Sunday, January 24, 2010

Miles arrives in Malad

My collector’s box set containing all Columbia albums of Miles Davis arrived on Thursday.

And I just finished listening to The Miles Davis/Tadd Dameron Quintet. These were the May 1949 recordings from the ‘Paris Festival International de Jazz’.

Throughout, I was reminded of Miles’ romance with France. How lovingly he wrote about Paris in his biography; about his friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso; about his affair with Juliette Gréco.

This music is from the time when Miles first stopped thinking of himself as a ‘black entertainer’. With Sartre and Picasso at his side, he was an ‘artist’ among artists. With Juliette, he was neither black nor white. Existentialism ruled among the intellectuals of Paris then. And at 23, Miles had found himself.

No wonder, on his eventual return to racist America, he underwent a huge depression. He stopped snorting and began shooting himself in the veins. For the next four years, a genius was wasted; looking for the next fix in the alleys of Harlem.

The first time I paid serious attention to bebop was a decade ago when I started listening systematically to the complete recordings of Charlie Parker on Verve. An investment well made.

It was then that I noticed a really intense trumpet improvising on Charlie’s lead. I got curious. The liner notes confirmed my suspicion. It indeed was Miles Davis!

I am not gifted with an ear that can pick out individuals in a jam session. But somehow, I have mostly been able to spot Miles; however economical his blowing might be.

Here is the trick: Whether it was 1949 or 1991, Miles has never been heard to play without meaning every note he blew. He just cannot go through the motions without throwing himself bodily into the music he makes. Ask any professional musician and he will tell you how difficult it is to stay fresh with a song that he has played a hundred times to imperfection. Yet, Miles always played without a wrinkle of weariness.

Once again, this Sunday morning, I felt the nobility of that breath. That breath over golden brass.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Two showstoppers in one day

Here is a very old post that was written but never posted...

I have begun reading The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life. Frankly I was not expecting anything powerful. It is one of those books that you pick up because you are tripping about its subject matter then. (I have just emerged from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and a consequent rereading of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene).

So when I opened The Way of the Cell, I was foolish to judge before reading, not just the book but its author too. After all, Franklin M Harold is not exactly a household name like Darwin and Dawkins are.

Nevertheless, Harold has stunned me: Twice. That too in the first 10 pages that I have managed so far!

Every now and then we come across books that become difficult to read only because they are so well written. Because they make you stop and wonder so often that you cannot read fast enough.

Consider this showstopper...

‘Like a flame or an eddy, an organism is not an object so much as a process, sustained by the continuous passage through it of both matter and energy.’

Now you see why it is difficult to continue after such poetry, bang in the middle of a lecture on molecular biology.

Physicist Erwin Schrödinger coined the word ‘negentropy’ to describe living matter’s habit of flouting the second law of thermodynamics. Even if you are like Harold, someone who has spent years worrying about bioenergetics, it is unlikely that you would think of flames and eddy currents as serious metaphors for life!

The second showstopper is not actually the words of Harold, but those of Hilaire Belloc. The quotation opens chapter 2:

The man behind the microscope
Has this advice for you:
Never ask what something Is
Just ask, what does it Do?’

Now this one was a total digression for me.

I design and run Internet products and services for a living. Very often we quibble too much about the position, colour, size or any such quality of a single tiny feature of a Web page. The devil, truly, is in the detail.

So, the next time the team is squinting through a microscope, pondering over a tiny feature of a Web page, the answer will come from a simple question: ‘Just ask, what does it Do?’

I hope the rest of the book is as rewarding as the first 10 pages are.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Drop of blood

My dead uncle sat beside me in the open courtyard of a square wooden house. We looked up at the first floor gallery, dark against the starry black sky of the night.

And without uttering a word, I told him how for a century or more no human had ever walked there. Then she appeared. Dressed in a shroud, like a mummy. Slender and tall. She walked as though she glided, silently from one end of the gallery to the other.

Her face was hooded in a white cape. But I just knew that as she moved her eyes never left me. But I could hardly see the face that watched me.

Up, from the sky, a drizzle began. I could see individual drops sparkling with the light of a street lamp that shone from a corner of the open courtyard. The sparkle, contrasted against the night sky, sparkled even more.

Then I saw that drop of blood.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Comics are books too

I remember saying that when I was about 10. I was not being theatrical. I was buying extra time with a superhero.

Today, I am saying it again...

Comic book writer Alan Moore’s Watchmen is a modern classic. I was expecting a great deal from it. But as is the habit with classics, they vault over mortal expectations, however high.

It happened near the end of chapter 9...

Dr Manhattan is on Mars. His girlfriend is pleading with him to save earth, which is howling for a nuclear showdown. After a lab accident, Dr Manhattan is not human anymore. He is a godlike creature that sees subatomic particles. He can deconstruct landscapes into quarks, one of the most fundamental particles in the universe. More fantastically, he can rearrange matter and energy to form almost anything. He believes humans are of no particular importance to deserve saving. However, he changes his mind and consoles his girlfriend…


“Come… dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; [you are] the clay in which, the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly.”


Now that’s a lot more than *pow* and *bif*, ain’t it? Comics are books too.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Learn the scientific method in 30 seconds!

It is very difficult to explain the scientific method to those who are not very fond of thinking.

I have tried a number of times, and failed.

