Sunday, July 31, 2005

Sources of Terror

The Times of London has an essay on the Sources of Terror that looks at the success in rounding up the bomb suspects of 7/21 and the laying down of arms by the IRA this week.
...One reason for the IRA statement is that since the events of September 11 the world has changed profoundly. Terrorism is being seen for what it really is right across the West.
The IRA campaign of violence is another victim of Osama Bin Laden’s global jihad. The atrocities perpetrated by the Islamists, who seem increasingly to resemble the bizarre cults that have emerged in the West in recent decades, put politically motivated terror beyond the pale. There is a big gorilla on the block now and the monkeys are suing for peace.

An interesting note in the essay reads,
In the inquest that will go on after the atrocities of July 7, we should not forget that successive governments have played a role in fostering this alienation. Not only were the alleged July 21 bombers given sanctuary by Britain, but they went on to become part of our entrenched underclass. They failed in education, one was imprisoned and almost all lived off benefits. As social mobility has eroded in Britain, they turned to a corrupted Islam as their escape route.

This is indubitably true, yet one fears that this is a problem both of the personal and the political spheres. All other things being equal, why did Person X adopt one way and Person Y another?

Is there a Faculty X that predisposes men to evil?

On a similar note, Pakistan President Musharraf's decision to expel all the foreign students in Pakistan's madrasas has raised the concern, not unreasonable, that this is unfair to those interested in a spiritual pursuit and study of Islam. Furthermore, one might ask, why not root out the 'bad 'uns', students or seminaries? Even better, modernize these so-called seats of learning? What Pakistan and the Islamic world needs is not more scholars of the hadith, but more scientists, engineers, doctors and thinkers. Islam once in history held the torch while others floundered in the dark. Things are quite different today, for manifold historical reasons. President Musharraf could spearhead a new Islamic Revolution, a great leap forward, as it were, for the Islamic world, and create a center of excellence for all the world.

The Daily Times of Pakistan cautions that the moves may not be enough
...One does not need to marshal arguments to prove that there can be no modern, progressive Pakistan while the country has a parallel, medieval and millenarian streak running through it.However, having said this, we need to put the new measures in a perspective.

First, and let this come as no surprise, some of these measures are not new. Banning extremist organisations, arresting their leaders and streamlining and registering seminaries, are measures the government decided to take, with no less fanfare, back in 2002. Since then, their implementation has been the story of inefficiency and selectivity.

A truly insightful comment in the Daily Times editorial reads, referring to the private madrasas,
The sanctity of a private entity is directly proportional to the good that the entity can produce in a society. It does not mean freedom from regulation to do things that are patently against accepted or legal norms of behaviour or, as in this case, obviously murderous and criminal.

Not all terrorists come from the seminaries. But there is enough evidence to suggest that some seminaries have a dubious character on that count. Moreover, nearly all seminaries produce students with sectarian biases and narrow, particularistic ideologies. So it makes sense to tackle the problem in all its aspects.
the real problem in the longer run lies with the nature of the state itself. That brings us to other facets of the problem about which General Musharraf remains quiet. The problem, as it stands, has been the creation of his constituency. While he might want to move against the seminaries, he is not prepared to put the army in its correct place within the polity. Neither has he shown any desire to link up with regular, mainstream parties.

President Musharraf, make the Islamic Renaissance happen!

Also: Enlightened Moderation for Dummies

Friday, July 29, 2005

Do we need Newspapers anymore?

Is the era of the print newspaper over? Subscription numbers are steadily declining, and the biggest publishers are bleeding the most. Most cities worldwide have one or two major newspapers, and all are feeling the pinch.

The world's largest newspaper by circulation is now the Times of India, with over 2.4 million copies sold every day. This too, masks a change in how people get, and consume their news. Is the Masthead of the World now Google News, a post-9/11 creation?

Source: Editor and Publisher Yearbook data

Newspapers may be forced to adopt the approach of magazines in narrowing their focus, rather than the one-size-fits-all broadsheet approach. This might mean demographically focused papers, and smaller, faster editions.

Newspaper publishers are feeling a pinch both in terms of declining subscription revenues, and declining advertising revenues. They have blamed everything from the Do-Not-Call list to decline in a general reading habit. Although in total value, the advertising numbers have not much changed, their rate of growth is far below the desired.

Early techniques to boost circulation, like contests and giveaways have all but disappeared. Channel stuffing technique such as dropping more copies on doorsteps than actual subscribers, and fabricated circulation figures may mask a problem greater than it appears. The Audit Bureau also changed the way it counts circulation, including bulk free copies given to airlines, hotels, etc.

The quality of journalism is not much in question, at least for me. I find some of the finest columnists in the world's leading newspapers, although I read almost all of them online, rather than in print (Note: I subscribe to the NY Times Sunday edition only). At the same time, the web seems more effective at disseminating information, and the major newspapers do not seem to 'break' as many stories as they did. Not all web versions do well - and have both suffered, although perhaps for different reasons.

From a price standpoint, in an era whether the cost per bit is essentially zero, it is difficult for newspapers to justify charging what they do. This is a different topic however, and price cutting will likely not provide much succor.

Countries, like India have found growth in newspaper circulation has a close relationship with literacy levels.

What can newspapers do?
  • Go gentle into the night

  • Do not go gentle into the night - rage, rage against the dying of the light

  • Cut prices, and targets

  • Expand into new markets

  • Consolidate or cannibalize

  • Go all-electronic, and charge

  • Create niche editions

  • Start a war

Excellent information on American newspaper circulation at State Of the News Media

Also, India's National Readership Survey 2005 has counter-poised information
  • The reach of the press medium (dailies and magazines combined) has increased from 179 million to 200 million in the last three years

  • Literacy has risen from 62.5% to 70.6%. The rise has been more in rural areas than in urban India.

