Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Time Machines I

Ahh, time machines {rubs hands in delight}. Finally! I thought I’d never get around to talking about time machines. Although, I must admit, I might have had a few posts here and there about time travel. Just not one devoted almost entirely to the methods and/or the machines devised by fertile imaginations throughout human history…well, human literary history…well, the last century and a half anyway. Ever since H G Wells first wrote about the intrepid Time Traveller and his curious machine that would whisk the occupant into the future with the merest flick of a quartz lever, time travel yarns have become one of the mainstays of science fiction writing. In some cases, time travel stories have also transcended their parent genre and have made inroads into romance and socio-economic commentary. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife is a case of the former, while Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887 1 are very early (pre-dating even The Time Machine) examples of the latter. Even J K Rowling has used time travel in a unique and magical way to resolve the central conflict in one of the books of the Harry Potter series.

Pre-New 52 Superman
New 52 Superman
Comic book writers have made generous use of it, in a recent case using paradoxes generated by such travel to completely overhaul close to 70 years of comic book history, so much so that this guy, the one on the left, is now this guy, the one on the right 2.

TV shows have written with time travel as their central premise, be it the long-running BBC Doctor Who or Quantum Leap from across the pond. Hollywood has often delved into the genre, with offerings that have ranged from the mediocre to the excellent and the fun and also the utterly paradoxical and thought-provoking.

I have been reading about time travel from a very young age. I think my first exposure to it was the genre generator itself, Wells’ The Time Machine, a book I received when I was entering the second decade of my life. My school library had books about a traveller of time whose time machine takes the form of a blue police box. I had probably read all of those books in the library periods allotted to us every week. Since then, I have read, and have actively sought out, stories that deal with time travel. What has caught my eye is the sheer variety of methods and machines writers have devised to enable the protagonist to go on a jaunt in what is erroneously referred to as the fourth dimension. Some science fiction writers, such as Michael Crichton (Timeline) or Stephen Baxter (The Time Ships) have stuck to a standard sort-of-science based approach, and such efforts, although worthy of riveting stories, are not the focus of this post. What I wish to write about today are methods and machines of time travel that are odd, quirky, and in some cases downright wacky. So, without further ado, let us be on our way. I should warn you though, some of these might qualify as spoilers, and if you haven’t read the book or the comic or watched the tv show or the film, and do not want some plot points (generic or critical) revealed in advance, tread softly.

1. The carton from Primer

Time travel mechanism in Primer
Four engineers fund their research hobbies by building and selling computer circuit board cards at night. While attempting to invent a device that would reduce the weight of objects, two of them accidentally invent time travel. Their prototype time machine is a humble plain grey carton 3, and does not come with attached “neon lights or chrome”. Initially, the two of them decide to use the machine to get rich off the stock market. However, as time goes by, the two have a falling out of how to use the machine, and if it should be used at all. The dialogue of the movie is rather technical and dense in jargon, and the plot is not very simple to follow. Yet, the reason this features in this post is because of the unique way time travel has been depicted here. In most cases, one travels through time either instantaneously or over a period of time that is, rather necessarily, shorter than objective time passed outside the box, so to say. For example, the Time Traveller’s time machine (The Time Machine) enables him to travel almost eight hundred thousand years into the future in a matter of hours, if not minutes. In Primer, however, there is no such shortcut. Suppose the user wishes to make a profit from advanced knowledge of the day’s stock prices. He calibrates the machine for a six-hour loop, sets it up so that it will automatically activate at noon, and walks away. He spends six hours memorising the stock prices of the day and keeps a low profile during this time, careful not to do anything that will have any significant causal effect on the timeline and thus perhaps cause a paradox. For example, he would do well to, say, not propose to his girlfriend or to perhaps go and try to shoot the president. If the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle holds, however, this precaution becomes quite unnecessary. At six, he returns to the time machine and enters it. The machine, set on a six-hour loop, begins travelling into the past exactly at 1800 hours, at the same speed that everything else is moving to the future. Six hours of subjective time later, the user exits the box, but instead of being midnight, it is noon of that day again. Now the user is free to use his advance knowledge of the stock prices to make a fortune, and walks away a rich man at the end of the day. Interestingly, during the second six-hour period, two versions of the user exist; the original, who is trying to keep a low profile and playing a game of memory, and the duplicate, who is cashing in on the original’s knowledge and getting rich. The duplicate is of course an older version of the original, having spent an additional twelve hours of subjective time. The graphic above will hopefully make things easier to understand 4. Click on the caption for the full size graphic.

