Category Archives: Creative Stuff & Hobbies

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Happy Lord of the Rings Day!

The Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series exhibited a rabid yet desirable iconoclasm, through which its author Steven Erikson elucidated every trope of epic fantasy and then shit on it. I came out of reading the series feeling like nothing could surprise me anymore except some other Erikson fare. The man himself might not be appreciative of this outcome; the 10-book series was, and is, more like a drug to me than anything else.

At the start of any book you implicitly enter into a covenant with the author that you’ll the read the book in return for being allowed to expect that it will entertain you. This is because books are not allowed to disappoint you – an expectation that’s actually true of every form of art that’s produced for public consumption. The experience of disappointment, even though it’s a common emotion, is not an aspiration. There’s no market nor the (mainstream) aesthetic for it.

At some level, what Erikson ruined for me was the ability to expect to be surprised or entertained by whatever was coming. This is a remarkable thing for the consumption of fantasy to achieve because fantasy is an evacuation from our reality unto a different one more suited to making the author’s point while also not being too contrived (although that’s a hyper-reductive definition). And for millions of people around the world, including myself, the doorway to realising how good fantasy could be was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lord of the Rings didn’t succeed by being too whimsical – a trait many simpleminded folk conflate with the fantasy genre – but in fact the opposite. It was tightly knit, gorgeously situated, described and narrated, in a world somewhat different from our own. Its success lay in its storytelling as much as in its seminal nature: Lord of the Rings, for many of us, was the first. It has had and will continue to have a certain quality of primacy associated with readers’ memories of it.

It set many readers’ expectations in terms of what they could expect from the fantasy genre: not frolicking cartoons for children but goddamned epics. The Malazan series took this premise and bled it to death in a beautiful, beautiful way. If Lord of the Rings was the gateway drug for realising, and acknowledging, the potential of fantasy to be assessed in the same league as mainstream literature, the Malazan series is the Manitoba shlimbo.

I’m sure you recognise this post has been a roundabout way of saying Malazan ruined me for other books, and you’re probably wondering, “What a hubristic schmuck.” What a hubristic schmuck indeed. One of the more amazing components of the reading experience that regular book-readers take for granted is the ability to clench your teeth and grind through the more boring parts of a book – a sort of restrained deferment to the idea that though the book may not be entertaining now, entertainment remains in the offing. That’s what I miss being able to do, and that’s the whole difference between plodding slowly through a book and giving up at p. 15 and throwing it away.

Yes, we’re allowed to stop reading books that are boring, but we, especially I, get bored very easily – and I’m almost proud of it because it’s a skill I’ve honed to allow me to quickly spot, and correct, dull news reports. I also need to relearn what it means to make a small cluster of points over 250 pages or more. Reacquiring a habit like reading isn’t easy, particularly if you lost it for the reasons specified above. So to make it easier for me to get back on that wagon, I’m going to start with obviously popular books – often written by white men; first on the list is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

So far so good.

Happy Lord of the Rings Day! Quoting verbatim from last year’s post on the same date:

March 25 every year is Lord of the Rings Day – a.k.a. Tolkien Day and Lord of the Rings Reading Day – because, in the books, that’s the day on which the One Ring is taken into the fires of Orodruin (or Mount Doom or Amon Amarth) by Gollum/Smeagol from the finger of Frodo Baggins. It was the year 3019 of the Third Age and augured the end of the War of the Ring.

Watch the films, read the books, talk about it, read about it, write about it. Do whatever it takes you to remember the potential of fantasy fiction to be a legitimate way to survive and cherish our realities.

Featured image credit: aitoff/pixabay.

Gods of nothing

The chances that I’ll ever understand Hollywood filmmakers’ appetite for films based on ancient mythology is low, and even lower that I’ll find a way to explain the shittiness of what their admiration begets. I just watched Gods of Egypt, which released in 2016, on Netflix. From the first scene, it felt like one of those movies that a bunch of actors participate in (I can’t say if they perform) to have some screen time and, of course, some pay. It’s a jolly conspiracy, a well-planned party with oodles of CGI to make it pleasing on the eyes and the faint hope that you, the viewer, will be distracted from all the vacuity on display.

I’m a sucker for bad cinema because I’ve learnt so much about what makes good cinema good by noticing what it is that gets in the way. However, with Gods of Egypt, I’m not sure where to begin. It’s an abject production that is entirely predictable, entirely devoid of drama or suspense, entirely devoid of a plot worth taking seriously. Not all Egyptian, Green, Roman, Norwegian, Celtic and other legends can be described by the “gods battle, mortal is clever, revenge is sweet” paradigm, so it’s baffling that Hollywood reuses it as much as it does. Why? What does it want to put on display?

It surely is neither historical fidelity nor entertainment, and audiences aren’t wowed by much these days unless you pull off an Avatar. There is a glut of Americanisms, including (but not limited to) the habit of wining one’s sorrows away, a certain notion of beauty defined by distinct clothing choices, the sole major black character being killed off midway, sprinklings of American modes of appreciation (such as in the use of embraces, claps, certain words, etc.), and so forth. And in all the respect that they have shown for the shades of Egyptian lore, which is none, what they have chosen to retain is the most (white) American Americanism of all: a self-apotheosising saviour complex, delivered by Geoffrey Rush as the Sun god Ra himself.

