Resolutions, For Real

The last couple weeks have been a bit rough. It’s not so much the work as the uncertainty that comes with being a noob in a big project, and I’m an impatient noob. So some dark soul-searching happened, as well as some resignation, which eventually led to a few actual resolutions.

For one, some plans that I’d made for my future turned out not to be viable — a bummer, which might yet leave some other options open. But one of the more challenging things about my current situation is  all the gaps between what I’m doing right now, what I want to do in the future, what else I think I want to do in the future, what I’m expected to do, and what I’m too lazy to do. I suppose the issue right now is that I’ve no clue what I want. This is a dilemma of luxury that I’ve obviously created for myself, because I’m in a good job (a great job, actually, where I’m learning an incredible amount) that pays well and I’ve more or less settled into how I’m living right now.

But I have to look around me and see what some of the people I love are doing, and the difference between them and me is palpable. They’re all either exactly where they want to be, or are planning meticulously for it. And they’re all extremely good at what they do; they’re passionate about something, and it shows. I’ve no clue what I’m passionate about.

So my one real resolution for this year is to figure out what I’m good at, where I want to be in a year’s time, professionally and personally, and how to get from here to there. Vague, I know, but … baby steps. The one scenario I don’t want to find myself in, in ten years’ time, is in this exact same situation.

Whew. Deep thoughts.

In other news, I finally bought Dune today. I don’t know why in the name of omniscient entities I thought I could walk through Barnes & Noble to get coffee from the cafe without interacting with books. Ten steps towards the new releases, one glimpse at the latest Orson Scott Card, and I was lost. But I have a policy to buy only books that I know I love, so Dune it was. I can never remember if I already do have a copy. Either way, I bought it, and am already reading it. Now I have the delicious dilemma of deciding between Dune and Doctor Who for my dinner companion, and I can’t believe how alliterative this sentence is.

The interesting thing about Dune is… well, there are lots of interesting things. But I wish I could have somehow sneaked it into my thesis, because my god I love this story. I need to print out the Bene Gesserit litany against fear and frame it up somewhere. It’s such a marvelous mix of plot and character, science and religion, society and politics. The cool thing is, even though Dune has nothing to do with AI or robotics or automata, it’s entirely overshadowed by the sheer lack of such things. The whole point of the Butlerian Jihad is that machines that think like humans are abominations; instead, humans control their minds and bodies in precise, machine-like ways. “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind“, according to their version of the Bible. It would’ve been really interesting to see how/if elements of AI could’ve featured in the book, anyway.

Last weekend, Gsj and I went to check out the local bookstore near where he lives, which turned out to be a very good idea indeed. There’s something fiercely lovable about second-hand independent bookshops — they don’t have the gloss of new books to draw the uninitiated in, and they really are old and musty and possibly depressing. But there were some gems in there, for both lulz and edification.

…. which of course was right next to…

The latter was really rather extraordinary — it included all sorts of things like making your own electric shock machine and building stoves… or something. I believe the Boy Mechanic was published in the 1930s and the Girls Handicrafts in the sixties, though I can’t be sure about that.

Maybe I should get into this Instagram business. It would probably all be pictures of books in various seductive poses, and then it would get weird.

So maybe not.

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Swing at Sunset

Last Friday afternoon, I did something unprecedented (if three weeks constitutes a history): I left work at 4.30. The plan was to meet Nl downtown, get something to eat, and then head for the SJ Jazz Fest. I came across the event in a completely random way in Ben&Jerry’s; usually I just make a mental note, miss the date, and then feel wistful for the rest of the week. This time I actually looked it up and Made Plans.

The light rail, which by the way takes about 15 minutes to get into Downtown, was not at all bad. After a little bumbling I met Nl and we had dinner at a Moroccan restaurant (excellent service, average food), and then hustled ourselves out the door to get to Zoe Keating’s performance. It was a good thing we got there earlier, too. The chair-stealing had started in earnest, and Nl and I carted away a couple from outside an eating establishment which will go unnamed, looking around furtively.

Zoe Keating

Pity the hat dominates the foreground.

Zoe Keating is a lovely performer, not just a wonderful artist. She kept us engaged with her conversation as well as her music; I found her gentle humour lovely and very much in the style of the performance. And the music… so much of it was actually, almost transcendentally, gorgeous.