  • Dailies have driven this growth in the press medium, their reach rising from 23% to 24%. Magazines have declined in reach from 13% to 10%over the last three years.

  • Satellite TV has grown explosively in reach – from 134 million individuals watching in an average week in 2002 to as many as 190 million individuals in 2005 – almost catching up with the number of readers.

  • The time spent reading has gone up quite significantly though – from 30 minutes daily on an average to 39 minutes per day over the last three years.

  • Radio’s reach has stagnated at 23% of the population listening to any station in the average week.

Bharateeya Blog Mela

The multiple blog carnivals are quite interesting - one of somewhat personal interest is the Bharateeya Blog Mela - hosted this week by Mode C in a quite original format, as an Indian tale, from the perspective of two children who go to see the 'mela' or 'carnival' with their 'Postman Uncle'. The tale is choc-a-bloc with Indian cultural references and jokes, yet is pretty fun at that:
Pappu and Munni had done it again. Not exactly counted amongst ideal children, the brother-sister duo was living up to their reputation even today as they bunked school to go the Mela that had come to their town. Pappu and Munni had never seen a Mela and were very excited at the prospect of seeing if what they had read in their story books about such fairs was actually true. Mummy had given them their pocket money only yesterday and their pockets were full of jingling coins as they made their way towards the crowded street that led to the Mela. As they were about to enter the huge gates that welcomed them to the Mela, they heard a familiar voice behind them. "Oh no! Postman Uncle had seen them, he will tell all", thought the children.

But Postman Uncle was smiling. He came to where Pappu and Munni were standing, scooped them up his broad shoulders and after smilingly admonishing them for bunking school, agreed to show them around the Mela and not complain to Mummy or Papa (of course, Munni's tears and Pappu's tantrums had a role to play). "First up", said Postman Uncle, "we will go to see what you children will like the most".

My post on terrorism has been featured too:)
Ever the source of information, Postman Uncle told the children about achievements of Indians abroad. "However", said Postman Uncle, suddenly getting misty eyed, "before foreigners accept India and other South Asian countries in their fold, we need to counter prototypes like the one Aaman calls the blanket assumption that pan-Islamic terrorism is only about the Arab Muslim populace

Visit, and learn.

Quiz Time 6 - connections

Quiz Time 6

Yr Host - Aaman Lamba

Quizzing normally has two types of rounds - the dry rounds, which
unfortunately have little to do with spirits being imbibed or not, and the
audio/visual rounds. Some of the most interesting questions are
audio/visual connections - often these can be audio-audio or
audio-visual-visual, etc.

In this spirit, this quiz has a few of these types. I've also
fixed the bug from the last quiz that caused a new window when the
audio links were clicked.

Note: The answers have been inserted - how did you do?

The Questions - Stage I

1. Lamborghini cars are named for something. Miura, Jalpa, Diablo. What?

2. mpg What is the significance of this clip/advertisement?

3. These are two popular songs - connect them.

Coldplay's "Don't Panic" mpg
Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" mpg

4. pic1Connect this image and the audio clip.

Clip 1:mpg4

5. A conflict between Norma McCorvey and the
prosecutor of Jack Ruby has been in the news recently. What am I talking

6. What is the name of "The Bride" in Kill Bill?

7. pic1Connect this image and the audio clip

Clip 1:mpg5

8. pic2 pic1\3Connect these two images

9. Esmond Haddock, Dame Daphne Winkworth, The Earl
of Worplesdon, Digby Thistleton..Who's next in this series?
(Clue: Literature)

10. mpg4 Connect this famous song in the clip and the following verse:

Twelve o'clock.

Along the reaches of the street

Held in a lunar synthesis,

Whispering lunar incantations

Dissolve the floors of memory

And all its clear relations,

Its divisions and precisions,

Every street lamp that I pass

Beats like a fatalistic drum,

And through the spaces of the dark

Midnight shakes the memory

As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Send me questions, if you like at aamanlamba at

Audio clips made using audacity

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Posting audio on the web -


I've found the perfect way to host small clips on the web for use - at least for me - in quizzes, etc. - - you need an account with the Internet Archive as well, so be careful about copyright, fair use, et al.

Quiz Time 6 coming up...

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Terrorism and Its Enemies - An Alliance of Civilizations

In the past, the more enlightened of us could comfort ourselves with the thought that poverty and social repression produce malcontents and terrorists. Unfulfilled aspirations of statehood were also considered as contributing factors. Even then, though, this was not entirely true. While the rank and file of guerilla movements might come from economically or socially deprived sections of the society they rebelled against, their leaders and financiers were invariably educated, well-off citizens, if not of the same society, then of some other.

Things are very different today. Especially after the attacks in London, where it seems 'Paki is a dirty word' once more, and memories of the race riots seem fresh once more, the perpetrators of the attacks were educated British citizens, who 'completed' their schooling by betraying the society that fulfilled their aspirations rather than reforming/changing the one that failed them.

The blanket assumption that terrorists are trained or at least influenced by the madarsas or Islamic schools of Pakistan and elsewhere, though valid in part, is misleading as it masks some realities. As William Dalrymple points out in his recent column in the Guardian,
there is an important and fundamental distinction to be made between most madrasa graduates - who tend to be pious villagers from impoverished economic backgrounds, possessing little technical sophistication - and the sort of middle-class, politically literate, global Salafi jihadis who plan al-Qaida operations around the world. Most of these turn out to have secular scientific or technical backgrounds and very few actually turn out to be madrasa graduates.