 

There seems to be no awareness among scriptwriters angling at mythologies of the profound, moving nuances at play in many of these tales – of, for example, the kind that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are pulling off for TV based on Neil Gaiman’s book.

There is no ingenuity. In a scene from the film, a series of traps laid before a prized artifact are “meant to lure Horus’s allies to their deaths” – but they are breachable. In another – many others, in fact – a series of barriers erected by the best builders in the world (presumably) are surmounted by a lot of jumping. In yet another, an important character who was strong as well as wily at the beginning relies on just strength towards the end because, as he became supposedly smarter by appropriating the brain of the god of wisdom, he gave himself a breakable suit of armour. Clearly, someone’s holding a really big idiot ball here. It’s even flashing blue-red lights and playing ‘Teenage wasteland’.

Finaly, Gods of Egypt makes no attempt even to deliver the base promise that some bad films make – that there will be a trefoil knot of a twist, or a moment of epiphany, or a well-executed scene or two – after which you might just be persuaded to consign your experience to the realm of lomography or art brut. I even liked Clash of the Titans (2010) even though it displayed none of these things; it just took itself so seriously.

But no, this is the sort of film that happens when Donald Trump thinks he’s Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is a mistake, an unabashed waste of time that all but drools its caucasian privilege over your face. Seriously, the only black people in the film – apart from the one major guy that dies – are either beating drums or are being saved. Which makes it all the more maddening. Remember Roger Christian’s Battlefield Earth (2000)? It was so bad – but it is still remembered because at the heart of its badness was an honest, if misguided, attempt by its makers to experiment, to exercise their agency as artists. A common complaint about the film is that Christian overused Dutch angles. I would have wept in relief if the Gods of Egypt had done anything like that. Anything at all.

The unclosed clause and other things about commas

The Baffler carried a fantastic critique of The New Yorker‘s use of commas by Kyle Paoletta on August 23. Excerpt:

The magazine’s paper subscription slips have long carried a tagline: “The best writing, anywhere.” It follows that the source of the best writing, anywhere, must also be the finest available authority on grammar, usage, and punctuation. But regular readers know that The New Yorker’s signature is not standard usage, but its opposite. Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas! These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content. But the rise of the magazine’s copy desk has done more for The New Yorker than simply generate clicks. It has bolstered the reputation of the magazine as a peerless institution, a class above the Vanity Fairs and Economists of the world, even if the reporting and prose in those publications is on par with (if not often better than) what fills the pages of The New Yorker.

Paoletta’s piece was all the more enjoyable because it touched on all the little notes about commas that most people usually miss. In one example, he discusses the purpose of commas, split as they are between subordination and rhythm. The former is called so because it “subordinates” content to the grammatical superstructure applied to it. Case in point: a pair of commas is used to demarcate a dependent clause – whether or not it affects the rhythm of the sentence. On the other hand, the rhythmic purpose denotes the use of commas and periods for “varying amounts of breath”. Of course, Paoletta doesn’t take kindly to the subordination position.

Not only does this attitude treat the reader as somewhat dim, it allows the copy editor to establish a position of privilege over the writer. Later in the same excerpt, [Mary] Norris frets over whether or not some of James Salter’s signature descriptive formulations (a “stunning, wide smile,” a “thin, burgundy dress”) rely on misused commas. When she solicits an explanation, he answers, “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas… Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences.” Norris begrudgingly accepts this defense, but apparently only because a writer of no lesser stature than Salter is making it.

I’m firmly on the subordination side of things: more than indicating pause, commas are scaffolding for grammar, and thus essential to conveying various gradations of meaning. Using a comma to enforce a pause, or invoke an emphasis, is also meaningless because pauses must originate not out of the writer’s sense of anticipation and surprise but out of the clever arrangement of words and sentences, out of the use of commas to suppress some senses and enhance others. It is not the explicit purpose of written communication to also dictate how it should be performed.

Along the same vein, I’m aware that using the diaeresis in words like ‘reemerge’ is also a form of control expressed over the performance of language, and one capable of assuming political overtones in some contexts. For example, English is India’s official language, the one used for all official documentation and almost all purposes of identification. However, English is also the tongue of colonialists. As a result, its speakers in India are those who (a) have been able to afford education in a good school, (b) have enjoyed a social standing that, in the pre-Independence period, brought them favours from the British, (c) by virtue of pronouncing some words this way or that, have had access to British or American societies, or combinations of some or all of them. So beating upon the reader that this precisely is how a word ought to be pronounced could easily be The New Yorker using a colonial cudgel over the heads of “no speak English” ‘natives’.

That said, debating the purpose of commas from the PoV of The New Yorker is one thing. Holding the same debate from the PoV of most English-language newspapers and magazines in the Indian mainstream media is quite another. The comma, in this sphere, is given to establishing rhythm for an overwhelming majority of writers and copy-editors, even though what we’re taught in school is only the use of commas for – as Paoletta put it – subordination. A common mistake that arises out of this position is that, more often than you’d like, clauses are not closed. Here’s an example from The Wire:

Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, described by Hitler as the “perfect Nazi woman” was held in check by male colleagues when she proposed that female members be awarded similar titles to the males.

