Saturday, January 23, 2010

Avatar: Technological leap and dishonest philosophy

When James Cameron's previous blockbuster "Titanic" (1997) swept the Oscars one of my ex-bosses wryly remarked 'third rate bollywood movie'. Cameron declared himself "king of the world" and numbed by the staggering success just went into hibernation. Cameron burst into the new decade with a more staggering success that has practically redefined movie making, movie marketing etc. Cameron's "Avatar", already crossed the $1 billion mark and set to surpass Titanic in collection, is a "phenomenon". From winning the Golden Globe for 'best picture' to being the cover story for BusinessWeek its Cameron everywhere.

Much against my inclinations I went to see 'Avatar' because the technology lover in me trumped the ideologue. The technology simply stumped me (that I saw the 2-D version). The philosophy, as expected, disgusted me. First the technology.

Creating distinctive flora and fauna for aliens, color co-ordinated alien worlds, creating an alien speak are all nothing unique, George Lucas has done it all before in his "Star Wars" movies. Cameron took all that to a plane that was exponentially grander than ever before. "From January to April 2006, Cameron worked on the script and developed a culture for the Na'vi. Their language was created by Dr. Paul Frommer, a linguistat USC.[7] The Na'vi language has a vocabulary of about 1000 words, with some 30 added by Cameron. The tongue's phonemes include ejective consonants(such as the "kx" in "skxawng") that are found in the Amharic language of Ethiopia, and the initial "ng" that Cameron may have taken from New Zealand Māori." Now that is imagination and dedication that far surpasses even Spielberg.

BusinessWeek (BW) gives a detailed cover story with an important caveat: "Reasonable people can debate the artistic merits of James Cameron's work". Eclipsing all the other achievements was Cameron's designing of his own cameras. The script was ready 15 years ago, what Cameron waited for technology to deliver what he conceived in his mind. He wanted to do a 3D movie in such a way that the movie would draw crowds by the millions and not merely thousands who come to gawk at a 'novelty' like they did for the previous 3D efforts. "In September 2006, Cameron was announced to be using his own Reality Camera System to film in 3-D. The system would use two high-definition cameras in a single camera body to create depth perception". Cameron did what Isaac Newton did (ah what a comparison but could not think of anything else). Newton found existing mathematical concepts insufficient to explain gravity and he invented Calculus. Cameron invented his own camera. Fox studios balked at the expense. Now Cameron became John Galt,"With the studio balking, Cameron had to turn himself into an inventor-entrepreneur. Using his own funds, he developed the technology to bring Avatar to the screen, betting that what he saw in his head would be so visually persuasive that, ultimately, he could sell his souped-up camera rigs back to Hollywood at a potentially considerable profit.....'I knew that if this failed my name would be dirt, but that's the nature of this business," says Cameron. "Every director knows that you can flame and burn like the Hindenburg, and do it very publicly." I am reminded of how John Galt and Dagny build a bridge.

Using motion capture suits for live actors and transposing the motions was famously done earlier in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the rings" for the character of Gollum. Cameron took it several notches higher "Headsets rigged with tiny cameras captured actors' facial expressions and eye movements, a jolt of reality that Cameron deemed crucial if he was going to make the film. Using software developed in-house, the crew imported the actors into Pandora's digital world while Cameron was shooting"

Having paid our dues for the technology lets turn our attention the despicable hypocrisy that masqueraded for philosophy in the movie. The plot is a thinly disguised diatribe against American action in Iraq. An imperialist power is set to invade another civilization for the sake of 'precious mineral', references to pre-emptive attacks are explicit. The alien civilization is portrayed as "Eden like", everything is beautiful and pleasing to the eye, no socio-economic imbalances in the society, every animal and plant is stunningly color co-ordinated all living in complete harmony, no contention for anything leading to any conflict, there is no predator, no prey, just nature in its simplicity and pure benign manifestation. If this is not 'utopia' I"d like to know what is. Into this world intrude avaricious corporates aided by trigger happy marines of an army. The commanding general has fearsome scars, a scowl and is so plainly villainous that all that is missing is a patch reading "I am the villain, hate me please". All characters are uni-dimensional. Except for the "tree huggers" all other human beings are just plain villains. Every alien is docile and nature loving.

