Month: November 2016

The Latest Smartphone is Here

The Latest Smartphone is Here

FUN FACT : The title of this post will always be true until the smartphone is replaced by the next big invention.

Google Analytics tells me that about 60% of the readers of this blog use a smartphone or a tablet. So if you belong to the remaining 40%, stop for a moment and get your smartphone. Now, everyone reading this, think back to the moment when you bought this smartphone. How long did you take to decide on this particular model? How many models did you compare? How much did you agonize over little features? And, if you chose your smartphone for one particular feature, how often do you use that feature? Do you even remember what that feature was?

The paradoxical feature of buying smartphones or any technical gadget is that the longer you wait, the better deal you get for your money. But this is only in theory because you cannot wait forever. The moment you buy a smartphone is the moment it starts getting obsolete. The process is slow, just like our ageing but it’s there. Gradually, as you install more apps, the phone will start getting slower. This is inevitable because millions of developers around the world are working day and night to make their apps better. Better apps means more memory, more CPU cycles. It’s a never ending race between hardware and software. As your phone starts crawling, you start looking for an alternative and hit the ‘choice paralysis’ again.

If there is one thing I have realized, it’s this. For an average user, the features don’t matter in the long run. Most of the phones have similar features for similar price ranges. For someone who uses the phone for browsing, shopping, listening to music etc., the ultra-fine difference between technical specifications does not really matter. Is having a 12MP camera vs a 16MP camera going to make that big a difference to your selfies? The features you may want to pay some attention to are basic hardware features : how easy is it to plug in the charger or replace a memory card? More often than not, I find that these small features can be greatly annoying if they are not designed well.

Remember that we are talking about average users. More and more professionals are using smartphones for their work. It makes sense if they are keen on a specific feature. If you are a singer and you use your smartphone to broadcast your songs, you would need the best audio-visual tech specs. Many professional photographers are using smartphones, especially iPhones for photography and for them even a difference of 1MP matters. But for normal users, the slight differences in tech specs of different phones even out in the long run.

One side effect of this ever growing technology is the humongous amount of electronic waste that is produced. I don’t know about other countries but at least in India there is a big market for used phones. Partly this has to do with the wide economic disparity between different classes of Indians – from the richest man in the world to someone who struggles to make Rs 100 a day. Considering this wide range, what’s outdated for you could be a very affordable luxury for someone else. So if you plan to sell your smartphone, don’t wait till the wear and tear starts. If you sell it in a good condition, you will get a good price and someone else will get a better experience for their money.

This may not exactly be win-win – we are producing more waste – but it is the best silver lining I could find.

I should mention  that this is not an anti-technology post. I love technology. Smartphones and apps have made our lives so much easier. At the same time, we keep feeling overwhelmed by it. Every other article I read has a paragraph or two on how we are lost in the bubble of consumerism, how the dizzying speed of technology is ruining our experience and so on. While there is no denying that this is happening – our attention spans are becoming alarmingly short – the interesting thing is that it has not started suddenly in the last ten, twenty or thirty years. At every point, humans have been trying to catch up with technology in terms of the information inflow and at every point they felt overwhelmed by the pace of the technology prevalent at the time. It has been that way pretty much since the late nineteenth century at least and to take a wild guess it must have started slowly after the industrial revolution. You think that life was so peaceful ten or twenty years ago but that is only relative to today.

Exhibit 1 : an XKCD comic featuring excerpts from books and ‘letters to editor’ in different newspapers and magazines from 1871 to 1915. Do read it even though it’s longish. It is highly instructive to read people getting outraged by the harrowing pace of telephones, newspapers and…wait for it…bicycles!! My favourite lines include “People talk as they ride bicycles – at a rush – without pausing to consider their surroundings. What has been generally understood as cultured society is rapidly deteriorating into baseness and voluntary ignorance.”

Perhaps in a hundred years time, if this blog post survives in some dark corner of an internet archive, a human will chuckle when she reads it as she supervises robots planting trees on Mars.

Many thanks to Randall Munroe for making XKCD copyright-free.

XKCD pace of modern life

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Regeneration by Pat Barker

 

Siegfried Sasoon was a British soldier in WWI. He was also a poet. He won a Military Cross for bravery in 1916. In 1917, he made a “Soldier’s Declaration” protesting against the continuation of war. He claimed that the war was being continued for political reasons and that he could not bear witness to what the soldiers were going through. Sasoon was declared unfit for service and sent to Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh where he was treated for “shell shock”. His psychiatrist was W. H. R. Rivers, a well known anthropologist, neurologist and ethnologist. Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration starts with Sasoon arriving at the hospital to meet Rivers. Regeneration is the first part of a trilogy, followed by The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. Pat Barker won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road in 1995.

War is not natural which is why the rules that we follow in everyday life do not apply in war. For instance, it is not only okay but necessary to kill people in a war. Rivers is at a hospital that treats wounded soldiers. At one end is the crazy battleground, at the other is the civilian life with rules and regulations. Rivers is caught between two completely different worlds and he has to communicate with both. The dilemma faced by Rivers is quite unique. He is treating patients who have lost their speech; patients who have regular nightmares or who do not respond to any stimuli. His goal is to help these patients to live a trauma-free life. But once he succeeds in doing that, they have to go back to the battlefield and fight again. He is making them better only so that they can get traumatized again or worse, get killed.

