Thursday, September 28, 2006

Cryptic script

The Thirumailai (Mylapore) station of Chennai's elevated train system (MRTS) has this sign pointing out their reservation centre. (Despite what it says, you don't reserve computers there: you reserve seats on trains.)

The sign is in Tamil, English and... what's the third language?

My guess is it's an encoded insult to Hindi.

(photo credit: my wife krithika)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Beyond chutzpah, Indian style

Every few months I receive, generally from some well-meaning but unthinking source, a mail claiming that India's national anthem was written in honour of Britain's King George V. Today's version begins "Did you know the following about our national anthem, I didnt (sic)" and ends "Please dont(sic) break the chain lets see how many people are coming to know about it" which suggests that it may have started life as a joke. Indeed it would be a joke if it didn't show up in my inbox (and on numerous websites) with such regularity. As it is, it proves my contention that right-wingers have absolutely no sense of humour, irony or subtlety.

The true story, well described here, is that Tagore was asked to compose a song in the King's honour in 1911 when he visited Calcutta; and he did write this song for that occasion. But the song is certainly not in the British king's honour. It basically flips off the king by proclaiming that there is a higher deity that rules the land. But I suppose this point is too subtle for some.

It is exceedingly distasteful that Tagore, one of the greatest figures India has produced, a man who was associated with the freedom movement for decades, should have his patriotism questioned by the sort of scum who destroy historical archives and wreck hospitals, descendants of the scum who assassinated Gandhi. And it is repugnant that such rubbish continues its way around the world's inboxes, forwarded by, as I said, well-meaning but unthinking people.

Meanwhile, over in the new world, Bush, who used his father's influence to avoid combat, can persuade his people that Kerry, the Vietnam veteran, has a dodgy war record. I wonder where the right-wing, everywhere, gets such chutzpah.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Dylan recording in modern times

So yesterday I picked up Dylan's(*) latest CD, the one that has been getting rave reviews and even topped the charts in the US.

My reaction? First -- the sound is every bit as bad as Dylan complains ("Atrocious... these songs probably sounded 10 times better in the studio when we recorded 'em.") Except that he blames it on modern recording technology and, in particular, on CDs, which he says "are small. There's no stature to it."

No, the medium is not the problem. I have a few hundred CDs and most of them, whether originally recorded in the '30s or the '00s, sound excellent -- as does a lot of live audio (in particular, the soundboard recordings) that you can pick up from places like The problem in Dylan's case seems to be an excess of reverb and echo (it sounds a bit like Phil Spector's disasters from the 1970s) combined with a "flattening" of the dynamic range, so that all the instruments, and Dylan's own voice, have roughly the same volume. As a result it all sounds indistinct and muddy -- or, in Dylan's words, "no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static." Dylan should get himself some new sound engineers.

Musically the band is competent. It seems extreme of Dylan to call them "the best band he's ever had" (what about The Band?) but they do their job well. And the words? Mostly they're reworkings of old folk and blues tunes (and I don't see why Dylan can claim music-writing credit for "Rollin' and Tumblin'", but maybe he figured that nearly all twelve-bar blues songs have the same tune anyway).

And the lyrics are disappointing. First, I find it hard to follow them by listening, and second, even if I "read along" (on the web -- my CD booklet did not contain lyrics) they don't seem to mean anything. "Visions of Johanna" didn't seem to mean anything either, but it seemed to speak directly and insistently to its listener. Not these songs. Taken as poetry, they're pretty bad, and the messages seem pretty naive too. ("There's an evenin' haze settlin' over town / Starlight by the edge of the creek / The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down / Money's gettin' shallow and weak / Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory / It's a new path that we trod / They say low wages are a reality / If we want to compete abroad"). While it doesn't plumb depths such as 1983's "License to kill" ("Oh, man has invented his doom / First step was touching the moon") or his late-1970s born-again music, it doesn't soar to any particular heights either.