At the same time, it may be informative to look at various aspects of modern Islamic terrorism, before exploring possible solutions.


Intelligence services, and the cognoscenti, have long known the term Al Qaeda is pretty much a misnomer today, and has been for a while. After the 'terrorist summit' of 1998 in the Phillipines, where the Islamic International Front was formed, knitting together as disparate groups as the Egyptian Brotherhood, the Islamic Jihad, the Uzbek nationalists, and at least five Pakistan-based terrorist organizations, the base of Al-Qaeda was replaced with a loosely knit confederacy of sinister groups. The key members are known to be:

  • The Al Qaeda, and it's military wing, the 055 Brigade

  • The Jamatul Jihad of Egypt led by Dr al-Zawahiri, and other Egyptian groups

  • The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan led by Jumma Namangani

  • The Hizb-e-Islami Turkistan, also led by Namangani

  • The Abu Sayyaf group of the Southern Philippines

  • A few Chechen groups operating out of Pakistan and the Chechnya region

  • An organisation of the Uighurs of Xinjiang in China

  • The Harkat-ul Mujahideen of Pakistan

  • The Lashkar-e-Tayiba of Pakistan

  • The Sipah-e-Sahaba of Pakistan, an extremist Sunni organisation which has been campaigning for the proclamation of Pakistan as a Sunni State, and their militant wing, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi

  • The Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami of Pakistan

  • The Taliban : Originally talibs, or students from the madrasas, and then Afghanistan

These organizations have separate, distinct objectives and interests. The Al Qaeda claims to fight for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and for the withdrawal of the US and British troops from Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian groups want Islamic rule in Egypt and tighter control in the region. The Harkat and Lashkar want the merger of J&K with Pakistan and, subsequently, the 'liberation' of Muslims in other parts of India. The Sipah-e-Sahaba wants a Sunni State in Pakistan and the declaration of the Shias as non-Muslims. The Uzbek group wants an Islamic State and the Turkistan group wants an Islamic Federation of all Central Asian republics and Xinjiang. The Uighurs want independence from China. The Chechens have been fighting for independence from Russia. The Indonesian groups, led by Hambali want an Islamic Caliphate stretching from Southeast Asia to Iran.

The military operations in Afghanistan broke up the Arab Muslim base, the Al Qaeda, and since 2003, the Lashkar-e-Tayiba have been coordinating most efforts. It is to be noted that at least 5 of the organizations have Pakistani bases and sources of support. Also, after the Afghanistan war, these groups retreated to Pakistan where they regrouped, before making their way in small groups to Iraq in late-2003, under the guise of Haj pilgrims.

The Iraqi movement is nominally headed by Ahmad Fadil Al-Khalailah, better known as Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist who saw action against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and later organized against King Hussein of Jordan. He has been affiliated with the Jamaat al-Tawhid wa'l-Jihad. which has a strong European presence, and has helped at least 70 British Muslims travel to Iraq since last year. It is not known to be a member of the IIF.

The Western governments have mistakenly strengthened the puppet masters of these groups by building up their leadership into iconic figures. Similar mistakes were made by Indira Gandhi in India with Bhindranwale in Punjab and the LTTE leader Prabhakaran in Sri Lanka. Post-World War II, the covert coordination of intelligence agencies that proved effective against earlier terrorist movements, lost ground in the 1980s, allowing these non-state actors to gain prominence as self-proclaimed representatives of their societies. Political interests allowed them to flourish, and an inability to keep the focus on their state sponsors has let them gain much ground in these communities.

In one example of this, the continuing inability of the West to bring Pakistan's failed house to order reminds one of similar support of General Pinochet, and others that led to much grief. While General Musharraf has much more intelligence and many of his counter-terrorist actions have borne fruit, his earlier support for the same groups and failure to root out terrorist sympathisers and supporters from his own army and governments is troubling at the very least. Pakistan has faced much terrorism itself, and he was the target of numerous personal assassination attempts. More needs to be done, as we shall see.

Locations and Bases:

The IIF has various concentrations in Pakistan, apart from the NWFP(North West Frontier Province) and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) that house the remaining Taliban, the Uzbeks and Chechens, the larger groups have been based in Karachi and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Various seminaries and madrasas such as the Tablighi Jamaat in Raiwind, the Muridke madrasas and the Binori madrasa are center-point. A few were recently cracked down on by Gen. Musharraf post the London attacks.

The key group, Lashkar-e-Taiba{LeT}, originated from the Markaz Dawat-ul Irshad (Center for Religious Learning and Social Welfare). It was established by Hafiz Saeed and Zafar Iqbal of the Engineering University, Lahore, and Abdullah Azzam of the International Islamic University, Islamabad, in 1987. They operate close to a 100 madrasas in the town of Muridke outside Lahore. The sleeper cells busted by the FBI in Maryland and Virginia were run by the LeT. They renamed themselves to the Jamaat ul-Dawa to circumvent bans, but this is only cosmetic. They are linked with the Snakehead syndicate, as well as supplying fighters to Iraq. There are indications that at least one of the 7/7 London bombers visited a Muridke madarsa(PBS report). They are autonomous and coordinate the IIF.

The Jaish-e-Mohammed have links with the Binori madrasa complex in Karachi. This is allegedly where Osama bin Laden was treated for splinter injuries after Tora Bora. This is a hardline Deobandi group, originator of most of the policies of pan-Islamic terrorism. The chief imam, or mufti, of the Binori madrasa was Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai. He was killed by unknown assailants on May 30. He was second only to the chief Mufti of Pakistan. He was the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology and issued nearly 2000 fatwas, mostly against the US, India and Israel. as the mentor and godfather of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and its militant wing the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. He was designated patron-in-chief of the Jaish and was a member of the shura of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Maulana Fazlur Rahman's Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam.