There ought to be a comma after woman” and before was but there isn’t. This comma would be the terminal counterpart to the one that flagged off the start of the dependent clause (described by Hitler as…). Without it, what we have are two dependent clauses demarcated by one comma and no independent clauses – which there ought to be considering we’re looking at what happens to be a full and complete sentence.

The second most common type of comma-related mistake goes something like the following sentence (picked up from the terms of service of Authory.com):

You are responsible for the content, that you make available via Authory.

What the fuck is that comma even doing there? Does the author really think we ought to pause between “content” and “that”? While Salter it would seem used the comma to construct a healthy sense of rhythm, Authory – and hundreds of writers around the world – mortgage punctuation to build the syntactic versions of dubstep. This issue also highlights the danger in letting commas denote rhythm alone: rhythm is subjective, and ordering the words in sentences using subjective rules cannot ever make for a consistent reading experience. On the other hand, using commas as a matter of an objective ruleset would help achieve what Paoletta writes is overarching purpose of style:

[Style], unlike usage, has no widely agreed upon correct answers. It is useful only insofar as it enforces consistency. Style makes unimportant decisions so that writers don’t have to—about whether to spell the element “sulfur” or “sulphur,” or if it’s best to italicize the names of films or put them in quotes. It is not meant to be noticed: it is meant to remove the possibility of an inconsistency distracting the reader from experiencing the text as the writer intends.


Here again, of course, I’m not about to let many Indian copy-editors and writers off the hook. Paoletta cites Norris’s defence of the following paragraph as an example of style enforcement gone overboard:

Strait prefers to give his audience as few distractions as possible: he likes to play on a stage in the center of the arena floor, with four microphones arranged like compass points; every two songs, he moves, counterclockwise, to the next microphone, so that people in each quadrant of the crowd can feel as if he were singing just to them.

Compare this aberration to nothing short of the outright misshapenness that was an oped penned by Gopalkrishna Gandhi for The Hindu in May 2014. Excerpt:

In invoking unity and stability, you have regularly turned to the name and stature of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The Sardar, as you would know, chaired the Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Minorities. If the Constitution of India gives crucial guarantees — educational, cultural and religious — to India’s minorities, Sardar Patel has to be thanked, as do other members of that committee, in particular Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Christian daughter of Sikh Kapurthala. Adopt, in toto, Mr. Modi, not adapt or modify, dilute or tinker with, the vision of the Constitution on the minorities. You may like to read what the indomitable Sardar said in that committee. Why is there, in so many, so much fear, that they dare not voice their fears?

A criticism of the oped along these lines that appeared on the pages of this blog elicited a cocky, but well-meaning, repartee from Gandhi:

Absolutely delighted and want to tell him that I find his comment as refreshing as a shower in lavender for it cures me almost if not fully of my old old habit of taking myself too seriously and writing as if I am meant to change the world and also that I will be very watchful about not enforcing any pauses through commas and under no circumstances on pain of ostracism for that worst of all effects namely dramatic effect and will assiduously follow the near zero comma if not a zero comma rule and that I would greatly value a meet up and a chat discussing pernicious punctuation and other evils.

It is for very similar reasons that I can’t wait for my copy of Solar Bones to be delivered.

Featured image: An extratropical cyclone over the US midwest, shaped like a comma. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Blogging with Gitlab

About a week ago, I figured out how to use Hugo, first with Caddy and then with Dropbox and Gitlab. Hugo + Gitlab in particular is an amazing combo because it’s so easy to set up and run with:

  1. Create an account on Gitlab
  2. Fork this repo: https://gitlab.com/pages/hugo
  3. Import a theme of your choice
  4. Update settings in config.toml and social.toml
  5. THAT’S IT.

No code. Working on it has been a hoot as well. I use Atom to compose my posts (I was able to create a macro that made it easier for me to populate the front-matter while the Markdown Preview package recreates Ghost’s writing environment very well) and Cycligent to commit. Granted, this adds two more steps to the shortest publishing process (headline, body, tags, publish) but I don’t mind losing the extra 30 seconds.

And just like that, most of Ghost’s principal features are taken care of:

  • Markdown + live preview
  • Content tagging
  • Team sites
  • Scheduled publishing
  • SEO and social integration (with Cloudflare Apps)
  • HTTPS (either with Cloudflare or Let’s Encrypt)
  • RSS and integrations (Slack, etc.)
  • Email subscriptions (with MailChimp)
  • Open-source access
  • Theme-editing

(Not sure a CDN is necessary with static sites but if you’d like one, Cloudflare’s is pretty good.)

What’s not taken care of: backups. Although I’m sure there’s a way, e.g. by firing up your page on Gitlab CE hosted on a VPS or syncing your repo with a local copy once in a while. Best part (if you take the latter option): zero cost for the entire thing. Gitlab caps repo sizes at 10 GB, which is amazing – potentially humungous if you host your images elsewhere and import them by URL. Plus Gitlab also takes care of the security, continuous integration/delivery, etc.

