 years ago computer makers were touting netbooks as the next big thing. 10 years from now people are going to have homes and they'll work, probably in a place called office. Everything else is up in the air. The greatest social/technical/personal/workplace breakthrough of 2022 would be the result of the state of things in 2020, not a product that was cooked in labs for a long time.

Bill Gates invested a lot in voice/image recognition in the 90s. Gates had a vision where if you ran out of milk, a scanner in the fridge would beep to tell you that you're out of milk. And if you ordered via the microphone attached to the fridge, it would send an 'online' request to your supermarket to save a carton for your next purchase. To me, Microsoft is a company that just imagines a world where people will use products just how the designer intended them. But the real world with its much more intricate, complicated setup offers great challenges once you start using them. If you discount the inestimable human component, the product hits the dirt. Remember Gates demoing their Surface in 2007? That was iPad but 8 times its size and a miniscule of it's versatility. But the real problem is they've  been developing it since then and they have a demoed a newer version of it last year. When the real world is lining up for the tablets as their next gadget entry, Surface seems to have no personal and very minimal commercial prospects.

Google, on the other hand is a better lab for cooking future technology. They crazily invest in a bunch of non-core fields and have shut down most of them. But when you sit on billions in cash reserve, the wise thing to do is burn, I mean experiment with crazy ideas and see which gains traction. They're working on self-driving cars. Now, this isn't a concept video but they have a real car with limited success. The car runs, collects massive amounts of real world difficulties and tries to better its algorithm. (Now, if all the cars in the road are self-driving then there's no problem and that's Google's long shot)

Their recent project is Google Glasses.

Remember MIT professor Patti Maes' TED talk on wearable technology? Yes, Google has a prototype and are testing with real people to gather practical difficulties. It's basically an eye-glass with a smart camera that communicates wirelessly with your Android smartphone in your pocket. If you're looking at the sky it gives you a weather forecast and if you're looking for a place to eat it brings up a map of nearby restaurants - projected on the eyepiece - which you're wearing. Of course, you might have to tap a button to enable the projection on the glass so that it doesn't obstruct your normal field of vision when you want to work/drive/etc. More than anything, think about the amount of information Google will be amassing about the user, which is what they're after eventually. If this project takes off in a big way, advertisers would leave Facebook and flock to Google because of the quality, depth and range of information about a user they'd have access to. Well, the self-driving car may never hit the market and the Google Glass may fail spectacularly. But I believe such experiments keep the company young and their engineers competitive.

But Apple in the past decade has been living the dream. They're not too futuristic like Microsoft and not too off-the-wall like Google (for a tech company). They imagine a product, design it wonderfully [1], and bend the associated markets because of their sales power. When you sell millions of iPods, the record labels better change their business model. When you sell millions of iPhones and create an app ecosystem, all the other smartphone manufacturers and service providers have no choice but to follow. We now have the 3rd generation iPad, meaning the competitors have known the segment since 2010 but they don't have a decent offering to even be placed next to the leader. I personally feel that the first generation iPad is better than the best non-iPad today (Galaxy Tab), which puts the most recent iPad at least 3 years ahead of the competition. In electronic years, if an established company like Sony or Samsung or Motorola can't deliver a worthy competing piece in 3 years, that's jaw-dropping shameless

Tim Cook, Apple's CEO recently insinuated that they have innovative products queued up for later this year. That sets my heart aflutter. I think the single most reason they're very successful is that after disrupting the status quo with their 'shiny new toy' (as Apple's critics deride them), they persevere and deliver great subsequent versions. When was the last time a flagship Samsung success consistently built on it? Apple's policy has been to not bring a half-baked product into the marketplace. They take a problem, forget all existing solutions and design from the ground up to deliver something amazing. Since they do both hardware and software the pleasure of holding and browsing a phone arising from the tight integration is hard to beat for someone like Microsoft or Google who outsource their hardware. Apple has very few product categories and still clinched the title of the world's biggest company. Either you have to sell a product that everyone in the world needs (like oil, which is the second biggest company) or you deliver something that everyone in the world wants. Now, that's just love.

* This blog post has been mostly a general-purpose blog without going too deep into anything. I'm a technical person by profession and in this post I kept my ideas free of jargon. But in the future I'm considering discounting generic readability for some depth.

[1] Design is not just how it looks. Steve Jobs famously said: design is how it works.

