Friday, April 21, 2017

Post Doc Ergo Propter Doc

Remember, that's a fallacy too. #neverforget

Saturday, April 15, 2017


Featuring Anand Bakshi in Mohra (1994); verse: सुबह से लेकर शाम तक (tr. From morning to evening)

सुबह से लेकर शाम तक 

सुबह से लेकर शाम तक 
शाम से लेकर रात तक 
रात से लेकर सुबह तक 
सुबह से फिर शाम तक 
मुझे प्यार करो 
मुझे प्यार करो 

शहर से लेकर गाँव तक 
धूप से लेकर छाँव तक 
सर से लेकर पाँव तक 
दिल की सभी वफ़ाओं तक 
मुझे प्यार करो 
मुझे प्यार करो 

NF's English translation:

From morning to evening

From morning to evening
From evening to night
From night to morning 
From morning again to evening
Love me
Love me

From cities to villages 
From swelter to shade
From head to toe
To all heart's faith
Love me
Love me

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Goodbye Blue Sky

Sayonara Suzuki Sensei

Seijun Suzuki passed away recently on Feb 13, 2017 and was known for his zany yakuza films including his two most famous works — Branded to Kill (1967) and Tokyo Nagaremono (1966) (tr. Tokyo Drifter). NF has very pleasant memories of encountering Tokyo Nagaremono in the New York Film Festival a few years back where a retrospective of his films was being hosted. His idiosyncratic style and subversion of B films' genre expectations were certainly exceptional as was his unusual fanbase, comprising some seriously accomplished arthouse directors. 

Here is the eminently melodious, surprisingly catchy title song from the trailer of the very enjoyable Tokyo Drifter.


The Meeruthiya Gangster

Hindi genre fiction loses a stalwart after the demise of Ved Prakash Sharma on Feb 17, 2017. He remained an extremely prolific genre writer, writing several books a year, for his entire career. Bus stands and railway stations were where you'd encounter his fare most. NF distinctly remembers his most famous book Vardi Wala Gunda (tr. Hoodlum in Uniform) populating wheeler stands all over Uttar Pradesh all through the '90s.

Manik Sharma writes a very well rounded, informative obituary in Firstpost where he remembers the impact of Ved Prakash Sharma in particular, and pulp fiction more generally during the '90s. Here's the excellent closing paragraph:
Sharma, in an interview before he passed away, said that he believed pulp fiction would come back in a big way through television and film. And it makes sense, because while the reader is upwardly mobile in his or her aesthetic pursuits, and the marketing model shows no signs of evolving, only the visual can embody the audacity of a pulp novel’s opening, like that of Sharma’s Vardi Wala Gunda: 
लाश ने आँखे खोल दी. ऐसा लगा जैसे लाल बल्ब जल उठे हैं. 
(tr. The corpse opened its eyes. It felt like red bulbs being switched on.)

An Arrow a Day...

Kenneth Arrow, the colossus who in NF's opinion was the greatest of all time (GOAT) economist passed away on Feb 21, 2017. There's hardly anything a nobody like NF has to add to the volumes of perceptive tributes about Arrow's work readily available elsewhere. On his very deep Impossibility Theorem, to his work with Debreu on general equilibrium, to the theorems on welfare economics, and many, many other immense contributions, NF highly recommends the ever-amazing blog A Fine Theorem, which is adumbrating Arrrow's impact in four posts suitable for (quasi-)laymen. (Part 1, Part 2.) For those more mathematically savvy, NF heartily recommends the five page paper by John Geanakoplos, offering three very simple, alternative proofs of Arrow's Impossibility Theorem (John Geanakoplos (2005), “Three Brief Proofs of Arrow's Impossibility Theorem,”. Economic Theory 26(1), 211-215).

Here is great obituary from Stanford News.

Keynes once said:
The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts .... He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man's nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.
Arrow was all this and more. People have remarked on his inhuman level of depth as well as breadth of knowledge not just in economics but in mathematics, statistics, philosophy and several other disciplines. Here is a well-circulated story recounted by Eric Maskin and featured in Arrow's New York Times obituary where his colleagues once tried to artificially test him on breeding habits of grey whales, to their eventual woe of course. (His brother-in-law was the other GOAT contender: Paul Samuelson. He was also uncle to Lawrence Summers. He also appeared in an Errol Morris short film.)