Comparisons are odious, so I'll be odious. The other elderly poet-singer enjoying a renewed burst of activity is Leonard Cohen, who released his last album ("Dear Heather") in 2004, and followed it up this year with a book of poetry ("Book of longing") and an album where he doesn't sing or perform but contributes lyrics (Anjani's "Blue Alert"). Most of "Blue Alert", and much of "Dear Heather", really is poetry set to music, and in songs like "Undertow" and the title song from Dear Heather he says more in a stanza than Dylan does in ten.

Cohen tells a story of how he and Dylan were sitting talking in a cafe in Paris; at that time Cohen had been impressed by Dylan's "I and I" (in fact he's an outspoken admirer of Dylan), while Dylan had been performing Cohen's "Hallelujah" in concert. Dylan asked Cohen how long it took him to write "Hallelujah", and Cohen said two years. Then Cohen asked Dylan how long it took to write "I and I", and Dylan said 15 minutes.

On this occasion I wish Dylan had taken a bit longer over his lyrics.

All the same, this is probably his best album since "Desire" thirty years ago.

(*)update - I mean Bob, of course

Friday, September 22, 2006

Blogging musicians

Sometime back I found an official Neil Young anti-war blog. I was impressed for a moment, but it appeared that he did not himself blog there, though it was "officially" his. (And for some reason, the most recent post is dated May 2007.)

More recently I came across David Knopfler's very lefty blog. David is no Mark, having extricated himself from Dire Straits after an early Communiqué, but his music (available at his myspace page) seems pretty listenable.

I came across David's myspace page by way of Anjani's. David is the brother and one-time backing guitarist of a well-known musician with a sandpapery voice; Anjani is the girlfriend and long-time backing singer of another musician with a gruff (or, as he puts it, "golden") voice, Leonard Cohen. More to the point, Anjani has recently released a fine album, Blue Alert, that combines Cohen's moody lyrics with her own tunes and musical arrangements: minimalistic jazz, mostly just her piano, a relief from Cohen's own recent pop-synth arrangements. Outstanding stuff. Other reviewers have said that she sounds like a female Cohen or that Cohen's voice (though it doesn't actually appear) "permeates the album like smoke", but I think she brings a quite different dimension to his words. (Compare, for instance, this version of "Nightingale" with the one on "Dear Heather".)

I don't know whether Anjani blogs, but she apparently reads and posts to them, actually getting into an amusing discussion with a reviewer who expressed his desire to bed her (simultaneously with two other female singers). LC himself chips in at one point.

I look forward to more from LC and Anjani. More music I mean, but the blog exchange was fun to read, too.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A scandal in Philadelphia

Today I came across this news (well, it's some weeks old, but I didn't know until a blogger friend linked it). A professor emeritus at Wharton, one of the top business schools in the US, was arrested on paedophilia charges.

The remarkable thing is that he's been in trouble before: he was caught in a sting operation in 1993, did not admit guilt but acknowledged the evidence against him, and in 1999 was sentenced to five years probation; the judge opined that he would "respond very appropriately". Indeed he did: this time he supplied even better evidence, in the form of mini-DVDs depicting himself engaged in sex acts with children.

I can picture the conversation with his lawyer. It would sound like Holmes and the king in "A scandal in Bohemia":

"How are they to prove you're a paedophile?"
"There are the trips to Thailand."
"Pooh, pooh! Academic research."
"My laptop."
"The videos on it."
"The mini-DVDs."
"I was in the mini-DVDs."
"Oh dear! That is very bad!..."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Far-out resort

Recently I attended a meeting held at one of the numerous swanky new resorts that surround Indian cities these days (in this case Bangalore). It was bright and shiny with several "quirks". Well, quirky is cool, so here are some advertising lines they could use:

- Be different: Their shower taps turn the opposite way of every other tap in the world: clockwise to open, anticlockwise to close. Makes it easy to scald yourself if you feel the urge.

- Farm-fresh drinks: Some of India's best vineyards are in the neighbourhood, and the brochure suggests going out for "vine-tasting", particularly recommending "a glass of red vine" with lunch.

- Let it all hang out: Almost, but not quite, hidden by the bed and the bedside table was a hole in the wall from which numerous wires were trailing under the table. We noticed only as we were checking out though, so no sniffer dogs were called in.