This reminded me of one of the greatest novels written in last century, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It has been underrated, mainly because it is funny and makes you laugh. And by laugh I mean not a smile or a smirk but a belly-aching guffaw. But beneath all that humour and satire, the fact staring at you in the face is that war does not make any sense.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

In Regeneration, Pat Barker visits the war away from the battlefield, in the Craiglockhart Hospital. We experience the war through the experiences of these soldiers. In particular, Barker relies on the external parameters : light, sounds, smells and tastes to portray a breathtaking picture of the war front. One is reminded of the first 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Interestingly, Spielberg story-boarded the sequence after talking to many WWII veterans who had fought at Normandy and incorporated the minute details that they were able to recall.

In this trilogy, Barker looks at different peoples who are at the periphery of the war but are deeply affected by it nonetheless. Some of these reactions can be rather surprising. Take Lizzy, for instance, whose husband is now at the war front. He is a regular wife beater so with him gone, she could not be happier about the war. She remarks, “on August 4, 1914.. peace broke out.” This signifies one of the major sociological implications of WWI. With most of the men gone to war, women who had hitherto been forced in secondary roles suddenly found themselves free of restrictions and in charge.

Sasoon faces his own dilemma. He is not a pacifist. He saved lives of many soldiers while fighting against the Germans in France and received the Military Cross for bravery. Now, he is disillusioned and his conscience forces him to protest. The authorities cannot court-martial a decorated soldier so they take the easy way out and send him to Craiglockhart. Rivers is under pressure to declare him mentally unfit but finds nothing wrong with Sasoon and refuses to do it. Sasoon is discharged and goes back to the war.

War is often glorified in literature and movies. It takes a Saving Private Ryan or a Fury to unveil the real face of war. Pat barker does not hold back in describing the brutality of war. The Regeneration Trilogy portrays the devastating effect it has on millions of lives, not just those on the battlefield but also those who are back home.

Acting, Cinema and Art in General

Acting, Cinema and Art in General

 

I am intrigued by the art of acting. Or more specifically, acting in cinema. I have no fascination for stage, I find it too artificial. My imagination is not good enough to ignore all the extraneous factors that accompany a stage play – the stage itself, mock actions that we are supposed to assume as real such as fighting and so on. This is not my cup of Chai. I should mention that this is not a criticism of stage vis-à-vis cinema. I am simply saying that this art form is not for me. In contrast, cinema is a polished product. Everything has been honed to perfection and presented to you so that it can take you away from the present moment.

A very pertinent question is ‘what is acting?’ Or is it? What’s more interesting to me is ‘how do I perceive a certain actor?’ And this is where things get interesting. As I mentioned in a previous post, I find certain actors utterly captivating while other have no influence on me. All of these are great actors so the problem does not lie at their end. I have a theory about this. As a good actor becomes more and more popular, his larger-than-life image occupies our mind so much that when we see him on the screen we do not see the character. These stars are in limelight so much of the time that we identify with them. Then there are other actors who make me forget about them. Daniel Day-Lewis, Ben Kingsley or Russell Crowe. The way Gary Oldman transforms from Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK to George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Amongst Bollywood actors I am awed by Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Paresh Rawal. Many of Paresh’s role have been underrated because they are not the lead characters or because it’s a comic role. One of the best examples, along with Om Puri is Herapheri. I never understood why comedy is always treated like a step-child. Just because it makes you laugh does not mean it’s not high quality. Some of the movie experiments of Woody Allen have not received the recognition they deserve simply because they are not gloomy enough or that you actually enjoy them.

Why do some actors make me forget about them while others don’t? The theory of being in limelight is only partially correct, if at all. Russell Crowe is one of the most famous Hollywood stars and yet, his transformation from Bud White in L. A. Confidential to Jeffery Wigand in The Insider is something to watch for. The Insider is a good example. Russell Crowe pours blood, sweat and tears in this role, as he usually does. And he is pitted against Al Pacino who is just being Al Pacino. Apart from the mandatory shouting scenes, his character is thoroughly unimpressive. Why this difference? Another example is the movie Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. There is nothing in this movie except situations where these actors will supposedly have great scenes. At every instant, the director seems to be saying, “Look, I’ve got two stalwarts of acting here. Is this cool or what?”

Needless to say, all this is very subjective. That is one of the reasons why I am not fond of events like Film Appreciation courses. There are simple art forms and there are complicated ones. It certainly helps if you know some background about the art form. However, I believe that any art should be able to give you a minimum experience without having any a priori knowledge, provided you connect with it. Beyond that, the more you know about it, the more you will appreciate it. You do not have to know the intricacies of symphony to enjoy Mozart. The danger in a Film Appreciation course is you are getting ready-made opinions of experts. You have not arrived at those conclusions yourself. If I had read Roger Ebert’s review of The Usual Suspects before watching the movie, there is a fair chance that I would not have liked it because he didn’t. I am glad I watched it without reading anything about it.

No one can say which art will move you. There is no greater punishment that to stick with a book just because it is a so-called classic, even if it bores you to death. I gleefully skipped over parts of War and Peace where Tolstoy philosophizes for pages on end. I did enjoy the narrative but would I still have read it if it was not The Book on every list? Probably not.

Statements like this art form is passé or that one is the latest do little in terms helping you appreciate them. One of the most important function of any art is to give you an experience – preferably a memorable one. If a movie or a symphony speaks to you, that’s your personal conversation with it. Enjoy it. If it does not, leave it.

There are no ‘shoulds’ in art.