All of this has made me curious about where an entity like Ghost has left to go in its efforts to simplify the publishing process, etc. Ghost made sense in a world where WordPress was crowded, other CMSs were going to be as niche/unaffordable as they are and SSGs came with a non-gentle learning curve. However, Gitlab makes it dead-easy to run with an SSG like Hugo. If someone created a GUI for Hugo like they did with Cactus (now defunct), it would – as they say – “just work”. Hell, if Bitnami releases a Hugo (or Octopress) stack soon for Lightsail, Ghost might have nothing else to do but stick to its journalism plan.

Featured image credit: Snufkin/pixabay.

Why Wonder Woman's breastplate isn't disappointing

The Wonder Woman armour piece of June 19 is already among the most-read pieces on this blog that were published in the last year, and quite a few people have stepped forward to give me their take on Twitter and over email. Thanks for all the responses – it’s been an unexpectedly wonderful learning experience. 🙂 This said, one of those who replied, my friend Ishita Roy, also told me why – the logic in my piece notwithstanding – she isn’t actually disappointed by Wonder Woman’s garb in the film. I’ve reproduced her complete response below (from her Facebook comment). –VM

Your analysis of Wonder Woman armour is technically and logically sound. It should be disappointing to see her in such impractical (dangerous, as you pointed out) and male-gaze oriented “armour”. However, allow me to suggest a few reasons for the lack of disappointment here.

1. The origins: William Marston, who co-created the character with his wife, based her design on bondage (BDSM) gear. This is actually in line with the origin of Superman, whose original artist also was inspired by BDSM.

The idea here was not to cater to the male gaze, but to strike the same chord as the image of a dominatrix.
Indeed, Marston’s credentials and intentions were rather impeccable – he was a psychologist and a feminist, and in a polyamorous relationship with two other queer feminists, both of whom had heavy inputs in the making of Wonder Woman.

2. The “armour” is not actually accompanied by the male gaze.

There is not a single shot in the movie which tracks the bodies of any of the amazons. Not a single shot. The attire of the amazons is treated with superb nonchalance in the movie. Of particular note are two scenes: Diana is catcalled when she first appears in London, hidden under a cloak, and later in her green outfit – both of which would be perceived as modest by most folks. But when she appears in her armour, and starts kicking ass, she not even ogled at.

That’s a huge message to send audiences: that women’s clothing is not meant for consumption by an audience. I think giving them actual armour would have subtracted from that message – that women deserve respect regardless of whatever they wear. That even as warriors, modesty is not a requirement.
The whole amazon attire is thoroughly divorced from the concept of objectification by the cinematography, script and the very suggestive fact that amazons of all ages wear it.

3. That attire may not have been meant as armour.

The fighting style choreographed for the amazons is actively incompatible with plate-mail. It depends on ranged attacks, acrobatics and is more coordinated than single combat. Freedom of movement, along with coverage of vitals seems to be the aim here.

Now note that Diana’s attire is more revealing than the standard issue Amazonian garb. Also note that it has been depicted as a museum piece in-story, and is meant to be more ceremonial than actual armour.
Indeed the prevailing fan theory is that it is completely ceremonial, meant to be an appropriate superhero costume for the (wielder of) god-killers rather than a bulletproof vest.

Finally: re Thor and Bruce. Both guys spend a substantial amount of time with a naked torso and, in Thor’s case, wearing non-armoured clothing. Make of that what you will.

Unscientific breastplates

Before I begin, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not obsessed with comic books, and that what follows is based on information gleaned from googling and trawling through internet forums at 1 am. If I’ve got a detail wrong, please point it out nicely and I’m happy to make the necessary corrections.


Wonder Woman the movie was hailed so widely for being what it was but surprisingly few fixated on the protagonist’s clothing – a noticeable departure from reality, where social media commentators often pick on women’s sartorial sensibilities in various circumstances over anything else that might be contextually relevant. I do realise that what Diana Prince chooses to wear is her choice and none of my business. Then again, what about the fact that she happens to be a character created for popular consumption by a man who modelled her after his idea of women: that they feel happy when they are submissive?

There’s more. The reason I’m going to fixate on her clothing now has to do with mechanical engineering (which I studied for my undergraduate degree). Of all the things Prince wears, her breastplate is particularly interesting.

As the visions of sci-fi and fantasy films have evolved in the last few decades, there has also been a noticeable evolution in the liberties taken with set and costume design. Specifically, they have become less displays of their creators’ being awed by the possibilities of the future as well as to contain their fantasies and artistic overtures – and more humdrum, utilitarian and functional. For example, in a limited sense, filmmakers on average have reduced their attention on the “wow” factor of gadgetry, keeping audiences from getting ‘distracted’ by some outlandish vision of the future. Some of my favourite recent examples of this include Iron Man, Nolan’s Batman and Mad Max: Fury Road. The movies’ script is always such that the “wow” object isn’t introduced in our midst suddenly. Its creation process is exposed to the viewer at every step such that the ultimate effect is for the viewer to be viscerally familiar with the object by the time of its deployment in action – especially with the choices behind its more unique features.