I think she can be very accurately described as a one-woman orchestra. She makes music out of her cello, her bow against the wood, and a piece of software that layers sounds with the help of a foot pedal. If I heard her correctly, she writes and tests out her own code for this. It makes the whole thing just — geeky in a way that makes me go starry-eyed. So all the background music — the rhythm, the harmony, the plucked notes, everything — is just Zoe playing, except that she simply puts it together herself.

And the best part? It’s all done in real time.

Watching her play is surreal in made even more surreal because it’s almost as though there are multiple Zoes, spliced out in time. She closes her eyes and just becomes the music, keeping time and tune in some unearthly fashion. Behind her, the sun flamed and set, the night grew colder and… planes descended into SJ airport every few minutes, completely ignored by the crowd.

There is something so wild and elemental about Zoe Keating’s music that it makes you feel like you’re perched on a lonely rock somewhere near the ocean, where the rhythm of the waves somehow transmutes itself into the bone-rumbling bass of the cello.

When Nl and I left at 9, after an hour, we did so very reluctantly.

The Ohio Players

Sadly, I do not have much to say about them. Nl and I wandered over there in time to hear them finishing a really rollicking piece that was still far more jazzy than Keating’s (not that that ever made a jot of difference to us). They started into a feel-good soul piece next, though, and we stayed for part of that.

It was really wonderful to see such a responsive crowd (although the bottles and cups full of not-quite-water that I saw could’ve been contributing to that), swaying in time, dancing with each other, just soaking up the atmosphere. A large percentage of the crowd was black, and I couldn’t help but laugh (internally, I have been assured I look weird doing it out loud) at the thought of what used to be popular in the black community back then in the 40s and what’s popular now.

Nl at this point looked at our map/list and said she wanted to take a look at the Swing Stage or Stompin’ at the Savoy and I was all for it, so we left. But if I get a chance to listen to the Players again, I’ll take it gladly.

Stompin’ at the Savoy

Getting here was a bit of an adventure in itself. The instructions literally said “enter through the parking lot”. We debated for a while whether they meant garage or lot, and then went over to the back of a rather sketchy looking parking lot. Of course, right behind was something called the Theater at San Pedro where we had to ascend a narrow flight to stairs to the real scene. All this was pretty exciting, despite the shirted volunteers out front that obviously made it legit, but then we entered this bar with a stage set up at front, several men and women in tailcoats and spats and evening gowns.

And then we realised this was The Real Deal. People belting out jazz hits like In the Mood, swing-dancing in the space in front of the stage, trumpets and everything in the supporting orchestra!

If I’m not wrong, some of the singers were sort of imitating the more popular singers/styles of the day. The lady in mauve had something of the deep velvety voice of Ella Fitzgerald, and the black gentleman sounded in places like Louis Armstrong. I’m afraid those were the only two I could recognize; none of the others sounded familiar to me at all.

This is the thing about jazz, for me — I can never seem to define what about it attracts me so much. Even in its melancholy it’s self-deprecatingly cheerful; and when it’s all major notes it’s still a wistful, a little longing. Or perhaps it’s the rhythm, or the trumpets, or the air of restrained romance and sensuality.

I don’t think it could’ve been more perfect if I’d imagined it. Such a Prohibitionist era feeling as well — marvelous. I think Nl enjoyed that solid dose of jazz as well, so it was all good.

Bhangra

No, I don’t know what it was doing here either. I think the Jazz Beyond stage was… well, exactly that, a way to showcase some really interesting music (or global music, for that matter) that fit in well with the free-form style that reminds me of jazz in general.

The performance itself lasted a scant ten minutes — the group took more time to teach the audience the moves. I was encumbered by my bag, but it didn’t matter, because it was clear that neither Nl and I were going to be hogging the limelight at any shaadis any time soon. I think I spent far more time laughing than actually dancing.

That changed when the performance became a party. There was a DJ and a live dhol player and the sound reverberated across the neighborhood. We discovered it was incredibly hard not to dance when the music was so ridiculously infectious — and the people just so receptive — so for the first time in my life I ended up dancing without the aid of artificial stimulants.