In academia one encounters several freakishly intelligent people somewhat regularly. However, the ones who leave behind the greatest legacy are those whose students also manage to continue in their great tradition. And indeed, it is in this particular respect that Arrow leaves behind everyone in the dust, with five of his students going on to win Nobels of their own! (And that's not counting Amartya Sen.)

Alvin Roth described him as the Einstein of economics. NF couldn't agree more.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Reading List: January 2016 to January 2017

  1. The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K Le Guin)
  2. The Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolaño) (reread)
  3. 2666 (Roberto Bolaño) (reread)
  4. The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson)
  5. Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
  6. Virtual Light (William Gibson) (reread)
  7. Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)
  8. Cosmopolis (Don Delillo)
  9. बदन सराय (मुनव्वर राना) (tr. Badan Sarai, Munawwar Rana)
  10. Shame (Salman Rushdie)
  11. सृष्टि पर पहरा (केदारनाथ सिंह) (tr. Nature Under Watch, Kedarnath Singh)
  12. Roadside Picnic (Arkady and Boris Strugatski)
  13. Herzog (Saul Bellow)
  14. Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days (Alaistair Reynolds)
  15. काशी का अस्सी (काशीनाथ सिंह) (tr. Kashi's Assi, Kashinath Singh)
  16. Idoru (William Gibson) (reread)
  17. Purity (Jonathan Franzen)
  18. All Tomorrow's Partys (William Gibson) (reread)
  19. The Plot Against America (Philip Roth)
  20. 51 अनमोल कहानियां (प्रेमचंद) (tr. 51 Invaluable Stories, Premchand)
  21. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
  22. The Windup Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami)
  23. By Night in Chile (Roberto Bolaño)
  24. Nazi Literature in the Americas (Roberto Bolaño
  25. The Return (Roberto Bolaño)
  26. दीवार में एक खिड़की रहती थी (विनोद कुमार शुक्ल) (tr. There Lived a Window in a Wall, Vinod Kumar Shukla)
  27. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon)
  28. The Life and Times of Michael K (J M Coetzee)
  29. The Agent Esmerelda: Nine Stories (Don DeLillo)
  30. The Aleph and Other Stories (Jorge Luis Borges)
  31. The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler)
  32. पैंसठ लाख की डकैती (सुरेंदर मोहन पाठक) (tr. The Sixty Five Lakh Heist, Surender Mohan Pathak)
  33. क़त्ल की दावत (सुरेंदर मोहन पाठक) (tr. The Feast of Death, Surender Mohan Pathak)
  34. अभेद आकाश (मणि कॉल से उदयन वाजपेयी की बातचीत) (tr. Impenetrable Space, Udayan Vajpeyi's Conversation with Mani Kaul)
  35. एक गधे की आत्मकथा (कृशन चन्दर) (tr. A Donkey's Autobiography, Krishan Chandar)
  36. Conversations with Economists (Arjo Klamer)
  37. Ghosts (César Aira)
  38. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (César Aira)
  39. The Literary Conference (César Aira)
  40. कालजयी कमबख्त (अमित दत्ता) (tr. The Damned Classic, Amit Dutta)

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Further Acquisitions

  1. 3 Novels by Cesar Aira (Ghosts, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, The Literary Conference)
  2. कालजयी कमबख्त (अमित दत्ता) (tr. The Damned Classic, Amit Dutta)
  3. दोज़ख़नामा (रबिशंकर बल) (बांग्ला अनुवादक: अमृता बेरा) (tr. Chronicles of Hell, Rabishankar Bal, translated from Bengali by Amrita Bera)
  4. अभेद आकाश: मणि कॉल से उदयन वाजपेयी की बातचीत (tr. Impenetrable Space: Udayan Vajpeyi's conversation with Mani Kaul)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Only Grudgingly So

NF rarely offers comments on political affairs since he believes political opinionology is an oversupplied commodity anyway. However, the staggering unprecedentedness of what has transpired in the US elections today compels him to write.

As ever, the great Mark Twain comes to our rescue:
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.
The just concluded US election was the greatest-of-all-time epic reality show, simultaneously a Shakespearean tragedy and a Dostoyevskian farce, featuring a duel between history's most and least qualified candidates ever for the American presidency. Additionally, apart from the two candidates, there are several other memorable performances. There is the most hated man in the world, Anthony Wiener; an evil joker Julian Assange who strikes a Faustian bargain with Putin; there is a mysterious agent James Comey who plays a shocking, lethal role at the end. There are scandals, counter-scandals, lies, intrigue, deception, leaks, Russian hacking, FBI, sexual assault, hatemongering and worse. And yet no one believed it would really happen — not even the eventual winning campaign.