But one area in which filmmakers have broadly seemed reluctant to get functionalist about is the breastplate of female warriors. Or at least they have become functional to the extent that their function is to make female warriors looks sexier instead of afford proper protection. For example, consider the battledress of three characters: one each from Game of Thrones, Man of Steel and Wonder Woman.

Faora from the Superman universe (left) and Brienne of Tarth, from Game of Thrones. Source: YouTube

Faora from the Superman universe (left) and Brienne of Tarth, from Game of Thrones. Source: YouTube

While Faora Hu-Ul and Wonder Woman have breastplates that cup the breasts, Brienne of Tarth wears one that doesn’t. This is important because all of them are warriors and their armours must be able to protect them in a variety of conflict situations. One of them is melee combat, and when the breastplate receives a blow, its duty is to lessen the impact on the torso by absorbing it as well as directing it away from sensitive areas. However, when the breastplate cups over the breasts, striking it on top risks the force becoming directed inwards (especially if the seam is bad), towards the ribs and the sternum. This is what Emily Asher-Perrin wrote about for Tor in May 2013:

Assuming that you are avoiding the blow of a sword, your armor should be designed so that the blade glances off your body, away from your chest. If your armor is breast-shaped, you are in fact increasing the likelihood that a blade blow will slide inward, toward the center of your chest, the very place you are trying to keep safe. But that’s not all! Let’s say you even fall onto your boob-conscious armor. The divet separating each breast will dig into your chest, doing you injury. It might even break your breastbone. With a strong enough blow to the chest, it could fracture your sternum entirely, destroying your heart and lungs, instantly killing you. It is literally a death trap—you are wearing armor that acts as a perpetual spear directed at some of your most vulnerable body parts. It’s just not smart.

This is particularly true of Wonder Woman, whose latest costume appears to feature a metallic lining at the helm with a prow in the middle (the ‘golden eagle’) bending into the centre of her chest as well as sharp tips angling over her breasts. How is this sensible? Imagine what would happen if she fell face-down.

A close-up view of Wonder Woman's breastplate. Source: YouTube

A close-up view of Wonder Woman’s breastplate. Source: YouTube

I suppose you’re wondering how it matters considering it’s Wonder Goddamn Woman, a superhero who can take punches harder than any armour would be able to withstand on her bare skin and not flinch. But the same can be said of Thor, and even Dr Bruce Banner, and it’s not like either of them is walking around wearing an iron maiden or a chastity belt just because he can. In effect, while Batman got full-body armour capable of surviving a Rottweiler attack, Wonder Woman had to make do with gear that wasn’t entirely about ‘her choices’. It actually created new ways to harm her (were it not for her Amazonian outside) because it was trying to preserve other things: her sexiness and her symbols. In a March 2016 interview to Hollywood Reporter, Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer who created Wonder Woman’s armour, said:

We created a costume that looks like metal armor, but of course, in these films the fight scenes are very intense and challenging so I had to come up with a solution that would allow her to move and breathe, but also to have this very iconic, sort of hourglass shape in a modern and interesting way. … Of course there’s all sorts of things she has such as the eagle and WW motif throughout the costume, so I tried to use that WW motif through the belt and the gauntlets and across the breastplate. There’s WW throughout the costume. I think someone tried to count them and they got to 40. (Emphasis added.)

What do either of these things have to do with combat efficiency? Again, for those wondering how any of this matters, let me remind you that my point is only that the sensibilities going into designing male armour and female armour seem to be different.

In reality (i.e. when we’re not dealing with superhuman abilities), the answer to this is not to exclude bust cups from female body armour, which is feasible to do only in the case of women with small breasts – but to create new designs that don’t bring additional vulnerabilities over the baseline (i.e. male armour), to focus on individual fit and to test it well. According to an article published in Tech Beat, a magazine of the US National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Centre, in December 2014,

Soft body armors designated as female differ from male and gender-neutral vests in that they can incorporate curved or shaped protective panels to accommodate the female bust. Flat male or gender-neutral models may be suitable for female officers with smaller busts. Depending on design and materials, they may not be suitable for those with larger busts, as the busts push the front armor panel forward, enlarging the underarm gap and therefore lessening the area of coverage between the front and rear panels.

Further, according to the US Office of Justice Programs,

Generally speaking, the difference between male and female models is that for the female body armor, most manufacturers cut and stitch the material to create bust cups. … When a female model is tested, the laboratory is instructed to locate the seam that is created by folding and/or stitching the material to make the bust cup, and to place one of the shots on that seam. This is done to ensure the weakest point of the vest (typically a seam) provides the minimum level of ballistic protection required by the standard. … There are many different types and styles of female vests, and ways of fitting vests to accommodate all of the various sizes and shapes needed for female officers. Some manufacturers have developed methods which ‘mold’ the bust cups into the material, negating the need for cutting and stitching to create a bust cup. Other manufacturers simply alter the outside dimensions of the panel (i.e., enlarging the arm hole openings) to accommodate certain types of builds and body types (commonly referred to as a ‘unisex’ vest).