External to Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islamiya are based out of Indonesia, and reportedly Bangladesh. The Jamaat-Ul-Fuqra operate out of the US and Carribean, and are dedicated to cleansing Islam through violence. They have acquired various rural compounds across the US, sheltering various cadres and elements. Their head, Sheikh Mubarak Gilani is now in Pakistani custody.

The list could go on, but it should be clear that pan-Islamic terrorism is much more than an Arab Muslim movement.

The global war, it has already been found, is not a single-focus war, with pure military objectives. It requires covert action, psy-war approaches and social engineering, similar to the multi-lateral, international "alliance of civilizations" that arose post-World War II, and which was fostered by the global terror of the War itself. As B Raman, erstwhile counter-terrorism head of RAW(India), put it, in a prescient column in 2001,
In the 1950s and the 1960s, when a large number of democracies in the Western as well as the non-aligned worlds were faced with armed Communist insurgencies sponsored by Moscow and Beijing, all the affected countries fought this menace jointly through a mix of overt and covert actions in a discreet, non-spectacular manner. That is the model to be emulated after updating it, where necessary

These thoughts seem to be coming true, as evidenced by Tony Blair's statement on meeting with the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, that,
"We discussed the proposal that the Spanish prime minister has made for what he calls an alliance of civilisations, which is the idea that we join together, our countries with Muslim countries - Turkey is particularly involved in this - to form a coalition of civilised people from whatever race or religion to combat the barbarity of terrorism.

Worth reading: Al Jazeera's piece "The World Faces One Threat" and the Times of London's "War on Words", as well as "Pakistani is a bad word in Britain" by TVR Shenoy, that quotes Harry Potter, saying, "'It is our choices, Harry, that show what we really are, far more than our abilities.'

Next up: a SWOT Analysis of pan-Islamic Terrorism, and solution options.

Sources: South Asia Intelligence Review,
B Raman,
The Dudley Knox Library of the Naval Postgraduate School

Defeating The Jihadists: A Blueprint For Action/Richard A. Clarke The Scorpion's Gate/Richard  Clarke Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror/Richard A. Clarke The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity/Tariq Ali The Two Faces of Islam : Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism/Stephen Schwartz Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook/Charles Kurzman The Trouble with Islam Today : A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith/Irshad Manji

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Hell's Kitchen - Updates

Hell's Kitchen has been a tumultuous ride thus far. The show seemed poorly produced in initial episodes, with odd cuts, and exasperating contestants. Gordon Ramsay's demeanor was unsettling to say the least.

As the weeks have passed, and thanks more to the wonders of TiVO/DVRs than the editing, one has grown more and more interested in the show. Ramsay is a talented chef, if not quite a patient teacher. The contestants are not just exasperating - they are petty, snivelling, middling cooks, and seem to lack grace under pressure.

The elimininations have been the interesting part - the viewer never knows what tasks or format will the contests take. Unlike The Apprentice, this show is able to throw reality-show conventions to the wind, and if only we didn't have to deal with the numerous voice-overs endlessly repeating what the attentive viewer knows well, we'd have a great show.

Last night's episode, the penultimate one, was quite interesting. Jessica displayed a not surprising casualness and didn't help with the initial task - a rush job to bake bread in preparation for the dinner service. Her souffle flopped, too. Michael and Ralph displayed their skill and experience throughout the episode, juggling multiple tasks, taking over many of Jessica's assignments, and finally completing a complete service for the first time on the show.(more details at Jokersupdates)

The individual preparations looked good, especially Ralph's filet mignon. In an interesting surprise, the contestants' families were present, and asked to rank the dishes. Michael's tuna beat Ralph's steak by a slim margin, leaving Jessica in last place, and having to leave the show.

In what may be a first for reality television, and I'm guessing here, Jessica's family included her 'girlfriend' - not a small step for television-dom.

Next week's two-hour episode features Michael and Ralph running their own kitchens, assisted by the previously axed participants. The winner gets his own restaurant.

Flame on!

Winner updates here

Sleep, and other maladies

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

Sleep is one of the most mystical and yet truly quotidian events of life. Adult humans spend about a third of their lives sleeping. All homeothermic vertebrate mammals sleep. REM seems essential to restful sleep. My father, who lapsed into a deep depression near the end of his life, was afflicted with insomnia. His sleep, even the induced variety left him more tired when he woke. Perhaps he was unable to dream.

Sleep deprivation seems to be a favorite means of torture. Considered non-invasive, it still leaves scars on the psyche. Our circadian rhythms are disrupted, and this affects more than the body, as any medical student can affirm. Sleepless nights, whether in Seattle or not, can mean a terrible day. Polyphasic sleep, or short siestas can help ease the tiredness.

The physiological aspects of sleep are well studied, yet still little understood. The Non-REM and REM phases alternate, and the REM phase is the more erratic, causing changes in blood pressure, heart and breathing rate, as well as clitoral and penile engorgement. The brain is very active in REM, related to the dream states experienced.

A dream goes through the phases of hallucination, delusion, emotional identification, amnesia of sorts, and cognitive surrealism. REM has been found only in mammals and young birds, indicating that dreaming too is perhaps related to evolutionary changes. I've noticed my dog dreaming, and can tell why my young baby is having a dream. No way of telling though, what dogs and babies dream of.

The motivations for sleep lie in preserving circadian rhythms, although numerous theories point to metabolic, developmental, and learning/analysis explanations for sleep. A spiritualist might consider sleep a time for "dulcis sermonicinatio". Many a problem, challenge or tension is resolved in sleep.