So a highly successful Friday evening, in short. I can’t think of many other people whom I’d have had as much fun with as with Nl; I’m glad we got a look at a downtown San Jose and even happier that we got to hear some excellent music 🙂

Blanton Museum of Art

Since this is my last semester at UT, I’ve decided to do things which I probably won’t have the chance to do afterwards. It’s a bit too late for football, but I trekked to the Blanton Museum of Art to look around. There were quite a few people, lingering around the exhibits and staring up at the life-size Church European paintings, which made me happy. Apparently museums are for nerds, and apparently there are a lot more nerds in Austin than I knew.

Here are some of the exhibits which I liked particularly.

Greek Pottery, European Art

File:Greek vase Dionysos attica 520 bC.jpg
Wiki commons

The funny thing is, Greek pottery pieces were scattered all over the Mediterranean because they’d done trade in them, and the Greeks had treated them more as functional pieces than anything else. Many have images of gods or just simple scenes of daily life — and nearly everything I saw was lovely, with the crisp drapes and lines and features — but it made me wonder about the whole art vs. function thing. There they were, the Greeks, shipping off loads of pottery unconcernedly, and two thousand years later (can you believe that?) here they are, no longer knocked about in some kitchen but preserved carefully under glass and steel.

And here’s Ikea, trying to convince us that even obstinately functional things can be beautiful.

There’s an entire gallery full of European painters, some  of whom were apparently enamored with the Caravaggio school of painting: realistic but dramatic still, with a great use of lighting and subtle emotion on the faces. I dunno why, but I like the way the characters are always draped languidly over rocks and around glades and things like that. There also seems to be a preponderance of nudity, which made me think of the whole high art as porn business — was it? Were those noble gentlemen who commissioned those things just closer perverts or genuine admirers of the human form? Those statues, too, are very life-like.

What I feel rather wistful about is the voluptuousness of these women. In those days they were gorgeous; today someone would come around and tut at them and recommend the Atkins diet. It’s depressing.

But more spiritually speaking, there’s a huge variety of paintings of various Christian scenes, dominated (I think) by those of the Virgin and the Child. There’s one in particular that is striking for its utter simplicity — where the other paintings are crowded with figures and their emotions and gestures, the folds of cloth and the complicated background, in this there are only two faces. One is of the Virgin — barely a child herself, face pale and upraised, calm but wondering — and the other is of a barely sketched out Christ. She is dressed as simply as can be in muted colors and there’s a hush stillness about her. Sadly, I can’t find a picture of it.

The last thing I liked about this section is a portrait of Lady Hamilton, the wife of an ambassador and mistress of Lord Nelson. Apparently she rose from poverty, through the incredibly rigid social hierarchy of 18th C Britain, to become one of the nobility. I can’t imagine a much more lovely or innocent face than that, although I’m not sure she would’ve been either of those things. The volcano in the back is the erupting Vesuvius, which was supposed to stand for the Naples, where her husband was going to be posted. But I can’t help thinking that it must have been a symbol for her scandalousness as well.

Photo courtesy: euthman

South American Art and Abstract

I didn’t think this was going to be that exciting for me, and I was right. A lot of it was what I sweepingly call modern or abstract art and… I just can’t get behind those concepts. It’s not just that I don’t understand it, it simply doesn’t evoke any reaction in me except annoyance. But there were a couple of striking pieces that I couldn’t help liking.

One was a quipu installation piece. This is a system of knots used by the Inca to encode mostly decimal numbers, although there were some other uses for it which apparently weren’t deciphered. In this piece, it was a single stiff cloth pulled across a grey background (can’t find non-copyright pictures). It looked like a toga about to go down the runway but it was more like a representation of an ultimately simple system of recording. Interesting stuff.

Photo Courtesy: euthman

I’ve no clue what this is, except that it’s by Kazuya Sakai, and that it’s gorgeous. I think this is going to be my new desktop wallpaper.

There was another painting that at first annoyed me so much I had to go up and look at it to figure out what the artist had been thinking. It consisted of two canvases, both identical, and each had a black border and a pale lime border inside the black one.

And that was it.

