Thursday, July 31, 2014

Suits Season 4 - Where is this heading ?

 

Suits used to be my favourite TV series, when they started airing it on Z-Cafe some years ago. Now I catch up on the series via episode downloads, like everyone else, I guess. So much has happened since Mike walked into Harvey’s interview room, now I am no longer sure what I am watching it for.

Now, two steps back. Suits is not the first lawyer/courtroom drama to hit English TV networks, it has been done for years. Most such series was focused on finding the culprit, or punishing the murderer, or following the twists and turns of the case investigation. In every case, the protagonists of the series was on the good side, for some reason, the mobsters/villains never thought of taking the help of the good guys and making them win it for them. But on Suits, the focus was on what else was happening in the lives of these lawyers, and specially, the bromance between Mike Ross and Harvey Specter.

Mike was the bumbling, but super smart new intern at one of the top law firms, where he landed purely by chance and managed to impress the Alpha-Male Harvey. Mike enters the firm without even a college degree, because Harvey saw potential in him; another Harvey. Harvey, on the other hand, is the firm’s top closer, he talks obscenities coolly in the office at anyone, except Jessica, maybe. He is so good at what he does, most of the time, he just scares and negotiates with the other side before the case reaches court. He has mastered his art, and now has to train an intern as part of his work at the firm. After hiring Mike, Harvey proceeds to dump all his regular work on him, and just, well, struts around the huge office in his shiny suits and gelled hair. But there was chemistry between them, Harvey may have overworked and tortured Mike with work, but there were various places in the first three seasons where he seemed to care about him to. Harvey saved Mike more than once, and tries and does his best to keep Mike’s not-having-a-degree-from-Harvard a secret, so Mike can keep his job. Fro his part, Mike used to reach out to his super efficient brain to go through complex documents in minutes, and memorize everything in it AND find any loopholes in them too. He is grateful for his new job, and wants to turn over a new leaf, so he works his ass-off. In the process, he has to break up with his gf, and even anger old friends too.

In short, Suits was best when Harvey and Mike were on the same side. Together. Same team. Together they worked as one solid giant law machine. They could solve any case and make anyone win. But the on-going side story was, how to keep Mike’s secret a secret? For how long ?

Now I am watching season 4 of the series, I cannot find reasons to stay with the show. Mike and Harvey are on opposite sides now, different teams. Against each other. Sure, they still care about each other, but corporate law is a difficult realm to be good friends with the enemy. In the current season, not once have they focussed on Mike’s amazing memory and power of recall. Or on Harvey closing deal after deal by just showing up in court.

The only person I still care about in the show – Louis Litt. Here is a hardworking, dedicated and honest guy, who does not get the appreciation he deserves. He once got the chance to move out of the firm, and start over fresh, but he decided to stay and work his way up. He has his own problems, but his integrity to the firm, and Jessica in particular, is unbreakable. I just hope Litt gets his long due recognition, otherwise it just proves that honest guys don’t win in life, but corrupt guys do.

I have just been Litt-up !

 

Go to hell, Mike !

How Jurassic Park III Could Have Been Better

 

 

When Jurassic Park hit the theaters in 1993, it caused a revolution in CGI filmmaking because for the first time we had what appeared to be living creatures created entirely digitally–also, those creatures were dinosaurs!  It went on to be the highest grossing movie of all time (the third time a film directed by Steven Spielberg was to hold such an honor).  Naturally, a sequel was in order, so Spielberg loosely based The Lost World: Jurassic Park on the novel by Michael Crichton.  The follow-up made a ton of money, though was met with mixed critical response.  It’s not surprising that Spielberg decided to pass on directing the third film and instead took a producing role, allowing Joe Johnston to helm the new adventure.

While the first film was science fiction horror, the second attempted to deal with themes such as “hunters vs. gatherers” (while providing more humans for the dinos to eat).  Jurassic Park III, however, was straight-up adventure.  It was a sparse, fast-paced story about Alan Grant being suckered into flying to Isla Sorna (site B from The Lost World) in order to rescue a boy who was stranded on the dinosaur-infected island.  With a running time of 92 minutes, it was only 3/4 of the length of the previous entries in the series and left most of the audience yearning for the magic of the original.

