Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Why did Glee flop?

Over the last few months, I've entertained myself by watching what I was told is a hit American TV show - Glee. Yes, without any more episodes of Star Trek to entertain me, and while I waited for the next season of Suits to go live on Amazon Prime, I dared to watch a rather unusual genre of TV that I would usually never watch. And it was... pretty good, for the most part. Yes, Glee requires you to suspend your rationality for a bit, as people seem to know how to sing and dance all the time, and musicians are taken virtually for granted. This wasn't hard, after all, I've grown up on Bollywood, where this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The real strength of the show was its characters, who really brought the story alive... for the first three seasons. Indeed, I think the New Directions' victory in Chicago constituted the high point of the show, after which it was generally downhill. Season 4 saw a whole new cast being introduced, and half the season being devoted to developing them, only to be e unceremoniously dumped afterwards. What was the point of introducing characters like Ryder and Marlie if they were not supposed to stay on long enough to win anything? Added to that was the fact that the old characters would simply not go away, somehow reappearing in Lima, Ohio whenever they wanted to, irrespective of where they were supposed to be! And of course, the tragic death of Cory Monteith was handled very badly by the producers, which made it even worse for the show as a whole.

In the end, I think Glee ended quite poorly and well below its potential because the writers forgot its true strength - the characters, and their stories. It became about just one character, and a belated attempt to introduce a few new ones was also botched up. It was a relief to see it finally end in a ball of flame. As they say - you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself turn into a villain. This should've ended with Season 3. 

Return to sanity?

Miley Cyrus is perhaps the greatest proof yet that the music industry in America simply does not understand its audience. A child star that was already famous, Cyrus launched her adult music career in the most outlandish way possible - through an extremely vulgar, hyper-sexualized series of videos and an oddly-concocted story of her coming out as a lesbian (which was pure marketing with no actual facts). Throughout all that, Cyrus' music was still as good as it used to be, but the videos and her behavior at concerts became so frustrating that she was largely dumped and forgotten after the initial hype.

Now, with her new hit single Malibu, Cyrus has begun to claw back from those mistakes. The new music is as good as her music always way, but this time there are no theatrics to serve as an unwelcome distraction - the music is pure and good by itself, and the music video just complements it. This should serve as a lesson for others, such as Charlie Puth (who also appears to be going down the same road), that audience rewards good music. You can get some cheap publicity by selling sex in the short-run, but it will be temporary, and you'll be forgotten with the next star.  

Waiting for the next catastrophe

After an unprecedented stand off that lasted nearly three years, the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly's two houses passed a budget for the state by overriding a veto of all three bills by Governor Bruce Rauner. The override in the House was particularly momentous, because it was led by Rauner's arch political enemy, Chicago Speaker Mike Madigan, who is all set to be the longest-serving Speaker of any state in US history, and has reigned over half a dozen former governors from both parties. Madigan's House managed the successful veto override by flipping several Republican votes to its side, just barely crossing the minimum number needed.

With this budget, the can has effectively been kicked further down the road than it was already before. The headline number is, of course, the 32% increase in individual income tax that begins with effect from Jul. 1, 2017. But the budget also raises many more taxes without freezing already sky-high property taxes, as the Governor demanded. What's worse, the budget does not include any spending reforms or changes to Illinois' out of control pension system that has been deliberately under-funded by politicians for decades. By all standards, this is a desperate budget passed by a desperate house to avoid a bond rating downgrade.

The problem is, that downgrade has not been avoided - it is still imminent in the future unless the state can clean its mess up. Unfunded pension liabilities and unpaid bills from the last two years together form massive pieces of debt that the budget simply does not address. Yes, essential services like IDOT and the university system, not to mention local school districts, do get a much-needed breath of life (despite cuts), but a crisis will come soon enough to bring everyone back to square one. This budget is a disaster and bad news for the residents of the state. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

On the verge of history

Tomorrow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will begin his three-day visit to Israel, a historic event that will be the culmination of a 25 year long process that began when Prime Minister PVN Rao established formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, although informal, and particularly intelligence-related, relations, have existed since Indira Gandhi established RAW with the assistance of Mossad. But it's not just the post-Independence history that is worth remembering: India's relations with what is today the state of Israel goes back thousands of years, as far back as the Roman Empire, and of course the Liberation of Haifa, which is memorialized at Teen Murti in New Delhi (which is not about Nehru).

