Friday, July 18, 2014

The rain is what I miss the most about India

It sure rains in Belgium - don't get me wrong on that - but it hardly ever rains like in India. Indian rains are usually thunderstorms with the showpiece being the light and sound display and rain being the sideshow. Comparatively, there are hardly any thunderstorms in Belgium - maybe one or two a year. Most rains are just water falling from grey skies; heavy rains are not that common too, probably a fourth will get you drenched. The rest are boring mists of rain, which just ensure you will be just a little wet but doesn't really demand a rain jacket.

Those flashes of light lighting up the night sky letting you see all around you for that fraction of a second in white light followed by claps of thunder making the window panes dance and the rooms filled with reverberations for a few seconds - I really miss them.

As I'm writing this I suspect there's a thunderstorm sneaking up on this town and its festivals - it wasn't on the forecast. Rain or not, the lightning is sure reminding me of the rains of India.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cooking Indian dinner for 12 people

After the good word of mouth from friends after the first time around (even though it was, looking back, a poke in the dark because I didn't know what the audience would like), there was a second cooking event. I decided to include chicken this time around because I got a hint that everyone was missing meat the first time around.

This time I made puris, channa masala, chicken curry/gravy, brinjal-potatoes (aloo baingan) and puliyogare (tamarind rice). It took the saturday evening and the sunday afternoon to prepare the stuff.

Puris - 2 pieces of dough for 12 people - approx 40+ puris, 4 for each person. Were kneaded well and one was wrapped in paper - big mistake - and the other in plastic. The paper-wrapped dough had dried out and the plastic one stayed moist. The dryness was cured by adding water and kneading for a further 10-15 minutes to even it out. The puris puffed this time!

Channa masala - the trick is to cook the channa before hand, that's how they're soft and tasty. Standard preparation method. One pack of channa is good enough.

Chicken gravy/curry - this didn't come out as good as I wanted it to, but it was decent. Onions sauteed in oil, ginger-garlic, spices; then the chicken is added. I bought around 1.8 kilos of chicken breast (in two packs) and made two batches of the chicken. So, the chicken is mixed well on a medium to high flame every now and then. Tomatoes optional. Actually, cooking meat is faster and easier than veggies, if you don't count the part of handling and cutting the meat. Care is to be taken as the chicken cooks quickly - so if you leave it in there too long it will overcook. 1.8 kilos for 12 persons was just perfect. The estimate given by Matty was 200gms per person, which too was pretty accurate.

The brinjal-potatoes didn't turn out well because I didn't have that big a vessel and the brinjal cooked faster than the potatoes and it was more of a porridge than anything else.

Tamarind rice was standard method. Cooking and freezing the rice helped too.

I'm writing this to keep a record for next time, the quantities will be useful.

Last time's dessert was not too popular; many didn't like the vermicelli-in-milk-and-sugar-and-nuts dish (payasam), so this time I thought of hot jalebis(conveniently procured from the Indian store) and ice cream, but jalebis too weren't a hit, probably because they were fried. It wasn't as big a hit as I had hoped for.

So, jalebis are out, payasam is out and that means I can't think of any real Indian desserts which Belgians will like. Maybe gulab jamun but seeing the reaction to these two, I wonder if the effort in making jamuns will pay off - particularly because you have to get the jamuns right for them to be tasty.

I'm going to make puris for myself, I'm so happy they came out well :)

For most of those who came it was their first taste of spices, they said they liked it, but, precisely because it was their first time and they didn't know what to expect, they liked the chicken the most with the puris. Note for next time: More meat dishes, less veggie dishes. A vegan/vegitarian in Belgium  is as rare as a retail store open on a Sunday.

Monday, April 14, 2014

My first marathon and all the things that went right

I ran the full marathon of Rotterdam, achieving my sub-4hr target by finishing in 3h58min. I am pretty well satisfied with myself but looking back I did a lot of things right and little was by chance.

Background
A little background first: Before I was still 'fit' - I biked to and from work and played badminton 2-3 times a week(cycling to the courts). I started running in February of 2013 for a 5k for a company event, ran a 10k in May, 15k in July and a half marathon in October of the same year.

Which marathon?
I decided to run a full marathon in September and applied to the lottery of the Berlin marathon, which was roughly a 1:2 chance and didn't get. Then I looked for top courses in Europe and yo-yo-ed between the Stockholm marathon and Rotterdam and decided on Rotterdam because Stockholm would be relatively expensive (flights+accomodation+cost of marathon) and Rotterdam was a much more flat course.

Training plan
By a stroke of luck, by using '14 week marathon training plan' as a search term instead of 15 weeks and 16 weeks, I found the page on Lucozade's website for running and marathons. The beauty of this training plan, in my opinion, is that it measures in time and not distance. For someone who doesn't have an accurate distance measuring device (the GPS on my phone is not always accurate and I don't run on a fixed measured track), running by time was perfect. All the better, the High Intensity Interval Training plans (HIIT) where you run slow and fast were spelt out clearly unlike other plans.

Actually training
Now was the tough part - going out and running. Counting backwards from marathon date comes to January, which is the beginning of winter in Europe. But lucky me, apart from a few cold days in January, it wasn't really cold at all (meaning it stayed above freezing, going down to only about -4C with windchill).