Wikipedia has interesting data on how much it has cost mother earth to produce this extravagant propaganda. "Digital effects rendering was performed at Weta Digital's data centre in Wellington, New Zealand. The 10,000-square foot server farm makes use of 4,000 Hewlett-Packard servers, and occupies the 193 spot in the Top 500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers. Creating the virtual world of Pandora required over a petabyte of digital storage.[83] Each minute of the final footage for Avatar occupied 17.28 gigabytes of storage."

The carbon footprint for 4000 servers is staggering, then pile on digital storage, upgraded equipment in every theater to screen 3D, add the thousands of 3D glasses made and discarded. Al Gore comes to my mind. After railing about Armageddon and climate crisis for years he felt it was necessary to have a heated swimming pool in his home thus running up electricity bills that are way above the bills of average Tennessee homes. Of course he makes up for it by buying Carbon credits whereby some poor African government would plant trees to offset the carbon that Mr Gore keeps emitting. Simple, I am rich and I am entitled to put trash out on the street but I ease my guilt by paying somebody to clean up.The movie has its ludicrous moments when legions of Navi try to bring back to life a gun shot wounded dying Sigourney Weaver, the voodoo rituals sans technology would bring out a collective chortle in the audience.

Having written a thinly papered anti-capitalist screed Mr Cameron went to Twentieth Century Fox to produce the $300 million extravaganza. Now that company is owned by Rupert Murdoch, publisher of Wall Street JOurnal and owner of Dow Jones, citadels of captalism. Of course there is also the small inconvenient fact that Mr Murdoch is your arch type media conglomerate who straddles the globe and, to borrow Chomsky's phrase, is busy "manufacturing consent", especially with his highly partisan Fox News.

News Corp (owner of Fox network) used every arm of its octopus like media power house to promote the movie. Mr Cameron, laughing his way to the bank does not bat an eye. "The Coca-Cola Company collaborated with Twentieth Century Fox to launch a worldwide marketing campaign to promote the film. The highlight of the campaign was the website Specially-marked bottles and cans of Coca-Cola Zero, when held in front of a webcam, enabled users to interact with the website's 3D features using augmented reality (AR) technology."...Hhhmm using Coca Cola to advertise a movie that decries plundering of nature reeks of crass hypocrisy.

Unlike these preening hypocrites mega corporations have opened up to support fund drives by employees for Haiti. JP Morgan matches donations dollar for dollar upto $250,000. Imagine that. A $5 donation by an employee becomes $10. A $50 donation becomes $100. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have pledged almost their entire hard earned fortunes to charity. Al Gore gave $300 approx to charity in 2000 when he was V.P. Starbucks goes above and beyond in promoting communities and fair trade in areas from which they source coffee beans (

Vietnam and now Iraq are convenient sticks to beat the US with. Yes the Iraq invasion can be dissected for many omissions but will Mr Cameron grudge the fact that in the entire Middle East women voted and contested in free elections only in Iraq which now boasts a constitution. Its the US army which flew to Tsunami hit Thailand and to quake torn Haiti. Its the US army that took a beating giving aid to impoverished Somalis. Its the US army that prevented whole sale slaughter of Muslims in the Bosnian mess.

Its the American capitalist model that has made this dream run possible for Mr Cameron, American corporations, American companies, American consumers are all the thrusters for the profit rocket that Mr Cameron is riding high.

Now my caution to American companies that make it possible for Cameron to exist and prosper is this: Remember the story of Gail Wynand, the man who thought he can abandon philosophy and reclaim it at will only to find Ellsworth Toohey at the wheel.

Sources: Business Week


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Boston delivers a message to DC!!!

The city of tea-party, the state that was the crucible of America's birth today redrew the contours of American politics. Massachusetts (MA) today elected a republican as its senator. In more than 50 years no republican has been elected as senator from MA. The election was for the seat held by Ted Kennedy for 46 years. Registered democrats outnumber republicans by 3-1 margin. MA is considered the bluest of the blue states. Often pejoratively referred as an adjunct of left wing Canada. Bumper stickers saying "Don't blame me, I am from MA" are common. Barack Obama carried the state by more than 25 points. Its here that strident left wing populism has at last met its match. Its MA that sent a loud signal to the cohorts of Obama and Obama himself "thus far and no further".