Israel has been India's strongest, one-sided ally since Independence. Thanks to the appeasement politics that swept the nation following the loss of territory to Pakistan, Indian leaders bent over themselves to appease Arab Muslim kingdoms by being strongly vocal against Israel - in many cases, even stronger than many of those countries! India has repeatedly voted against Israel at the UN for decades, and given space to anti-Israeli NGOs. And yet, Israel has patiently worked to befriend New Delhi, always taking India's so-called principled stance in their stride. Never has Israel interfered in Kashmir, not has it used the gun of human rights to corner India, although it had every reason to do so. In 1999, at the height of the Kargil War, Israel readily supplied India with crucial radars, even as no other country wanted to get involved in the stand-off. This, to a country that for fifty years refused to recognize it.

PM Modi's visit serves as a historical course-correction to the silly idea that India can condemn Israel in public and yet purchase weapons and share technology from it, while also sharing similar security issues. Israel and India are natural partners for anyone who can view the world from outside the Muslim appeasement lens - and strong, public ties with Israel are merely an acknowledgement of that. Furthermore, by refusing to visit Ramallah on the same visit, PM Modi has finalized India's dehyphenation of Israel and Palestine, which to Israel is much like how the US dehyphenated India and Pakistan under President Bush. As the leading Arab states have covertly done, India must view the two as separate countries, and leave them to bilaterally handle their problems.

For Israel and India, the potential for collaboration is immense, from sectors as varied as agriculture to space. 
From a historical perspective, it is akin to a ghar wapsi for an Indian civilization that has long had contacts with the Jewish people, and with whom we have much history to share. A people whose civilization was wiped out by invaders, a people who have rebuilt an old civilization together with a modern state, and a people who have and continue to face brutal terrorism that seeks to wipe out their existence. For the Hudim and the Yahudim, it is a visit that will change history.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Join the rigmarole


Produced By: Paramount, and others
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, and others
Pros: Good SFX, Star Trek nostalgia
Cons: Stale story, tired acting
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

Yes, yes, you know that I'm a Star Trek junkie. I've seen all the episodes from all the TV series (yes, even DS9), and I've also seen all the movies. Therefore, there was no way I'd miss Star Trek: Beyond, regardless of what its review was like. The fundamental fascination with warp speed, alien worlds, and interstellar alliances is just too much for me to resist!

That said, it was mostly a waste of time. Don't get me wrong, it's not a particularly bad movie, but it is a little below average. There's the token consideration for LGBT rights, and Chris Pine as Capt. Kirk, but it all felt very forced - it's almost as though Paramount felt is simply had to make a Star Trek movie without any great plot, so it went ahead and made this one. The story is stale, with a lot of ideas just rehashed from older movies, and whatever was new was not particularly interesting. The acting was tired and distinctly lacked any energy, especially some comic scenes that simply fell flat.

The only saving grace was the good SFX, particularly the visual description of what warp speed does to the surrounding space-time. However, as is the case with the Transformers franchise, effects can only do so much, and even nostalgia couldn't help this movie. In the immortal words of an infamous man: Sad! (OTFS)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Another beauty

DUMMY (2008)

Produced By: Format Films, Highwire Films, and others
Director: Matthew Thompson
Starring: Thomas Grant, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Emma Catherwoord, and others
Pros: Strong story, good acting, good music
Cons: Slow
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

An, the Indie-scene: so full of sad movies, and yet every now and then in the dense mound of coal, you find a diamond. OzLand is still fresh in my mind, with a few other good ones whose names I can't recall. Thus, it was no surprise that I decided to watch Dummy after reading the synopsis: coming-of-age, British, and Indie... strong credentials!

And I was not disappointed. The movie revolves around two brothers, Jack and Danny (one barely an adult, the other 12) and their lives after their mother dies. The story, unlike say, Manchester By The Sea, is not an endlessly-depressing tale, and there are some very nice moments between the two brothers. But of course, this movie is a tragedy, and the story is strong enough to glide the audience into the sad ending. Coupled with that is some brilliant acting by the stars - Aaron Taylor-Johnson, in particular, puts up a strong showing. Finally, the soundtrack is well-timed and balances the story, leading to a very good ending.