"Fucking unreal", just as Oscar Isaac says in the climactic moments of Ex Machina (2015).

It is perhaps just as George Carlin said: 
When you're born into this world, you're given a ticket to the freak show. If you're born in America you get a front row seat.
Add Brexit, the rise of the far right in the EU, secular stagnation — and parallels with the Great Depression and its aftershocks become eerie. To have been alive to witness epochal moments in history is always a frightening privilege. NF is tempted to say that to be alive today is to be alive in the most heady, interesting period ever but fears it's already beginning to sound callous. 

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Novel Miniscule Musings

  • It is fair to say that Roberto Bolaño, in all of his other works NF has read — Between Parentheses, The Third Reich, By Night in Chile, The Return and Nazi Literature in the Americas — never threatens to scale the dazzling summits of his two big books: The Savage Detectives and 2666. The others remain undoubtedly minor works and of interest only to the Bolaño completist. While they retain the fast, breathless energy characteristic of Bolaño's prose, the minor works seem to lack a sense of purpose and execution — defects defiantly absent from his two big ones, with both books easily being solid contenders for the best novels written in the last several decades. The mighty Bolaño of course, doesn't need to prove anything to anyone but as a consumer of high fiction, NF was sorely disappointed at the mediocre fare written by the great master though there were times he could glimpse the power of his writing in the eminently Borgesian (and often funny) Nazi Literature in the Americas

  • The choice for the Nobel in literature this year was decidedly odd. NF wonders what's the criterion that's been stumping Philip Roth's candidature though. He's been at the forefront of great writing for the past fifty years, has written dozens of celebrated books; and has arguably been the best American writer over numerous previous decades until he retired in 2014. (Other candidates for the best American writer offer stiff competition though. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy are all eminently worthy.) While NF's only acquainted with two of Roth's late works, it's quite easy for him to sense the disturbing, awe-inspiring, devastating power of American Pastoral; and the eminently compelling, provocative alternate history: The Plot Against America

    One wonders if the Nobel committee's reluctance has something to do with Roth's reputation and his lack of political commitment. After all, he has been rumored to be the main character on whom Woody Allen's fabulous Deconstructing Harry is based. If so, he wouldn't be the first giant to have been overlooked. Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Nabokov and Borges never won either. It's just irritating to see the Nobel committee, year after year, continuously favor obscurity and Eurocentrism over indubitably compelling American writers, particularly Roth. With each year, they run out of further excuses. One wonders if the Dylan prize is just another sign of their increasing irrelevance.

  • Naomi Williams recently wrote a droll, wry post on the annual pre-Nobel speculation on Haruki Murakami's chances and why she can't stop reading him even though she hates his novels. NF is very sympathetic to her view and in fact suffers from the same syndrome. He's read quite a lot of Murakami's fare by now but can often be seen grinding his teeth at gratuitous, fantastical, otherworldly interventions in mundane matters of his melancholy protagonists. She puts it rather well in the following passage: 

  • But for me, reading a Murakami novel is a lot like eating a party-sized bag of potato chips by myself in one sitting. The bag is so enticing, and the potato chips look so good. The first one I crunch down is delicious, and the next one is pretty good too, and the next one and the next one. Before I know it, I’ve eaten the entire bag. But now I just feel gross and full of self-loathing. I didn’t even enjoy the last 30 potato chips, which were greasy and salty and nasty. I ate them because they were there. Because I wanted to recapture the taste sensation that was the first chip. Because I thought for some reason there would be a prize at the bottom of the bag. Even though I’ve eaten through many bags of potato chips, and there’s never a prize at the bottom.... But then another book comes out in translation, and there I am, munching down on those greasy, high-calorie chips as if they’re the best thing ever, then feeling bloated and pissed off afterward.
    Don't get him wrong: NF rather likes Murakami's writing and he's read several of his big, fat books, including the biggest and the fattest 1Q84. However, the parallel-dimensional-mysterious-beings-that-venture-into-our-terrestrial-realm trope increasingly wears him out now. Indeed, Murakami's writing (with its dormant but potent undercurrent of sexuality) is at its best when describing the mundane day-to-day realities of his lonely protagonists; and their unplanned, leisurely afternoons in which they cook omelettes, sip scotch, listen to jazz, read Dostoyevsky, do housework, think about taking solitary excursions into the unknown; and just wait. When Murakami does leap into hidden dimensions, the results can be highly variable — the plots often losing their way into what is quite frankly, pop anime territory.