Primer was an extremely low-budget independent science-fiction film written, storyboarded, directed, produced, cinematographed, edited, and scored by Shane Carruth, a former developer of flight simulation software. The film took five weeks to shoot, two years to be post-produced (almost exclusively by Carruth), secured the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and has since gained a cult following after a limited release. Shot on an incredible budget of $7000, it went to collect more than 60 times that at the box office.

2. The Time-Turner from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 5

The Time-Turner
Hermione, Harry, and Ron are in a spot of bother, to put things mildly. Buckbeak has been executed on orders from the Ministry of Magic, thanks to manipulations from Lucius Malfoy. Sirius Black is set to receive the Dementor’s Kiss, and have his soul sucked out in a manner not entirely similar to the way Shang Tsung did the deed in the first Mortal Kombat movie. Dumbledore has a conference with Hermione and Harry, and leaves the hospital ward where Ron is recovering from his injuries, hinting something that Harry entirely fails to grasp. Hermione pulls out a chain from around her neck, throws it around Harry’s neck, and fiddles with a rather curious hourglass at the end of the chain, turning it three times. In front of Harry’s incredulous eyes, everything around them seems to spin back in time, much like a cassette tape in full rewind 6. In under a minute, Harry finds that they have travelled three hours into the past. The two of them then retrace their adventures of the past three hours, attempting to right two wrongs and also, perhaps, save their past selves.

The reason this features in this post is the novel way J K Rowling has introduced a very science-fictiony concept such as time travel into the very magical fictional universe of Harry Potter. According to the Harry Potter wiki, an Hour-Reversal Charm, encased within a special timepiece, allows the user to travel back in time. The device, or the charm, is unique in that it does not allow the user to go forward in time, and the maximum safe time jump is about five hours. This limit explains why it would not be practical to go back in time and stop Tom Riddle before he embarked on his career as Lord Voldemort. Since the Time-Turner operates only in one direction, habitual users age faster, adding time to their internal biological clocks. Hermione Granger used the Time-Turner throughout her third year at Hogwarts, and consequently gained about a month at the end of it. Given the way that events panned out in the book and its movie version, the Time-Turner seems to obey the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle quite rigidly.

3. The Cosmic Treadmill from The Flash comics 7

The Cosmic Treadmill, The Flash v1 #139
Perhaps no fictional character whose primary function is not to time travel has undergone so many trips through time as has The Flash. In DC comics continuity, the first Flash was Jay Garrick, whose tenure spanned the forties. In a previous blogpost, I talk about, albeit briefly, how Garrick travels forward five thousand years by running around the Earth at super speed. Author Gardner Fox gets the prize for this, the absolute silliest time travel mechanism possible. If you thought this notion fell entirely within the ambit of comic book writers, consider that it was none other than Mario Puzo who wrote the story for the 1978 Superman film, a story that involves Superman flying at relativistic speeds around the Earth to turn back time and save Lois Lane. Granted, a number of other screenwriters were attached to the project, and it is entirely possible that Puzo was not responsible for this silly idea.