Gautam is an old friend and a person with great zest for discovering new things on the Internet. A few weeks ago he messaged me a funny flowchart that explains what science is. And it does this in the best possible way, with humour and without jargon.

The flow chart is the work of blogger Wellington Grey. Be sure to check out his other works too. He is cool.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

A book and a movie

I just saw Billy Elliot once again. And in a moment of epiphany, I have decided that the movie is an adaptive retelling of D H Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (About & Full Text). Think about it!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The idea of an ideal job

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to describe my ideal job.

It was then that I realised that in the everyday worries of getting the job done, I have never stepped back to think what it is really that I want to do over a lifetime.

I am guessing many people are like me. As Ashok recently said, “we are biding time”.

But I would like to believe that there is a certain joy in enjoying the work at hand: That some kind of nirvana exists in the “here and now”.

Nevertheless, here’s the copy I wrote to describe my ideal job…

In a world of ever deepening super-specialities, I am an encyclopaedist.

I am at my best when I am catalysing building activity across functions like content, engineering and business.

I am the happiest when I have hit upon insights in my projects that could not have arisen without pulling back of the focus from the everyday bustle of individual specialities.

My ideal job would demand that I dedicate my waking hours to building life-altering products and services in media and communications.

I am the kind of person who would love to roll up his sleeves and jump into the interdepartmental no-man’s-land; to oversee the building of inventions.

I would give an arm and a leg to do a job that allows me to participate throughout the creative process: From weeding through the ideas garden, to drawing the grand architecture, to ensuring usability, to cracking engineering solutions, to testing, to deployment, to marketing.

Also, I think technology is closer to business than to science. So my skin crawls whenever I come across the phrase “science and technology”. To my mind this is an anomaly. If people working with technology do not have as much respect for businessmen as they have for scientists they are doomed. Successful inventions, more importantly, life-altering inventions are the agents of economics.

That is why my ideal job will allow me to participate very closely in the business thought process of the organisation. I regard business to be the one single function, more than anything else, which will eventually help me build great stuff.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Of banias, brahmins and talking computers

My last two posts, about Anita’s pics and Ahsok's blog have been a tad nostalgic. Now it looks like this evening is going to reminisces all the way.

For the last few hours I have been pottering around OCR stuff. And I just stumbled upon some material on next generation input devices. Then I remembered how almost a decade ago I had the opportunity to meet Bill Gates in Bombay and he had then gushed about an impending revolution in the way we interact with our computers.

At a ‘power dinner’ in the beautiful Taj Mahal Hotel, he had promised a hall full of technorati that in 10 years keyboards would be secondary; that we would be talking to our computers.

That prophecy was made in March 1997. If he is right we are just two years away from that revolution and I don’t see how!

Though the Gates meeting itself was not as exciting as I had hoped for, the evening was rescued by then NCST chief Dr S Ramani.

He had lectured me on why India’s caste system is preventing it from creating another Bill Gates! And the fears that are keeping us away from producing a bania-brahimin hybrid. Amusing? Sure! Profound? Perhaps. Read his arguments in the news report that was filed for Ramani action is towards the bottom of the copy so scroll if you are in a rush.

Ashok is back

Guys, Ashok has resuscitated his Full TP blog!

It had begun to sputter in 2002. And after that fateful Wednesday on October 16 it went dormant.

Now it is spewing again since September 8.

I wonder what led to the exhuming! (Though I have a suspicion).

Some quick notes…

  1. The recent posts are in line with the early material

  2. The template has changed, for the better, I think

  3. Earlier the kicker read something like: When I have nothing to do I will be writing here. When you have nothing to do you will be reading it.

  4. Now it is more serious. Like Voltaire. Like an inside out Voltaire, actually: You may not agree with what I have to say, but I will defend to the death my right to say it :-)

He is good for your mental health. Read him:

The ghost of a flaming car came knocking

Have you ever been thinking about something from the past, just a passing incident, and then forgotten about it again, only to be confronted by a picture of that incident right afterwards, just like that, out of the blue?

It was pure chance. I dropped in on Anita’s blog yesterday and the most recent post was a picture of a flaming car on a flyover near Goregaon’s Film City in Bombay.

I remember the incident in the picture very clearly. I had picked her up on the way to work early in the morning and we were zipping over the next flyover when we saw this car, right on top, burning with a fury.

I know rubbernecking is dangerous but there were no vehicles in the rear view mirrors or through the windscreen. So I slowed down. Anita was in a flurry on the backseat, rummaging for her camera. I was quite impressed by the time in which she managed to get the camera out and take the picture. Or was it Firoz in the front seat who took it for her?

That evening, one the way back, we did not see the car or its carcass. No city paper had reported it either. A real mystery!

The bigger mystery

In any case, what scares me now is the computation of the odds that I should be seeing the picture of the flaming car again, a week after I recollected the incident for fleeting moments and then tossed it out of my mind.

Last week I was cleaning up some files on my hard disk and saw a small video file of a carburetor in action. I had downloaded it to see how the butterfly valve really works.

Now that I own an MPFI car, which does not have a carburetor but uses a complex set of sensors and an algorithm to determine the air-fuel mix, I am wondering what that burning car had?

Is a carburetor, with its complexity of moving parts, more prone to going off like a Molotov cocktail? Or is an MPFI system’s fuel injection more dangerous? I wonder!

Any engineers out there who may have the answer?