What idiot would do this, I thought, and then noticed another card next to the artist card. It was part of the Blanton Poetry Project, which seems to invite poetry for selected paintings. This one (which I can’t find online) talks about the artist measuring ruthlessly, preparing for the paintings, while others wonder what the point of the blankness is. Then she’s out, ambling along the road, filling herself up with life, as the poet calls it, “to the eyebrows”. Then she comes back and makes this painting, which others can only whisper that it contains nothing.

It didn’t make me change my mind entirely, but it made me chuckle a little.

Blue Woman on Black Chair

Halfway through looking at an opera performance, I happened to glance down a corridor — and froze. Was it a person? Or a piece of art?

The image is here at Austin360, and sadly copyrighted, but as I took a closer look, I could see that the woman, who seemed calm and contemplative, wasn’t quite all that. She’s slumped in her chair as though exhausted, and barely clothed. There’s something about the slouch of her body that, despite the vividness of the color, is just a little depressing.

Conversion

This was my favourite of the lot. At first glimpse, all I saw was a softly lit installation, a shallow pool filled with something coppery, and a ceiling of white tubes, all surrounded by black gauze. It’s a beautiful sensual piece of art, wavering somewhere between the sensual and the spiritual. Then I read the description.

Andreanna Moya Photography

The white tubes at the top are cattle bones; the thin white thread in the middle is a tower of communion wafers; and the pool of bronze below is a heap of pennies. This is Cildo Meireles’ critique of the Jesuits’ conversion of South Americans in the 18th century. It was purportedly an exercise of mercy, a way for the heathens to reach Heaven. But as the card said, the motives were not all pure — it was a question of gaining agricultural control (bones) as well as a matter of money (pennies), with Heaven as the connector between those two material aims. It seems to be an almost fragile connection, liable to snap at any minute and bring the gruesome cathedral crashing down.

There were a few more interesting exhibits, but these were the ones that captured my attention the most. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of museums, really — they give you so much time to just look and think and wonder, which is what I love doing most.

My next stop should be the Austin Museum of Art. Hopefully I’ll have a camera this time.

Thanksgiving 2010

Niyantha: thanksgiving break — its gonna be legendaru
me: hahaha
Niyantha: it could be legendaru as well
if you’re up for drinking
Niyantha: daru = alcohol


I spent Thanksgiving 2009 with two of my best girl friends this side of the world. So of course, the way my world works, I ended up spending this Thanksgiving with two of my best guy friends, in Seattle. Four days in the Microsoft Metropolis included snow, an unbelievable amount of cooking and leftover food, coffee (obviously), a game of Life, a science fiction museum (!!!!), an experience music project museum, and Pike Place piroshky (I just like alliteration).

Thursday

A becomes Whole Foods’ biggest fan; we cook for three hours; end result is aloo gobi, paneer makhni, rice and bhaji, masterminded by A and helped by myself and N. Also, my first look at real snow. Remember that scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, where Scout wakes up in the morning to pure white? “Atticus, the world’s endin’!” There’s a sort of muffled quality to everything when it’s covered in snow. Sadly, we did not make any snowmen. Food was excellent, food coma was helped along by episodes of The West Wing.

Friday

I’ll tell you a secret: I didn’t go to Seattle to see my friends. I went there to see the Science Museum.

It turns out that a Microsoft founder, who had money and a science fiction collection, established this Seattle science fiction museum, which I gather houses his stuff as permanent exhibits and has temporary displays like the Battlestar Galactica. It’s not comprehensive or anything, but the sheer variety of stuff — and the way it was put together, with explanations and interactive bits — was a hell lot of fun.

Classic.
The Anatomy of Genius: Douglas Adams' Babelfish

And of course, I picked up some stuff for my thesis from the Battlestar exhibit. I’m not sure what the show is like when it comes to its pure cinematic merits, but it has some interesting themes when it comes to the Cylons. There’s some slight proof for a reversal in attitudes towards robots — I believe the original series just had the whole “evil robots” theme going on — in the later series where the Cylons are painted as beings which can actually experience human-like emotion. There’s a rather cool bit where there’s a Cylon on board one of the ships who realizes her true nature and “turns bad”, whereas another planet-bound Cylon knows what she’s capable of but ends up falling in love with a human (yes yes, trite I know, but workable). Emotion is always a contentious issue in simulated intelligence; is it necessary? How do we fake it? Does it add anything to interactions?