However, the Cosmic Treadmill falls within the purview of the second Flash, Barry Allen. In issue #120 of his tenure, Barry Allen and Kid Flash Wally West get thrown millions of years into the past by the an errant earthquake. In order to get back to the present, the two of them duplicate the vibration of the earthquake. Some time later, in issue #125, Allen and West have to travel through time again to repel the invasion of aliens. The former has to go forward in time, while the latter needs to travel into the past. However, given the seriousness of the situation, they must be able to travel precisely to those specific points in time. Barry Allen comes up with a special treadmill which uses cosmic rays (no, seriously, cosmic rays) to send the user forwards or backwards in time, by running on the Cosmic Treadmill at super speed forwards or backwards respectively. Time travel is achieved instantaneously, although there is catch, and that is one of the two reasons why this features in this post. While the Treadmill allows the speedster to travel through time, it also sets up internal vibrations within the body of the user, which he has to then maintain in order to stay in the different time period. I can only speculate if John Broome came up with this idea by likening Treadmill time travel to the user stretching a rubber band, and then having to keep the “temporal rubber band” stretched in order to remain in a foreign time. Alternatively, one could liken a speedster who has travelled through time as being in an excited state 8, and his base, or home, time period being the ground state.

The second reason why this features in this post? Why, it is a friggin’ treadmill, for Emmett’s sake. A treadmill time machine! How zanier can you get?

Thus ends the first part of this post. I’m not sure at this point how many parts will follow, but if asked to guess, I’d say 1-3, making this a probably three-part post. I’ll put up the links to the next parts as and when I publish them.

  1. Technically, Bellamy’s book is not about time travel in the way we are familiar. In the book, the protagonist, Julian West, falls into a deep hypnosis-induced sleep near the end of the nineteenth century and wakes up 113 years later in the same place, Boston, in the year 2000.
  2. Unsurprisingly, the Flash (Barry Allen) was to blame for the mishap. Spoiler alert for the link though.
  3. There is a good reason why I am not calling it a box, although that is essentially what it is. The word box will feature rather prominently down the line, and this is just to prevent confusion.
  4. To be honest, I’ve never actually watched the movie. My understanding of the way time travel works in the movie is completely and exclusively gleaned from graphic. So, if the graphic does not accurately portray the mechanism in the movie, I am lost.
  5. I had completely forgotten about the Time-Turner. Thanks to Purbita Chowdhury, a die-hard Harry Potter fan and connoisseur, for reminding me of it.
  6. In the book, Hermione and Harry are transported to a broom closet off the Entrance Hall while simultaneously travelling back in time too.
  7. Not Flash Gordon. The Flash, a character in DC comics.
  8. The physics concept, related to energy levels.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Methuselahs I

"<a href="">Twelthdoctor</a>" by <span title="must have been published or publicly displayed outside Wikipedia">Source</span> (<a href="//" title="Wikipedia:NFCC" class="mw-redirect">WP:NFCC#4</a>). Licensed under <a href="//" title="<a href=&quot;//; title=&quot;Wikipedia:Non-free use rationale guideline&quot;>Fair use</a> of copyrighted material in the context of <a href=&quot;//; title=&quot;Twelfth Doctor&quot;>Twelfth Doctor</a>">Fair use</a> via <a href="//">Wikipedia</a>.
The Twelfth Doctor
I am a longstanding fan of the BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who. The show documents the adventures of the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Time Lords, extremely long-lived individuals who are also the masters of time, and are able to travel through it by way of machines called TARDIS–Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. The Doctor is the moniker of a rebel of this vaunted group, a maverick who once stole an old and outdated model of a TARDIS and went on a series of adventures that has impacted the fictional universe of Doctor Who in extreme and original ways.

Time Lords such as the Doctor are able to live so long thanks to a unique biological trait which allows them to regenerate their bodies whenever death approaches, much like the proverbial phoenix. There is a catch though---Time Lords are only allowed to do this twelve times, meaning that the thirteenth incarnation of a Time Lord is the final one. However, there is no particular time limit set to how long a particular incarnation can last. The Doctor’s thirteenth incarnation, numbered Eleven due to some pretty convoluted reasons, lived for hundreds of years, ageing slowly but surely. He ended up an old man, and funny things happened afterwards.

Fictional long-lived individuals are of course not restricted to BBC science fiction television shows. The Hebrew Bible speaks of Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, who lived till the really ripe old age of nine hundred and sixty nine. It is said that he died a week before the biblical flood came and washed everything away except his grandson’s ark and all the arkizens1. His name, which means “his death shall bring judgment”, seems about right.