- Get high on pot: The toilet seat was uncomfortably high, and sloped backwards: it felt a bit like riding a horse.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Two cities

One more visit to Bangalore, one more trip to a watering hole after a day's work, one more inevitable turn of conversation comparing Bangalore (where I spent 6 years as a student) with Chennai (where I live now).

The plus points of Bangalore are obvious: the weather, and the watering holes (the sort you can sit around in having a good time). The former Chennai can't compete with. As for the latter, Chennai has its share but they tend to be either expensive or illegal, and that's thanks to the politicians. It's not a prohibitionist city -- far from it -- but the trade is government controlled, and only the larger hotels can get alcohol licences. And the government-run shops only sell the cheapest and ghastliest junk.

(For those who haven't heard of Chennai, it used to be called Madras until the politicians got at that.)

In addition, Bangalore has a greater concentration of high-quality academic institutions than any other Indian city. This was its claim to fame long before it became an international synonym for outsourcing.

So what, I was asked, are the plus points of Chennai? Off-hand, I could come up with two -- the beaches, and the relatively disciplined traffic. (I couldn't have imagined saying this two years ago when I moved there. Chennai's traffic is horrendous. It's a mess, it's maddening, it's chaos. But it is far better than Bangalore and Delhi, the two Indian cities I visit most often.)

But it goes beyond. Chennai, I think, is a nice mix of relaxed-ness (like Bangalore 10 years ago) and happening-ness. You get good films, good theatre, good music, good food. Infrastructure is stressed, like in all Indian cities, but not at breaking point like in Bangalore. Roads are good, electricity is fairly reliable. And perhaps for all those reasons, there's a bunch of very interesting people living in the city, that I'm just beginning to get familiar with.

And the weather hasn't turned out so ghastly after all. It's pretty bad for about 3 months in the summer, but I work in an air-conditioned office and my home gets a good sea breeze in the late afternoons and evenings. And as for the monsoon rains, Chennai handled them much better than Bangalore or Mumbai last year.

Come to think of it, I'm happy about Chennai's weather: if it had been like Bangalore's, the city would have been choked worse than Bangalore years ago.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

W and music

Today I picked up a CD from my shelf that I hadn't listened to in a while, and was struck by the resemblance between Chet Atkins and someone else.

And some time back Jon Stewart commented on another connection between Dubya and music... [update - it's about 4 minutes into the thing]

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Duke

Some days ago I mentioned Duke Ellington's "The great Paris concert" with bonus tracks that I had finally tracked down. The bonus tracks, which were all I'd heard earlier, were even better than I remembered--incredible solos such as Johnny Hodges on "Things ain't what they used to be", Cootie Williams on "Echoes of Harlem", and others, coupled with perfect big-band arrangements--but the actual album was mind-blowingly good. This is not an artist in the twilight of his career---he is at the peak of his powers (as his other 1960s albums attest).

It is interesting to contrast Duke Ellington and his contemporary Louis Armstrong. These are the two men the most responsible for jazz as we know it today. But while Louis remained solidly rooted in the Dixieland/Swing era, loved and respected till the end but not blazing any new trails after the 1930s, the Duke kept re-inventing himself every few years. Tunes like "Cotton Tail" foretold bebop before it happened. As his tunes acquired lyrics, he became the first significant non-Broadway contributor to the "Great American Songbook". In the 1950s, when he seemed to the general public have become irrelevant, he grabbed the world's attention with the blazing "Diminuendo and Crescendo in blue" at Newport. In the 1960s, he recorded a traditional-sounding album with Louis Armstrong, avant-garde albums with Charles Mingus and Max Roach and with John Coltrane, and much else---including this Paris concert album.

OK, that was somewhat incoherent. Perhaps I'll blog in the mornings on weekends.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

When a cultural critic blogs

The spectacular fall of Lee Siegel, cultural critic of The New Republic.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Unicode: whats the problem?