The only criticism I can think of is that the movie is somewhat slow (though not overly long), but that really is a general criticism for Indie films. It's not a big problem for those (like me) who are used to it, but it can rub you the wrong way. Nonetheless, a great movie that I enjoyed. (OTFS)

This is an Emergency!

Yes, you read the headline right - this is an Emergency. In Modi's India, a grave undeclared emergency is currently underway that threatens to change the very Idea of India and bring misery to a huge section of the population. That emergency is the conversion of the mainstream media into a factory of fake news, lies, and criminal spins. It is the complete and utter subjugation of honest reporting at the hands of activism and vested interests (of journalists). And, worst of all, it is the absolute lack of irony when these very same journalists decry fake news!

The mainstream media in India - and indeed, the world - is so compromised today that it is among the least trusted institutions in the world. People see celebrity journalists as politicians-by-other-means, very much married to a political party (though never acknowledged, for obvious reasons). The news is always one-sided (if it is true at all, that is), there is very little (if any) fact but a whole lot of one-sided opinion, and an absolute holier-than-thou attitude that seeks to tell the unwashed masses what to think. In short, the mainstream media has become a propaganda tool.

It may just be that the media was always a propaganda tool, but nobody really knew it. Sure, people suspected it, but then, such private thoughts are usually kept to oneself. Until the advent of social media, we never really knew that so many people suspected the same thing. And now, we can be pretty sure that those suspicions were right. If a free and honest press is supposed to be a pillar of democracy, and an emergency is when democracy does not function, then we are certainly in an emergency.

PS: No, I'm not talking about a few channels like Zee News that are pro-BJP. I'm talking about the vast ecosystem of pro-Congress journalists, academics, and judges, of which NDTV is just the tip of the iceberg.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Modi@3: Patience

This month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated the third anniversary of his historic election victory, becoming the first PM in 30 years to enjoy an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Now more than half-way into his term, a lot of supporters and critics are asking questions about what his government has achieved, and what another term for him would mean. A common theme seems to be the tension between the economic right and the social right, both of which are represented in the BJP but rarely see eye to eye (the former used to be with the Congress until Sonia Gandhi all but decimated that wing). The argument seems to be that post-demonetization and upping the ante on cow slaughter, Modi has abandoned the economic right and is pushing through with a social agenda personified by UP CM Yogi Adityanath.

There are several problems with this argument. For, the Modi government has undertaken several economic reforms, including the two top ones: GST and the IBC. These are major economic achievements, and were only possible after Modi's government stabilized the economy from the train wreck that it was when Manmohan Singh left office. Indeed, by wrapping up the Planning Commission and the systems of Five Year Plans, as well as the FIPB more recently, the intent is decidedly on the right. The grouse then appears to be that of speed - the argument being that not enough reforms have been undertaken. This is understandable from an economic perspective, but electorally, it is difficult (but not impossible). Winning a Lok Sabha majority is not enough, you need to shift the ecosystem of the country towards the right, and that is a slow process prone to failure at every step. The fact is, despite the massive mandate of 2014, there is no economic consensus in India, and people want quick results by any which way, which inherently limits the speed of economic reforms. That said, the glass is certainly more than half full.

What the economic right does not seem to appreciate is that they are in a coalition with the social right, and the latter have a much bigger grouse. On issue after issue over the past two decades, the economic right has won - from de-licensing to liberalization to ties with Israel, the economic right has prevailed. They may have not gotten everything that they'd have liked, such as labor reforms or enhanced privatization, but they have achieved a lot from the days of Indira Gandhi. It is the social right that has continuously been at the receiving end since the loss of territory during Partition. What has the social right gotten? The RTE act, balkanization of Hindu society, minority appeasement to the extent of Hindus having to hide their traditions, vicious attacks on Hindu beliefs, state-control and plunder of Hindu temples, legislatively-imposed personal laws... the list is endless. The Nehruvian-state is fundamentally anti-Hindu and depends on appeasing Muslims to sustain itself, despite Partition's promise of ending that. This is the grouse that the social right holds, and they are far more mad that a right-wing government has done next to nothing on any of these issues. Three years since that historic mandate, they have gotten more tokenism than anything else, while a Mamata Banerje splurges on madrassas in Bengal.