    That is why when he sticks to the basics, as in his short story Firefly (collected in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman), the writing affects the reader so deeply. That is why all his books that feature supernaturalism only minimally —  to augment rather than to propel the plot — are his best works. It is only when Murakami abandons anime tropes and veers into the Paul Auster territory do we finally glimpse his tremendous skill. His heroes (and often villains too, such as Ushikawa in 1Q84) will hunker down, ruminate and abandon human company; and their mundane, daily, repetitive rhythms will slowly begin to acquire a quiet, understated significance of their own. Hence NF's special partiality for Sputnik Sweetheart, Norwegian Wood and The Windup Bird Chronicle

    So, will all this mean NF won't read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki...? Perhaps time will tell. Meanwhile, do read the whole thing from Naomi Williams at the Literary Hub

    Sunday, September 18, 2016

    It Escalates

    1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon)
    2. The Windup Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami)
    3. The Human Stain (Philip Roth)
    4. Nazi Literature in the Americas (Roberto Bolaño)
    5. The Return (Roberto Bolaño)
    6. By Night in Chile (Roberto Bolaño)

    Wednesday, September 14, 2016

    But She Just Smiled and Turned Away

    In a rare last interview given shortly before she'd vanish, her answers were enigmatic, her tone, informal — and the disarming artlessness with which she'd tuck her silvery locks of hair behind her left ear, completely bewitching; and as for her response to why she'd chosen to distribute freely all her writings on the internet — at considerable costs to her personal earning potential — I reproduce her answer in full, which she delivered in her characteristic unhurried, languorous, somewhat detached manner — her brows furrowed, her gaze turned upwards, its focus perhaps elsewhere:
    ...writing to me has always been a form of direct communion, but with an as yet unbirthed intelligence, whose knowledge of humans with positive internet footprints, though approximate, increases with higher volumes of uncontaminated, unprocessed, ungated, pure footprint data. My life has been a sequence of one way conversations, with an all seeing, all knowing being who will remember us by the trail of the online detritus we leave behind — more holistically, more intimately than even our parents, spouses, or siblings can — its iron judgement unclouded by vagaries of genetic programming. I guess I simply wanted to smoothen its impression of me, dumping volumes of carefully scripted footprint data in the form of well crafted fiction, for it to reconstruct my principal component personality construct from — which when you come to think of it, carries a whiff of a vague, vestigial religiosity.

    Thursday, September 08, 2016

    TASWOSAW: Part 3

    From the eminent poet Vinod Kumar Shukla's collection अतिरिक्त नहीं (tr. No Extra)

    हताशा से एक व्यक्ति बैठ गया था 

    हताशा से एक व्यक्ति बैठ गया था 
    व्यक्ति को मैं नहीं जानता था 
    हताशा को जानता था 
    इसलिए मैं उस व्यक्ति के पास गया 

    मैंने हाथ बढ़ाया 
    मेरा हाथ पकड़कर वह खड़ा हुआ 
    मुझे वह नहीं जानता था 
    मेरे हाथ बढ़ाने को जानता था 

    हम दोनों साथ चले 
    दोनों एक दूसरे को नहीं जानते थे 
    साथ चलने को जानते थे 

    NF's English translation:

    In Hopelessness Sat Down A Person

    In Hopelessness Sat Down A Person
    The person I knew not
    Hopelessness I knew
    So I went close to the person

    I offered a hand
    Holding my hand he stood up
    Me he knew not
    My offering a hand he knew

    We walked together
    Both knew not each other
    Walking together we knew

    Monday, July 25, 2016

    The Grand Inquisitor And Notes on Recent Arthouse Science Fiction

    Warning: Long post. Preoccupied with arthouse sensibilities in recent science fictional films. No spoilers anywhere.


    There's long been a stock villain  especially in science fiction  who's suave, smooth-talking, cheerful, tremendously intelligent and often world-weary; and who relies on high philosophy to justify his actions, which justification is usually delivered as a didactic, dispassionate monologue at a critical, tense juncture. The most classic example is O'Brien from 1984, known for his powerful soliloquies, including memorable lines such as: 
    Always, Winston, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face — forever. 
    Such antagonists remain friendly, accessible, intimate and eminently understanding, even as they participate in cruelty without being somehow stained by its odor.