Running Gear
I had a set of orange-green shoes ordered from Sportsshoes.com which had the model of I was looking for - at the lowest price because it was a model going out of circulation (That site always has great deals, the lowest price anywhere in Europe, free shipping on orders greater than €40) which treated my feet well.
I used a Buff which I had gotten free at the Brussels half-marathon which was good as ear and forehead protection and to wick away sweat. I used to wear a neck scarf but abandoned it because I was warm within a few minutes. I also ran in just a full-sleeved running shirt and a fluorescent jacket(as a wind breaker) because I didn't know which gear to buy without knowing how well it was worth(I don't like to buy stuff to experiment, but I think I will buy a compression shirt after asking a few people in person). I did buy a set of gloves, one inner pair and another with grip and meant for colder weather. They were useful. I'm thinking of buying a set of running/cycling glasses which have interchangeable lens, because in the cold it protects your eyes from watering and in the summer from insects (and while cycling from random debris).

1 week buffer
Even though it was a 14-week plan, I started out 15 weeks ahead, which turned out to be beneficial. During one of my 2+ hour long runs I drank fluids which were cold (it was the first time I was drinking fluids while running and it was also a little cold that day) and came down with the cold for about 10 days. It was during a light 'race week', so it was no problem, but either way, I had the 1 week buffer to fall back on.

Diligently following HIIT
I think these were what really set me up for the marathon. One such plan called for me to run 'fast for 8 minutes, jog for 2 minutes', repeating it 4 times. That was near impossible, but it helped a lot in building up energy levels and confidence. (It is fun to run faster than cyclists sometimes!)

Carbo loading
It is described as eating loads of carbohydrates 2-3 days before a marathon, to store 'easy-to-access' glycogen in the muscles. I think I did it perfectly. I consumed, in the 2 days before the marathon, 1 and a half loaves of bread along with a massive brownie, a croissant, a taco and food at an Indian buffet - over and above what I would have normally ate. Additionally, 2 weeks prior I went snowboarding, where for 3 days I was stretched to the limit of my endurance. That too, I think, helped to 'tell my body to replenish my energy levels' to a certain level. (The article also links to a calorie calculator if you want to measure exactly how much to eat)

No activity few days before
Apart from normal things like walking to the bus stop or train station, I did no major strenuous activity for a few days before the race. I took the bus almost everywhere.

Hours before the race
I made sure I had a good night's sleep - so I went early to bed (10.30ish) to wake up before 7 the next day. I had a breakfast of whole-grain brown bread  (5-6 slices) and milk with chocolate and a banana and made sure it was before 2 and a half  to 3 hours before the race. From then on I started sipping on a bottle of sports drink. One hour before the race I had a banana and finally, 10-15 minutes before the start of the race I finished the sports drink with big gulps.

Lots of vaseline + band-aid
I applied lots of vaseline - and I mean lots - 2 to 3 applications - to my crotch to prevent chafing by my shorts and to the front portion of my feet to prevent blisters from the socks and wetness (I wore cotton socks, didn't want to try out a new pair). End result: no blisters anywhere. Smooth racing. Also, my nipples were protected by band-aids (although they were a pain to take off!) from chafing and becoming sore.

During the race
I ran behind the 4:00 pacing team, so I wouldn't run too fast or slow. At every drink station, which was present at every 5km interval, I drank 2 cups of half-full sports drink. Not much water itself for the first 30km. The first hour was completely normal, it was like an everyday run. From 15k till about 25k, I got the 'why-am-I-running-I-should-stop-and-rest' feeling. But, from then on, i.e. 25k till the finish, I was 'in a zone' and kept running and running and running. Around 30k we got energy gels, which I had with a cup of water. I had more water and energy gel at the 35k mark and just kept running.

Beautiful weather
It was a pleasant 13C, sunny with a little cloud and little to no wind. That perfect temperature where you don't feel hot but don't feel cold but don't sweat much either.

Didn't hit the wall
I think it was a combination of several factors - carbo loading, energy gels, HIIT - which made sure I didn't hit the wall. I think the biggest one was the carbo loading.

The ever decreasing number of kilometers to run was also influential, more prominently after the 35km mark. I overtook the pacing team and the last kilometer or so was at a faster pace with the last stretch being a sprint. That I had energy even at that stage of the race to run faster than the rest of the race is testament to all the things that went right.

That being said, I think it would be fair to argue that I could have finished much faster, maybe 3:55 or even 3:50. But it being my first race, I didn't want to stretch things too much.

Where I can improve
I don't know if I will run another marathon again, because 16 weeks of training upends a lot of schedules, especially if you do it alone. I will however try to run Berlin if I can get through the lottery. Another area is 'investing' in running glasses, proper winter running gear and proper running shorts. And, as I said, I think I can gun for 3:50 if I am much more focused.

What I did wrong:
I did do a few stupid things. One (while training) was trying to drink cold fluids suddenly, in cold weather. Now I will carry warmer fluids or drink warm fluids immediately after the run and rest instead of exposing myself to the cold again. Another was trying to play super-sprinter and accelerate suddenly. I ended up spraining my foot (it would pain if I flexed my foot while on the ball of my foot). Thankfully it healed in a week or so (the binding boots on the snowboard also helped) but it scared me good. Never again will I run on the ball of my feet suddenly and with long strides.