"<a href="">Jurojin with deer</a>" by native japanese - Mythological Japan&nbsp;: the symbolisms of mythology in relation to Japanese art, with illustrations drawn in Japan, by native artists (1902). Licensed under Public Domain via <a href="">Commons</a>.
Jurojin with deer
I am pretty sure a lot of people lived to be centuries old in Indian mythology---Hanumaan, for example, was one of the few mortal beings to have featured in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sadhus and heroes in Indian mythology used to carry out tapasya (meditation) for thousands of years to gain favour from the gods. Valmiki was ensconced in a termite mound for so long that he metamorphosed from caterpillar into a butterf…I mean, from a robber to a poet extraordinaire. Someone told me recently that Moy, (ময়দানব in Bangla) the giant who built for the Pandavas the incomparable city-state Indraprastha, was actually Ravana’s Father-in-Law! In Taoism, Jurōjin (寿老人) is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune (Shinjifukuchin) and is the god of longevity. He himself is, however, immortal, being a god and all.

The first I had ever heard of the name Methuselah was sometime in the early nineties. I had a pair of extraordinarily well-written illustrated encyclopedias from Dorling-Kindersley, and one article concerning how champagne is prepared had a beautiful photograph about different champagne bottle sizes, with the 2L Magnum somewhere in the middle and the 6L behemoth Methuselah topping them off (yes, they name bottles after old Hebrew mythological characters and kings). I had but a hazy conception of what champagne was, mostly thanks to Tintin in Tibet and my father’s unique way of getting me to pronounce the word correctly2. That illustration was beautiful, and the closest I could find to it on the net is this one.
Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish.
Longevity and by extension, immortality, has been a goal humans have sought since the day our brains developed enough to have been able to think about such things. Life expectancy has certainly increased over the centuries. According to this site, the average life expectancy of Indian females in 1960 was 41.3 years, with a global rank of 145. Fifty odd years later, in 2013, that has jumped to an incredible 68.2 years, an increase of 65%! Surprisingly enough, Indian females still rank 140th worldwide in this department. Despite this marked increase in lifespan, humans are still nowhere close to a certain species of jellyfish, which is as close to being actively immortal3 as any species in the animal kingdom can hope to be.

Since biological immortality is probably still a long way off, humans attempt to achieve immortality through other means; artistic, scientific, architectural, socio-political or even militaristic contributions (think Sun Tzu) can offer immortality to their long-deceased contributors. At the turn of the century, on the first day of the new millennium, a twenty minute piece of recorded music started playing, and is designed to keep playing for the next thousand years without repetition. A computer algorithm ensures that the music is never repeated…well, not in a millennium at least. The piece is called Longplayer, and it can played on your music player by downloading this m3u file which is also available on their website. I have been listening to it for the past three minutes and thirty three seconds and my impression is that it is both eerie and soothing at the same time. The music was composed using Tibetan instruments. Longplayer was conceptualised and executed by English musician Jem Finer.

Clock of the Long Now
Original prototype
There is no guarantee if Longplayer will indeed last that long. It is entirely possible that nuclear war or similar catastrophes, whether man-made or otherwise, might wipe out most of human civilisation so that future generations will have no conception of algorithms and computers, and might not be able to figure out how to make the piece work. To counteract such a scenario4, Danny Hillis conceived of the Clock of the Long Now, a mechanical clock that is designed to run accurately for ten thousand years. The guiding principles of building such a clock were longevity, maintainability, transparency, scalability, and evolvability. The clock should run for ten millennia, be maintainable with bronze age technology, be simple enough so that construction principles can be divined from a simple inspection, its design should be such that small tabletop versions as well as giant versions that are installed on mountaintops can be constructed from the same design, and it should be possible to improve the clock over time. In order to see the time of the clock in the mountains, one would need to climb up the mountain and then turn a display wheel. The clock is interesting enough (as I research it) to warrant its own full post in the near future.

Wouldn’t it be rather grand if by some quirky law of entanglement of fictional and real universes, the Doctor might set his TARDIS down near the Clock of the Long Now sometime in the distant future, taking a short break from his never-ending adventures across space and time, and hike up the mountainside to see the last time anyone was there to see the clock tell its tale?

