In Susanna Clarke’s universe of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, “magic” is a past time for wealthy gentlemen, a genteel academic and historical field of study. The chief proponent of this discrimination between “proper” and “improper” magic is Mr. Norrell. A proper magician, according to him, has no dealings with the wild and pagan beginnings of magic in England three hundred years ago, with John Uskglass, the mortal raised in a fairy kingdom which he grew to rule. A proper magician performs such magic as can be controlled, studied, understood.

And under no circumstances is a proper magician called upon to form any alliances with the fairy realm, ruled by avaricious and amoral creatures whose idea of logic bears no resemblance to that of humans’. Col Tom Blue, for instance, is mentioned several times in this universe as a fairy of great power in the employ of Ralph Stokesey.

If I were a better student of literature I’d understand the implications of colonialism in Clarke’s work, but it’s not so very great a leap to see a possible parallel here: fairies — unearthly, inhuman, yet powerful in their own rights — are able to summoned at any time by a human magician, who can then use fairy powers for their own means. Norell will have no relations with a set of people whose moral code is so different; Strange wants to be able to understand their ways of dealing with the universe and to borrow their abilities.

There’s another interesting implication in Norrell’s hatred of Uskglass and the Raven King mythology. In fact, it’s not even an implication by the time Norrell confesses his true feelings to Strange. Norrell is actually lamenting the fact that Uskglass simply rode out of England and into a fairy realm, abandoning both the country and the practice of magic in the process. Norrell, in his enthusiasm for the field, has had to struggle for decades to teach himself the understanding of magic. He has had no one to turn to, and no tradition to refer to except stories and superstition.

Now, one more logical leap.

John Uskglass seems to have entered a fairy kingdom as a young child, and treated as a slave by the rulers of the time. Eventually — either by being taught magic or having an extraordinary facility for it — he rose to rule both fairy and human (that is, the United Kingdom) realms. It is not so hard to see the parallel between him and Stephen Black, a man who has assimilated so well into high English society that his natural urge upon seeing the gentleman with the thistledown hair is to serve him as well.

All this, of course, is by way of saying that the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is fantastic, both in execution and in faithfulness to the original.


An Excursion in Chennai

There’s probably no more accurate description of Chennai, as a city, than its traffic situation. It follows no rules, is chaotic, messy, and definitely dangerous, but it functions, somehow.

Several roads now have lane markers, thanks to some chronically optimistic person. Chennai drivers, naturally, ignore them.

Depending on the mode of transport you take, you’re exposed to different facets of this madness. In a car, you’re insulated from the outside, and there’s a fair chance you can get some air conditioning going. Autos are fun, and certainly the quintessential way of traveling some distances in Chennai. But this means you’re at the mercy of the exhaust fumes from other vehicles. More importantly it means you’re being driven a fair distance by someone you’ve already had a heated argument with, regarding price, even before you climb into the vehicle.

By the way, there’s a saying in this city: autos are so nimble that if you just stand with your legs apart, they’re liable to nip under and around you.

But by far my most memorable ride anywhere is on a bike (or, as city calls them and all scooters, two-wheeler).

“I don’t have much experience traveling on bikes,” I told my uncle, as we set off for a South Indian classical concert.

“Oh, that’s fine,” he said, strapping on the sole helmet. “Just make sure both your feet are firmly on the sides of the bike. Ready? Right.”

The large portion of this journey is now a blur. I knew bikes were probably the niftiest way of getting around a city (except for autos; see description above), but I didn’t realize exactly what that entailed. As we swung and ducked our way around fallen trees (recent cyclone), pedestrians a foot away (totally indifferent) and other cars (far too close for comfort), I couldn’t decide if it would be more helpful for me to close my eyes and pretend this wasn’t happenning, or if I kept a close lookout for the car that would inevitably crush my knees to a pulp.

At one point my uncle turned onto a street blocked with trees, along with a car that had had the same idea, and a car coming in the opposite direction that had severely underestimated the breadth of the street it occupied.

There, with one car about two inches from my left knee and the other car nestled up close against my right ankle, the car on our left rolled down his driver’s side window and leaned out to discuss the situation with my uncle. “Sir, where do you think you’re going in such a hurry?” said this individual, employing rhetorical questioning to devastating effect. “Just trying to make a turn into this lane,” said my uncle, equally amiably. They spoke calmly for a couple of minutes about rights of way and what concessions we had to make for a cyclone that had leveled some 100,000 trees in residential areas. Then my uncle buzzed off, with me in the back and all limbs, shockingly, intact.

In my head, every bump and pothole — and there were many of these — that we hit in the road was a disaster waiting to fling me off the bike and split my un-helmeted head in half. So I tried to distract myself by watching the roads and shops pass, but this also involved watching pedestrians crossing the road. In one case, a man sauntering across the road behind us was so close that I could have reached out and plucked the pen from his shirt pocket.