Overall, it seems to be that there can be no single way to verify the strength and integrity of women’s armour as much as subjecting each unit to a single set of tests. Then again, I wonder if there’s any point bringing all these details to bear on Wonder Woman’s armour: how, for starters, are we going to get the Young’s modulus of Amazonian amazongmetal? I’m not sure the movies (including Batman v. Superman) have a scene where Princess Diana falls face down or takes a punch from Superman. In the off chance that such a scene does come to be, I’m going to be interested in her armour’s backface deformation. From a Police One article published in December 2014,

… in ballistic-resistant armor testing, backface deformation (BFD) is the measurement on the indent in a clay backing material when a bullet that does not penetrate a vest makes an impression on the clay. BFD testing of very small panels of armors, as well as whether the amount of allowed deformation should be different for the breast area, could be areas for study. … “The idea is to use a supplemental test technique to ensure that when rounds impact areas of the female anatomy that they have the same level of protection as existing male armors, but when striking the bust area, we want to make sure that we provide a more biofidelic test method that specifically addresses the unique female anatomy,” Otterson says.

Update: Twitter user @shishiqiushi has pointed out that the proper historical comparison for breastplates would be the Roman cuirass. However, I’m not sure where this fits into my narrative because there is no evidence – whether in art or archaeology – that women wore the cuirass into battle, at least not usually. And when they did, they wore versions designed for men. Perhaps I would be able to say that the thinking going into designing men’s armour had some historical basis. For further reading, try this Gizmodo explainer.

The raison d'être of a science journalist, courtesy Hobsbawm

For someone who reads very slowly (a 300-page book usually takes a week), Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes offered an astonishingly enjoyable experience*. A week after I picked it up at a secondhand books store, I’m 534 pages in and keep going back to it. While Hobsbawm’s celebrated breadth of knowledge intimidated me enough to get writer’s block, the book exhibits just the right level of topical fluency, insightfulness and, fortunately, snark.

My only grouse is that Hobsbawm had to have a separate section on the natural sciences in the book’s last chapter. As a result, it is as if he acknowledges that the unique traits of 20th century science don’t quite fit into the stories of anything else that happened in 1914-1991 – which is disappointing. It requires the reader to assimilate advances in quantum mechanics, relativity, semiconductor electronics and ICT by themselves and not together with how the 77 years panned out politically, economically and socially. Of course, Hobsbawm tries every now and then (in the natural sciences section) to contextualise scientific and technological advancements in issues and narratives of societal development, but this doesn’t quite click.

Nonetheless, Age of Extremes is highly recommended, doubly so because, even if the science section seems like an afterthought, it still offers a carefully considered picture of modern science and its philosophical roots. (While some sections seemed facile, this may have been because I regularly read on these topics.) One paragraph in particular (p. 530) caught my eye: Hobsbawm argues that anti-science beliefs took root in the world because its subjects were becoming increasingly specialised, abstracted, and whose contents were becoming removed further from both common sense and sense experience – and, ultimately, from the common man. He then offers the following:

The suspicion and fear of science was fuelled by four feelings: that science was incomprehensible; that both its practical and moral consequences were unpredictable and probably catastrophic; and that it underlined the helplessness of the individual, and undermined authority. Nor should we overlook the sentiment that, to the extent that science interfered with the natural order of things, it was inherently dangerous.

In these lines, I see the perfect raison d’être of the science journalist. It is the task of the science journalist to dispel the pall of inaccessibility and incomprehensibility surrounding science, to lay out its practical and moral consequences, to inspire confidence in those who would doubt its effects, to invite them to participate in it, and to expose its processes so scientists cannot claim authority over the ignorant. And if Authority perceives a threat to itself emerging from science, it is likelier than not that it is advocating for a scientific idea that is of Authority’s own making and that it is not a ‘natural entity’. In this case, the exposition of the processes of science can be used to challenge Authority.

*I’m sorry Jahnavi, I’ll come to your book next.

Featured image: Eric Hobsbawm. Source: YouTube.

The Oedipal intrigues of Indian cinema and if they undermine hope

British film critic Nicholas Barber has a fantastic insight in this review in The Economist. The gist is that increasingly more productions, especially from the West, have plots that ‘evolve’ to until they become some sort of a family dispute. Barber cites famous examples: Star Wars, Jason Bourne, Sherlock (by extension, Elementary), Goldfinger, Spectre, etc. Some plausible reasons he offers:

It’s not too hard to see why such universe-shrinking appeals to screenwriters. Drama is fuelled by revelations, and there aren’t many revelations more momentous – or easier to write – than, “I am your father/sister/brother!” Giving the protagonist a personal involvement in the plot is also a simple way of raising the emotional stakes, as well as making him or her more sympathetic to the viewer. Most of us will never be lucky enough to blow up a moon-sized space station, as Luke Skywalker did, but we all know what it’s like to be angry at a parent or resentful of a sibling.