  1. That’s what I call the denizens of the ark. I know, I’m lazy. But who isn’t nowadays, brandishing their smslingo everywhere like it is the M1 Garand.
  2. I used to pronounce it exactly as printed, with the first part rhyming with ham, the second with rag, and the third with hay. My old man assured me that it was the right pronunciation, but I would get even more bragging rights among my friends at school if I managed to say sham-payne. Bragging rights? My eyes lit up. Of course it took quite a few more years to learn that shahn-pan-yuh works even better in the bragging rights department.
  3. As opposed to viruses or certain seeds or tardigrades that can exist a long time by simply being dormant.
  4. Hillis conceived of his 10,000 year clock in 1986, more than a decade before Longplayer, in case you were wondering.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

As SLow aS Possible : the pitch drop of music

Listen to this first.

This is not pleasing to hear. By any stretch of the imagination. Melodic is not a word I’d associate with this rendition in any state of mind. A commentator on youtube likens this with nails on a chalkboard. I am tempted to agree.

That should not be the case, however. The composer is the celebrated John Cage1, a twentieth century US composer whose most famous composition, titled 4’33”, is essentially musicians sitting around for four minutes and thirty three seconds doing absolutely nothing. The point of the composition is not to enhance silence, but to focus on the surrounding background noise the audience hears during the performance. I am not qualified at all to critique the piece; numerous capable people have already done so, and a quick glance through the composition’s Wikipedia piece should be enough to satisfy the casual reader.

This post is not about 4’33”. It is about another of Cage’s startling creations, a composition titled Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible), written for the organ. Given that the organ has infinite sustain–you can hold one note for as long as necessary–this piece can, technically, be played forever. Cage never listed a specific way of playing it, and multiple performers have played it for various lengths of time. In 2009, Diane Luchese, a professor in the department of music at Towson University, performed the piece uninterrupted for fifteen hours. However, this was nowhere close to the longest performance of this piece.

In 1361, one of the very first permanent organs was installed in the Halberstadt Cathedral in Germany, six hundred and thirty nine years before the turn of the millenium. In 1997, musicologists decided on a performance that would play Cage’s piece Organ²/ASLSP for 639 years beginning in 2000. The performance began on Sept 5–this was Cage’s birthday–in the year 2001 in the St. Buchardi church at Halberstadt and is scheduled to conclude in 2640. The opening note was a rest, and there was silence for almost a year and a half, with the first sound being heard only in February of 2003. So far, thirteen notes have been played, and the next change is scheduled for 2020.

Such long artistic performances are possibly a recent phenomenon. Scientific parallels would include the Pitch Drop Experiment2, where tar forms a single drop over several years.

The University of Queensland
pitch drop experiment.
The video at the beginning of this post turns this on its head by showing a performance of As SLow aS Possible in 37 seconds, almost 545 million times faster than the project underway in Halberstadt. It manages to prove that the piece should probably not be played fast.

  1. Nothing whatsoever to do with the Mortal Kombat character.
  2. This allows for nice wordplay with the concept of pitch in music.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How much water is actually there on the Earth?

Picture this.


A recent post that has gone viral claims that this is what the Earth looks like "without water". That is, if some alien water-reallocation company--call them Spacetlé, just for laughs--were to zoom over to our fair planet tomorrow and suck out all the water from our oceans and leave us, literally, high and dry, this is what we would be standing on. Rather lumpy, ain't it, a dry Earth?

'cept it ain't correct. This is definitely not what the Earth looks like if Spacetlé were to suck it dry tomorrow. This is what the Earth looks like if it was redrawn so that, at every point on its surface, the net local gravitational field were to point perpendicular to the ground at the point. In other words, this is the Earth's geoid. Now, you might say, waittaminit! I know that at Earth's gravity is trying to pull me towards its centre everywhere on Earth. Right? Right?