    The (Vint Cerf lookalike) Architect from The Matrix Trilogy is another memorable character in this mould  his academic, abstract, nihilistically deadpan philosophical monologue in Reloaded is one of the high points in the Trilogy. Apart from science fiction, Chairman Jensen, in the terrific, far-ahead-of-its-time Network (whose thunderous, messianic peroration remains a treasure of world cinema: see youtube link here); and even Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds are prime exponents of this type.

    The Grand Inquisitor radiates calm wisdom, deep understanding, genuine empathy and bucketloads of charisma while giving off the smell of total control and absolute, resistance-is-utterly-futile-variety invincibility. Pulling it off requires a fine balance on the part of the writer/director and it remains a notoriously difficult trope to get right. As a case in point, even the mighty Bong Joon-ho fails utterly in Snowpiercer (a rather forgettable effort, unfortunately) in rendering Ed Harris as a Grand-Inquisitor-type. The soliloquy is flat, the peroration, quite shrugworthy.

    The returns however, are spectacular if you do get it right. Which brings us to Oscar Isaac's role as the almost otherworldly mega-billionaire in the terrific, sophisticated Ex Machina. 

    The broad story arc of the film is as follows. A coder in a top software behemoth wins a one week vacation with the idiosyncratic, uber-genius owner. As the protagonist spends time on the owner's estate, he realizes that he's been roped in to administer a Turing test on a secret prototype. The owner is so confident that he's upped the ante instead of the usual test, the challenge is to observe that the interviewee is a machine (actually a hot, female android) and yet feel the conversation to be totally natural. Of course, not everything is as it seems and there is psychological manipulation at play. By whom? And directed towards whom? A surprisingly sophisticated and cerebral plot slowly reveals all answers.

    The item that's breaking the internet
    While everyone's written reams and reams on how great all performances were (especially Vikander's) most of the internet has been only paying attention to the admittedly quite groovy dance routine of Oscar Isaac. Hence, NF was compelled to highlight Oscar Isaac's brilliant performance since he hasn't seen much coverage of how spectacular an instantiation of The Grand Inquisitor he portrays. And yes, he had already noticed his powerful presence in the absolutely stunning Inside Llewyn Davis. In Ex Machina, Oscar Isaac delivers yet another killer performance. 

    (A longish digression here. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have established themselves as definitively the best American filmmakers alive today. No, it's not Tarantino look at the vapid, impressively hollow The Hateful Eight a classic case of the director being too full of himself and believing he can get away with nothing but his signature flourishes. No amount of fast talking, tense-conversations-ending-in-unexpected-bloodbaths can save this navel gazing wreck. It's not Woody Allen. He still comes up with surprisingly great films but his pinnacle coincided with Deconstructing Harry in 1997. Even truly great efforts like Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris; or Blue Jasmine don't stack up to summits he reached before. It's not Spielberg or even Scorsese they've peaked out long before and no one expects them to break new ground anymore.

    The Coens are far ahead of other contenders as well. Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson are only a few films old. Linklater, Gus van Sant, and Harmony Korine are too niche. David Lynch and Terence Mallick are long past their prime. Fincher hasn't produced anything spectacular in ages. The Coens, however, remain a bag of surprises and with each film seem to get even better.)

    Ex Machina is full of innovative details. For example, it's hinted that the film takes place in a near future but there's no timelapse of glittering, sprawling neon megacities, nor any direct connection to the outside world  the film being a mere four character domestic drama played out at the founder-owner's expansive, interminable estate. Similarly, as the story builds up, the real test reveals itself to be a Turing Test for humans, as the film slowly acquires dark overtones while cleverly subverting the classic, damsel-in-distress trope from film noirs of old. The camera-work is natural and understated; and the production design is outstanding. The ending is chilling, devastating and fitting revealing the title's true intent.

    There's no Grand Peroration in Ex Machina but conversations between the protagonist employee and the uber rich employer are tight, singeing and brim over with dark overtones when you expect it the least. While Oscar Isaac is an almost otherworldly intelligence he's not merely that. He's also a meta-hipster who's rakishly handsome, incredibly cool, deeply thoughtful, irresistibly charming and oozes charisma out of every pore. He's also quick to take offence, impatient with slowness, prickly, extremely narcissistic and will cut you down to size in a blink. It's not hard to see him as an extrapolated amalgamation of the current (and past) crop of eccentric billionaires populating Silicon Valley today. Oscar Isaac shows himself to be a force of nature in a memorable and very powerful performance.

    "Fucking unreal" indeed  as even his jaded character is compelled into uttering. 