It seems that Jurassic Park III (oddly named since there was technically no Jurassic Park II) suffered the curse of the third film in a trilogy.  Despite having a screenplay re-written by Oscar-winners Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the story was too slight to have much of an impact and featured far too many problems to be enjoyable.  That’s not to say that the entire movie was a failure; in fact the dinosaurs were perhaps the most realistic yet, including a redesigned velociraptor with feathers and odd colorings and a very cool spinosaurus that made a T-rex seem like a puppy dog.  Several scenes were quite effective, such as the “bird cage” scene with pteranodons, the raptor attack in the lab, and the spino tracking the heroes through the river while the phone it ate rings.  Johnston handled the action and the effects well, but was saddled with an inferior screenplay.  The frustrating thing is that it didn’t need to be this way–with a few changes, this could have been a great popcorn movie.

Alan Grant

Sam Neill’s character, paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant, was the heart of the first movie.  He was a “digger” who found himself “extinct” in the face of genetically cloned living dinosaurs.  While planning his future with his co-worker and apparent lover Dr. Ellie Sattler, he makes it plain that he doesn’t want children–but in the course of the story has to be a surrogate father to two kids while crossing the island where dangerous beasts have escaped their pens.  Spielberg explored his common theme of broken families and missing fathers through these characters, wrapping it up nicely in the final scene where the exhausted kids are cuddled up with him in the helicopter flying them to safety while a bemused Ellie looks on.

Grant was not featured in The Lost World in favor of Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm taking over as the lead (also proving to be a largely MIA father).  With the third film, Grant returned as the protagonist, but was given very little to do.  His presence almost seemed like an after-thought.  We’re introduced to him visiting Ellie, now married to another man with a 3-year-old son, and then quickly we see him giving a boring lecture where he does not want to acknowledge the fact that there are once again live dinosaurs on the planet.  He’s then conned into leading an aerial tour of Isla Sorna (an island he never stepped foot on) for a supposedly rich couple, only learning when it’s too late that they are neither wealthy nor still a couple, but rather they are looking for their son who went missing on the island.  Grant then spends the rest of the movie running around trying to keep everyone alive, a function that mostly wastes his knowledge of the animals hunting them.

The first mistake is how the writers dealt with Grant several years after the events in Jurassic Park.  For him to think that anyone would be interested in hearing about fossilized bones and theories of dinosaur behavior when there are living examples of these creatures in existence is ludicrous.  Yet he naively gives a speech and refuses to even acknowledge his experience on Isla Nebular.  It wouldn’t be in his character to profit off of tragedy, but he is self-defeating to not even discuss his adventures, even in a clinical manner.  Wouldn’t his lectures be so much more interesting if he compared what the theories based on fossils told him compared to what he saw in real life?

Secondly, why were he and Ellie no longer together?  Their single scene together barely touched upon their relationship, alluding to the fact that they were now merely friends or colleagues.  These two had been planning a future together, both professionally and romantically!  Did the events in the first movie tear them apart?  Did they just realize that they weren’t right for each other?  Did his insistence on pursuing fossils rather than live animals cause a rift between them?  It would have been nice for the movie to provide some answers as well as conflict.  Did Grant have any regrets for breaking up with Ellie?  She’s moved on to an apparently happy life with a husband and child while maintaining her career, while Grant is a relic in his own time.  He never wanted children and she did (another possible source of their separation), and both got exactly what they wanted–but is he happy with that decision?  Perhaps he could have seen the missed opportunity in her child.  This and his downward career spiral could cause him to be at a rather bleak part in his life, but this is not explored in the film other than a sense of melancholy that undermines the adventurous tone of the movie.