Well, not quite. You see, that would be exactly correct if the Earth were a homogeneous uniform mass sphere. The gravitational field would indeed point radially inwards at each point on the surface, and you would indeed be pulled towards the very centre of the Earth. However, the Earth is not completely spherical. And it isn't completely homogeneous. You see, Earth's gravity comes from its mass {d-uh}, and depends on how that mass is distributed across its volume {hu-d; that is like, a retort to d-uh...saying it backwards, y'know}. Since the mass of the Earth isn't uniformly distributed, with some parts being denser than others, the gravitational field of the planet is also not uniform, and tends to point away from the centre at most places. Of course, the deviation is probably too small on the scale of the Earth to really matter too much.

So what is the cute colourful potato doing at the top of this post, merrily spinning away? If it isn't the Earth sans its water, what is it? I think I'll let Bad Astronomer Phil Plait explain that bit.

You might ask, what am I doing basically repeating the same thing that Plait has said so much more clearly in his post? Why does the world need another near-clone blog post on the same topic? Well, that is because I want to talk about something else. As I was reading Plait's post, a second figure caught my eye...and my attention. It is a picture of the Earth without its water. For real, this time, that is if Spacetlé had really succeeded.

The large drop is all the water the Earth has
The graphic is originally from this article. The large drop of water is all the water that Earth has. All of it. The smaller one is the total fresh water we have, whereas the smallest, almost invisible, one is the water in lakes and rivers.

Not a lot, is it?

Well, no, not if you compare it to the Earth. But do keep in mind that the diameter of the big drop is almost 1400 km. Which means there is total of almost 1.4 * 10^18 cubic meter, or about 1.4 * 10^21 litres of water on Earth. That is indeed a lot from a human scale. However, most of this water is not drinkable. The smaller sphere can be drunk, but most of it can't be obtained easily by humans. What we can drink is the smallest sphere, which has a diameter of a mere 56 km. Which translates to 733 million billion litres of water (7.33 * 10^14 cu-m). Given that, say, an average person drinks about four litres of water per day, and there are 7 billion people on the planet, about 28 billion litres of water is drunk per day. That is about 10000 billion litres per year. At this rate, we would have drunk all the water the Earth has right now in about 73 thousand years. Of course, it doesn't quite work that way. But hey, fun exercise. If I did it right. Which I sincerely doubt.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Markandey Katju, Subhash Bose, and Bengalis

India's outspoken judge, Shri Markandey Katju, took to Facebook yesterday in an outburst against Subhash Chandra Bose. I quote his entire article here, syntactical and grammatical style unchanged, except for the bit in bold near the beginning, which I was responsible for.