In the fevered state that I was in, I barely noticed the scenery, such as it was, going by. There was an immediacy to the situatino that would have been, if I was calmer, bracing rather than terrifying. All around me people crossed the chaotic roads with bewildering nonchalance; conducted business briskly in minuscule shops that infringed directly into the road; carried on vigorous conversations with the passengers within their vehicle and anyone unlucky enough to cut them off in the road.

Then a memory popped into my head. The way I remember it, I was probably under ten, and we had all gone to watch Jurassic Park at the theater. I don’t remember much except that at some point early on the proceedings, I’d decided that I had had enough of T-Rexs systematically chomping down on characters, and had hidden my face in someone’s shoulder. I was realizing now that that shoulder was the very same one I was clutching onto for dear life.

There was some comic relief in imagining that the same uncle who saved me from T-Rex nightmares was now expertly guiding me through Chennai traffic.

And as I pondered this, I found to my amazement that we’d arrived at the concert venue — and that both of us were in one piece.

Jul 31 2016

Gentle 1.24 readers! I have resurfaced, and my excuse this time is that I had a 11 week online course and then Work Stuff. I’ve been up to quite a lot, including a trip to New Orleans, a trip to Austin, a performance of Carmen, and celebrating my birthday several times with multiple groups of people.

Next week I’m traveling to Germany for the first time, for what is ostensibly a work trip split into two parts but what is probably going to be FUN ADVENTURE TIME for me. The first week is a conference, followed by a week at the work office, but there should be more than enough time to take in some museums and a few Hefeweizens along the way.

I also had the opportunity to finally taken in (half of) a performance of Shakespeare in the Park, specifically The Winter’s Tale. This is the production infamous for the line “Exit, chased by a bear”. Where and why a bear would have turned up in a tropical country like Bohemia is anybody’s guess. This production featured not one but three actors in the role of bear. It later turned out that the “bear” was a bear head and two paws, all operated by the three “bear actors”.

My favorite part of that scene was the man eaten by the bear, screaming “I am gone forever!” as he is dragged offstage.


Anoushka Shankar Live

After a day of wrestling with code or process or whatever, I’m not usually fond of being a social butterfly. Last weekend I made a bit of an effort, with some friends, and the weekend went surprisingly quickly.

Friday night we dragged ourselves up to the city to listen to Anoushka Shankar. I’ve always liked her music, but I’ve listened to it in the context of Karsh Kale and fusion music; I don’t think I’ve ever had a chance to listen to her virtuosity, certainly not live.

She was playing with some excellent musicians: a shehnai player, a double bassist and keyboardist, and a drummer (which is really putting it mildly). By the way, I have to say a word about Tom Farmer, the double bassist. It was pretty fantastic to see Farmer, who’s almost as tall as the instrument he plays, having the time of his life on stage. The double bass doesn’t really make itself known, but I realized hearing it being played that it added something tangible to the music that I’d miss.

Shankar started out with several pieces in minor-key ragas, progressing to the first break in the concert by way of an intensely fast sitar piece. You wouldn’t have thought a shehnai, a sitar, and a double bass would’ve contributed to a rock-and-roll song, but that’s what it felt like.

Here’s a taste of the kind of speed she brought to the performance.

The audience exploded into applause and cheering when they finished this set. Shankar said a few words about her tour and the inspiration for the album (noting ruefully that she was better at playing the sitar on stage than speaking) and then they leaped right back into it.

The concert was arranged in some kind of order from “sad” to “hopeful”, so the pieces shed their melancholy aspect throughout the remainder of the evening. The most interesting thing about this entire experience was seeing the texture of the music being created on-stage: the virtuosity of the sitar and shehnai, combined with the rhythm of the double bass and the tone of the drums.  I saw Shankar use some kind of instrumentation to record loops of her playing, real-time (ref: Zoe Keating, whom I’d seen with the same friend a few years ago in San Jose) and then layering those loops back into the foreground music.

“World music” is one of those vague labels that invokes images of fragrant hippies in semi-Indian garb dancing in the Golden Gate Park, but what I’ve heard of Anoushka Shankar’s music shows commitment to all the different aspects of the global music she draws from. If she’s playing the sitar in a way that’s reminiscent of the Spanish guitar, then she has a reason for it.

I went back from this concert hoping to find and save the album from Spotify. I found it, but it didn’t come close to the explosive experience of listening to so many excellent artists live. If there’s a recording of the concert itself, I’d gladly get that.

Another example of the kind of fusion I love listening to. Drums, the sitar of course, a Spanish feel, and a duelling duet with a mridangam: 

Day, Salvaged

Some days you just write off. 

This week has been poor, mentally speaking, but yesterday probably took the cake. It wasn’t so much that anything external went wrong – I just seemed to be unable to mentally pull it together. 

It’s clearly some kind of problem but when I know I’ve made it through a day without accomplishing anything, I feel fairly useless. 

At 7 I’d recovered my equanimity somewhat, thanks to the Internet and memes, enough at least that I could spend time around others without worrying about my bad behavior. So I sat at a British themed pub (why? Not sure) for a few hours while basketball happened and “our team” (by virtue of geography, if not adoption) won. 

I’m glad to have friends who make it easier to be more like myself. And these are just a small subset of the whole, too.