But I suspect that there is more to this trend than narrative expedience. The new spate of universe-shrinking, of plots driven by personal animus, could well be a sign of how narcissistic our culture has become, and how desperate film and television studios are to please fans who are obsessed by their favourite characters. But it’s also a symptom of globalisation: now that studios are so reliant on overseas sales, they don’t want to risk offending foreign markets. It’s safer to be personal than political.

I disagree with Barber’s larger point because I think he might be projecting. Numerous episodes of Sherlock are concerned with family but only if that’s what you choose to take away. Instead, Barber appears to be picking on themes and in the process betraying a personal dislike for them. He may also be cherry-picking his examples; his review itself in The Economist has been prompted by one episode of one TV show.

Obviously this made me think of Indian cinema and if it’s been guilty of the same tactics. Of course it has and there are innumerable examples across eras. One that most ground at me was (spoiler alert) the very-recent Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru. But then the occasion also merits some introspection about the place of the Indian family and its sensibilities. Barber thinks more western creators are resorting to, as one comment points out, “Oedipal intrigues” because producers expect them to find more favour with western audiences. Similarly, what kind of “Oedipal intrigues” does the Indian audience like? A tangential take on this line of thought: what possibilities do “Oedipal intrigues” violate? For example, Barber explains how Luke Skywalker’s humble origins – which the audience may have been able to connect better with – are outwindowed when you realise he’s the brother of a famous princess and the son of the series’s greatest villain. Similarly, what possibilities offered by Indian cinema have been undermined by its own “Oedipal intrigues”?

The only thing that comes to mind is its treatment of women. Perhaps you can think of something else as well.

Featured image: A still from the film Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru.

Bollywood, Kollywood, etc.

Southern India is fertile territory for film-makers. Its 260m inhabitants are richer than the national average, and prefer content in regional languages to Hindi, Bollywood’s lingua franca. Ageing cinemas bulge to breaking-point: audiences turn into cheering spectators and drown out the dialogues. Living superstars have temples named after them; fans bathe huge garlanded cut-outs of actors with milk to pray for their film’s success. Pre-screening rituals include burning camphor inside a sliced pumpkin before smashing it near the big screen to bring good luck. It is unsurprising that five of Tamil Nadu’s eight chief ministers have been film stars or scriptwriters.

This is from an article in The Economist that touches upon a point highlighted most recently by Kabali but not as much as I’d have liked, although this line of thought would’ve been a digression. The article remarks that Bollywood has been in a bit of a “funk” of late, having “recycled” the same stars repeatedly. It’s not just that. Notwithstanding the vacuous rituals, South Indian cinema, at least Tamil cinema, has also been more comfortable taking on touchy topics, and plumbing depths that are both sensitive and nuanced (as opposed to dealing with full-blown controversies), a sort of privilege afforded no doubt by an audience able to appreciate it. This isn’t to say Tamil cinema doesn’t have any problems – it has its share – as much as to point out that it has been able to touch upon societal ills more often and better than Bollywood has been able. For further reading, I recommend Karthikeyan Damodaran’s assessment of Kabali (which includes an instructive review of the caste-focused hits of Kollywood). If you have more time, Vaasanthi’s wonderful book Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics is a must-read. It takes great pains to document the seeding of political power in the aspirations of Tamil cinema. A short excerpt:

Once the country attained freedom and the Congress came to power in Tamil Nadu as well, puritans like [C. Rajagopalachari] and Kamaraj who were at the helm of affairs, completely disowned the contribution of cinema to the movement. Rajaji’s rival Satyamurthy, a Congressman of great imagination and vision as far as the visual media’s impact was concerned, had in fact built up a very powerful group of artists. With the rapid electrification of rural areas under Congress rule, cinema halls and films became accessible to the rural population. Thanks to touring cinemas, even the most remote villages could soon be reached by this medium.

The Dravida Kazhagam activists, many of whom were talented playwrights, recognised cinema’s potential and very deftly used it for their purpose. At first they were scriptwriters working for producers and had no control over the medium. But they could project their ‘reformist’ ideas and insert dialogues critiquing Brahmins, religious hypocrisy, untouchability and other controversial subjects. They rode on the popularity they earned from cinema as scriptwriters and saw in the medium potential to spread their message. [R.M. Veerappan] recalls that Annadurai thought ‘the revolutionary ideas of Periyar should be told through plays. And decided to write. He as an actor himself and expressed great affinity towards fellow artistes and supported and praised them in public. The Congress, on the other hand, only made use of the artists like K.B. Sundarambal, Viswanath Das and others, but their status was not enhanced. All theatre artistes including S.G. Kittappa, who was a Brahmin, were looked down upon and were not respected.’

Featured image credit: Unsplash/pixabay.

Elementary P v. NP

“What’re you currently binge-watching?” is a great conversation-starter, I think. One well-suited for this age and carrying enough insights into the person you’re trying to strike up a conversation with.

I’m currently binge-watching Elementary, an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes whose mysteries may not be as well-roundedly gripping as they are in Sherlock but whose narrative spares me the melodrama of Benedict Cumberbatch and whose reality is neither as ambitious nor paranoid. I also like the idea of a male-female pair in the lead that doesn’t have sex from the get-go.