Near even splits with a spurt at the end. I still can't believe I did it.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Have you ever heard the sounds of silence?



Back home from college, one morning, when the pre-noon activities were all done and the house had settled down, I heard it anew for the first time. Silence. Without the regular air whizzing from a fan or the bustle of a hostel or vehicles, I entered my room and heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. No sounds from outside the house. No fan. No vehicular activity. Just a distant whirr of the refrigerator. And then that stopped too. It was completely silent.

I laid down on my bed for a quick nap. That was when the silence could really be heard.

I relaxed my head against the pillow. My head sinks in and I can hear the fibres in the pillow compressing and conforming to the shape of my head. At the same time I hear the soft rustles of the hair on my head adjusting against the pillow, many at first, then dying down as I stopped moving. I adjusted myself. Purposely. The same: Hairs against the cloth, the sound decreasing as they all stopped dancing against the cool cloth of the pillow.

Now it was the turn of my pulse to entertain me. With every heartbeat, the finer hairs on my ears and neck moved ever so slightly, waltzing with the up-and-down of blood rushing through my veins. I could now hear a faint hum emitted by my cellphone charger (I've now discovered they emit different sounds which charging and not charging) and unplugged it. Silence. Far far away, confirmed only by its periodic movement, the second had of the clock in the adjoining room. Suddenly a gust of wind and the leaves on the trees outside graze each other. A few leaves on the ground drag themselves a short distance. The dog's soft paws on the mud approaching and disappearing into the distance. And then, when all is silent again, my ears fill with a soft, low pitch buzz as if compensating for the lack of sound.

I don't know what to think of silence like this. On the one hand some people treasure it, immensely, to the extent of building houses in the middle of nowhere, and on the other, it makes you question if you're in a dream or if you have lost control of your sense for that split second.

Back to silence. I've experienced loudness-to-silence on a few other occasions and they've all been special, always bringing that content smile to my face, allowing me to appreciate the moment for longer than expected.

One is after a snowstorm and everything is blanketed in white powder. The snow absorbs all the noises from around, so in effect you hear nothing. Add to that the lack of movement during a snowstorm and voila, perfect silence.

Another is after a thunderstorm, one where the skies are so clear the only evidence of rain in the previous few minutes is the wet clothes in the shade. I think the lack of sound after the rain is what makes it unique - no one's moving, sometimes the power is down so no electronics and all the wind has been whisked away by the rain.

Have you ever heard the sounds of silence?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Getting apostille(only) is one of the simplest procedures

Getting the final apostille sticker for a document was so much easier than I had anticipated. An apostille is an authorization by the Central Govt that a document is signed by a person they can verify; it is used for documents which have to be presented to another country, for instance a 'police clearance certificate', birth certificates and degree certificates.

While certificates not issued by the central govt, such as birth certificates, need multiple round of attestations at local and state levels, others like the police clearance certificate, normally issued at the Passport Office, can be presented directly for apostille.

The website of the Ministry of External Affairs, which handles the apostille, gives the nitty gritty, but I will simplify it for someone who wants to get it from the Chennai office.

How to get Apostille for police clearance certificate from Chennai MEA office:

The office building is located on the DPI campus on the 7th floor of the EVK Sampath Building on Nungambakkam's College Road. 17D and 17E series of the MTC pass by that stop, which is also called DPI, making it well connected to Chennai Central and Chennai Egmore.

It opens around 10.30am; but before that you need either a DD or a Postal Order (in the name of Pay & Accounts Officer (PAO), Ministry of External Affairs payable at New Delhi) for Rs. 50 (for 1 document). You can get that at one of three places:
a) The Indian Bank just next to the EVK Sampath building
b) The State Bank of India opposite the campus, just across the road (It's a personal banking branch, so there isn't usually a big crowd and the staff are very courteous)
c) The post office on the same campus.

You take the police clearance certificate issued by the passport office, a xerox copy of it and a copy of the page on the passport which is endorsed by the passport office, along with the DD or the Postal Order to the 7th floor between 10.30am and 1pm.


Fill in a short form, hand over the originals and the copies and give it to the officials at the counter, which is towards the end of the MEA office corridor. There will probably be no queue of any sort. The officials there will be very nice, the head official was very nice and had a nice chat with me and a couple of others who had come.

Then you leave and come back between 4.30pm and 5pm the same day and collect the apostilled document.

That's it: no queues, big fees, big headaches... Various agents (I enquired because I had no idea about the time/effort involved) quoted rates varying from Rs. 1500 to Rs. 2500 to Rs. 8000, per document, which is an exorbitant rate, disproportional to the work involved.








Friday, February 3, 2012

Where do you want to go/ Status quo

I get into the lift and press 4. The button lights up and goes out stat. I press again. Same thing happens. Lift malfunction? "Press 0," my companion says, "We're on 4."

My sister stands at the suburban ticket counter. "One Nungambakkam." The booking agent looks and tells her (I'd like to believe he had a deadpan face), "We issue tickets to all stations except Nungambakkam." Sister is stunned. "Of all the stations in India," he continues, "We issue tickets to all places except Nungambakkam."