New Zipcode

Oddly enough, the thing I missed the most while moving apartments wasn’t, say, the lack of couch space to occupy, or the fact that we’d disconnected our TV, or that all the books were gone.

It was that I wasn’t cooking.

Like many of the things in my life, I’ve been wrong about how much I would like cooking. It’s surprisingly soothing to have a process to follow and things to chop and at the end, you can eat what you make! It’s the perfect hobby, really. Apart from reading.

Unless books were edible.

Do they make edible books? Like, a chapter-by-chapter menu? GAH.

I’d love to attend a novel-themed meal. Pick any Enid Blyton book and someone or the other will be consuming afternoon tea, so really, you can’t go wrong.


I realized how much I’d missed it when I went over to a friend’s place for dinner and made it a couple of hours earlier so I could help him. Acting as sous chef is great when the other person knows what they need to be doing and you’re good at taking direction, or don’t feel particularly rebellious at the moment.

That dinner turned out to be incredibly interesting — and it turned into a very long evening, of course — because we broke out Risk.

If you haven’t played it before, Risk is a board game of world domination. The country boundaries are a bizarre mix of modern and 19th century — as if there’s an Irkutsk region anymore* — and the winner is the player who occupies every single territory in the world at the end of the game. For reasons that will become clear shortly, this is practically impossible to do in under ten hours, between six people.

Here’s how Risk is meant to be played:

  1. At the start of the game, each player gets 20 individual soldiers and for each turn, picks a territory to occupy.
  2. At the beginning of each round, each player gets a minimum of 3 soldiers and can place them anywhere they want to reinforce their troops.
  3. Then the player whose turn it is can wage war against another player, and depending on how the dice fall, can win territories or lose soldiers.
  4. Rinse and repeat for many, many rounds.

Here’s how Risk is actually played:

  1. Spend 15 minutes reading out the rules and arguing over whether the “multiple battles per round” rule makes any sense at all. Spend almost as much time placing the initial soldiers because everyone knows there is a strategy; no one know what it is yet.
  2. At the beginning of every round, argue over the finer points of the rules. Consult with anyone who is not arguing about the validity of your own soldier placements.
  3. Wage war! But not before another half an hour of guessing the other players’ territory occupations, potential motives, personality quirks and Freudian tendencies. If you are the player being waged war against, listen to other players’ breakdown of your deepest insecurities. Calmly, if possible.
    1. If you are me, attempt to capture a territory occupied by exactly one soldier, with a territory manned by at least 4 soldiers. With incredible, exhaustively bad luck of the dice, lose 3 of the 4 soldiers in successive runs. Listen to the opponent insist that “he really just wanted to forfeit the soldier and didn’t think this would happen”. Explain this is not helping matters.
  4. Periodically, decide who has the most influence over the board and/or has exhibited prior talent playing other games with some subset of the current players. Gang up against this player to prevent them from winning.

Despite the madness of starting to play Risk, it’s an excellent intellectual game. It becomes particularly interesting when your opponent starts arguing about why you shouldn’t attack them and attack Europe instead, because look at how many open border it has. There’s additional subtlety based on which continents one takes over and how many extra soldiers per round that garners you. If you’re very, very good, I suspect you can take over continents quietly without anyone really noticing and then launch a massive attack for the entire world.

Then again, the game is so slow that your opponents will probably notice that you now own South America and most of Africa, at which point you will be played to a stalemate, or to some point where the refreshments run out, whichever comes first.

Or when everyone literally falls asleep.


Note: So… Irkutsk exists. It’s just considered its own territory in the Asia/Russia landmass of Risk.

What is this show even

Given everything else that’s been happening in real life, it made sense for my room mate and I to pick a new TV show to watch during our downtime. And of course we’d choose The Following, about a psychopathic serial killer obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe, and the cult following he develops.

Just a little light bedtime Netflix.

Poe’s horror work is masterful, though not really my favorite genre, so I can understand the literary obsession with him. The show’s cult, though, takes it to a gory extreme — “everything is death”, a pervasive knife theme, tanks of fake blood, the works.

The most frustrating thing about this show is its antagonist. Joe Carroll, in orange jumpsuit and a limited physical range, is creepy, threatening, even. But given a full range and an entire Poe-themed house to play in, Carroll turns trite. He leaves a novel for the protagonist, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon in full dark-and-brooding mode) to find, full of the “story” of the gruesome cat and mouse game that they play — and of a horrendous number of ellipses.

The problem, of course, is that throughout a season it’s episode after episode of horrifying events and cult members stabbing people with great abandon, and then suspenseful music, and then end of episode.

Which of course leads to more episodes…

It’s certainly a a story we’re watching more for the plot than any great character development. It’s not that the characters are two-dimensional so much as that they just didn’t have that much time. There’s a female detective who seems to have escaped from a cult; I’d have loved to know more about how she got from there to FBI.

Now, of course, we’re in season two, until now, things have at least been entertaining — if not downright macabre. But here’s Joe Carroll monologuing again, and this might be a good time to read some real literature.