One of my pet peeves is the lack of standardisation of Indian-language fonts on the internet. No, let me correct that. The standard exists: it's called unicode. But hardly any Indian-language sites (at least, Hindi and Tamil---I haven't looked at others) use it. I can only think of the BBC news site and Wikipedia, and I doubt very many Hindi or Tamil readers read those regularly. The rest of them use their own arbitrary fonts, mapped sometimes to the encoding of Windows fonts (CP-1252), sometimes not; no two fonts are substitutable. (Hm---I just checked and saw that Navbharat Times does use unicode. But Dainik Jagran, Ananda Vikatan and many others do not.)

I'm not quite sure who is to blame for it. I generally assumed that it's the Indian government and academic bodies who failed to set standards, or tried to push half-baked standards like ISCII. but according to the Unicode Consortium's own FAQ, Unicode and ISCII correspond almost directly (the FAQ explains the minor differences), and the ISCII standard goes back to 1988. So why did all these websites choose to reinvent the wheel, poorly?

Meanwhile, today's Hindu has an article on Tamil character encoding: apparently some Tamil users are unhappy at the current encoding, which uses only 8 bits. I would have thought 8 bits is plenty for a language with 18 consonants, 12 vowels and a few other letters. But the speakers are unhappy that syllables (like "kA", "கா") need to be printed by combining consonants and vowels ("க" + "ா"), which allegedly can cause "delays during data processing". (I should note for readers unfamiliar with Indian scripts that the second character above, "ா", is not a raw vowel but an modifier to the previous consonant; the vowel by itself would be "ஆ". "கா" is conceptually a single syllable, not two letters. But this seems hardly a practical problem.)

The delays-in-processing claim makes little sense to me. Naively I'd have thought that an eight-bit font would be more, not less efficient to deal with. In fact, the Unicode site has a FAQ specifically debunking this and other claims.

I suspect that the problem is the usual mindless competition with the Chinese: they have access to 32767 characters via UTF-16 and still want more, so why shouldn't we? Quoth the article,

"The Chinese government succeeded in gaining space for more than 27,000 Chinese characters by threatening to develop its own 16-bit encoding, Ponnavaiko, director, SRM Deemed University said."

So does Dr Ponnavaiko, who believes that 8 bits don't suffice to support 30-odd distinct characters, want us to threaten to develop our own, incompatible encoding? We tried incompatibility before, and it's a mess. Now we have compatibility, and it is better---to the extent that people use it. It works out-of-the-box on any software that supports unicode if the system has an appropriate unicode font installed (which is nearly all newer Windows, Mac and Linux systems and software), and is used on an increasing number of websites. What's the problem?

Of course, I'm well aware that newspapers are not the best at reporting technical matters, and if some expert out there does know about problems with the existing Unicode setup, I'm very interested.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Russell on Kennedy

16 questions posed by Bertrand Russell on J F Kennedy's assassination, in 1964 before the Warren Commission report was released.

I had no idea that Russell had expressed his opinion on the matter. I found it interesting that, even in 1963, the US media did not much resemble the international press: "U.S. Embassies have long ago reported to Washington world-wide disbelief in the official charges against Oswald, but this has scarcely been reflected by the American press."

(Spotted on Lew Rockwell)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Land of the free

This week's Economist has a letter written by a California law-enforcement officer in response to a recent story. Here's an excerpt:
As someone with 30-years experience as a law-enforcement officer I take issue with some of the facts presented in your article on California's overcrowded prisons. For instance, California's recidivist rate is not "sky-high" simply because of overcrowding. A bigger factor is the drug habit that most inmates retain, prior to, during and after incarceration... My colleagues and I are constantly amazed at how parolees can remain free after repeatedly testing positive for drugs.

I've been to California---beautiful place full of smart people. I'm surprised that they haven't thought up a solution to this terrible problem. So let me offer one: how about not jailing drug users?

Unless, of course, they're guilty of some other, jail-worthy crime.

That brings up the question of what sort of crime is worthy of jail. I don't think America has more criminals than other countries. And I don't think its law enforcement is more efficient at catching criminals. And yet the USA has more prisoners---both in absolute numbers and as a fraction of its population---than any other country in the world: it's a no-contest. What explanation could there be?

Perhaps one explanation is that most of those prisoners don't deserve to be there. In California, stealing a loaf of bread could put you in jail for 25 years to life, if it happens to be the third offence.