Of course, she was standing at the Nungambakkam station counter.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Not perfect, but very endearing: photos of the Royal wedding

Take a look at these two pictures from the Royal wedding of William and Kate:



















It's been a while since we had such a universally popular fairytale. Lots of buzz, the wedding gown industry got a mega boost, British fashion is suddenly hip and the paparazzi have new targets. It was a grand event, but with a lot of fun.

It was the above two photos which caught my eye, though, for being well, awkward. They aren't 'picture perfect' for a wedding album, what with photoshop and very basic editing tools available.

In the first, it's Prince William's goddaughter Grace van Cutsem covering her ears because of the noise of RAF planes flying overhead, just as the bride and groom are kissing. In many ways, the photo op was 'spoilt' by a distracting Grace, but it only makes it all the more down-to-earth and tells you, 'Hey, they're normal humans too!' Years from now you can look at the pictures and smile remembering 'That girl who didn't care a bit about the world's most famous couple kissing and was more bothered by the noise of it all'.

To be fair to the photographers, there was no way to exclude Grace from the picture(although it was the second time that they kissed) - the kiss was for mere seconds, far away on a balcony, so they had to shoot what they could. Even then it was up to editors to leave her out from the famous kiss, but a few chose to leave her in. It speaks volumes, that they want to keep the 'adorable' part in that photo.

Now on to the second, which is even more fascinating. It's the official photograph, released by the Palace, of the newly-weds with their attendants. Again, it's not all so 'perfect' - Grace is looking beyond the camera, the first boy from the right strikes his own majestic pose with hair standing up and most wavering of all, is the other boy who's decided to showcase his Ministry of Silly Poses pose for the official wedding photo. It's not my point to blame to kids, but rather to ponder over the decision of the photographer and editor to select this picture over many others as the right one.

Obviously, they've let the kids be kids and actually managed to capture that in the photos. No doubt well-behaved, they did make faces and just have plain fun at some relatives' wedding. I just cannot imagine any other wedding photographer having the courage to select these two photos to pass, lest he bring upon the wrath of the person who's paying him for 'such stupid photos'. There have been dozens of incidents where subjects have wanted retakes because their hair was bad or their pose wasn't good. But this is the most famous wedding in the world. And they chose their wedding photos to not be perfect.

I too have had some success in capturing my friends in their 'natural environment', much to their chagrin, that is - they wait around waiting for me to take a picture while I've taken a dozen of them simply chatting and being themselves. The royal pictures are a sort of redemption.

Without a doubt, it will bring a smile to anyone who looks at these pictures in the future. It was some elders' wedding, the kids were just enjoying the spotlight.

Oh, and, about the wedding, just one word: Philippa. Damn.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

That time when you hear a song and desperately want to know its name

The first time I heard it was on the college shuttle. It was on low volume and sounded good - just enough to register that tune in my head. Then I heard it on the radio, again, on the shuttle. I wanted to know the name of the song and listen to it again - because the tune was catchy. I strained to listen to the lyrics, but over the noise of the engine and the whirr of the cooling all I heard was 'black and blue'. I thought I heard 'dear' and 'baby', but searches for such lyrics yielded no songs which matched the tune in my head.

As luck would have it I hear the same song playing at an event. I quickly searched for someone to ask and settled on a guy. I asked,

'Excuse me, do you know what song this is?'

'Eh.. Moon or Mars.'

'Moon or Mars.. Ok, thanks, do you know who the artist is, or the full title of the song?'

'Umm.. One second..' 'Grenade... It's Moon or Mars Grenade.'

Strange song/artist, I thought. I kept repeating it in case I forgot.

About half an hour later I am able to get to my laptop. The first thing I did was search for the song. The top result is Bruno Mars' 'Talking to the moon;' I play it, it's nothing like what I heard.

And then, right below, are the links I need, thanks in no small deal to some websites which included 'moon' in the names of their websites: Grenade, by the artist Bruno Mars. In the din of the music I had got the name of the artist when I asked for the song, worse, misheard the artist's name.




That is how I ended up listening to the song I wanted to for quite a while. It's the small victories which bring a smile to your face - nothing substantial has happened, yet, it's one of life's small joys.

Turns out the song is very sad and the music is much more pronounced than on the radio and when played outdoors. I like the tune of the song, the lyrics not so much(because they're not in the mood I am in), which means I had to find a karaoke version.



Sunday, March 20, 2011

A totally (un)scientific (anecdotal)study into male pattern baldness among non-resident Indians

One of the first things anyone will say when you're leaving to the West is 'So, you'll come back bald isn't it?' There's not much you can do except crack a smile and just hope the topic changes. This is an investigation of sorts into the phenomenon.

Does it really happen?

Do men actually lose hair in the prime of their youth, with the rate of loss being much more than what it would have been had they stayed put in India? Going with anecdotal evidence here... The answer will be a resounding yes. Photos from aeons ago laid side by side reveal much shorter hair; dramatic inroads on either side of the head like someone clearing the Amazon jungle, little by little.