The Japanese agent Subhas Chandra Bose 
I hold Bengalis in high respect. They are a highly intelligent, highly cultured people, with great contributions in literature, science, philosophy,social reforms, etc
Unfortunately, many of them have some blind spots. It is diifficult to talk rationally with many Bengalis about some personalities whom they have converted into icons or holy cows, e.g. Tagore or Subhas Chandra Bose. Even the slightest criticism of these persons invokes a torrent or barrage of invectives and vituperations.
I remember when I was a Judge of Allahabad High Court I was sitting with some other Judges, one of whom was a Bengali, at the house of one of my colleagues. I mentioned my view that Subhas Chandra Bose was a Japanese agent. This so infuriated the Bengali Judge that he started shouting and raving almost like a madman, and so I quickly apologized so as not to break up the party.
But why should Bengalis go crazy if someone rationally criticizes Tagore and Bose ? Are they the private property of Bengalis.?
I have already mentioned my view about Tagore on my blog in which I have said that Tagore was objectively a British stooge, who had been built up by the British ( through their agent Yeats ) so as to divert literature from the revolutionary direction Sharad Chandra Chattopadhyaya was taking it ( see his Pather Dabi ) towards harmless and nonsensical spiritualism and mysticism ( see Gitanjali, Agni Beena Bajao Tumi, etc ) so as not to harm British interests.
I had also called Bose objectively a Japanese agent, in one of my blogs.
Today I read in the newspapers that Mamata Banerjee has decided to throw open the state government's files on ' Netaji '.
In my opinion this is just a diversionary populist measure to divert attention from the real problems of Bengalis ( and other Indians ) of poverty, unemployment, healthcare, price rise, malnourishment, etc.
Moreover, it is high time for Bengalis ( and other Indians ) to make a rational assessment of this ' national icon ' ( as Mamata described him ).
In Germany, Bose not only hobnobbed with Hitler but even with Himmler, two of the most evil men in history, ( their photographs can be seen on the internet ) responsible for sending millions to gas chambers. He wanted to organize the Indian soldiers captured by the Germans, to fight along with the Nazis. But when Hitler showed no interest, Bose went to Japan and raised his ragtag 'Azad Hind Fauj ' to fight with Japanese support against the British army.
In my opinion Bose was a highly ambitious person, and he became a Japanese agent because neither Gandhi nor Hitler had given him any ' bhaav ', so he thought that the only alternative left was to ally with Japan.
The Japanese fascists used Bose in their fight against the British, but the moment his utility was over they would probably have bumped him off.
Does anybody think that the Japanese fascist imperialists would have given freedom to India if they had defeated the British ? No, they would have made India their colony ( as they made Korea, Manchuria and other parts of China, Vietnam,etc ) and looted us. If we resisted, the Japanese would assuredly have massacred our people, as they did to the people of Shanghai, Nanking, etc ( see on Youtube visual accounts of these massacres ).
If Bose was a great freedom fighter, why did he give up the fight against the British the moment the Japanese surrendered ? He should have carried on a guerilla war against the British, the way the Chinese Eighth Route Army fought against the Japanese. In guerilla war you fight with the weapons of the enemy, by snatching them from him. The fact that he did not do so shows that there was nothing in the man. First he tried to become an agent of the Nazis, but they rebuffed him. Then he became an agent of the Japanese, who accepted him as their loyal running dog.
Some people support Bose's alliance with the Japanese by saying that an enemy's enemy is one's friend. In the real, practical, world, this maxim cannot be of universal application. Moreover, one can understand alliance with Japan if there was a possibility that such an alliance could have given us real freedom. But there was no such possibilty. Even if the Japanese, with I.N.A. support had defeated the British, they would never have given us freedom, but converted India into their colony. The very nature of the then fascism prevailing in Japan makes this evident.
My assessment of Bose is that he was an over ambitious, confused person, who to satisfy his ambition and ego was prepared even to ally with the devil, like a Faust. It is high time Bengalis ( and others ) realize this

So he obviously doesn't like Bose or perhaps even Gandhi and company. Which is fine. He is entitle to his opinion, as is everybody else in what is still probably a country that allows free speech. Which of course resulted in a volley of abuse and criticism in the comments section. Katju's standard reply, and one that I quite agree with, is "abuse does not equate with argument". Here are two such examples.

He seems to be driving that point home. Nothing wrong in that. Constructive criticism goes a lot further than abuse. So imagine my surprise when this happens.

Now that was plain uncalled for. I understand he might have had a beef with Bengalis in the past, but this is simply violating the very principle that he himself expounded. Besides, he began his post declaring that he "holds Bengalis in high respect". This sort of turnaround brings into his entire line of argument into question; if you contradict yourself within a period of two minutes (as can be seen in the time tags), how can anyone take you seriously sir?

Turning back time : Spin round the earth really really fast

The recent revival of the live action superhero movies has made comic book fans rather happy. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the MCU (not the Major Crimes Unit of Gotham City, that is DC comics), started in 2008 with Iron Man, a movie that jump-started Phase I of the MCU as well as revived Robert Downey Junior's career. With one excellent movie after another--interspersed with the pedestrian Thor movies or the somewhat underwhelming sequel to the Avengers--the MCU has swiftly taken its place among James Bond and Harry Potter as one of the most lucrative and popular movie franchises of all time. DC comics has also attempted to duplicate Marvel's success, but with questionable success, with a disastrous Green Lantern movie and a rather soulless Man of Steel.

Which brings me to Superman live action movies. I'll begin with the most recent one, which gets a bit of a Nolanesque Dark Knight treatment, being all dark and gritty and joyless. Not surprising, considering that Nolan was in the production team. The problem with making a Superman movie humourless and dark is that it does not work as well. Dark and gritty are the Batman's territory, while it is up to his foil Superman's job to keep things happy and shiny.