On Selective Consumption

I don't understand people who stand in front of a cinema multiplex browsing the posters to decide which one they should watch. I dig deep before seeing a cinema or reading a book. There have been cases where I've read about a trailer before seeing it. I exaggerate, but only buy a little bit. On an average I spend close to an hour browsing titles on Netflix, checking their IMDb ratings, their freshness on Rottentomatoes, scanning reviews of the titles that pique my interest by whoever is the critic that I most respect at that time. Same goes for a book, only even more demanding as the number of hours I'll eventually be investing is manifold that of a cinema.

My earliest memory of placing the critic/pundit on the pedestal: I was 17 and with the meager pocket money I had saved I bought a copy of Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight Children'. Pretentiousness and college years go hand-in-hand. So what's the metric of my superior taste? Of course, you read award winning books. Because 'Midnight's Children' had not only won the Booker prize, but also the 'Booker of Bookers' the best work among the first 25 years of winners, it would obviously make a grand statement about my aesthetics. By the way, I should mention that it's the first book I've paid for, though it's a bootleg sold on the pavement. I come home and couldn't read more than 3 pages. My vocabulary was severely ill-equipped to handle a few sentences at a stretch. Sometimes sentences ran into a paragraph and I had to read back from the beginning just to gather the vaguest idea of what the heck the author's talking about. Five years later I read the book over the course of a month and to this day, it remains one of the best works of fiction I've read. [1]

My initial predilection towards the critics'* verdict was nothing more than hypocrisy. I didn't understand art films, but still saw what the critics recommended, tried to mold my line of thinking to fit into the critic's view. This is vanity. Just repeated reading of good criticism alone isn't enough to truly appreciate the value. The skill to appreciate is mostly an acquisition, not something innate, at least for me. And at the beginning of this acquisition, suddenly the critics' words didn't sound hollow. It wasn't gibberish anymore and I saw what they meant. For the past ten years, I've spent a significant amount of time reading criticism - mostly of books and films but also of any genre from the somewhat relatable theater to the more obscure architecture. Good critics not just cull but educate and enrich the experience. I read Ian McEwan's 'Amsterdam' 10 years ago. And I re-read it last week. Of course, with time and maturity, the consumer sees and feels new things in those same words and images. But if I hadn't consciously honed this skill called appreciation in these intervening years, I'm pretty sure my second reading would have been less penetrating.

The other direct consequence of selective consumption is the extremely low tolerance for crap. Ten years ago, if I had to choose between 'American Pie' and 'La Strada', my decision making process would be: "La Strada is an important piece of work and needs utmost focus. But I'm in the mood for something light now. I'll go for American Pie now and save the serious work for another time". Today, I still push important works by important artistes to a later date, but an 'American Pie' equivalent wouldn't appeal as instant gratification. If I can't read a Coetzee or watch a Bergman, fine. But instead I don't read John Grisham or watch Michael Bay just to 'pass the time'.

An exception to the progressive nature of my 'selective consumption' was products and artistes that I grew up liking. Rajini and Kamal, two huge film stars where I come from, dominated my formative years. Even after I was able to objectively place them in the ladder of entertainment value somewhere near the bottom, where they rightly belong, my nostalgia laced with a skewed logic ("they're doing this for the regional audience") put me into an escapist mode and allowed me to enjoy them, if you want to call it that. I can now safely say that, for the past few years, I'm not enamored by either Kamal or Rajini [2]. This nostalgia flavored exception doesn't extend to books. I read Sidney Sheldon in my teen years. (For you Americans - he's the James Patterson of India [3]). About 6 years back I tried reading him again. I was squirming all the time that I twisted my limbs and had to stop reading due to physical pain.

All things considered, my extensive devotion to research a film or a book before consuming it has worked quite well for me. And usually, the depth is greater before trying an unknown artiste. When critics compare and contrast a book with something else, they add another entity in my mind-shelf, introduce another creator and expand my horizon. I read a whole lot about Julian Barnes before trying his most recent book, which just blew me away. But once this metaphorical ice is broken and the creator gains my trust, it gets less intense henceforth. Now that he's into inner circle I don't scrutinize his past works that much. Even if the second work I try isn't much to my liking he still gets the benefit of the doubt. I don't mind submitting myself to the next Pixar venture without bothering a great deal because they've worked hard to earn my trust over so many years.

* I have used 'critic' and 'pundit' interchangeably. This is a blurry line: critics writing for newspapers have to oblige by certain rules, like the number of words. But when you pull aside a respectable critic and ask him/her about something, usually, he/she has the ability the to go on a lengthy exposition, a fine dissection, which is generally considered a pundit's terrain.