Then there's the totally eagle-eyed group of relatives, who always have most to say about 1. Hair and 2. Weight. It's either that you've put on weight after eating home-made food or lost a lot of wight by cooking your own. Either way, you lose. Coming back to the topic of this post, they will say, yes, one has lost quite a lot of hair, with lots of advice to not lose more in the future because it may damage prospects. Another thing to worry about.

Probable reasons for the hair loss

Now that we've established that it does actually happen, we have to move on to pinpoint the causes.
  • Eating habits
More seriously, there might be some credence to the effect of 'diet' on overall health. In the West, consumption of junk food - soda(anything carbonated has loads of sugar and HFCS), cookies, chips, pretzels and almost anything and everything packaged in plastic with shiny graphics - doesn't count towards nutrition, though the calories count, giving you a neat belly.

Expanding on the topic, growth hormones are probably the biggest unknown variable modifying growth in humans today. Wading in the realm of speculation, consuming milk and meat - 80% of antibiotics in the US is given to farm animals - significantly increases your chances of consuming them and whether they affect you negatively is not yet proven or unproven(it's a conspiracy!).

Almost everyone(except those who keep their finances in control) prefers to eat out rather than cook at home - part convenience, part lack of time and part not wanting to wash the dishes. Even worse is not eating on time and skipping a meal or two. Anything already made has loads and loads of salts as preservatives and additives to improve taste and texture of the food. All you have to do is read the label. My roommate was surprised to learn that the 'butter' he bought contained almost no milk - it was mainly hydrogenated oils. The pressure to improve the look and feel and shelf life of foods has pushed manufacturers to completely modify their The pressure to improve the look and feel and shelf life of foods has pushed manufacturers to completely modify their products so much that they are not what they are supposed to be.

Why take supplements, which may not be absorbed as well as whole foods with that essential vitamin or mineral?
  • Bathing habits
I've really thought about this and it might be the biggest factor of them all. Back in India, owing to water shortage and/or lack of continuous hot water supply, most bathing, including a head bath is performed using a bucket and mug; in the US, it's with a shower. I don't even know of any houses with facility for a bucket to be filled from a tap.

The effect of this shower, which coincidentally spurts out hot water at our preference, is that a pointed jet(s) of hot water is directed at the hair, for elongated periods of time. A very poor analogy would be watering a grass lawn with a hose of hot water - continuously(please correct me if this analogy is more wrong than right). Sounds scary. Solution: Use only warm water and avoid prolonged exposure to the water.

Applying oil is pretty often in India, much scorned here - another factor? The oil could be locking in the moisture keeping hair fluffy and not dry. Infrequent cleaning of the scalp - which allows dead skin and dirt to build up - doesn't help matters.
  • Climate control
All buildings and confined spaces have temperature control, so it's a given that the temperature will always at the opposite end of that outside the building. So, while all other parts of the body are clothed, the hair is often exposed to extreme temperatures - for a few minutes - everyday. E.g.
Midwest:
Home: 20 C
Outside: -10 C Swing: 30 C
Car: 10 C Swing: 20 C
Outside: -10 C Swing: 20 C
Building: 20 C Swing: 30 C

For the South or during summer the swing might be lesser, about 10 C, but still such a swing during winter is tremendous.

Apart from temperature control, many houses have constant humidity, which could be over or under the required amount. Warm air during winter can sap water vapour from the air, hence the hair could be devoid of the moisture it needs.
  • Stress
Have a girlfriend: Stress out keeping her happy
Don't have a girlfriend but friend has a girlfriend: Still stress out
Have a girlfriend back home: Stress out in the middle of the night with lack of sleep
Stuck with a prof who extracts 25 hours a day: Huge stress
Equipment fail: Mega stress
Need to be done with dissertation, paper publications and job within 6 months: Ultimate stress

'Stress' is a proven factor contributing to hair loss.
  • Genetic
And finally the most obvious reason of all: Your grandfather lost his hair at 40, your father at 32, so you will at age 23. Simple.

Please chime in with your own well (un)reasoned thoughts on the topic.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Soap and toothpaste are not magic

One of the best things about learning is you get to apply it to real life. Growing up, you learn to look at soaps and toothpaste in a new light.

Soap/detergent

It is imbibed that we wash ourselves with soap well, especially after playing in the dirt, which gives rise to the impression that soap is that magic substance removing all the 'bad things' from us. Well, that's only half the truth. Soap works by the action of micelles, but more practically speaking, scrubbing is essential - to increase contact surface area by producing more lather - so if your hands are really dirty, the soap makes it easier for the dirt to be carried away by it from the dirty surface, but it in itself is not capable of removing anything automatically. So simply contacting your hand with soap isn't going help. This applies to vessels and any other surface which we clean with soap - clothes, cars, the floor, windows and the kitchen countertop.

Toothpaste

One fine sunday a decade or so ago, I decided I hadn't brushed my teeth well enough and had to 'make up' for it by brushing for longer and harder. I didn't repeat it afterward, thankfully, and now realise it was but a futile exercise. That's not how toothpaste and a toothbrush work. Toothpaste in itself is a form of chalk - albeit finely ground chalk, with the toothbrush acting as the tool to use the toothpaste. When we 'brush', we use the abrasive power of the toothpaste to remove the plaque collected on our teeth with the toothbrush additionally removing particles of food lodged in between the teeth.