This is an election filled with ironies. At the height of Obama Vs Hillary's heated primaries the Kennedy's came out swinging against Hillary. Many in their clan, with no compunction or sense of irony, called out Hillary on dynasty politics. The greatest irony was Ted Kennedy calling on Hillary to get behind Obama and not scuttle his chances against McCain. This same Ted Kennedy campaigned to the bitter end against Carter, a sitting president. When Teddy was diagnosed with brain cancer and the diagnosis was grim everyone buried their grievances and waited for the lion of the senate to go into the sunset. There is no argument that Ted Kennedy's stellar role in the senate had resulted in a raft of legislation that touched every living American. Sensing that his days were numbered and that he may not be around to deliver the crucial vote needed by Obama for the "health care reform" Teddy in a parting shot recommended to the Gov of MA and the state senate that they amend the rules such that the democratic Gov. could appoint a democrat in his place when he died instead of, as mandated by MA constitution, hold an election. Now MA constitution had earlier been amended to hold a special election to fill a vacancy instead of appointing someone by the Gov. That was done when John Kerry ran for presidency. In order to prevent a then republican Guv appointing a republican in case Kerry won the presidency and had to vacate the senate seat, at Teddy's prodding, MA democrats altered the constitution to hold a special election. That was 2004. In 2009 there were not sure so they decide to reverse themselves. After all, this is politics.

Anyway finally an election was due in April 2010. Martha Coakley, state attorney general of MA was the democratic contestant. Her tenure as AG itself had its share of controversies. Scott Brown, now the most searched Scott in google, state senator of MA, one time nude model for Cosmo, was the republican contender. Martha, leading by 30 points, as recently as Nov 2009, thought she could coast to victory in "Teddy's seat". Along came Scott in a pickup truck who criss-crossed the state and reminded people that it was nobody's seat but the 'people's seat'. While Martha vacationed, Scott and his truck did the rounds. Nobody gave him a chance. After all were not republicans damaged beyond repair thanks to GWB? Republican party was in disarray just a few months ago. What changed in Nov. '09?

In Nov '09 NJ and VA went to the polls for a gubernatorial election. Obama made history by carrying VA, no democrat had achieved that in 40 years. NJ was a democratic leaning state, it was a toss-up in '04 Presidential election when Bush tried to wrest it and failed. In both states the democratic candidates lost decisively despite active campaigning by Barack Obama. It is to be noted that in both states no republican big wig campaigned. Especially in NJ. In both states democrats tried the scarecrow tactics of "Bush-Cheney" to no avail. In NJ incumbent governor Jon Corzine released despicable ads tying his contender with George Bush. Both states resoundingly slapped such tactics with an unambiguous verdict.

By now the tectonic plates in DC were starting to move. In a hurry to pass healthcare reform democrats started acting like Tammany Hall bosses of yore. Deal after deal after deal was struck with individuals in closed door sessions, bills were padded, unions were humored, threats of taxing the super rich to no end were freely flaunted. Obama got his comeuppance. Obama's magic in winning the election was portraying himself as a new age messianic-politician above the dirty rumble tumble of political skulduggery (forget it that was forged in Chicago politics). Now the independents and youth who worshipped him were dumbstruck.

The final straw was delivered a week back when the boss of AFL-CIO threatened the democrats with severe backlash if their super-generous, employer paid, health plans were taxed. He suggested instead to, well what else but tax the rich. He and the democrats were banking on the residual anger in the populace against the rich for the economic crises. But somewhere the American public decided the stench of such deals was repulsive enough and decided to stop "socialism run amuck" in its tracks. Along came Scott Brown in his pickup truck. He just did hard boots on the ground campaign, promised to derail socialism, did not bring any republican big wig but just locals to campaign. The mood of the country and MA voters turned in Dec.

Obama and his cohorts were still in la-la land. Dana Milbank, Washington Post correspondent, wrote a prescient article in today's edition that merits a lengthy quote:

"One salutary result the Senate election in Massachusetts could have for Democrats is it could wipe the grin off Robert Gibbs's face.