Therefore, three years after Modi's election, the economic right should be thankful that they have actually gotten the majority of the reforms. They should also remember that, on their own, they cannot win an election - the coalition of the economic and social right wings alone can deliver a government. And in a coalition, one side reaping all the rewards is not sustainable. Right now, the cultural right has a genuine grouse, and their glass has been emptying since 1947. The economic right needs to be patient and understanding, instead of throwing fits and making threats (as if Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi would do them any good!). 

A shameful bargain

President Donald Trump returned for Memorial Day from a nine-day, three-nation tour that saw him being played by the Saudi dictatorship like never before. Outside of all the pomp and gallantry, Trump has all but handed over America's Middle East policy to the Saudis, both in policy terms through a wholesale adoption of the Saudi posture towards Iran, as well as in military terms through a $110 bn sale to the absolute monarchy that is responsible for much of the world's Wahabbi terrorism. Ironically, the sale was facilitated by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner without a squeak from the Senate, which should have a say on such a large sale to a country that is currently at war.

Trump's complete and total servitude to the Saudis was on clear display, and gives an excellent template for other countries to sucker him - impress him, lavish him, and he'll sing like a canary. No wonder then that, after such a 'successful' trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump has caused a major diplomatic row through his tweets on Germany, which was not all to kind to him during the NATO summit (smaller countries are obviously too scared to even take him on, although on paper they disagree with him on several things). But perhaps the most memorably asinine part of the Saudi Arabian tour was Trump, and later his SecState Rex-T, condemning Iran's elections and calling for reforms, while sitting in a country that is an absolute monarchy where women are second-class citizens, by law. The irony is simply too much to miss.

I supported Trump during the campaign, so why am I whining now? Two reasons. Trump has already performed his most important function - defeating Hillary Clinton, for which we must all be thankful. Indeed, the spectacle in Saudi Arabia would've actually been along expected lines under a President Clinton. But more importantly, Trump was supposed to speak from his heart, and say uncomfortable facts - such as the fact that a majority of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, or that Saudi-funded imams have been radicalizing Muslims across the world, or that Saudi money has buttressed extremist groups, or that Saudi Arabia is causing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Instead, we got a Trump who inaugurated an incongruent anti-extremist center in Riyadh - which is only less ironic that calling for free elections in Iran from Saudi Arabia.

Trump has been suckered. So was Obama, but he eventually saw through the Saudi (and Pakistani) double-game. How long will #45 take? 

Courtroom Drama as it should be

DENIAL (2016)

Produced By: Participant Media, BBC Films, and others
Director: Mick Jackson
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, and others
Pros: Great story, excellent acting, crisp plot
Cons: None
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

When it comes to courtroom dramas, there's not much to select from. Aside from A Few Good Men and 12 Angry Men, I can't think of any that's managed to hold my interest. And that's why I was so pleased with Denial - a movie that was both courtroom drama as well as a Nazi-themed film, both of which I enjoy. The movie definitely joins the league of my favorite movies.

The biggest strength of the movie, as with any good movie, is its story, which is based on a book (and apparently real events - I paused for sometime to read Wikipedia!). There are facts (including filming in Auschwitz), and there are courtroom procedures, and the director does a splendid job of keeping the two in check to avoid making the movie too academic. On top of that, the actors, especially Rachel Weisz, pull off a brilliant performance that really holds the audience's interest. The plot was fast-paced but not confusing, and there was no information overload that could shake the audience off.

Overall, an excellent movie that I highly recommend. (OTFS)

A let-down

Spartacus: The Gladiator
By Ben Kane

It couldn't have lasted - years of reading great works on historical fiction had to eventually give way to a bad book. It is inevitable, it is the main lesson you learn from a PhD. And it happened. Ben Kane, an author that I recently became a fan of after his two books on Hannibal (I'm yet to find the third), disappointed me with the first of his books on the Third Servile War, or the Spartacus War. It's not that the book is historically inaccurate, but that there isn't that much historical record to go by, due to which Kane added a lot of his own imagination. That's fine - this is not supposed to be a textbook - but the additions were downright boring. And that's something I rarely say about a writer.