If you take some toothpaste and grind it between your incisors, you can feel the solid particles. It's something similar to using sandpaper to polish metal or wood. But, beware, unlike those substances which have more if you remove the top layer, teeth are pretty sensitive, and excessive brushing can damage the enamel, i.e. the outermost layer of the teeth.

On a similar note, a full strip of toothpaste on your toothpaste isn't needed - it's just a marketing gimmick used in ads to get you to use as much as the model in the ad is using. Just about a third of the full strip is sufficient. This gimmick extends well to shampoo and laundry detergent also, to the extent it does more damage than good.

Talking of which, there is one substance which works like magic - deicing fluid and rock salt-water for snow. Based on the principle of depression in freezing point, it is very effective at removing ice and snow at not-so low temperatures. But at the same time, it is essential that the salt is added as a solution - it is very common for people to put salt on snow and expect it to disappear - add water and it will.

Friday, December 31, 2010

The only way Rajni can act as a villain - in his own movies in an alter ego - Endhiran

It's so easy to miss it in Endhiran: All the robots are played by the same Rajni. In effect, it's a triple-role. A serious Einstein-esque scientist, a stone faced good robot and the most diabolical robot.

That Rajni is an actor of epic levels is not in question - it's just been lost for a lot of years. Becoming a mass hero for nearly 20 years has taken its toll. I don't think the gradual transition to shun the 'superstar' image is an aberration - Sivaji the Boss had very few 'punch' dialogues with Vivek doing a few for him, this film has almost none('Ennai yaaralayum azhikka mudiyathu'). Whereas he would get the best entrances, his last two have been very simple - one behind bars and the other in a lab.

The best scene in the entire movie has to be the black sheep one - oh how I wish Rajni would act as a villain in a big budget movie - he'd set the benchmark for all future villains. The laugh(not everyone can laugh loudly and in progression - try it), the scowl, the sudden smile-to-frown, the walk - it's 'acting' at its best. More remarkable wearing the exact same costume but acting differently - the Vaseegaran in disguise and evil Chitti.

As far as the movie is concerned, it's worthy of a Hollywood production. The romantic angle(2 songs with Vaseegaran) is a stretch; the delivery of the baby is equally unnecessary. Shankar has written a very clever script - an exemplary scene is when evil Chitti gets 3 reports - the first on someone delivering food, the second on the video cam being disabled and then that his Highness has eaten - getting him to bring all his emotions ahead of other priorities - is genius. However, Shankar too, in his fantasy world, has decided that robots may not learn emotions - he delivers his to the robot via a quirk because of a lightning strike. What Do Women Want much?

Equally genius is the robots joining to form a sphere, a hand, a snake and a bigger robot. The first time I saw the trailer I was blown away.



It's pretty obvious Danny Denzongpa mouthed all his dialogues in Hindi. His actions in trying to derail Vaseegaran are a reflection of the real world, where minor flaws are blown to epic proportions so a competitor's plan does not succeed.

The graphics is excellent - though there are a handful of places where it could've been better.

Vaseegaran's lab is too clean to be a lab; NDTV's Sanjay Pinto makes a hilarious cameo - just words thrown in without much grammar - could be just headlines.

What's with the white guys amongst a group of rowdys trying to beat up Chitti and Ash on the suburban?

No matter how many movies he makes, Shankar never leaves his love for exploding cars behind. It's getting a little bit too boring.

There is one scene in which visuals and BG music line up beautifully - when Ash gives Chitti a kiss, his mouth opens in surprise and a draft slightly ruffles his hair, as a modified opening to 'Irumbile' plays(just before the intermission).

The mosquito scene is beyond present capabilities, so it well and truly falls into the realm of sci-fi. Which leaves a glaring mistake in the plot - why aren't the robots using solar power to charge their batteries? Non-solar robots fit into the movie's overall storyline but nonetheless it is a wee bit disappointing.

I remember reading an interview of Shankar, probably 7 years ago, when Boys released, where he lamented about his dream project involving robots being stalled because no-one was willing to spend 100 crores to make it. It's eerily similar to another person's complaints - James Cameron and Avatar. In his case it was that technology hadn't improved and no-one was willing to spend so much money.

AR Rahman's bg score is exemplary especially the trailing trumpet and the final hour or so - except for the '2.0' techno voice while evil Chitti faces the police while holding so many guns between his hands.

Shankar always finishes his movies with a message to the people - in this case it's that machines if used properly can aid mankind in his quest to do whatever.

Endhiran is one of the rare movies to get universal acclaim, including from the North-Indian press, which is suspicious, to say the least.

Whatever, the last 50 minutes, after the entrance of the evil Chitti are fantastic for anyone looking for a wonderful performance.

And Shankar's record of 100% hits with riveting climaxes continues. Still, it's Rajni's movie. What. An. Actor.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Scientific reasons for a 'homa' or grihapravesh puja?

Reading 'Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official' by W H Sleeman (some selected passages are here), he writes of his experience in dealing with abandoned forts - and how soldiers or prisoners housed there had a very high risk of dying or becoming sick beyond recovery.