A comfortable bed and sleeping position is paramount. This is a topic of much worth, and little agreement. I tend to adopt a semi-fetal position to my right, on an IKEA Malmo futon, for now. Despite all theories to the contrary, women own the bed, and we men are mere guests at their convenience. That too, is a topic of some interest, but perhaps for another time.

The Macbeth-like fear

Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care,

The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,

Chief nourisher in life's feast,...

can be counter-poised with Ogden Nash's more jocular, perhaps dream-inspired response,
-- Ogden Nash

The ravelled sleeve of care, O Sleep,
Knit up or not. I shall not weep.
Make up your mind, or leave it lay,
I’m fortified, whichever way.
Farewell, farewell to Morpheus’ arms!
Welcome excursions and alarms!
Murder will out, so will the night,
Far sooner than this bedside light.
When borogoves grow over-mimsy,
Destroy them with Lord Peter Wimsey;
When landlords lurk upon the morrow,
Sneer Gallicly with Hercule Poirot,
Or with your thumb in some forlorn dyke,
Refresh your soul with Doctor Thorndyke.
Let Strephon dream of merry maying,
I much prefer a ghastly slaying.
I find myself a sounder man
For Father Brown and Charlie Chan.
I hug myself and holler “Champion!”
When I encounter Albert Campion;
To me like the Golden Fleece to Jason
Are Inspector French and Perry Mason,
And blissful am I when a handler
Of anything by Raymond Chandler.
Indeed I’ll even take a chance
On Ellery Queen and Philo Vance,
Enduring barely in the latter
The mannerisms for the matter.
More soothing than the genial toddy
I hold a mutilated body.
I’ve watched with fascinated eyes
Detectives fall, detectives rise,
And racing through a thousand tomes,
Reflect, There’s no police like Holmes.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Magnificent Ambersons, Time and Regret

Orson Welles' second film, The Magnificent Ambersons is a dark masterpiece of early film-making. Despite it's butchered form - almost 50 minutes were destroyed by the studio - it succeeds in creating an atmosphere of social upheaval, unfulfilled love and cruel arrogance derived from an overweening sense of superiority.

The film, based on the book by Booth Tarkington, is set in a Midland town in the post-bellum period of the late 1800s. It portrays the magnificence of the Ambersons, an indisputably well-off family in this small town. The patriarch, Major Amberson, developed a portion of the town, and built a grandiose mansion to house his clan. The early parts of the tale describe the changing times afflicting the town, from personal appearance to architecture. The verbiage of the book is replaced by a visual collage of these social changes. Much like we ourselves find our world buffetted by unceasing change, those fin-de-siecle times had a tumultuous zeitgeist. As a passage in the book describes it,
It was a hairier day than this. Beards were to the wearers' fancy, and things as strange as the Kaiserliche boar-tusk moustache were commonplace. "Side-burns" found nourishment upon childlike profiles; great Dundreary whiskers blew like tippets over young shoulders; moustaches were trained as lambrequins over forgotten mouths; and it was possible for a Senator of the United States to wear a mist of white whisker upon his throat only, not a newspaper in the land finding the ornament distinguished enough to warrant a lampoon. Surely no more is needed to prove that so short a time ago we were living in another age!

The simple town, dealing with these changes, found the Ambersons a surprise and a challenge. their magnificence "as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral". The Amberson heiress, Miss Isabel is much serenaded by many a boisterous town gentleman, but chooses instead a more persistent suitor, Wilbur Minifer, not precisely because she loves him. They have a child, George, who turns out to be a spoilt, arrogant rich brat.

The arrogant boy grows up to be an intolerable rich young man, used to getting his own way, and calling the shots. In one scene, George, played by Tim Holt, tells Miss Lucy, featuring Anne Baxter in her debut, and I'm paraphrasing a bit, "Be ready by 2 P.M. for our sleigh ride". She replies, "I will not be ready at 2". He responds, firmly, "You WILL be ready at 2 for our ride". She acquiesces, only a minor example of his pride and effrontery.

Miss Lucy is the daughter of Eugene Morgan, who, as it turns out, was one of Miss Isabel's jilted suitors, and the one she truly loved. Following the demise of her husband, Mr Minafer, he presses his suit once again. She does not deny him her favors, but her proud son, slams the door on his face literally. His aunt Fanny, played by Agnes Moorehead, delivers a sterling performance of an old maid, destined to suffer in the shadows of her more beautiful and richer sister. This state of affairs persists, set against a backdrop of portending economic ruin, caused by the changing fortunes of the family and coupled with the challenges faced by the upcoming 'horseless carriages'.

An investment in headlights goes bad, and George is finally faced with reality as most people live it. His aims of leading an idle life, or following a social cause are dashed, as is his interest in Lucy. He plans to leave the town, but his mother falls ill. He refuses Eugene permission to be with her in her final moments, yet he finally gets his 'come-uppance', as long desired by the townsfolk, when he is forced to work for a minimum wage, and grapple with quotidian challenges. Enfin, he is wounded in an automobile accident. Close to the end of the film, he acknowledges that Eugene might have been in the right, and his mother would have been pleased to see Eugene minister to her son in his pain.

The film has a staccato feeling in the second half, and one cannot but wonder which scenes were forever lost to the studio's knife. The democratization of American society, the leveling of it's aristocracy, and the rise of a generation of nouveau riche engineers and industrialists serve as backdrops for the tale.

Frank Lloyd Wright, grandfather of Anne Baxter, visited the sets of the film and reportedly could not stop exclaiming about the sets, not that they were poorly made, but that people could live in houses such as the ones depicted. Much has changed in the world, yet the magnificence of wealth, and the arrogance it can engender does not much change.