The Democrats' panicked struggle to hold onto Ted Kennedy's seat in the liberal state had, whatever the outcome, showed how badly the party's brand had been damaged over the past year. But as the White House press corps challenged President Obama's press secretary on Tuesday afternoon, Gibbs answered with his usual mix of wisecracks and insults.

"Broadly speaking, can you talk about the difference between 59 and 60 votes in the Senate and what that means for the president's agenda this year?"

"Broadly, it's one," Gibbs answered.

Will Obama hold a news conference Wednesday to discuss the results?

"Be here around 10 a.m. If we're not here, start without us."

Whether it was Gibbs, the White House spokesman or Martha or Obama himself, complacency and arrogance compounded each other until this past week. Finally Martha woke up.

The democratic party sent its stars one after other capping it with Bill Clinton and Obama himself. As Milbank trenchantly observed, "This is the most visible manifestation of a larger problem the Obama White House has. Many Obama loyalists from the 2008 race still seem, after a year on the job, to have trouble exiting campaign mode. They sometimes appear to be running a taxpayer-funded rapid-response operation".

I am very thankful for the voters of MA for having sent this message to DC. If the voters of MA could be swung thus one can only imagine the seething rage in the rest of the country.

Friday, January 8, 2010

84 Charing Cross Road and Old Bookstores.

On a wintry Friday evening I sat down to browse my netflix (online video rental) queue. Netflix now even streams movies on to PC, one recommendation that popped up was "84 Charing Cross Road". I had seen that charming movie 6 years back. Its a movie that any bibliophile could relate to. An aging script writer, Anne Bancroft, in search of old used books comes across a book seller in London. She writes to them asking for cheap used editions of books, some out of print. Anthony Hopkins, an employee at the store, starts a correspondence. The mails talking about books is so charming. William Hazlitt's essays, Pepys diaries, Cardinal Newman's book on universities, Elizabethan poetry, John Donne's Sermons, Bible in Vulgate Latin so much much more. I checked out a few in my local library. Hazlitt sounded familiar from my high school reading, when I googled him I found that his essay "on the pleasure of Hating" is most famous (

The movie starts in post war years and just like "Holland's Opus" gives vignettes of the times, the meat rationing in post-war London, coronation of Queen, student protest in Columbia University, NY etc. The literary and human quotient are well served. The books are discussed in pretty literary fashion, Bancroft's irritation at a not so good publication of "Pepys diaries", her derision of Shelley & Keats romanticism give an edge to the movie. Seeing somebody who selects books like a wine connoisseur is pretty warming. Receiving a book she waited for long she remarks that it should be read sitting in a nice leather chair by the side of a fireplace and not sitting in cheap furniture as she has to do.

Bancroft starts sending X-mas presents to Hopkins and his team. She sends rare to get meat and food. Each employee in the store becomes dear to her, all send her correspondences, even Hopkins family becomes dear to her. She sends nylons from Saks to his family. Bancroft yearns to visit London, when she gathers enough money she suddenly has to spend it on expensive dental treatment thus disappointing Hopkins. One fine day she gets a letter that Hopkins had died and that the store itself might close. She then decides to go to London, wanting to see 'literary London'. The movie closes as she walks into a dusty empty store and saying "Frankie at last I am here". Its no epic movie but worth a watch.

Not wanting to see it on PC I checked online if my local Barnes & Noble store might have a copy.Yes they did, I hurried there and bought it. To my joy it was only $9, while it was retailing at $13 online. Came home, stretched out and watched it one go. By the way during my visit to London in 2003 I made it a point to go see Charing cross Road.

My side thoughts are related to used book stores. Right from my days at Chennai and Tanjore I loved the used book stores. In Chennai & Tanjore they were more roadside stuff. I've discovered sheer gems in them. Will Durant, Russell, Koestler, rare books of Irving Wallace (book about how he wrote 'The Prize') etc were all discovered there. In New Jersey close to my home are several used book stores. The best used to be "Micawber books" opposite Princeton University. "Micawber' was run by someone who loved books unfortunately they had to close because they could compete against online retailers like Amazon. Lambertville is a quaint town bordering NJ and Pennsylvania that had a wonderful used book store. I just love finding the hidden treasures in those stores. Raleigh, North Carolina is another treasure trove due to the Universities (Duke and Univ. of NC). The picture above is from one such haul at Lambertville, almost 7 years ago.