As an alternative, the movie could shown the two characters married (happily or otherwise).  With him being called back into action, how would he react to be separated from his wife and child now that he’s adjusted to the role of father?  This could be especially poignant given that he must rescue another couple’s child.  Even keeping Grant single without any kids, he could look at the missing boy as a means to make up for not being the father of Ellie’s child like he should have been.  He was a surrogate father once and missed his chance at being one for real.  The decision to go after the boy could have been driven by this inner need in him, which would have been a lot stronger than what was actually on screen.

Speaking of which, Grant doesn’t even know about the missing boy until he’s stranded on the island.  Why?  A primary rule of storytelling is that the protagonist drives the story.  As it is, Grant is just along for the ride, being misled by the boy’s parents in order to get him to agree to one thing while plotting something completely different.  Why couldn’t they have just been up front with him and pleaded to his sense of decency?  This would have given him inner conflict–there’s no way he would return to Jurassic Park or its Site B under normal circumstances, but a lost child would play upon his conscience.  In making the decision to go in search of him, that puts him in the story’s driver’s seat rather than being there just because he happened to have been in the first film.

Not only would this strengthen his character, but he would then be able to call the shots through the rest of the story.  Rather than be hapless (and helpless) survivors of a plane crash, Grant and the other characters would have started with a solid plan, albeit one that would fall apart and need to be improvised along the way.  This would give them solid hurdles to overcome that would be organic to the story and not forced upon them simply because the film needed an action scene here and there.

Finally, Grant needs to grow through the course of the movie, something that doesn’t currently happen.  In the first movie, he learns to be a father figure, though by the third film he has regressed as if that change in him never happened.  Does he need to relearn that lesson all over again?  That would be redundant.  Perhaps he needs to mature so that he’s ready to take on the responsibility of being a husband and father–something that was lacking in him that drove Ellie away.  Or if he is married to Ellie and is the father of her little boy, maybe he’s still not dealing with the situation, and this new adventure gives him a new perspective on his life.  After all, what if it was his own son that was missing on an island filled with vicious dinosaurs?

Ellie Sattler

Why bring Laura Dern back only for a one-scene cameo?  Especially since she doesn’t do anything in that scene except establish the fact that her character has moved on with her life without Alan Grant?  Her character, palebotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler, was a tough, resourceful heroine in the first film.  In this one, she is relegated to the role of deus ex machina, sending in the Marines to rescue Grant and company off screen.  There’s a joke where Grant uses a satellite phone and contacts Ellie’s little boy, who watchesBarney while Grant is being threatened by a real, non-purple dinosaur.  Ellie presumably gets to the phone in time to hear screams and somehow puts the pieces together to call for help.  Why couldn’t we see her being resourceful once again and urgently trying to get the U.S. military to respond?  That would have been great conflict to contrast with what the characters on the island were going for.  It also would have created suspense rather than just have a surprise ending where the heroes get saved out of the blue.

The Bickering Ex-Spouses

William H. Macy and Téa Leoni play Paul and Amanda Kirby, separated parents of Trevor Morgan’s Erik Kirby, who was para-sailing with Amanda’s boyfriend near Isla Sorna when disaster struck and left him stranded to fend for himself on the island.  At first, the Kirbys pretend to be wealthy business owners wanting a unique vacation and convince Alan Grant to give them a guided tour of the island in hopes of spotting some dinosaurs.  However, they also hire mercenaries to help defend themselves against the beasts when they land on the island–which they do only after one of the mercenaries knock Grant unconscious.  Paul and Amanda spend the rest of the movie arguing loudly and quite annoyingly.  In fact, Amanda proves to be the most shrill film character since Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

As was mentioned before, why couldn’t they have been upfront with Grant about their real purpose?  The sneaky shenanigans do nothing to advance the story other than make Grant look like a weak protagonist.  Once their subterfuge is discovered in Act 2, it’s pretty much dropped from the plot.  They’re used to develop the theme of the broken family that is a common denominator in this series; that’s fine, but it’s handled in a clunky manner.  The script treats high-volumed bickering as character development, and all too quickly the estranged couple finds themselves back together.  In fact, when they find the skeletal remains of Amanda’s boyfriend, she reacts with an hysterical scream–not for the boyfriend, but for her son.  It’s as if the boyfriend was inconsequential.  At least Erik could take care of himself, something that cannot be said for the parents.