The book was boring. I skipped a lot of parts with a yawn and it didn't really make that much of a difference. Plots were stretched thin, unnecessary conversations were abound, new characters were introduced for seemingly no reason. Kane's description of the mechanics of war were quite good as always, but those parts were few and far in between. This is a huge disappointment, and I might just take a break from him for sometime. 

A Huge Mistake

President Donald Trump, in less than six months in office, seems to have made a huge mistake that may end his presidency. By abruptly firing FBI director James Comey, Trump has alienated Republicans, who rightly believe that Comey played a decisive role in stopping Hillary Clinton from winning the presidency, and also Democrats, something that Trump clearly did not bargain for. What was he thinking? Was he trying to cross the aisle to please the Democrats? If that's the case, then his lack of political experience has shown bright as the sun. The Democrats and their Establishment hate Trump, because he defeated their biggest insider, Hillary Clinton. Nothing Trump does can change that, but will only backfire on him because he does not really enjoy the support of the Republican establishment either.

Moreover, as it has turned out, Trump may be in trouble for obstruction of justice, which may get him impeached. Of course, as unpopular as he might be, both parties will think twice before impeaching him - Republicans for fear of a massive backlash from Trump's base, and Democrats for fear of having to deal with a real politician, Vice President Mike Pence. However, obstruction of justice is a real crime that got Nixon nearly impeached (he resigned first), and could get Trump into a soup that he may never recover from.

For now, this huge mistake has led to the Justice Department assigning a special prosecutor that Trump will (most likely) not be able to influence, but which may take all of Trump's current term to finish its investigation. This is a stop-gap move though, and Trump must be careful in the future. He is already very short on political capital, and is only a few mistakes away from becoming untenable. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Complete Double Standards

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the contentious issue of Triple Talaq of Muslim women, a practice that every Islamic country has banned, but which remains on the books in India through the convoluted system of religious personal laws. Going by some of the observations of the court that reporters are pointing out, it seems that the Court is determined to know whether the disgusting practice is really a core component of Islam or whether it can be struck down. This smacks of double standards.

That the Indian Republic has a distinctly anti-Hindu bias is no surprise - a simple reading of the RTI Act, sections of the Constitution that provide extra protection to religious minorities, the ownership of religious places of worship, and much more, all point out to the fact that, while declaring India a secular country, the founding fathers certainly seemed to believe in the Two-Nation Theory. The farce of a hearing in the Court simply reinforces that, for when it comes to Hindu cultural and religious practices, the Court seems to have no trouble in ending thousands of years of tradition. The chaos that reigned in Tamil Nadu after Jallikattu was banned by the Court is just a case in point, and it eventually led to the legislature having to step in to reverse the damage, for which the Court never seemed even mildly apologetic.

In the Triple Talaq case, the fact that the system leaves women to the arbitrary whims of their husbands, the fact that the future of children can be wrecked at the drop of a hat, or the simple fact that it is dehumanizing and causes particular angst to Muslim women, all seems to have been missed by the Court, which only wants to know whether the practice is sanctioned by Islam. So what if it is (it isn't, by the way)? Beheadings, lashings, cutting off hands and much more are also sanctioned by Islam (and practiced is the most Islamic country of all, Saudi Arabia). Does that mean they're OK? Where does the Court draw the line? And if religious traditions are really so important, what stops the Court from allowing the Ram Temple to be constructed at Ayodhya? If Triple Talaq is to crucial for Islam, then the birthplace of Ram is equally crucial to Hinduism, whereas Ayodhya does not even appear in Islamic scripture.

Let me call a spade a spade - the Court is as anti-Hindu as the rest of the Nehruvian government system. And because of the colelgium system, it is not going to be fixed by merely an election. When it comes to Hindu traditions, the Court is willing to run roughshod over all voices to impose its social view. But when it comes to minorities, specifically Muslims, it needs to be extra generous. If this is not Two-Nation Theory, what is? Separate electorates ("only Muslims can represent Muslims"), separate laws, separate courts - what was the need for Pakistan when India could've just continued to be a Mughal Empire?

I think that the Court is going to do nothing about Triple Talaq. The way it simply brushed off the related issues of polygamy and Nikah Halala points to that. In the case on Sec. 377 too, the court simply shrugged off its constitutional role in protecting fundamental rights, choosing to throw the ball at the legislature instead (but on Hindu traditions, it would never dream of waiting for elected representatives unless it is to clear the mess that the Court itself created). The court will simply say some wise words and leave it to the legislature. Welcome to the anti-Hindu Republic of India. 