[1] The average lifespan of a book for me is 6 months. After that time, the plot and sub-plot and characters start fading away rapidly. What remains with me is how I felt when I finished the book. In that sense, 'Midnight's Children' shook me, literally. It was a tour de force. A trip to a strange land and back. Not many authors or books can do it. I'd like to read it again and write about it. But these days, with a child at home and hectic work schedule, big books put me off.

[2] I wanted to clarify that I still like some of Kamal's comedy films. His serious works.... wait... let me throw up.

[3] It is strange that Sidney Sheldon, an American, is such a pop-culture icon for Indian teenagers but not many in America know him. He was the answer to one of the clues in Jeopardy (a quiz show) and the contestants didn't know him.


The unsmiling no-name no-nonsense protagonist who talks 3 words per minute, keeps going about his business until fate intervenes and a makes mighty mess his way. Then there are sudden bursts of extreme violence, which leave him mostly unruffled, that add depth, maybe charisma too, to his personality. We've seen Clint Eastwood don some of these in the 60s. Drive, starring Ryan Gosling directed by Nicolas Refn is a mature 21st century reimagining of that genre. While this is undoubtedly more mature and satisfying than the buttered popcorn action flicks that pop out of Hollywood studios, there's nothing for deep introspection here.

Consider this scene: the Driver (the protagonist is unnamed) is taking his neighbor Irene (in a wonderfully understated performance by Carey Mulligan) out on a date. Before they leave we hear the phone ringing. And in the car she says "That's my husband's lawyer. He says my husband will be out next week". A long silence ensues. The husband is in the prison. There's something blooming between the driver and the neighbor. The husband's return is obviously going to complicate things. I hate to use the word 'art' here, but usually in cinemas that allow for long pauses between conversations, like... er, arthouse productions, the director is giving the audience enough time to grasp and absorb what had just happened on the screen - a death or a divorce or an infidelity. Here, it doesn't even take two seconds after Irene's uttering - the audience know beforehand that the husband will be out of prison and the status quo will be disturbed. Why the long pause? This cinema has probably half the number of words compared with any other movie of similar running length. And I admit that the silence is soothing, mostly because it's better than filler dialogues. But it's important to distinguish between this soothing silence and a meditative silence where what transpires on the scene is deep.

The laconic and cold driver makes money as a get-away driver for the robbers who either don't have their own transportation facility or lack the skill to evade L.A.P.D on L.A roads. His rule is to just wait for 5 minutes outside the event, pickup the party and drop them off at a safe place. So when he realizes his pseudo-girlfriend's husband is in trouble to pay off his prison debts, a matter of few thousands, he steps in to help - the husband will steal and the driver will drive. There's no ulterior motive: not to send him to prison again; the help seems genuine. Makes one wonder what would have happened if the heist had gone right and their neighbors lived happily ever after. After all, the driver is, in more than one sense of the word, a hero. But shit hits the fan spectacularly. The husband is killed and the driver is on the run. We learn that it's no job for a small-time crook. A lot of money is involved and the mafia is behind it. Needless to say, some heads roll are pulped.

This film has got style - Ryan Gosling's minimalism, not just words, but expressions, Carey Mulligan's vulnerability as a single mother, the terrific score helping the noirish photography, non-commercial violence, enjoyable silence and more. But at the core, even though Refn has invested enough time in developing his primary characters, I really didn't care if they got together in the end. Now, I don't want a climax where the hero/heroine race through the airport and one of the people in the background say something romantic. But, even by the standards of neo-noir I had the least bit interested in the driver starting a new life with Irene. The objective here seems to be excellent filmmaking, not making an excellent film.

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It's hard to get the take-me-not-serious tone. Just not taking the writing & production values seriously doesn't provide the tone. Most of the dialogues are horrible. Sample this supposedly funny line:
Our dear friend is banished to Earth! Loki sits on the throne of Asgard as our King! And all you have done is eat two boars, six pheasants a side of beef and drink two barrels of ale! Shame on you!
Shame indeed. This happens when Thor is getting to know the Earth people and their way of life: after gulping down a cup of coffee in a diner he smashes the cup asking for more. When he's politely reprimanded by the girlfriend that Earth people order in a more gentle way, he nods in an understanding manner. Wow! I've seen superhero movies where the guy comes to our planet and does funny things not knowing how stuff works. But this writing is scraping the bottom of the barrel. This is stuff rejected in a screen-writing convention in Peoria.