The Mercenaries

 

The first Jurassic Park featured the game warden, Muldoon, who carried a powerful looking gun but was still bested by the raptors.  In The Lost World, his character was one-upped by Pete Postlethwaite’s big game hunter Roland Tembo, whose desire was to bag a T-rex.  In fact, he brought along a whole team of wranglers who ended up as a moveable dinosaur feast.  It only makes sense that Jurassic Park III would take this type of role to the next level with a team of mercenaries–though if the definition of “team” is two generic tough guys led by the weaselly little Mr. Udesky (Michael Jeter in one of his last screen roles before succumbing to AIDS).

Having the team leader be the complete opposite of the rugged gunsman that the first two films featured was a nice twist; it’s just too bad that the firepower featured in an early scene was never used.  Also, the two mercenaries were only in the movie long enough to be eaten shortly after the plane carrying the heroes landed.  Perhaps the filmmakers thought this was ironic, but in reality it robbed the movie the potential to have some awesome action scenes involving these characters and their weapons.  It’s not that they were killed that’s the problem, it’s just that they’re dispatched so quickly.  Maybe the movie could have had at least one more mercenary that survived the initial attack in order to last a little way into the plot.

Additionally, Udesky is barely developed as a character and is merely used as the bait in a trap the raptors set for the others.  This was actually a brilliant idea, but since we knew little to nothing about the guy, it was hard to care about his fate.  The movie would have been so much richer if this scene were put off until later into the story and allow him to show his worth (or lack thereof).  The slimy lawyer in the first film had more screen time, and his death was very satisfying!

The Running Time and the Ending

To say this film feels rushed is an understatement.  Probably in response to The Lost World taking 45 minutes to gear up for some action, Jurassic Park III wastes little time in getting to Isla Sorna and putting the characters in danger.  But as stated before, this robs the movie from any character development, rendering them merely action figures to be moved around in the admittedly effective set pieces.  It can be argued that these films were never heavy on deep character analysis, but at least there was motivation for their actions (beyond, of course, the Kirbys wanting to rescue their son).  A lot of the problem is the fact that this movie is very short.  Why did the filmmakers feel the need to make it barely an hour and a half long?  It feels like the Cliff Notes version of a story and could have easily been fleshed out to be a full two hours long and still be exciting.  Screenwriters Payne and Taylor know how to craft character-driven stories, so it’s inexplicable that they ended up doing the exact opposite here.

The Lost World ended its Act 2 with a rescue from the island and proceeded into its third act with taking a T-rex (and its baby) to San Diego.  A lot of criticism was given to this movie for tacking on a Godzilla-like climax with the Tyrannosaur running loose through the city, but it was vastly different from the first film and it completed the theme of letting animals live free that ran through the film.  Jurassic Park III ended at the same point that The Lost World geared up for its climax, with a surprise rescue by the Marines.  As stated earlier, it’s implied that Ellie Sattler called in the cavalry while off screen, but that’s a cheat.  Alan Grant is the protagonist, yet not only did he not cause the plot to happen, he didn’t resolve the conflict either.  Sure, he gave the eggs back to the raptors, but he and his companions surely would have been eaten regardless until the comically huge beach assualt saved them at the last minute.  Granted, Grant and his original companions were saved in a similar manner by a T-rex, allowing them to simply run out of the building, but that at least felt somewhat organic to the plot (after all, the T-rex had a habit of showing up out of nowhere to chow down on unsuspecting animals).  The ending to Jurassic Park III is a cheat.  It makes the characters completely helpless and ineffectual–ultimately, everything they went through was meaningless.  The first two films had a point, but this one was pointless.  The characters ran around the island, being chased by the dinosaurs, and then were rescued.  The end.  No, no, no–they needed to provide the means for their own escape.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Worst software I have used