But in its simplicity, Elementary sometimes get ahead of itself. The most common symptom of this is that, in a few episodes, there is some information that is revealed in the second-half, to which the viewer has had no previous access and so to whom the resolution veritably arises from the blue. As a once-avid quizzer, this is a buzzkill because it offers no opportunity for the viewer to attempt to solve the puzzle before Holmes does (which isn’t impossible). It also makes a lesser ‘deductionist’ of Holmes because, in the viewer’s eyes, it robs him of the ability to piece together a solution to a puzzle using pieces the viewer knows exist.

But in some other episodes, another kind of problem arises. In them, Elementary ventures into fantasy. Often it has the good sense to explain some conundrums away with the suffix “… if we had a really well-equipped lab and billions of dollars”. At other times, it assumes the viewers ignorant. And at even other times, it clubs the two.

An example of the last variety is season 2, episode 2: ‘Solve for X’. In this episode, two mathematicians are killed while they’re both working on a solution to the P versus NP problem. The problem, first formally presented by a computer scientist named Stephen Cook in 1971, asks whether P equals NP. P stands for the set of all problems that can be solved in a reasonable amount of time (relative to their complexity). NP stands for the set of all problems that cannot be solved in a reasonable amount of time but that can be verified in a reasonable amount of time.

(John Pavlus had the perfect metaphor for NP back in 2010: “Imagine a jigsaw puzzle: finding the right arrangement of pieces is difficult, but you can tell when the puzzle is finished correctly just by looking at it”.)

Though a solution to the problem has evaded the most skilled mathematicians for many decades, most of them intuitively believe that P ≠ NP. Solving the problem fetches a $1 million cash prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute (CMI), New York – setting up the motive in ‘Solve for X’. However, the episode is also careful to note the fact that most of modern cryptography is problem-solving and that a solution to the P v. NP problem would be worth hundreds of millions to digital security companies.

This is a line that was bandied about just last month when a group of physicists announced that they were a step closer to resolving the Riemann hypothesis, another mathematical problem that carries a $1 million reward from the CMI. Resolving the hypothesis has some beautiful implications for the incidence of prime numbers on the number line and for prime factorisation, both integral components of the RSA encryption algorithm. However, it says little about how a problem itself could be solved – a notion that is also applicable to the pop culture surrounding the P v. NP problem.

In ‘Solve for X’, a third mathematician solves the problem and then uses it to hack emails and into CCTV footage.

Proving that P equals NP does not mean programmers immediately have insights into where the solutions for a given problem may lay. They only know that, technically, the problem has a solution in polynomial time. For example, consider the RSA algorithm itself. It is effective because it relies on prime factorisation, the process of finding two large prime numbers whose product is being used as a key to cracking the security the algorithm affords. A single-core 2.2-GHz CPU is supposed to take “almost 2,000 years” to factorise a number with 768 bits. Numbers with 2,048 bits or higher are thought to be unfactorisable in a single human lifetime. At the same time, given two prime numbers, their product can be quickly computed and a proposed solution rapidly verified.

But proving P equals NP doesn’t make any of this easier. Knowing that there is a solution out there is not the same as knowing what it could be, particularly in situations where scientists are concerned with practical applications.

R.J. Lipton, an expert on the problem, probably has the most meaningful take on this: that succeeding in solving the problem is about making a psychological impact. If P ≠ NP, then your conception of the world isn’t shaken much: some problems that you thought were hard are going to remain hard. But if P = NP, then it means there are a whole bunch of problems that you thought were hard but are actually easy, and that you – and thousands of mathematicians over the years – have missed out on simpler answers. However, it wouldn’t have anything to say about where this ease arises from.

… unless there is either something encoded in the solution of the P v. NP problem itself or it’s the case that a unified solution emerges to crack all NP problems. I felt that ‘Solve for X’ takes such encoding for granted, that it significantly overestimates the confidence boost accorded by knowing that a problem is solvable or that it significantly underestimates the gap between P = NP and being able to hack into everything. In other words, if P equalled NP, I would still be aghast if someone hacked into Google’s servers.

Any which way, it goes a step too far, evident when you see Tanya Barrett and her programmer friend go from solving the problem to hacking into CCTV footage within a day. It makes a fool of a viewer by saying that this is what the P v. NP problem immediately helps accomplish – and it also makes savants of Barrett and the programmer in order to be able to make such rapid progress but whose savantism doesn’t manifest in any other way.

SPOILERS END

I also think Elementary may have missed a great opportunity to explore a wider, wilder world in which P = NP.

As with my criticism of Spectral, my taking on of Elementary happened because it was an interesting intersection of science and popular culture and that doesn’t happen often. And while Elementary may not have perfectly depicted the consequences of solving a famous mathematical problem – just the way Spectral took some liberties with depicting an esoteric physical phenomenon – I’m glad that it ventured in that direction at all.

Finally, if you’re interested in reading more about the P v. NP problem, I highly recommend Scott Aaronson’s and Lipton’s blogs. Both can get quite technical but they also have some posts that discuss the problem very well, by which I mean not just simple language but also with insights that might allow you to glimpse the underlying principles. Here are two posts – here and here – to get started with.

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.