A 21st Century Colony

Pakistani newspaper Dawn revealed details of a supposed long-term plan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a part of China's Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) that the Pakistani leadership has been selling to the world as the panacea to all ills of the country. As many commentators have rightly pointed out, far from some sort of benevolent Marshall Plan, the long-term CPEC plan is a textbook outline for the Chinese colonization of Pakistan, possibly making it the first colony of the 21st Century.

Consider this: the primary aim of CPEC is agriculture, to create raw materials that will then be shipped to manufacturing units in Xinjiang, which will then presumably shipped back to Pakistan and beyond. Sounds exactly like the East India Company. But that's not all - Chinese nationals are to have visa-free travel (obviously, it won't be reciprocal), a vast surveillance grid is to be established in all cities so that the Chinese can have a say in law and order, and Pakistani state television will have to broadcast Chinese 'culture'. And to add insult to injury, Pakistan is already raising exclusive military units to protect CPEC assets! Furthermore, none of this will be through aid, it will largely be through soft loans that Pakistan will have to pay back, or else. The less said about environmental clearances the better.

It is not the case that all foreign investment is colonization. Countries can work with each other to build infrastructure and assets - almost every emerging market does it. But the key is reciprocity and fairness - for all the concessions that Pakistan is making, it seems the Chinese have virtually nothing to lose except the risk of having to directly administer their new colony should it become unstable. And that risk is quite worth it given that CPEC gives China a direct land route to the Indian Ocean, thus bypassing the American armada in the Pacific. Pakistan, of course, hopes that CPEC will create infrastructure and hence, economic growth, but economic growth is not possible if the country is to be reduced to a supplier of raw materials - which is what CPEC seems to be primarily geared toward.

The worst, of course, has to be the fact that the Chinese have demanded a role in Pakistan's internal law and order mechanism through surveillance, and a dissemination of Chinese culture to a land that is completely alien to it, whatever the elite might think. These smack of British colonialism. Of course, for a country that seems to values Partition more than independence from the British Empire, making old mistakes should not be a surprise. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Humans of Manchester-By-The-Sea


Produced By: Amazon Studios, K Period Media, and others
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, CJ Wilson, Lucas Hedges, and others
Pros: Strong story, excellent acting, good music
Cons: Too long
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

The Academy Awards just don't gel with me - I've never heard of most of the nominations and I usually end up hating whatever movie wins anything at all, especially the big Best Motion Picture award. So when I heard Manchester By The Sea had won two of them, I had to think hard and deep about watching it, despite liking the trailers. I'm glad I did watch it in the end, though, because is is a well-made indie movie that you can't expect from mainstream movies.

The movie is very strong on two fundamentals - there is a strong story, and the director tries very hard to stick to the story without going off on a tangent (which he does a few times, unfortunately); and the acting is very good, with Casey Affleck delivering the performance of a lifetime and truly earning his Oscar, and Lucas Hedges also doing a pretty good job. This is no mean feat, for most movies made today lack on either or both of these (cough... Zoolander 2...), and just that much is really enough for me to like a movie. It is a very depressing film though, so don't go in hoping for an underdog story. Added to that are some very soulful renditions that dot the movie, which really helped me stay engaged.

And staying engaged was really a challenge, because at over 2 hours, it is a long movie, and a lot of the parts were unnecessary and tangential. I can think of at least two distinct sub-plots that could've been disposed of. It's very easy to stop concentrating on the film and come back after a few minutes, and it really doesn't make that much of a difference either. Still, on the whole, each of the sub-plots, even those I found unnecessary, added up to a beautiful movie. Watch it, certainly, and take your young adults with you too.  (OTFS)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Why I didn't #MarchForScience

Last month, on Earth Day (of course), cities across the US (and, for some reason, around the world) saw scientists and others marching on a weekend, 'for Science,' whatever that means. It was billed as an apolitical show of force from the scientific community in favor of scientific thinking, facts, and of course, funding for scientific research, all of which are commendable. A lot of my friends and relatives participated in it, or at the very least cheered it on at home. I didn't, and won't. Why? Because #MarchForScience was anything but an apolitical show, it was not about facts or scientific thinking: it was yet another attempt by the Left to hijack the academic community, this time the one committee where they have the least influence: STEM.