There are various other statistics about US prison populations, but perhaps the most striking that I've ever come across is this: the number of juveniles in jail for life. Score for the USA: 2225. Score for the rest of the world: 12. (And that's from just three countries: Israel, South Africa and Tanzania. Everyone else scores zero.)

I wish that California law-enforcement officer had thrown some light on these matters.

PS - as I type, a gripping Becker-Agassi match has just ended. Brings back memories. A different Becker, but the same Agassi, in his last game.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Vinyl memories

Old friend Tabula Rasa's recent post about antique music systems got me thinking. A lot of my early music collection came from his parents' collection of LPs. It was via that collection that I first heard -- at various times -- Bob Dylan, Tom Lehrer, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and much else. Much of it I have since acquired myself, on CD. But much of it (like Menuhin's and Malcolm's performances of Bach's sonatas for violin and harpsichord) seems to be unavailable now.

(My parents too had a good collection of LPs, but it was mostly Indian classical and mostly still available. In fact, the collection of old Indian music available on the market now seems much better than it was in the LP days, thanks to releases from AIR archives and private collections.)

Recently I had an urge to hear Ellington's rousing live 1960s big-band performance of "Things ain't what they used to be" (after hearing a rousing solo piano performance by Madhav Chari, in a concert for Worldspace, which I may talk about later). I first heard it on TR's parents' LP, called "Greatest hits", and the tracks were later reissued as bonus tracks in the CD of "The great Paris concert", but the current release of that CD lacks them. Finally I tracked down the earlier release of the CD, on Amazon's German site.

Which is why this recent article in the NYT interested me, for a few moments. It's a device that converts LPs to CDs. Of course, you can do that with any turntable and a computer, but this automates the process: pop in blank CD, play LP, take out CD burned with LP's tracks, auto-split. Sounds good? Well, read the review.

The makers, Teac (once a respected name), won't allow you to plug in the machine to your drawing room system: you have to use the built-in speakers. Allegedly this is to prevent piracy -- how it achieves that aim, I can't tell. Well, fair enough, you may say: you'll burn the CD and play it on your main system.

Then, they won't let you use any generic recordable CD: you need specially-watermarked (and expensive) CDs, again allegedly to prevent piracy. I wish manufacturers would understand the obvious: if you can hear it, you can rip it. Copy protection will never work.

And even more absurd: the review points out that "there's practically no bass". However, you do get bass if you plug in an external tape deck: that sounds "terrific". The review blames it on the ceramic cartridge, but it's clear what's happening. The makers, Teac (once, as I said, a respected name) had no clue that LPs require very different equallisation from standard tapes or CDs: they boost the treble frequencies when recording, and reduce it in the output, which helps reduce noise. You simply don't use the same equallisation circuitry for LPs and tapes. (I suspect that Teac used a ceramic cartridge because they tried a magnetic cartridge with the "aux" circuitry and found the sound too faint.)

Teac came that close to making a useful device that could have helped many people convert their LP collections in a pain-free way... and they blew it. The sad thing is that the result will probably sound fine to today's MP3 generation.

Taking the "we" out of "weblog"

I'm not new to reading blogs---I've been on slashdot since, well, I don't remember but I have a 4-digit ID there so it must be long long ago. And in the intervening years I've started regularly reading a bunch of other blogs (both individual and news-aggregation sites.) But I didn't think of starting blogging till quite recently. What held me back was the thought that I had nothing interesting to say. But now I realise that there are other blogs that say nothing, but are interesting anyway.

That, and I like the name beta blogger. Sounds (especially to Tamil speakers) like a drug to control hypertension.

I tend to mix work and non-work pretty freely, and this is good when work is exciting: I get a lot done very quickly. But at other times I end up surfing the net much of the day. So I recently declared to myself that I will not do non-work-related surfing during working hours. (Let's see how long that lasts). Therefore, this is likely to be a bedtime blog (hence the title, borrowed from Mingus). (And---due acknowledgement---the title of this post comes from User Friendly.)

So much for me and my motivations for blogging. My future entries will be about other things.