In a classic Hindi film, Waqt, or Time, a wealthy industrialist, proud and satisfied, is abruptly challenged with rebuilding his life when an earthquake destroys his secure world. The comforts one derives from the material and substantial cannot be held onto when faced with time's vagaries, is the message, conveyed by this film as well.

Project Gutenberg edition of The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons The Magnificent Ambersons (The Modern Library Classics)/Booth Tarkington The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction/Robert L. Carringer The Magnificent Ambersons (Bfi Film Classics)/V. F. Perkins This is Orson Welles/Jonathan Rosenbaum

Review: The Third Translation

One has seen a plethora of books dealing with real or imagined ancient mysteries, from the Da Vinci Code to the "Rule of Four". I found the Rule of Four an intereresting read, given that it dealt with a very real mystery, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. I was delighted to find the Milwaukee Central Library actually had an original copy of this Renaissance manuscript.

The Third Translation deals with another ancient mystery manuscript, or stela in this case, the Stela of Paser. This is a hymn to the Egyptian Goddess Mut, from Karnak at Thebes, Egypt, dating back to about 1150 pre-C.E. The hieroglyphs are laid out on a grid, crossword like, allowing both horizontal and vertical interpretations. The mystery, yet unsolved, lies in the notation at the top of the Stela, that there are 'three ways' of reading the inscription. Much analysis and theory has been spent in finding the 'third translation'.

Dan Brown, or many other authors, would perhaps have used this as a springboard to reveal a secret conspiracy passed down the ages, one enveloping everyone from Yves St Laurent to Michelangelo. While Matt Bondurant does introduce a conspiracy, involving a modern-day cult dedicated to restoring Aten/Amun, it is not a conspiracy of the grandiose sort, made up instead of giant wrestlers, 'Krishnas' who turn out to be a group of 'Saudi and Egyptian Muslims operating some kind of stolen-artifacts ring to support extremist groups', and a half-mad, deranged collector of antiquities named Oldcastle.

The book encompasses much more interesting themes. It promises to make one an Egyptologist of sorts, or evoke an interest at the very least in the field. The lead character, Dr Walter Rothschild, is an American Archaeologist on loan to the British Museum, and on contract to solve the Paser mystery. A woman influences him to show her the Stela, and rewards him, in a manner of speaking. She steals, not the Stela, but a mysterious Song of Amun.

This is the launching point for a multi-layered quest to retrieve the Song, and for Walter to re-appraise his life, his work and his unfulfilled dreams. Along the way, we learn much interesting stuff, including details of the secret Canadian mission to the Moon.

The writing style is literary, given to flashbacks and expositions on Egyptology, perhaps along the lines of Dr Crichton, with the concommittant drawbacks in loss of pace, breaks in the story, et al. Grammatical errors and redundancy persist. All the same, it is an interesting, well-written book, with visual descriptiveness. One excerpt should suffice, with interesting themes.
If the fabric of space is made of strings, tiny vibrating strings, forming looped dimensions that shimmer with the music of eternity, then we must walk through eternity at every step. This need to return, to follow the line of linear history to try and reel it back, gasping and flopping in the boat, desperate under the knife of the present; it still can only be understood in terms of the relative position of the observer as the entire world moves past him. History is so much like physics in this manner. But my position was no longer stationary; I had allowed myself to be caught up in the currents of the great river. The third way was a solution that could not be translated, at least to anyone else. I would have it in my heart, alone.

British tones abound in the novel, with scenes set on the Cam, in Soho, and elsewhere in the London metropolis. Reading this book soon after the tragic bombings of July, one wondered how the hustle and flow of SoHo, and the teeming crowds might have changed, if at all.

The Third Translation : A Novel/Matt Bondurant The Rule of Four/Dustin Thomason The Egyptologist: A Novel/Arthur Phillips The Historian/Elizabeth Kostova Angels & Demons/Dan Brown The Da Vinci Code/Dan Brown

Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Wondering Minstrels

One of the finest mailing lists I subscribe to is The Wondering Minstrels, a poem-a-day list that magically pops a fine poem in my mailbox with trenchant commentary, and takes guest submissions as well.

The poetry-by-email service is run by Abraham Thomas and Martin DeMello off a server at Rice University maintained by Sitaram Iyer. The name comes from a W S Gilbert libretto, The Mikado,
"A Wandering Minstrel I
A thing of shreds and patches
Of ballads, songs and snatches
And dreamy lullaby."
The FAQ notes,
the pun on 'wondering-wandering' is meant to evoke a sense of the numinous - truly great poetry takes you on a journey of revelation and wonder, emotion and insight.

Poetry selections vary, from the well-known to the eclectic, rare, or absolutely unknown. For example, Pablo Neruda's "Saddest Poem"("I no longer love her, true, but perhaps I love her./Love is so short and oblivion so long./Because on nights like this I held her in my arms,/my soul is lost without her./Although this may be the last pain she causes me,/and this may be the last poem I write for her.") contrasts with Joni Mitchell's "The Fiddle And The Drum"("You say we have turned/Like the enemies you've earnedBut we can remember/All the good things you are/And so we ask you please/Can we help you find the peace and the star/Oh my friend
We have all come/To fear the beating of your drum"

Yesterday's poem was a visually rich piece titled "Monet Refuses the Operation" by Lisel Mueller - the link is to another poetry list, Panhala, with visual and audio images apposite the poem.

Today's mail was a reader request to identify the poet who composed the following lines, answered soon enough (43 minutes) by another subscriber.
"There are such parades, such pomp and art
That joy scarce ever reached their heart
Nights are filled with drink and whoring
Life next day isn't worth enduring."