#MarchForScience was a very political march against Donald Trump and the Republican Party in general. It blended the new demigod of the Left - climate change - with other pet issues such as gender, refugees, feminism, etc. There was no scientific discussion in it, no papers, no experiments, no facts: just a lot of empty sloganeering. It did have real scientists in it, but they were not there as scientists, rather as citizens making a political point. And they are entitled to their protests and politics, but the hypocrisy of it all was that it was billed as an apolitical event, which is most definitely was not.

Why didn't I participate? Because I don't think scientists should get involved with politics of any party. This is not because of the fear that taking a stand against the establishment hurts chances for funding (although it does) - facts and data have their own sanctity and should not become subject to political favoritism. The reason is because the effects of giving the Left any leadership in academia are there for all to see: in the humanities, the Left has total and unchallenged dominance, and it is there that the most regressive ideas originate: safe spaces, the hijab as a source of freedom, nationalism as a dirty word, and the invention of an entire dictionary of terms that, much like George Orwell's 1984, makes language itself a pawn in a larger political game.

Those who participated in the marches, for whatever reason, possibly do not realize the danger of selling their science to the goons of the Left, for they are not interested in facts, but in using those facts to push an agenda. For, the first piece of data that opposes that agenda (and we all know that data can oppose a hypothesis at any point of time) will see the same scientists being placed before a firing squad. Do we forget that science had to favor the proletariat for it to be real science in the Soviet Union?

I refuse to participate in any movement that uses science to further a political agenda, and I encourage my fellow scientists to do the same. That said, every citizen in a democratic society has the right, and arguably even the duty, to express their opinions, however unpopular those might be. But don't use science to do it - if your convictions are true, and they are important enough for you, then you do not need to hide them behind science. As for the Leftists who talk about climate change without knowing how a spectroscope works - keep your lunacy in the humanities, you have already destroyed that beyond repair. #NotInMyDepartment. 

100 Days of Very Little

Last week marked the 100th day of the tenure of President Donald Trump - a man who defeated every single friend and foe, who took on the big media, the Washington establishment, and compromised data scientists, to come out on top and become the 45th President of the US. 100 days ago, Opinions 24x7 described Mr. Trump as the new leader of a new world. Naturally, expectations were very high. 100 days later, they still are - but hope is beginning to fade.

A very honest assessment of Trump's first 100 days (a benchmark that he himself used tirelessly) is that it has been very disappointing. Far from being the deal-maker, he has doubled-down on using EOs to push through things quickly - much like his much-maligned predecessor. Indeed, a lot of his EOs were more like homework assignments to his underlings - directing them to figure stuff out! On top of that is the fact that Trump has barely made any headway in appointing all the necessary federal employees, which is partly due to the fact that Senate Democrats have been exceptionally loathe to approve any of his appointments, but also because his own team has been very slow at finding suitable candidates.

In the last 100 days, Trump's only real victory has been the appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, which was achieved by the extraordinary lifting of the filibuster for judicial appointments. Aside from that, it has been string after string of disasters - the thwarted travel 'ban', the failed AHCA, Sean Spicer's completely unnecessary holocaust gaffe, and of course, the wholly unnecessary U-turns on Syria. Right now, it seems as though Trump, having served his most important duty of defeating Hillary Clinton, is directionless.

However, I am still hopeful. He has made several promises about a new healthcare act (hopefully bypassing Paul Ryan), an infrastructure bill, and steps to defeat ISIS. Much more can be done, and there's plenty of time beyond the artificial deadline of 100 days. Let's wait and watch. 

Something is very wrong

Last month, India faced a diplomatic storm with African missions in New Delhi charging the government over inaction over racist crimes in Noida and other parts of the country (mainly around Delhi). During that fiasco, the Indian government as well as many elected representatives tried their best to show that Indians simply cannot be racist - for example, because 'they' live with 'black' South Indians! If this actual gaffe from an MP wasn't enough, let me, a full-fledged India who's had a chance to be on the other side (in America), say it.

India has a racism problem - a very deep problem. Dark skin is seen as a bad thing, mongoloid features are seen as a bad thing. I don't just mean 'bad' in the superficial sense of beauty - a dark-skinned person is (wrongly) seen as being less intelligent, less hardworking, and quite simply, a loser. This is so deeply ingrained that nobody actually realizes it - it's just a 'fact' that we grow up with.