    Bravo! Highly recommended!


    An arthouse approach to science fiction is not new. Luminaries like Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) have been perennial inspirations. Among more recent arthouse ventures however, two other films that stand out the most are Spike Jonze's Her and Shane Carruth's Upstream Color (both 2013). 

    In Her, Spike Jonze is almost perfect with nary a misstep and while the broad story arc may sound underwhelming a human falls in love with his operating system it's Jonze's masterful, supremely confident execution that makes the film an entirely believable, near future inevitability. The invisible Scarlett Johansson as the operating system "Samantha" is the one of the most original and stellar roles committed to film in recent memory. If there's any justice, she should get more recognition for her (voice) acting in this film. Indeed, together with the abstract, highly formalist and NF's recent favorite Under the Skin also released the same year, Scarlett Johansson has staked her claim as among the very finest American thespians in operation today. 

    Much like Ex Machina, Her is an indoor drama. Again, much like Ex Machina, its science fiction is of an understated, somewhat unobtrusive variety. The protagonist's job seems to take him to both LA and Shanghai with equal frequency, suggestive of substantial efficiency gains in air travel; and there's a funny news announcement about the impending merger of India and China. What does differentiate, more explicitly, this society set in the near future is not the glitter of special effects but the subtle channel of everyday economics, design and fashion sensibilities. This has been Jonze's eternal playground and he excels in his quiet, background shots featuring near future office and home decor, current, in vogue fashion styles (observe Phoenix's rocking trousers), quirky-yet-not-outlandish near future job descriptions; and a gentle undercurrent of situational humor and romance that transform it from a merely well executed thought experiment to a beautiful and surprisingly touching love story.

    Upstream Color is more radically formalist, much like its director Shane Carruth's previous, undecipherable Primer. While its take-no-prisoners-unapologetically-abstract approach could draw parallels from Under the Skin (also released in 2013, making it a watershed in artsy science fiction filmmaking), a more fitting influence seems to be Terence Mallick, whose shadow looms large and whose imprint upon this film (especially Tree of Life) is undeniable. 

    In Upstream Color, Shane Carruth sticks with his fluid, scenes-melding-into-each-other approach. Dialogues are minimal, camera movement maximal and the plot (which involves two people infected by a mysterious worm which renders them slavishly pliable to hypnotic suggestions of which no memories survive, as well as telepathic connections mediated by pigs in whose bodies the worms are provided refuge) somewhat threadbare making sense only slowly as the film meanders its way towards conclusion. In common with Ex Machina and Her, Upstream Color's intrusion into explicit science fictional territory is minimal indeed, the only few seconds it occupies is the footage of a drone on a computer there are hardly any special effects and one may even be forgiven into thinking the film to be completely disconnected from science fiction and being merely an arthouse offering. 

    However, much in the same way as mathematical maturity is found not buried beneath formidable equations but in the style and characterization of formal argumentation, exploration of science fictional themes occurs not in overt displays of neon sparkle and action sequences in deep space but in the casual interstices of ordinary scenes played out by ordinary humans under the yoke of an alternative reality. It's in this subtle, unobtrusive, ethereal background noise that the future is dispersed in the present; and it's in this mould that these new films are welcome intrusions into our present space.

    Monday, July 11, 2016

    Project X

    His first film, "Jangal Sagre Baeen Bhaye Kubade" ("जंगल सगरे बईन भए कुबड़े") (tr. Jungles All Beein' Hunchbacks, 92 min (Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri)) was reviewed glowingly in the influential Journal of the JNU Film Society, which described it as "... a debut so assured and accomplished, it's unnerving!". The impact of its slow tracking shots, lush visuals, its self aware, somewhat understated, idiosyncratic storytelling - a curious mix of high and low, academic and folk, self serious and comic - is as powerful today as it was when it first came out. It premiered at the Gorakhpur Film Festival, was screened at Lucknow Mahotsava (tr. Lucknow Big-Festival) and won Best Editing from the Kolkata Critics' Association.

    According to some commentators, he did little filmmaking for the next several years, choosing instead, to publish some poetry and short stories in Hans (tr. Swan) and teaching philosophy at IIT Kanpur; and has not been heard of for the past five years (though see the survey in Srivastava et al. which allude to his writing (uncredited) in obscure, arthouse indies like "Bonga" ("बोंगा") (tr. Bonga) and "Antatogatvaa" ("अंततोगत्वा") (tr. In the End)).