He writes of the presence of 'carbonic acid gas'(he could be referring to carbon dioxide) in 'all abandoned forts in India' and describes its characteristics accurately, namely that it is denser than air and remains stagnant.

Most interestingly, he says the native remedy is a puja - where guests are fed and a fire is lit in the fortress, while explaining that the movement of the people and the rising air from the fire causes circulation with all the doors and windows open (or 'large openings'). In an occupied fortress, the normal movement of people prevents such accumulation of gas, he says. By his account about 6% of those who were lodged in these abandoned forts died within 5 years, which translate to 'thousands' of men.

This explanation seems to account for all the practices for a new home or some other 'special puja' to 'clear the bad air' (haven't you heard an elder say that?); it is also possible that the commotion and smoke could chase out insects and reptiles which may be in the building.

As to how the 'carbonic acid' got into the forts in the first place, it could be general decay from plants growing there, or, in my opinion, from the plaster or building material used - usually some form of mud or limestone(CaCO3) - which could degrade to give off the gas the author describes.

In India we carry out many practices in the name of tradition and culture - many of them may have had proper reason to carry out, but over time they have been exaggerated and their true purpose hidden.

Full relevant passage:

" The fortress is now entirely deserted, and the town, which the garrison supported, is occupied by only a small police-guard, stationed here to see that robbers do not take up their abode among the ruins. There is no fear of this. All old deserted fortresses in India become filled by a dense stream of carbonic acid gas, which is found so inimical to animal life that those who attempt to occupy them become ill, and, sooner or later, almost all die of the consequences. This gas, being specifically much heavier than common air, descends into the bottom of such unoccupied fortresses, and remains stagnant like water in old reservoirs. The current of pure air continually passes over, without being able to carry off the mass of stagnant air below; and the only way to render such places habitable is to make large openings in the walls on all sides, from the top to the bottom, so that the foul air may be driven out by the current of pure atmospheric air, which will then be continually rushing in. When these fortresses are thickly peopled, the continual motion within tends, I think, to mix up this gas with the air above; while the numerous fires lighted within, by rarefying that below, tend to draw down a regular supply of the atmospheric air from above for the benefit of the inhabitants. When natives enter upon the occupation of an old fortress of this kind, that has remained long unoccupied, they always make a solemn religions ceremony of it; and, having fed the priests, the troops, and a crowd of followers, all rush in at once with beat of drums, and as much noise as they can make. By this rush, and the fires that follow, the bad air is, perhaps, driven off, and never suffered to collect again while the fortress remains fully occupied. Whatever may be the cause, the fact is certain that these fortresses become deadly places of abode for small detachments of troops, or small parties of any kind. They all get ill, and few recover from the diseases they contract in them.

From the year 1817, when we first took possession of the Sāgar and Nerbudda Territories, almost all the detachments of troops we required to keep at a distance from the headquarters of their regiments were posted in these old deserted fortifications. Our collections of revenue were deposited in them; and, in some cases, they were converted into jails for the accommodation of our prisoners. Of the soldiers so lodged, I do not believe that one in four ever came out well; and, of those who came out ill, I do not believe that one in four survived five years. They were all abandoned one after the other; but it is painful to think how many hundreds, I may say thousands, of our brave soldiers were sacrificed before this resolution was taken. I have known the whole of the survivors of strong detachments that went in, in robust health, three months before, brought away mere skeletons, and in a hopeless and dying state. All were sent to their homes on medical certificate, but they almost all died there, or in the course of their journey. "

The memoir is available to read online(or you can save the html page to read offline).

The internet is a magical land where stuff happens

Every time I meet friends and we talk of the internet, a joke from a decade-and-a-half old Reader's Digest comes to mind.

A military man is transferred to a distant place, and his wife talks for hours on end, daily, with her close(pun intended) friend. He decided to get her a computer and hoped with the magic of the then nascent email, he could save some serious bucks on his phone bill. Alas, that was not to be: The two friends did communicate by email, but ended up talking about what they had emailed on the phone!

Very often, most social gatherings turn into a did-you-watch-this-did-you-watch-that or he-did-this-to-her-on-x-website or she-put-this-photo-on-her-profile conversations. No one denies that they are uninteresting, but it does seem we are making subtle fools of ourselves for talking about stuff twice over.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar is a mind blowing Matrix-Captain Planet-Last Samurai movie

Review in a paragraph: Avatar is a superhuman mind blowing free-bird creative expression by James Cameron. Do watch it on a big screen, with 3D if possible. It may not be the best movie ever made, but it is the best movie experience I've ever had. Two and half hours of non-stop awe inspiring graphics with every t crossed and every i dotted.

Contents: Storyline(possible spoilers)-Acting-Depth of graphics-Political statement-Reception of the movie-Trivia/Observations

Storyline:

The storyline is a mix of Matrix, Captain Planet and the Last Samurai. People controlling their bodies in another conscience, a sacred tree removed to benefit from the land and a last charge by lesser equipped beings against a superior force - it fits in perfectly. It is not chockablock with cliches to keep the ordinary guy chuckling, like single words dropped in tense situations to induce laughter('Hi... you don't need to stand up' or 'You guys aren't the only ones iwth guns here').