The latest trend are these body-shaming posts on Facebook, such as the one pictured here. And this is not one-off: the picture is always of (a) a woman (b) a black woman and (c) a very fat or very skinny black woman. And these posts get thousands of likes and comments! It's distressing and shameful to see the kind of people who react with anything other than disgust at such pots - and these are not some psychos, but normal people who you could meet everyday. This racism is just so normal that there isn't even a discussion on it - just a stunned denial when it is pointed out.

India needs to talk about this - and a new generation is. But it is happening very slowly, and not at all among older people.

A coup on the judiciary

Pakistan is no stranger to military coups - since Partition from India in 1947, the country has been under martial rule for over half of its existence, with the all-powerful Army exercising not just direct executive control, but also being pervasive in all aspects of life, so much so that even the official censor, which is a purely civilian institution, has representation from it! In most, if not all, cases, the Army's takeover was welcomed by a majority, because of their aura of being above petty politics. And yet, the country has continued to be in an unending state of turmoil, routinely being labeled a failed state.

However, things did appear to change under President Zardari, with the passage of the 19th Amendment. However, for anybody who knows the history of Pakistan, something had to give. Cue to the deadly killings of schoolchildren at APS Peshawar, and the country created the institution of military courts to try civilians accused of terrorism. In a unique experiment, for a short period of time, the army would be welcomed in to replace the judiciary, with the army chief himself signing death warrants. Since then, Pakistan has dramatically increased the number of executions thanks to the much-reduced standard of evidence. For all of the Indian judiciary's problems, at least the entire nation has not passed a no-confidence vote against it!

But what was supposed to be a temporary measure to meet an extreme situation has not become the new normal. This month, the National Assembly saw demands for a group of university students who lynched a fellow student to stand trial in a military court. What is purely a civilian affair, without any connection to terrorism whatsoever, is seeing demands for the military to step in. It seems, after decades of executive dictatorship, a new brand of military control of the judiciary is evolving in Pakistan. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dangerous U-Turn

Over the last month, President Donald Trump has made some stunning reversals on his foreign policy agenda. A man who vowed to end the thoroughly unhelpful and endless US interventions in the Arab World, best highlighted by former President Obama's disastrous interventions in Libya and Syria, now seems to have completely overturned his own position and is ready to go beyond his predecessor in terms of regime change and, who knows, boots on the ground?

It all began with the horrific chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria, which the Trump administration has blamed on the brutal Syrian dictator Assad. If the allegation is true, it would not surprise anyone, for that is how Assad and his father before him ruled Syria with an iron hand. The US attack on a Syrian airbase from where the chemical attack was allegedly carried out was a just and fitting response to Assad - no dictator in this world should be allowed to use such Nazi methods without consequences. The attack oddly silenced the massive army of Trump critics in the US, with CNN going as far as calling him 'Presidential,' not that he needs the praise. As TAC rightly noted, nothing seems to please the Beltway like war. But this was not war - it was a warning shot to Assad, and the message was clear.

Except that the very next day, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Healey, decided to declare war anyway, explicitly stating that regime change is the goal of the Trump administration as far as Syria is concerned. This goes beyond what the Obama administration did (declaring war and looking for regime change without committing direct military intervention or even publicly committing anything) and is dangerous, because it will leave a void for al Qaeda and IS to fill, which they readily will. Like it or not, Assad represents the most credible bulwark in Syria against terrorism, just as Saddam Hussein did before he was bumped off in the invasion of Iraq. For some reason, all this feels like an old, dusted story - does Trump really want to have an Iraq of his own to deal with?

Trump's U-turn is dangerous, for reasons that he himself has pointed out many times before with respect to Iraq. Assad is a brutal dictator, and it is best to keep him in a constant state of worry about International humanitarian intervention - but not regime change. For, without Assad, Syria will fall to IS and AQ, completing the vicious circle started by Bush Jr. (Iraq) and Obama (Libya and Syria). And it will be the US that will bleed the most, while Saudi Arabia's skeleton 'Islamic coalition' (which is not even on paper yet!) watches. This is a policy that the US can do without.