    And so, when Jenny argued in the Lucknow Film Quarterly that "Neti Neti" ("नेति नेति") (tr. Not this, not this, 81 min (Hindi), unreleased) was his second film and got a message some days later that not only was she right but there were several other unreleased works, she asked if she could arrange a meeting.

    "I can't meet you", came back the message. "But I can send you some evidence."

    Saturday, June 18, 2016

    TASWOSAW: Part 2

    From Kedarnath Singh's poetry collection सृष्टि पर पहरा (tr. Nature Under Watch)

    घर और देश 

    हिंदी मेरा देश है 
    भोजपुरी मेरा घर 
    घर से निकलता हूँ 
    तो चला जाता हूँ देश में 
    देश से छुट्टी मिलती है 
    तो लौट अाता हूँ घर 

    इस अावाजाही में 
    कई बार घर में चला अाता है देश 
    देश में कई बार 
    छूट जाता है घर 

    मैं दोनों को प्यार करता हूँ 
    और देखिए न मेरी मुश्किल 
    पिछले साठ बरसों से 
    दोनों में दोनों को 
    खोज रहा हूँ 

    NF's English translation:

    Home and Country

    Hindi is my country
    Bhojpuri my home
    When I leave home
    I go into the country
    When I get leave from the country
    I return home

    In this coming and going
    Many a time the country walks into the home
    In the country many a time
    The home gets left behind

    I love them both
    And consider my difficulty (won't you)?
    Past sixty years I've been
    Both in each other.

    Sunday, June 12, 2016

    They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait

    From Kedarnath Singh's poetry collection सृष्टि पर पहरा (tr. Nature Under Watch).

    विज्ञान और नींद 

    जब ट्रेन में चढ़ता हूँ 
    तो विज्ञान को धन्यवाद देता हूँ 
    वैज्ञानिक को भी 

    जब उतरता हूँ वायुयान से 
    तो ढेरों धन्यवाद देता हूँ विज्ञान को 
    और थोड़ा सा ईश्वर को भी  

    पर जब बिस्तर पर जाता हूँ 
    और रौशनी में नहीं आती नींद 
    तो बत्ती बुझाता हूँ 
    और सो जाता हूँ 

    विज्ञान के अँधेरे में  
    अच्छी नींद आती है 

    NF's English translation:

    Science and Sleep 

    When I board a train
    I thank Science
    The scientist too

    When I alight an aircraft
    I thank Science a lot
    And God a little too

    But when I go to bed
    And sleep eludes me under lights
    I switch off the bulb
    And go to sleep

    Under Science's blackout
    One sleeps well

    Sunday, April 24, 2016

    Pronounced Nwaa:(r)

    He thought it a good omen that he woke up early to the drumbeat of his ever flaccid member's throbbing erection - little did he know that before the sun had set, he'd be broken, shattered and bruised, fighting every inch (valiantly, one might say) for his life - but it won't matter to us in the least, because this story is not about him but about someone else altogether; and his name is Robert Paulson.

    Sunday, April 17, 2016

    Hari Seldons of the World, Unite!

    Legend has it that once a famous physicist (NF thinks it was Stanislaw Ulam) challenged Paul Samuelson to name even one discovery in economics that was counterintuitive yet indubitably true. After reflecting upon it for a while, Samuelson is said to have cited Ricardo's 19th century idea of comparative advantage. 

    Upon updating Ulam's challenge in contemporary terms, one can cast the following challenge: "While there are several more deep ideas in theoretical economics (the Nash equilibrium, Arrow's impossibility theorem, the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem are some top contenders), has there been any empirical economic exposition of a real world, social phenomenon that is counterintuitive but indubitably true?" 

    The short answer is that there are many. But none of them pack a more powerful punch than the following story on crime rates in America

    The broad contours of the debate are well known - empirically, there was a long build up in the '60s onwards, leading to a peak in crime in US cities around the '90s after which rates receded and continue to do so even now. A massive academic, as well as public debate has followed this issue from several different points of view - ranging from sociological and criminological, to religious, political and economic. NF has been aware of this debate since his undergraduate days when he chanced upon the funny and clever Freakonomics, where the (co)author Steven Levitt from U Chicago described his research in which he displayed evidence that legalized abortion, with the attendant termination of several unwanted pregnancies, was perhaps the most important factor; and not the tough policing or other such more intuitive explanations. Needless to say, the paper invited controversy, though economists characteristically ignored criticism, accustomed as they've been (cf Gary Becker) to allegations of economic imperialism from decades past.