Some very cool things: seeing a stillsuit from the Dune series; a full-length wall projection of popular sci-fi movies, including Blade Runner and Matrix; another projection involving the different models of spaceships in the literature; a list of books I’ve never heard of and now desperately want to get my hands on.

There was also the experience music project, and one of the most amazing things is the ability to hole yourself and your friends up in a tiny soundproof room, with different types of instruments, and go crazy trying to create some kind of music. I wish we’d had something we wanted to try out, but either way it was fun setting the keyboard audio to “cosmic boom” and listen to the lovechild of Star Trek and Radiohead.

 

Self-playing guitars

Saturday

The question to ask in Seattle is not “is there a coffee place somewhere nearby?” but “where’s the nearest caffeine joint?” And the answer will be, invariably, “down the road” or some permutation thereof indicating very close proximity. And they’ve got character, as well; N, Abc and I stopped off on impulse at Bedlam, which is a coffee house that lets you play board games.

Abc kicked our butts on the sly. And the coffee was definitely above reproach.

Red walls make coffee houses cooler.

 

Crimson Coolness Exhibit #2

There’s a certain character to that part of town that’s like a Boston that’s hung up its hat for the evening and is settling in with feet up on the table and a mug of coffee.

A certain, what shall we say, political vibe of a distinctly non-conformist character as well:

Father of Communism

I am also glad to report that certain sections of America haven’t given up on the written word. To wit, several bookshops, as eclectic as the coffee houses.

Tell me this isn’t a place you’d hang out at in the weekends. BOOKS. SO MANY BOOKS.

Yup. Legendarily comfortable Thanksgiving — hanging out, seeing the sites, swaddled in multiple layers and crunching through snow.

 

Photo courtesy: Niyantha “Don’t Panic” Shekar

Stealing Time

Since it has now been confirmed that both this week and next will be veritable Hells, I am going to steal this time to talk about my weekend.

Which included an A. R. Rahman concert!!!!! (insert many more exclamation points) I was genuinely excited about this, and it turned out almost as good as I could’ve hoped. We (Gsj, R, Gsj’s room mate and me) drove down to Houston in R’s car. On the way there I barely noticed the three-four hour drive, what with the conversation: spanning music (of course; and now Gsj and I have decided that while we agree broadly on music (ARR is great, The Killers are good) we can’t agree on the specifics (for some unfathomable reason he doesn’t really like Delhi 6)), cars and their relative merits (on second thought, I think this might be when I fell asleep), and politics.

Gsj: No, listen, communist states are the ones generally doing well in India! Look at Kerala!
R: West Bengal, bitch! …Uh, sorry, got carried away there for a second.

As usual, most of the audience was operating on IST, but the concert itself started slightly after 8.30 and the seats began filling up soon after. There were so many good moments, which I’m going to be writing about for the magazine, but eventually we were left with a sort of dissatisfaction (and R was pretty much bored out of his skull at one point, I think. Rahman mixed Pappu Can’t Dance with Black or White, and R turned to me and asked me what album that was from. Fail!) Not because we’re perpetually hard to please – that’s Rahman’s fault, for setting such high standards for himself – but because the more than 40 songs didn’t really do justice to the breadth of Rahman’s talents. There were too many from just a few movies, not enough from lesser known but more beautiful ones… and where were his female singers? Those he had were better at moving their hips than their lips (haha see what I did there) dancing than singing.

In the end we all trooped back to Abc’s place – 5  of us in one huge room – to spend the night, and dissected the entire concert, playing some of our favourite pieces that hadn’t appeared and analysing our disappointment. By the time we were done, it was 4 am. Good times.

Also, my mum hadn’t know about my weekend plans, and after she realised where I was, she called me:

Mum: Where are you staying?
Me: With Abc! You know him.
Mum: Oh yeah! Say hi to “Thunda” for me! But are there any other girls there?
Me: … no?
Mum: … oh. Be careful, ok?
Me: What? Careful with whom? Some of them are my best guy friends!
Mum: Still!

I know, it’s awful the way the United States has accustomed me to the presence of the males of the species.

Then I spent the whole of Saturday doing absolutely nothing, which, of course, turned out to be a huge mistake. I see a number of all-nighters and a large(r) quantity of coffee on the horizon.