This soldier is sent to replace his brother who was a nerd unlike him, a soldier. He infiltrates the indigenous people because the living soul of the planet accepted him... So in 3 months he does what? Inducted fully, some intelligence regarding the structure of the tree(with all that firepower does it really matter if that tree is hollow or thick or spiral inside?) is got and he still hasn't gotten them to evacuate the area.

The tribe try their best to save the sacred tree from bulldozers(an episode straight out of Captain Planet), are unable and retreat deep into the forest. Our hero tries to convice them to get out, they don't, he is imprisoned, they escape because of one rogue officer and set up a mobile base to help the tribe again.

Everyone is rallied, they attack and take unexpected welcome help from all the animals around. When the scientist said the entire planet was a network of thoughts, I expected the trees and plants to rise up and march like in Two Towers, but instead it was the animals who responded to the call of the mother tree.

Acting:

Cameron said the faces of the actors were recorded on camera and mapped to the characters in virtual reality - well, we could make out anger, happiness, sadness and a menacing face. Beyond this trying to recreate and observe requires keen attention to the face which needs a second viewing. The human characters were, well, cliched. A man in charge who acts like a dumbo, the military guy stern, yes, in that sense they have performed well. Zoe Saldana is beautiful, but it's sad she isn't in the movie in-person.

Depth of graphics:

The first clips to emerge was the Thanator chase clip. That itself was pure awesome, with bubbles in the water sealing the deal. The different plants in the forest, their colours and response to stimuli are amazing. You can see the face muscles twitching and the muscles rippling when the avatars move their limbs.

The robots react nicely to the recoil of the gun - the more the power, the greater the load time and kickback.

The colours used are so rich they remind one of a rainforest - the birds, flowers, flying creatures, arrow feathers. Ash, embers, jellyfish-insects, leaves and the tentacles of the mother tree appear to be floating when seen in 3D.

Cameron said in an interview he waited for 10 days waiting for the right sunset for the famous arms-stretched-together scene in Titanic, so for him to manipulate everything in graphics is a testament to the advancement in technology and perseverance.

Political statement:

When the characters mention the offense as a 'shock and awe' campaign, call out the hero Jake for 'betraying his race' and are unconcerned for deities and show their ultimate goal is material gain inspite of loss to life, it is both obvious and inevitable that James Cameron is making a statement, maybe even politically. The military chief is bothered with a tactical success, elimination of occupying persons and securing the required area. The guy-in-charge is bothered about the 'cost to lives' and hopes not many are lost because if maybe a bad corporate image. That is a lot of not-so-subtle poke at materialism.

In fact, if those tribes were not on another moon but in a pocket of undisturbed land on earth, it is a story often repeated over and over again, where indigenous people want their lands to remain untouched. Did Cameron knowingly take a risky jab at all these events?

Reception of the movie:

It's been beyond expectations. Persons hellbent on it failing were impressed. Sandy predicted Avatar would out-gross Vettaikaran in Tamil Nadu itself. Keeping anyone still for 150 minutes isn't easy.

Trivia/Observations:

-As I said, the movie reminds me of Matrix, Captain Planet, Last Samurai and Two Towers.
-When Michelle Rodriguez doesn't press the button and withdraws saying 'I didn't sign up for this sh_t', obviously there would have been an inventory check of who's empty and who's not, revealing she hadn't fired. That didn't happen.
-Noone seems to bother chasing her when she hijacks the copter.
-I wonder what happened to the scientists who chose to stay back on Pandora - were they absorbed into the tribe too?
-The tribe have rituals akin to almost any Earthly indigenous tribe: treating the Earth and other beings to be sacred, observing a deity, spirituality, afterlife, living off the land.. Cameron's just taken an Earthern tribe and made their home Pandora.
-The concept of 'Bird of Prey doesn't look up' is well thought of and used.
-Wonder why the mobile base was not attacked by animals or the people.
-Floating islands, I remember seeing them years ago when people were setting up snazzy desktop backgrounds. I've searched, this is all I could find, but the description is photoshops of a beach in Thailand with the rocky coves made into floating islands.
-The insect which twirls and spirals when touched immediately reminded me of da Vinci's drawings for a helicopter.
-'Unobtainium' negative 50 points for the writers for such a stupid name.
-Minus 50 again for the most ineffective trailers. The movie is so good, the trailer couldn't keep up.
-Another negative 50 points for using Papyrus font for the movie title.
-Watching blurred background objects in 3D is painful, because you try to sharpen them when they aren't.
-I do not understand, and what is not explained in the movie, is how the human controls the avatar. It is just a mental link, but no explanation beyond that.
-Being brutally honest, the characters are practically naked. Couldn't resist mentioning it.

Pics used via Wikipedia, Official Avatar Flickr page.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Burmese Indians

I watched Motor Sundaram Pillai a long long time ago, but what I remember most from it is that Sivaji Ganesan used to have a factory in Burma. I have come across several references to the cultural and trading connections between Burma and India not only in articles but also in familial anectodes, mostly recalling the days of the Raj.

With pro-democracy protests and a military junta in rule, I wondered if there were any Indian-origin people still in Burma. A Google later there was a Wikipedia article, an Atlantic article from 1958 and a Time article from 1964.