Give it a shot - identify the poet. (I'll post the poet/poem soon)

To subscribe to The Wondering Minstrels, send a blank email to

Friday, July 22, 2005

Be Cool Or Else

Elmore Leonard novels make good films, except for the Big Bounce perhaps. There is something strange, however, about viewing a film that is less film and more meta-reality show. The jokes seem contrived, the situations forced to prove one point or another, and the film qua film insubstantial.

Be Cool succeeds in many ways - most notably the acting. John Travolta IS cool. Cedric plays his part, rap boss Sin LaSalle, well, and Steven Tyler shows great chemistry with John T. Uma Thurman doesn't quite fill her role, however. She seems too put-on, too fancy. The re-enactment of the Pulp Fiction dance sequence doesn't work - too many cuts, only Travolta is cool, and casual dance-floor crossers spoil the intimate magic.

The film is filled choc-a-bloc with references to other films - from Get Shorty to Pulp Fiction. These seem too contrived, however, to mean much. Pop Culture easily descends to kitsch. In some cases, when this is deliberate, it is considered art of sorts. In this case, as in many others, it is trash.

The nomnal story actual holds the key to fathoming the essence of the film. Aptly enough, given the author. The film, while telling the tale, old as the Hollywood sign, of a film producer trying to help a wanna-be singer make it big, sets up a clever juxtaposition of the film and music industries. The fumbling direction however, sends the film in too many directions to do this theme much good.

The jokes are deliberately offensive, and pander to every stereotype imaginable, The Rock attempts to portray a gay bodyguard, and delivers an unusual performance, somewhat unsettling. The camp, arch tone of the role is further enhanced in the extra music video on the DVD, the Dolly Parton, "You Aren't Woman Enough to Take My Man". Racist commentary is offset, as if to apologize, by an over-earnest homily on the power of music and the contributions made to society by different groups.

The in-humor, such as the shameless name-dropping, and numerous cameo appearances (look out for Gene Simmons, Anna Nicole, and the Nintendo DS), sometimes rises to the level of archness, but re-enactments of classic scenes don't quite hold the same magic.

Christina Milian, although a magically-talented singer, isn't able to hold up against the very vocal Steven Tyler, and that rendition of Sweet Emotion could have done with some more coordination. The soundtrack is pretty good, featuring many fine tracks.

Elmore Leonard, himself, the man who sent up the movie business in 'Get Shorty" doesn't seem too pleased with this film. He feels it's not 'my sound', perhaps as in, it fails to convey the street-cred his books so painstakingly create. The farcical nature of the film, and it's numerous self-referential scenes take away from the inner tension of crime gangs, unbreakable contracts, and casual killers.

Be Cool (Widescreen Edition) Be Cool/Original Soundtrack Be Cool/Elmore Leonard Get Shorty (Special Edition) Jackie Brown (Collector's Edition)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Review:Coldplay's X&Y

Given the breadth of one's cultural inputs - films, books, and music - one often gets desensitized to good stuff. It sometimes helps to step back, put something aside, and then return to it a while later.

Coldplay's third album, X&Y originally seemed stale and uninteresting. One felt that they could have done better, or at the very least, changed tack in their musical odyssey. There is more than a passing similarity musically to their earlier albums. The themes are trite, and the singles over-played.

I recently rediscovered the album, however, and find myself looking at it in a different light. The correlation to their earlier work seems apposite, and the songs flow well.

Listened in order, they alternate between fast and slow, only the first of deliberate opposites that the album creates. The general theme, at least to this reviewer, seems to be promises made, kept, betrayed, and a sense of creative discomfort with the way things are.
"Square One" asks if the need/desire to excel and stand out is commonplace, and whether it can be achieved really. In a world which is populated by over-achievers and the bar constantly raised, this is a fair question. What of the silent, the under-achievers, the disconnected? The singer stresses that we are all the same really, even the ones who don't get heard amidst all the noise.

"What If" explores the fear of commitment, the need to be loved, and the urge to sometimes just chuck it all. Very typical Coldplay song, really.

"White Shadows" is one of the best, perhaps most-overlooked songs on the album. The rocking beat is simple, yet effective. The song wonders whether there is something wrong with the system, there are dissonances in the modernist symphony. There is an air of hope, that we are 'part of the human race/All of the stars in outer space/Part of a system, a plan', and a wish that 'Maybe you'll get what you wanted/Maybe you'll stumble upon it'.

"Fix You" uses a sonorous organ as a backdrop to this song of promise and betrayal. The tempo is decidedly slow, and the guitar track deliciously crisp. The final third of the song speeds things up, with a sort of choral verse, quite poignant and abrupt."Tears stream down your face/When you lose something you cannot replace/Tears stream down your face/And I..."

"Talk" has a sort of U2-flavor to it. It continues the theme of things gone inexpressibly wrong, when 'nothing's really making any sense at all'. One could do literally anything in this new world, and still feel incomplete."You could climb a ladder up to the sun/Or write a song nobody had sung/Or do something that’s never been done". It borrows and adapts Kraftwerk's "Computer Love" by playing the melody on a guitar, rather than electronically. The comparison to Kraftwerk is a dangerous one, though. They were seen as digital-age visionaries before being cast by the musical wayside. Coldplay may avoid that fate, given their undoubtable talent, but the need for versatility and range, a la the White Stripes for example, cannot be overlooked.