The next two days are career fair days, where I turn up with hopeful aspirations every single semester and then get gently told that the Awesome Company I want to work with does not take in international undergraduate students. It’s a good thing I’m used to disappointment.

Politicking

V brought up a good point last night when I told her about the troublesome CG-dinner piece: what really would have happened if we’d posted the entire controversy and really only checked with him about his verbatim comments? He’d ask us to retract it, but it’s not as if we wouldn’t be right – and it’d be published, anyway.

Instead, I’d sent him the entire article, he’d had his secretary respond with “kindly use this corrected version and no other”, and then we’d back-and-forthed about a couple of stylistic/grammatical changes. Tame for an editor-in-chief who’s weathered The Temple Story, the Event Review Story, and the Crazy Copolov Comments Story.  Also, for someone who keeps whining about journalistic integrity and how the CG killed it, incredibly hypocritical.

I’ve been thinking about it since then, and all I can say was that it’s probably safe cowardice. We’ve had to deal with separate powerful entities before, of course, but none of them were extensions of the Indian government. Not that the GOI could get to me, but the fact remains that many of the kids who were there that dinner, and especially the one or two caught up in the debated issues, were Indian passport holders. I’m not sure how exactly the GOI works, but I don’t like the thought of them getting into trouble because they spoke their minds.

And this is not the sort of gentleman, I believe, who thinks very much of the first amendment. It was quite obvious through the dinner that his primary purpose was to make sure that India was presented to the world the way the government thought would be the least damaging – which is understandable, but not an accurate reflection of the state of affairs in the country. Do I want to spend weeks haggling over the nuances of my writing with a man like this? Not really.

I wouldn’t even mind that possibility if it weren’t for the fact that, again, it would be a government entity we’d be up against – the entire process of opposing them would’ve been far worse. We would publish; they could ask us to modify or retract; we would refuse; and then I’m not sure what would’ve happened. How tough could GOI be, and how long would we want to keep opposing them? I don’t know, and I don’t know if we would want to find out.

The point is, we – meaning the organization I am in – need to figure out what to do in situations like these. Our “policy” right now is a bit like my own policy because I’m generally the one who deals with this, and I tend to err on the side of caution. But what’s our general policy going to be, especially after I leave? When we say “we publish everything”, how are we going to be both professional and accurate, and sensitive to the grey areas? Do we really have the ability and the mental strength to potentially get into conflict with someone as “big” as the GOI? I really don’t know if we should, or could.

To Late Nights, Pt 2

Choice quotes from the evening/early morning of the 10th/11th:

Mri: “My eggs are dying! I’m dying! I’m 23 and I’m OLD!”
Of the group of about 5 or 6 near her, at least three of us were, in fact, older than her.

(Pointing to me) “Look at this girl, she’s so civilized and decent. Quiet, unlike you rowdy girls.”
“… yes, that’s because she doesn’t understand Hindi.

“Dude, no. Cigarettes, you smoke those outside, okay? Strictly out of doors. Pot inside the house, that’s fine. Cigarettes, no.”
It’s nice to know some people are so solicitous of others’ health.

Saturday, Zig came over! For barely an hour, since she wanted to drive to San Antonio before dark, and we sat on my bed talking about Japanese craziness, strange boys and the awesomeness of fiction. One day, soon, we will actually hang out for real.

And today I went to see L Subramaniam for $15, which sounds mercenary, but may I point out that he is, as IFA calls it, a Living Legend and that this was a superb opportunity. Besides the blinding virtuosity of the man, it was also great to talk to Gsj about Carnatic music in general. It’s astonishing how many things come back to you (also, for once, I actually felt marginally better informed than VJ re: music, which is not something I would ever take for granted).

I couldn’t decide if L Subramaniam’s playing style compliments the music or the instrument – he obviously treats the violin like an extension of his brain and fingers (I would like to suggest that he would make an amazing pickpocket), but I am beginning to think that his phenomenal speed isn’t the best way of showcasing the raaga itself. As Gsj says, LS said in the beginning of the concert that playing a raaga is not simply playing scales – and yet that was roughly like what he was doing, essentially.

But besides all that, it was wonderful to be able to listen to such a wonderful violinist. There was Kalyani, Nattai, and many others which I wish I could’ve identified.

Another very satisfying weekend.