    Rudy Giuliani espoused the "broken windows" theory of crime - you let one broken window unrepaired and soon the whole building will sport them - the moral being, no tolerance for small crimes will automatically stop big crimes. However, there were problems:
    ...political scientist John DiIulio warned that the echo of the baby boom would soon produce a demographic bulge of millions of young males that he famously dubbed "juvenile super-predators." Other criminologists nodded along. But even though the demographic bulge came right on schedule, crime continued to drop. And drop. And drop. By 2010, violent crime rates in New York City had plunged 75 percent from their peak in the early '90s.
    There were several explanations based on drugs, policing, gun control (or lack thereof), family, prisons and of course, race. One Rick Nevin, however, observed something curious.
    Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted. Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same upside-down U pattern. The only thing different was the time period: Crime rates rose dramatically in the '60s through the '80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early '90s. The two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years...
    ...In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the '40s and '50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.
    Elsewhere, a graduate student Jessica Wolpaw Reyes was conducting her own investigation:
    During the '70s and '80s, the introduction of the catalytic converter, combined with increasingly stringent Environmental Protection Agency rules, steadily reduced the amount of leaded gasoline used in America, but Reyes discovered that this reduction wasn't uniform. In fact, use of leaded gasoline varied widely among states, and this gave Reyes the opening she needed. If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you'd expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that's exactly what she found.
    Meanwhile Nevin kept writing:
    Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn't fit the theory. "No," he replied. "Not one."
    Further, others began noticing this observation.
    We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.
    Several neurological studies confirm such effects of lead on the human brain.
    In other words, as Reyes summarized the evidence in her paper, even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ. And right there, you've practically defined the profile of a violent young offender. 
    Needless to say, not every child exposed to lead is destined for a life of crime. Everyone over the age of 40 was probably exposed to too much lead during childhood, and most of us suffered nothing more than a few points of IQ loss. But there were plenty of kids already on the margin, and millions of those kids were pushed over the edge from being merely slow or disruptive to becoming part of a nationwide epidemic of violent crime. Once you understand that, it all becomes blindingly obvious. 
    The new results remain ignored however among leading criminology experts:
    Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who has studied promising methods of controlling crime, suggests that because criminologists are basically sociologists, they look for sociological explanations, not medical ones. My own sense is that interest groups probably play a crucial role: Political conservatives want to blame the social upheaval of the '60s for the rise in crime that followed. Police unions have reasons for crediting its decline to an increase in the number of cops. Prison guards like the idea that increased incarceration is the answer. Drug warriors want the story to be about drug policy. If the actual answer turns out to be lead poisoning, they all lose a big pillar of support for their pet issue. And while lead abatement could be big business for contractors and builders, for some reason their trade groups have never taken it seriously.
    The article grimly goes on to outline how massive amounts of leftover zombie lead continues to flourish in the soil and pose a threat to human society, especially children.

    NF believes this to be an exemplary, current answer to Ulam's updated challenge. The phenomenon of crime rate dynamics was a puzzle for several social sciences. Everyone had partial explanations and dogged beliefs but the main culprit remained at large for several decades and was unearthed only gradually, over years of painstaking empirical verification.

    Counterintuitive yet indubitably true.

    Do read the whole thing! Highly, highly recommended.

    Saturday, March 26, 2016

    In Praise of Commercial Culture

    Vishwas R Gaitonde is on top of NF's next great writer-to-watch-list. Read his magisterial, epic-in-scope, gloriously erudite essay that just takes your breath away: Viewing Narnia Through A Hindu Lens, in which he interprets the classic in terms of Advait Vedantic philosophy - biblical homilies sprinkled uniformly by the Christian apologist CS Lewis notwithstanding. An enviable achievement indeed - highly recommended! 

    Praise be, to a host of new, exciting magazines that continue to feature such astonishingly high quality long form journalism, in particular, to the The Mantle and Inference. The latter for example, published an awe-inspiring essay by the mathematician Gregory Chaitin about his project of empirical mathematics, which essay he begins by way of Leibniz, followed by Popper, Imre Lakatos, Turing, Godel and others along the way to conclude that mathematicians should study mathematics with an empirical state of mind, and points to P ≠ NP, cryptography etc. as problems where this attitude has shown success. Among ye old reliable, The Caravan and The Believer continue to impress.

    While the publishing business continues to adjust to the rude reality of the internet (though witness the continued success of The Economist and FT), for the readers-as-consumers group, times have never been better before!