"X&Y" addresses the same 'broken-ness' of things, perhaps on a more personal level this time.'I want to love you but I don’t know if I can/I know something is broken and i’m trying to fix it/Trying to repair it any way I can'

"Speed Of Sound" seems to deal with building up resolve to change the way things are, wondering "How long am I going to stand/With my head stuck under the sand". It appeals to the listener to look beyond 'Ideas that you'll never find" and past "The buildings you put up/All Japan and China, all lit up". He looks back at the Concorde ("...birds go flying at the speed of sound") and the ever-increasing pace of change, confessing that 'Some things you have to believe/but others are puzzles, puzzling me". He seems to have figured it, or something, out, promising that "When you see it, then you'll understand"

"A Message" sounds like a late Lennon piece, a slow ballad with a single, specific theme, a message of 'love unknown'. A promise is made that the singer is nothing alone, and that he must 'get that message home'.

"Low" is a fast song about feeling low. To this reviewer, various images evoked the memory of William Blake's poem "Tyger" - perhaps the references to 'colour' and 'perfect symmetry'. He promises, once more, that the loved one means much more to him 'Than any color I can see'. He feels that the loved one didn't try hard enough, asking the question, "Don’t you want to see it come soon/Floating in a big white balloon/Or given on your own silver spoon/Don’t you want to see it come down/There for throwing your arms around/And say "you're not a moment too soon", and immediately after, confessing that he feels 'low', not surprisingly. Another note on "The Tyger" - the poem deals with the images of the 'satanic mills' of the Industrial revolution, and a growing self-awareness that evil exists, and love is not omnipresent - a theme in keeping with this album, perhaps.

"The Hardest Part" continues the 'bittersweet' flavoring, admitting that "Everything I know is wrong/Everything I do, it just comes undone/And everything is torn apart/Oh, and that’s the hardest part". Good melody.

"Swallowed in The Sea" acknowledges some influences by The Pogues, and some fine lyrics. It expresses a need to return to simplicity, a one-on-one approach to the world, as opposed to the overblown, chaotic spaces of our worldly lives. I find the braggadocio of the lyrics (a song a hundred miles long...a book..they say shook the world') touching when compared to the inner theme of the song dealing with a very private communication.

"Twisted Logic" comes closest to a direct disavowal of the modern world and it's ways. It makes an appeal not to 'fight for the wrong side/Say what you feel like/Say how you feel". It wonders if "Hundreds of years in the future/There could be computers/Looking for life on earth", a warning if ever there was one. The song holds a dark, yet humanistic opinion that "If somebody made it/Someone will mess it up/And you are not wrong to/Ask who does this belong to/It belongs to all of us"

"'Til Kingdom Come" was originally intended to be recorded by the late Johnny Cash. It is a sparsely produced track, with little orchestration, wrapping the album up with the by-now standard refrain that "I need someone, someone who hears/For you i’ve waited all these years/For you i’d wait til kingdom come/Until my day, my day is done"

Unless there is more to the picture than meets the eye, one wonders why someone at the top of their game, with a wife like Gwyneth Paltrow, and a young child would be writing so many dystopian elegies. Perhaps he doesn't fancy the name 'Apple' any more. Or perhaps he really is feeling the sense of dissonance and ennui that seems to envelop much of our society. In that sense, this album is very much a product of our tumultuous, tsunami-rich times.

Coldplay are made up of Chris Martin (vocals/piano), Jon Buckland (guitar), Will Champion (drums), and Guy Berryman (bass)

X&Y/Coldplay A Rush of Blood to the Head/Coldplay Parachutes/Coldplay Get Behind Me Satan/The White Stripes Computer World/Kraftwerk A Lover's Discourse : Fragments/Richard Howard

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Quiz Time 5

Quiz Time 5

Yr Host - Aaman Lamba

Another quiz - some guest questions, some audio - click on the audio to play the clip or save to disk and then answer the question.

Note: The answers have been added.

The Questions - Stage I

1. This airline was started in 1955 when an American commercial pilot relocated several war-surplus Dakota Aircraft which he had been operating as a private air service after the end of World War ll. 49% of its shares were held by Pan American Airways during start-up. The logo of the Airline was designed by the king of the country in which it is now based and the design represents a swallow on a blue field, whose graceful fight has always delighted the people of the country throughout the ages, and the blue field was inspired by the precious stone lapis lazuli, found uniquely in the high mountains of this country. Which airline/country?
Contributed by Aniruddha Dutta


2. mpg Identify this popular song, which makes reference to a superhero in the last verse - the one in the clip actually. Who?

3. This 1932 film was the only film where all three Barrymores - John, Ethel and Lionel - appeared together. It gained notoriety when Prince Yusupov brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against MGM for insuniating in the film that the lead character may have raped his wife. The film was bowdlerized to remove any such references and future screenings/prints carried a warning. Name the film, and what practice in films, now common, did this originate?
Contributed by swingingpuss

4. Another qn from Anirudha Dutta. This publishing house was established as 'The Scientific Press' in 1920s by Sir Maurice and Lady Gwyer with the weekly magazine 'The Nursing Mirror' as its first publication. T S Eliot left Lloyds bank and joined this company as an advisor in 1925. They were earlier specialist publishers for poetry and have been associated with as many as 9 Nobel laureates over the years. What am I talking about?

5. Robert Heinlein contributed much to writing, and English. Expand either or both of these acronyms found in his books, now popular.
a)"E.F. or F.F"

6. mpg Identify either the person providing the backing vocal to Robert Plant on this famous song, or it's source, as in, what is it based on?

7. pic1Identify

8. pic2Identify - to get any points, name the news organization he represented.

9. mpg3 These are the opening notes for which popular podcast?

10. mpg4 Borrowed from the podcast above, identify this artist doing a cover version of a popular song from a few years back by Oasis.

Send me questions, if you like at aamanlamba at Also, would it be a good idea to not have the answers up with the questions?

Audio clips made using audacity

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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader