Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Cold and Wet New Year

 

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Wish you a Happy and Brand New 2015 ! That's one good thing about getting a new year, you get to start again. On a clean slate. From Square one. Again.

Here in Bangalore , its cold and rainy down here, just the way I like it. Since January 1 is a holiday for most companies here, the roads were empty ,so it was a nice drive down a wet empty roads for me.

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I was just going through today morning's news on the web, from India. This was what I got.

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This New Year has already started with death and destruction. Kind of ruins hope for me.

I sincerely hope this ill fate does not stay the whole year.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best of 2014 | Top Malayalam Hit Songs

 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

There's something about Christmas

 

Aaah…the cool breeze, falling temperatures, steady coffee, and in my case, a running nose and sore throat: all signs that the current month is December. I like the weather cool, but its not the same the other way round. And December is probably my favourite month of the year. I used to go to a Christian missionary school, so we used to celebrate each and every Christian holiday on the calendar, specially Christmas. Initially I used to hate the festivities , being a Hindu myself, I could not relate to many traditions Christians followed. But I gradually realized that Christmas is not just about the Prayers and Churches and the fasting, the endless Bible reading. The spirit of Christmas was about caring , and sharing, and some enjoying a few comforts of life with near and dear ones. Nowhere can this spirit be better seen , than in Charles Dickens' legacy novel: A Christmas Carol.

Funny, this play has a special place in all of my Christmas holidays, I have read, watched or at least thought of this little story every Christmas. Every annual day, a portion of this story, or its entirety would be chosen for a play. The most popular section is without a doubt the part were the second ghost, the Ghost of Christmas present, shows Uncle Scrooge the Christmas dinner at the Cratchit house. Bob Cratchit, his employee, is very poor, draws an even poorer salary from Scrooge, but has a large family to feed. The Cratchit family comprises of him, his wife, three daughters, three sons, the youngest of which , Tiny Tim, is crippled. The Cratchits live a measerly life, and Christmas is probably the only time of the year they indulge, and this is the time the Ghost and Scrooge decides to visit them.

Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course — and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah! -

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows! But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witness — to take the pudding up and bring it in.

Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose — and supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed by smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up. The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one; and at Bob Cratchit’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle.

These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily. Then Bob proposed:

‘A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!’ Which all the family re-echoed.

‘God bless us every one!’ said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

The scene described is so vivid ! You can actually the whole family sitting down together for dinner together, helping each other, passing around small utensils, and slurping up every last morsel, with a cosy fire going in the fireplace nearby. The whole family shares what little they can afford, and makes sure everyone is properly fed and cared for. What more does one want ?

 

 

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Nedry, Jurassic Park and Software Systems

 

So I am watching my favourite english movie again, Jurassic Park. The scene in the control centre starts playing, where Hammond has a minor altercation with Dennis Nedry, a programmer and the designer of the park's  computer systems. Early on, Hammond tells Grant and Sattler at the trailor the he can tell instantly about people, its his gift. Yet , he fails to see the villainy in Nedry, who is the person who kickstarts the sequence of events leading to the destruction of the park that night. The tropical storm alone would not have caused any damage to the Island, it is Nedry's power outage which causes things to fall apart. And since bad guys need to die, Nedry is eaten up later by the Dilophosaurus.

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Over the years, Nedry's character, the shaving can, and his didnt-say-the-magic-word has gained cult status. But he is still on the antagonist side of the story. He demanded more money, Hammond did not oblige, even when he would spare no expense anywhere else. He decided to steal, and paid for his mistakes. But in the book, there is a little more backstory to this guy. Due to the secrecy of the Jurassic Park project, Hammond cannot trust too many people, or word of what they are attempting will get out. So he employs a small team of experts for the project, and decides he needs even more less people to run the Island. The answer - heavy automation. A fully automated park which can be maintained by a 3 or 4 people from a control center. And he decides upon Nedry's small company to design the system, else he could have given the job to any big software development company out there.

But again, due to the heavy secrecy of the Island, Nedry cannot be told what the park is all about. So he is given abstract requirements revealing only very minor details, and never sees the big picture of things. Things like, reserve storage for huge field values, design door security systems.. Hammond attempts to keep him in the dark. When finally the systems are brought up, they don't work cohesively , and in many cases, the systems need to be enlarged, because Hammond's team had underestimated the size of the dinosaurs. Its a similiar story with Robert Muldoon, the cages and tranquilizer guns  he is given proves smaller, and he demands for bigger machines and gas powered jeeps for any emergency. But for Nedry, well, he is asked to redo the systems to new specifications, but Hammond demands Nedry does this job under the original contract, and refuses to pay him. He even calls up some of Nedry's other customer and tells them  Nedry is unreliable and untrustworthy. Nedry's small company faces losses redoing everything, he has a team of programmers working from Cambridge, and paying them and for other systems leaves him in a financial crisis. Seeing that he can not make any profit from this project, he is , in a way, forced to look outside for another way to make money.

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Dodgson, the corporate espionager from a rival genetics company and who knows about the Park, contacts Nedry and offers him the way out. He convinces him to steal live embryos from the park, and he will paid in millions of dollars. It can be seen in the book that Nedry is hesistant, Dodgson has to meet him many times to convince him to jump ship. And Nedry too is not comfortable dealing with Dodgson, so he sets up one more meeting just to record their conversation to cover his back. His plan was to steal and handover the embryos, and be back at his workstation in 15 minutes, nobody notices, and he leave would leave the scene once all the programming is complete. His plan would very well have worked, the only thing which came in the way was the storm. So you see , in the book, the reason for his devious nature is explained.

As a software engineer myself, (thought not self-employed) I can relate to this nice guy. Yep, he's a nice guy. I have faced his problem myselfs. When we in the business software consulting world start on a new project, we make an attempt to properly understand our clients operations. Instead of being given use cases and requirements up-front, we insist we see the existing system and how the company operates, the end to end business and transactions. This way, we will be able to better propose changes in the system, without breaking anything, but still improving. Most of our customers already have some sort of in-house built software, but they realize that needs to be upgraded or replaced with a better system. And whenever we are not explained the end to end flow, the solutions we design miss out things here and there. The resultant system works, but not as expected. The UI needs improvement. The integrations fail frequently. The performance dips.  In such cases, we are abruptly asked to redo it , but within the same time frame. We can't have more time, or money to redo this. This leads to many hours of overtime for us, often leading to all nighters and weekend work too, all unbilled of course. The best systems I have designed was when we had a very good knowledge of what our customer's business does.

Hey, but at least, we did not steal any embryos !

So you see, Dennis Nedry was a nice guy, who did what he did because he wanted to save his company, and lacked previous espionage experiences.

 

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Re-discovering Fountain Pens

 

The past some months have been very hectic, work at office keeps piling up, and its a similar story at home. Trust me, being married is like working on a second job, it just can't be neglected. As a part of some late-year house cleaning, I was re-arranging things at home when I opened some old shelves, and found a Parker fountain pen. It is a red bodied Vector with a piston for drawing ink, and was gifted to me by my father when he returned from Gulf two decades ago. Somewhere circa 1997~99. Made in UK, it says. And with it I got drawn once again to my fun filled school days.

                     

A simple google turned up endless blog posts of nostalgia, kids who grew up in the 90s had a special place of the fountain pens, lovingly called the ink pen (ironical, every pen has ink, fountain or not ). I could see bloggers typing on and on about those days when you had to load your fountain pen with ink, the same way today people charge their phones before heading out to school or office. Writing instruments have gone down a one way street, and smart pens and voice-to-text converters are in use today. But I long for the days men were men and carried their own fountain pens proudly in their shirt pockets.

So here is how we progressed in school: from the kindergarten days (LKG,UKG) to about 4th grad (or 4th standard), we Indian students were equipped with the trusty pencil and sharpener (which we used to call the cutter). Then about 5th grade, we were trusted to start using pens. The cheapest pens in the market were the disposable ball-point pens, the most popular I think was the stick-eazy pen, which could be bought for 2 rupees back then.

But schools used to insist that a good student no-only required good grades, but also a good handwriting to go with it. A legible handwriting in the cursive style was the hallmark of the Oxford academia, they used to say.  And the best way one could achieve that was to write using a fountain pen, in plain white 'unruled' notebooks. The challenge was to write on plain paper in straight lines , which none of us could do except some of the girls in class. Most often , our writing would go obliquely across the page which we attempted to compensate in the next line, and fail again. We needed practice. So we were encouraged to buy good ink pens and practise writing with them in plain sheets. This opened up an arsenal of sorts, because unlike ball point pens, which were identical and everyone had the same ones, fountain pens were distinctive and different. You could either buy a cheap unheard of Indian company like Bismi, Camel, Camlin..or you could go all in and buy the coveted Cadillac of fountain pens : Hero, Parker & Sheffer.

The chinese brand Hero was specially coveted, because it was extremely light weight to use and even easier to refill ink, and had  a longer mileage. Plus spare parts were easily available and interchangeable from other pens of the same company, and the nib was , well. smooooth. It gave the smoothest writing on paper, and the ink dried instantly without smudges. It was very common for us students to carry our pens in the shirt pockets of our white uniforms, but we would also forget to remove it when we ran for the bus, causing the ink to spill onto our shirts. Apart from the regular stuff taught in school, we also learned Pen-engineering, removing and changing of the nibs, bending and forking the nibs to "correct" the ink flow, and experimenting with different brands of inks. Often our inks would run out during our class, so we would switch to the reserve ballpoint pen, and even un-luckier ones would find the ink in the ballpens have dried up. Then we would start borrowing inks from neighbours, by transferring ink from theirs to our pens ! We would carry a piece of cotton for these emergencies in our pencil boxes, yes they were still called pencil boxes, even when they did not have any pencils, and a small piece of chalk, which instantly absorbed any ink spilled in the box or on our clothes. The Parker fountain pens had a beauty of their own, small, simple design, and just heavy enough to stand out, but ink flow was heavier, and would smudge our writing in the cheap school provided answer sheets. And the ink would run out an hour after lunch break. The Hero pens on the other hand, with their friction caps and hooded nibs were better engineered (we thought) and wrote longer, in sleek lines.

The good days didn't last though. During our 10th standard board exams  we found that the  government provided answer sheets were of even lower quality, and thus played safe with the ballpoint pens. Somewhere around this time, the Gel-pen entered the Indian market, you could have the convenience of the ball point and the output of the fountain pen. You could leave in in your pocket when you ran, and it wouldn't spill ! Amazing ! By highschool  , we were all converts and adopted the ballpoints for all our scribbling. Life had turned fast, there was no spare time to waste on refilling inks every night, and our handwriting was either improved or in  a complete mess. The teacher didn't care, there were no marks for beauty on the test paper. The new weapon of choice ?, the Cello Gripper:

The last fountain pen I used was a maroon colored Hero , with a funny looking unhooded nib, which I used in first year of Engineering college. It was broken when it fell from my pocket and broke cleanly in half, where the suction mechanism met the nib. After that it was all ball point pens for me, and after entering the computer programming profession, the only time I used pens was to jot down a phone number or to fill in application forms.

Well, this Parker has come back my way, and I am trying to find reasons to start using it during work. The ball pen was designed for quick brisk writing, they say. The fountain pen is for more relaxed , laid back and flowing writing. Has to. It needs special care and time of its own, something the modern office worker has very little of.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Observations On Jurassic World

There’s great irony hidden in Jurassic Park’s (1993) success. As audiences watched Doctor Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) rile fiercely against the idea of the commercial use of dinosaurs to make a quick buck without truly understanding the technology used to bring them back to life, the very film itself became one of the biggest, financially most successful movies of the nineties, only to be dethroned by James Cameron’sTitanic (1997). Which, irony strikes again, was up against The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) in the visual effects category at the Academy Awards. Titanic won, but Jurassic Park's sequel boasted some effects which rivaled with its predecessor’s.

Granted, not all of the CGI effects of the first (and second) film hold up as well as they did twenty-two years ago. Which is no surprise: in 1993, this had never been done before, and the artists involved did the formerly presumed impossible - they gave us life-like dinosaurs hunting and stalking their human prey in jungles and industrial kitchens. They took an enormous risk showing off the Brachiosaurus in harsh sunlight. And they succeeded on all these fronts.

But it no longer is 1993. It’s 2015. There’s no shame in admitting other, newer films offer better visual effects. This does not mean it lessens the experience of viewing Jurassic Park and you can’t still be amazed by what you are shown; in fact, all effects-filled films made from 1993 on are built on the solid foundations Jurassic Park laid out. People still refer to it as a landmark in cinematic and visual-effects history. Which it is. The power of the original film does not just lie in its visual effects; it’s the combination of technologies, clever story-telling, a tight script and the addressing of current issues all packaged in a remarkable film, making viewing Jurassic Park the extraordinary experience it is.

But audiences have a yearning for more, they feel not just a desire to revisit familiar grounds: they want to be thrilled and won over by new, exciting ideas, larger-than-life situations and the best visuals the business has to offer. Escapism at its finest.

Now, just four months away, a whole new adventure awaits us. This time, the fourth installment in the popular Jurassic Park franchise will take us back to the island of the original film and present us with a new theme-park named Jurassic World. And, odd cameo aside, an entirely new cast will give act-de-presence to, once again, fight off dinosaurs.  

This sequel to the original trilogy is much anticipated; for fourteen years the project had been on and off irregularly. Different rejected scripts surfaced, one of the oddest telling the tale of dinosaurs being bred in a Swiss castle where they were trained in combating drug-cartels. The idea caused consternation amongst fans, most of which were glad this concept never saw the light of day.

Then, one glorious day, Universal announced the fourth film would hit production. In association withLegendary, dinosaurs would once again roam the silver screens, and, again, live in a theme-park which was to be opened on Isla Nublar.

Commentary amongst the fan community was abundant: an outcry of fans who claimed a new park would never be successful because the original characters, including Grant (Sam Neill) and Malcolm, would protest the park publicly, and major problems would arise should the gates open for the public: to top it off, the United Nations (briefly mentioned in 2001’s Jurassic Park III) wouldn’t even allow for the islands to be explored or just set foot on ever again in the first place.

But we soon learned writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow found a clever way around this: in their expansion of Jurassic Park’s already rich universe, the park has been open for ten years, apparently without incident, suffering slowly but gradually declining visitor numbers.

This didn’t exactly shut up the nay-saying crowd. In fact, they were most displeased when learning there would be a new guy on the block. And this time, unlike Spinosaurus in the third film, it isn’t just anotherbigger-than-T-rex predator; it is to be a fictional creature, created out of the DNA of several different animals, combining the best of each of their abilities.

I, too, had my reservations about this idea. A fictional creature, while there are so many real, wonderful dinosaurs to choose from! A wealth lies hidden in the fossil record still, magnificent creatures begging to be brought to life again on the big screen!

But the more we learned about this new Jurassic World and the proposed reason for the creation of Indominus rex, the more I came to appreciate the concept. As images leaked (first of Lego figures, then merchandise, then the Hasbro toy version), my initial concern dissipated. This new creature will not simply be a freak; it looks like an animal that could have been a real dinosaur.

Another much heard complaint involves the connection between the original film and Jurassic World; many fear this film will be a remake in disguise, given it takes place on Isla Nublar (the island on whichJurassic Park was built), it will be another dinosaur park and, as we know from the two trailers released, dinosaurs will escape once again and cause havoc, mayhem and death amongst those residing on the island.

There’s no denying options are fairly limited when you set a story on an island inhabited by dinosaurs.  There are only so many ways in which a dinosaur can chase people on screen, while keeping it family-friendly at the same time.

However, it hardly seems to be a remake. In fact, it appears to be straying as far from the original film’s premise as possible. While we no doubt will see chaos, as we did in the first three films, the setting is distinctly different. This is not a zoo that has just opened. It’s not about people inspecting a place they’d no idea existed before arriving. This is a park up and running for years, doing business and having built a brand-name people all over the globe instantly recognize.    

Looking at the original franchise, what seems to come closest to this new scenario is the third act of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in which the T-rex escapes a wrecked cargo ship and terrorizes unsuspecting people on the streets of San Diego. Even so, with two failed attempts in the original trilogy, the idea of a successful, operational park has not been explored up until now in the Jurassic Park franchise.

And, contradicting as it may seem, while people complain this film seems to try copying the original, they,we, seem to have a desire for that rush of nostalgia too. We want this film to be good; we, as long-time fans, have waited for it for over fourteen years. We feel we deserve a good film, one that lives up to all our hopes and dreams and (impossible?) expectations and at the same time will take us right back to 1993, when Jurassic Park amazed and captivated audiences around the world.

The problem is: people appear to expect and want a whole lot from Jurassic World, which it might not live up to. That (false) nostalgia we are all hoping for could be there, because we will return to Isla Nublar. For what reason they’ve chosen the original island, after ignoring it in the two sequels, as a setting for the new park remains to be seen for now. But it does have people excited for a chance of seeing the ruins of the old park (we have an indication some construction was left up - to what extent is yet unknown). 

And we’ve already seen some homage in the two Jurassic World trailers released, including the iconic shot of a helicopter flying towards the island and a scene with a herd of Gallimimus running across a field. We know there will be a Tyrannosaurus, and she will once again be a star. There will be Velociraptors much like the original creatures (though with different color patterns), and we might be offered a bit more intellectual substance than the third film gave us.

But this will be a new film, a separate entity. It could be the start of a fresh franchise, expanding on the original trilogy and acknowledging and respecting the source material. However, if we will enter the theatre expecting to feel the exact same way we did in 1993 (or the moment you first saw the originalJurassic Park and were mesmerized by it), we might fool ourselves greatly. This new film is not just being made for the original fans. It’s made for everyone, and it will target a whole new, young and different audience.

We should not forget these are indeed different times. In this day and age, big, effects-heavy blockbusters hit cinemas week after week, and run for a limited time, as they are quickly replaced by the next big-name franchise vehicle. In 1993, Jurassic Park literally was the biggest film out there and held this title for months on end; everyone had either seen it or heard about it. It was impossible to escape the ongoing bombardment of merchandise and promotion. People stood in line to purchase tickets, and many returned multiple times to see the film on the big screen again and relive the wonder of seeing life-like dinosaurs.

Now, Jurassic World faces challenges the original film did not. Competition’s stiff. My hope is young boys and girls will be as captivated with this film as I was with the original. Marketing is in full swing already, with viral videos, a viral website, the film’s official website, images of the toys and merchandise popping up rapidly everywhere. Come June 2015, few people will not have heard of Jurassic World. Will this do the trick? Time will tell.

Speaking of marketing and merchandise; there’s the uproar over the new Hasbro toys too: ugly, generic, don’t fit with the original lines. I can’t deny I’m disappointed with this new toy line, especially when you take in consideration the fact that Hasbro had shown great potential during 2013 with the release of two entirely new sculpts. The Allosaurus and Pachyrhinosaurus enthralled collectors. These were high-quality toys that held the promise of much more! But the two remaining figures, Carnotaurus and Stegosaurus, were cancelled and the line was discontinued. 

The new Jurassic World toys indeed seem to miss that incredible detail and the spark of magic the original Jurassic Park (and The Lost World: Jurassic Park) toys and collector cards held; one of the new Velociraptors is even missing the iconic sickle-claws!

But these toys are not (just) made for the die-hard fans and collectors: they are targeted at a much younger audience. Most of us who are in our late twenties, early thirties have seen the original film in cinemas and were no doubt aware of that dino-sized marketing campaign which supported the film; we were lucky to have experienced it consciously. 1993 was dinosaur-heaven, with an unprecedented renewed interest not just for these animals, but paleontology, biology, research and even filmmaking and story telling. 

For me, it defined my childhood, and I can’t help but feel snippets of that very excitement and wonder whenever I see clips of the original film, hear its soundtrack, see a toy, a book or just the logo associated with it.

The sequels never brought this particular feeling back to me. They’re different - in a good way, they hold their own well enough. But they miss that bit of enchantment, that moment you first gaze up to observe the Brachiosaurus, the arrival at the Visitor Center, entering the laboratory to witness the hatching of a baby Velociraptor, an up-close encounter with a sick Triceratops so life-like it makes you choke up. None of the sequels contained such iconic scenes. Is it fair to expect Jurassic World will? Have we not raised the bar way too high for ourselves, and by doing so, don’t we run the risk of leaving the theatre utterly disappointed when that spark, that magical touch, the imagery which defined our childhood, turns out to be absent and replaced with new experiences somewhat alien to us now we are older and, possibly, a bit more cynical?

Will Jurassic World be as good as Jurassic Park? With a little luck, I dare say, “yes, it could be.” But it no doubt shall be different. All we can do for now is enjoy the ride and count down until June 2015!