When Thor, the god of thunder is stripped of his superpowers and pushed down to Earth, he faces a giant robot sent to kill him. It slaps him and he falls down unconscious. His girlfriend swoops him and cries not knowing if he's still alive. And at this moment, allow me to remark on the range of expressions she exhibits - played by Oscar winning Natalie Portman, she doesn't invest a quarter of the emotional sincerity expected of an actor for such a scene. She plays it like a high school drama and director knows that the audience know it's a tongue-in-cheek outing and doesn't bother to re-shoot the scene. This laxity, a sense "y'all here to chill" awareness on the part of creators works on a good script. But the script is fractured, childish, immature. Ironman nailed it in letting the viewer take a break in a charmingly intelligent way. With 'Thor', the break is a bit long, about 110 minutes.


The Black Swan

Warning: Spoilers.

Aronofsky likes to study characters cracking under pressure. In 'Black Swan' it's the beautiful, timid, perfect, frigid, fragile ballerina Nina Sayers played with exquisite control by Natalie Portman. Her personality makes her a great fit for playing the white swan in Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake', but to play the black swan, she needs to loosen up, get a bit out of the rigid boundaries she has set herself to excel as a performer. Lily, a laid back dancer who naturally embodies black swan in her gracious but beguiling movements threatens Nina, who's constantly worried about being replaced. As a crushing load of expectations begin to fracture her mind, the audience see things through her eyes, to be precise, her mind. (Which is why this is a mind-fuck movie for adults, and the neatly wrapped up 'Inception' is not.)

I don't know if the sex scenes from the movie are on high rotation on Youtube yet. There's nothing explicit - neither a view of a nipple nor a crotch. But the dreamy layer lends an eroticism that's more powerful than nudity. Are Nina's sexual explorations a symbol of her getting closer towards the black swan inside her? I tried to replay the scenes in my head after the movie was over: The ballet producer, played charmingly by Vincent Cassel, indirectly asks her to explore her sexuality so that she departs away her from 'little princess' image befitting the white swan. First Nina tries masturbation in her bedroom; before she can climax, she sees her mother asleep in a chair near her in her room and she stops her act. Then she tries in the bathtub; but this time its not her mother but her mental blockades scare her out of her mood. The director informs us that Nina's ready not only to accommodate, but to be taken over by her complementary twin, Lily, who exudes unshackled sexual energy expected of the seductress black swan, when she's able to fantasize and climax with Lily.

Sex is not the only symbolism in the film, though it was the only one that was quite complex and worked on a mature level. The next frequently used symbolism was the reflecting image. Almost every other shot has a mirror or a reflecting surface. Either the mirror image is doing something the actual person isn't doing (though I have to admit that the director doesn't opt for any cheesy boo shots) or the reflecting surface is a weak black reflection telling us what lies beneath. I thought the director went overboard in pounding the meaning through images. Then there's the expanding goosebump and the disappearing bloody patch, representing the struggle between the white and the black swan; this was the most cheesiest trick in the screenplay.

I particularly liked the interplay between Nina and her mother Erica (played wonderfully by Barbara Hershey). That there be no doorlocks in the house is obviously the mother's decision. In one of the earlier scenes, the ballet director asks Nina if she's a virgin and she responds no. But Portman plays this scene so wonderfully and Aronofsky directs this scene so wonderfully, we don't know if this timid girl is lying. The mother's decision to absolutely avoid all physical boundaries between her and her daughter partly arises from Erica's failure to shine as a ballerina herself because of her accidental pregnancy with Nina. A significant chunk of Nina's 'good girl, no sex' policy seems to be ingrained in her brain by her mother as a cautionary tale.

The director pulls off an expected, but satisfying climax by playing a trick on the protagonist's mind. Was it a cheap trick? It would be, if you're to flip through the pages of the screenplay. But the intensity of the camera, with it's grainy film closing up on Portman's face combined with an eerie background score adds complexity to her character, the narration, the movie as a whole. But I still don't like the very last scene, where the filmmakers leave it up to the audience to write their own ending. Aronofsky did that with Mickey Rourke's character in the 'Wrestler' and he does the same thing here with Nina's fate in limbo. It's not that I'm not capable of convincing myself if someone lives or dies when the closing shot is a bloodied body. It makes me feel cheated when the director strongly guides a viewer all along giving no room to wiggle and in the end shoves him into a wide expanse of possibilities.

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