This is something I have been planning for months, maybe a year now. As part of my work as a Software consultant, I have had to use some really terribly designed and poor performing software. Here is the top 3 , (or worst 3) so far:

  1. IBM Lotus Notes (I used version 8.5):  In a world where simplicity ,ease of use, and minimalism is gaining appeal, Lotus notes dares to go miserably against the tide. It is slow, hogs memory and resources, and follows and out-dated layout style. It would be easier for a newbie to master a flavor of  Linux system than to get used to Lotus notes. Also, it does not merge into Window’s theme system, further showing its age. It even lacks functionalities you have come to expect from an e-mail system; like forwarding meeting requests, and recalling sent mails.
  2. BMC Remedy:  I was on a support project for over a year, and the part of my job I hated worst was where I had to use and update the ticket details on the Remedy system. Its ironic that they thought of such a name when it does not remedy anything ! Again, the aged look and feel and cumbersome navigation itself put me off. But it was also terribly slow; so slow that on many occasions I missed SLAs because the system did not respond on time. And if you are planning to run long queries to prepare your reports on this dinosaur, be prepared to lose hours with the hourglass spinning. I used to start a query and go get a cup of coffee before the results came out. We used to joke that we need to bill 1 hour to Remedy ticket updation separately over and above our usual bill hours, because our productivity during that time was absolutely zero !
  3. HP Quality Center:  I used to like using the earlier version of this software, when it was still called Mercury Quality Center. But after the last upgrade, when it moved to the latest HP QC version, I found I was spending more time updating QC records. The fact that it uses ActiveX and runs  only on IE was further complicated because it hogged up memory, and frequently crashed.

 

There ! I said it. That takes some weight off my chest :-)

Update: When it comes to professional/company e-mail, Microsoft’s Outlook is the best. And after years of using various bug tracking software, I have to come to believe that the best software is one which does it’s job, without interfering in your other work, or having you learn all the basics all over again. Take a look at Atlassian’s JIRA bug tracking system. It has a lightweight user interface which runs in every browser, has notifications, and generates graphs for reports. Its probably the best bug-tracking system I have used.

Trainman.in - check the probability of your tickets getting confirmed

 

 

When was the last time you booked a Waitlisted ticket on the Indian railways, hoped it would get confirmed, but it didn’t, and you had travel some other way ? Nowadays, I don’t travel much on trains, but when I do, its for the weekends or holidays. If I don’t book a confirmed ticket on the booking day itself, there is very little chance for a WL ticket to Kerala getting confirmed.

Why ? Because Kerala is the biggest tourist destination in South India. People try to travel to Kerala all the time ,the climate, greenery, and food beckons. I am on the receiving side because that’s my home state, and all the berths are taken up by casual travellers, and other Mallus too.

So I somehow stumbled upon this new site called Trainmain.in. They use machine learning to look up historic ticket trends and try to predict if you can get a confirmed ticket on the train you wish to travel on.

Just go to the site, enter your start and end points, and choose the date of travel. Trainmain looks up the current availability status, and lets you know your chances of getting a confirmed berth. This is what I got:

 

image

 

As you can see, there is very little chance for me to travel to my hometown next week.

The guys how built this site are from IITs, so it figures.

Bangalore Cycle Day

 

This month’s edition of Feel Bengaluru Cycle Day was at Indiranagar, on July 27th. I had known about the movement and wanted to participate earlier, but the previous venues were far off.  This time, the venue was closer to my place, so I participated, and boy, was I glad for it.

We were at the venue at 6:30 in the morning, I was still checking my watch because I am usually in bed on Sundays, till 11, but today, I was up at 5:30 itself. There was already a long queue for the rental cycles, but we got in line anyway. The crowd had started to build up, people of all ages were on multi-coloured bi-cycles of all manner of sizes and design. We had to stay in line for almost an hour for our bikes, but it was worth the wait.

My only rant about the event was about the rental lines, there was a lot of line jumping in the queue. People jumped in and where out with bikes in no time. We could see the line did not move, but all the bikes ran out of the first two trucks ! We were beginning to feel we would not get a bike at all, but it all worked out good for us. The queue was still growing, I am sure lot of them did not get bikes even after being in queue for more than an hour :-( .

The main ride was flagged off at 8:30 AM, a whole swarm of cyclists were unleashed, no one seemed in a hurry; after all , it was a ride, not a race. The Bangalore cops had shutdown motorized traffic on the bike route, and so , the entire ride was pure fun. With the motorists out of the way, it seemed like we OWNED the roads.  There were guys on skateboards, and kids on little kiddie bikes, and there were the pro-bikers, on their big mean carbon fibre bikes. It made for a good spectacle though, we could see pedestrians and motorists watching us on the side lines.

Bangalore Cycle Day is Citizen’s event, run in co-operation with Bangalore’s finest (cops) and various social gatherings. It is held on the last Sunday of each month, each time, they identify a different part of the city to host the event. A bike route is prepared, and arrangements are made to block out motorized traffic in the area for the 30min bike ride. Various groups have sponsored parts of the event, there are about 250 bikes people can rent, they just need to hand in their original photo id cards as collateral. People are encouraged to , and do, bring their own bikes. After the main ride, there are street events for everyone to join in. Since the roads are pretty much free, grids for various traditional and modern board games are chalked right on the roads. You can sit and enjoy a nice game of chess, snakes and ladders, and various other traditional games I couldn’t name. No body is in charge, but everybody is. You just need to turn up at the event with family and friends , and just have a good time. And did I mention, the entire event is FREE ! (though I’m sure people would gladly pay).

An uncle turned up with a rope-n-top, and I tested my old top skills. I was happy I was able to set the top spinning again! There was a skateboad group , HolyStoked collective, and they were giving away lessons on the sport. Kids were taking up hulla loops,scootering,skipping, and drawing on the streets, and ..slow cycling.  All in all, there was something for everyone, though I think the organizers did not expect so many people to show up. The place was jam-packed !

Bangalore , and other Indian cities as well, needs more such citizen’s events. Kids nowadays don’t have the luxury of open fields and trees like we enjoyed in our young days, for them, games mean video games. Catching up/hanging out means facebook & google hangouts. Even for us grownups, we need a reason to step out , get some exercise, and meet people face to face again. What’s the point of toiling away life at the office desk, when you forget for whom it is for. And the streets, for once it was nice to see people gather on the streets for all the positive reasons. Nowadays , to “take to the streets” means to revolt, uprise or revolt against something. But for Cycle Day, taking to the streets was full of positive vibe.

I wanted to stay longer, but it was already 10:30, and hunger pangs got me. So off it was, and I’ll be back for the next event soon. Here’s hoping other localities and cities of the country follow suit and organize such events too, starting a “chain reaction”.

Thanks to Decathlon & ATCAGS, for sponsoring the bikes, you guys are doing a fantastic job.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

CaFE Terra…. now bigger and better !

 

The nice little quiet and calm hangout place Cafe Terra just moved to a bigger place..just 1 minute down the same road on Kormangala 80 feet road. The new place has a better ambience, and more seating.  I had a chicken burger there today..and the comics/books are still there to keep you company.

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Friday, July 4, 2014

ClearTax - Easiest way to file your returns

 

Today, for the first time in 8 years since I began working, I filed my income tax returns. For Free ! And it was the easiest process I have used  for such a process.

If you are working in India, and have received your FORM 16, and wish to now file your ITR, head to ClearTax. All you need is your Form 16, the two docs, and about 10 minutes to upload them to the site.

The actual delay was due to the integration to Govt Of India Tax system, the steps before that are a cakewalk. The system automatically parses out most fields directly from the Form 16 document, you only need to enter details of other investments you might have made, so that the system can calculate the ITR amount.

At the moment, the Site is free to use, but might start charging a nominal fee soon. So …hurry !