Which is of course what the excellent 1978 Richard Donner movie managed to do flawlessly. With Christopher Reeves as an almost perfect Superman/Clark Kent, Donner never quite let go of the fun, comic-booky feel of the plot, blending real danger--such as the flooding due to the breaking of the dam--with its rather silly reason hatched up by an equally silly Lex Luthor played by Gene Hackman. Thanks to Superman's timely intervention, the total number of casualties of Luthor's nutty plan is precisely one.

And that is when the penny drops, for that one person who manages to get herself killed is Lois Lane, Superman's love interest, played brilliantly by Margot Kidder (honestly, she is by far the best live action Lois Lane; Dana Delany of course is equally good as Lane's voice in the Superman animated series as well as in Justice League). When Lane dies and Superman fails to revive her, Reeves does a passable and much more humane impression of Shatner's Khaaaan yell and flies off into space, to be confronted by the disembodied--and very dead--voices of his biological father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and his adoptive father Jonathan Kent; the former prohibiting him to do anything to influence the history of his adopted planet, the latter urging him to do so in true Uncle Ben fashion. So Superman decides that the Prime Directive of Krypton can go to hell, he is gonna to do something about it, bring Lois Lane back to life. But how? CPR? Magic defibrillators? Perhaps fly her to the Fortress of Solitude and give her a little of ye olde Kryptonian magic science? Nah, nothing too complicated. Here's what he does.

Simple, ain't it? Jus' spin 'round the ol' earth at superspeed a few dozen times, turn back yon time, and spin da udder way 'round to git tings back on track and all that shit bro!

In a movie filled with silliness, this takes the cake, and is a perfect example of how comic books used to be written once upon a time. This is a perfect Superman comic book trope, and doubtless the authors of the movie story must have been inspired by some Superman story somewhere. Right?

Probably. But this particular panel from a 1940s Flash comics might just be the first instance of the incredible scietific thought of Golden Age comic book writers.

Thanks to the excellent tv show, the Flash has recently entered the popular sphere. Grant Gustin plays the second Flash, the forensic scientist Barry Allen who gained his powers when he was hit by lightning and (a) doused with a cocktail of chemical (in the comics) (b) was exposed to a cocktail of dark matter particles from the particle accelerator explosion (tv show). The first Flash was Jay Garrick, who obtained his powers by inhaling hard (or heavy) water vapours. That is the Flash time travelling here.

There is probably no way of knowing if this panel was indeed the inspiration for the climax of the classic movie almost three decades later, but it no doubt shows that ideas shared by comic book writers across decades don't lose their absolute kookiness.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Of Leander Paes, colonial sports, and the Indian sports psyche

Recently, Leander Adrian Paes added yet another Grand Slam to his kitty when he paired up with Martina "The Swiss Miss" Hingis to win the 2015 US Open Mixed Doubles crown. Since I am not subscribed to the particular channel that aired the tournament, I missed out on what must have been an enthralling match, and I rather regret that. 

I have always been a great admirer of Paes, ever since he burst on to the scene winning the junior US open and the junior Wimbledon championships, almost a quarter century back. He had risen to the top of the world junior rankings, and the Bangla magazine Anandamela had published an interview with the young man, the title of which can be translated as, "I want to be the number 1 player in the world". Although he was referring to his career as a singles player, and he had failed to achieve that particular ambition, he did in fact make good on his promise when he and Mahesh Bhupathi tore through the Majors in 1999, and rose to become the top two doubles players in the world. Things turned sour between them soon after, and each went his separate way, carving out a niche in the world of tennis; Bhupathi from a entrepreneurial point of view and Paes as a defier of age and a true successor to Martina Navratilova.

As I mentioned earlier, I had got to know of this news from the facebook posts of my friends, of which there was a deluge. Paes is usually not in the forefront of the Indian sports media, but when he wins a Grand Slam, he tends to dominate the news for a day or two. Provided, of course, there is no competing cricket news or, in the case of the Bengali regional newspapers, any competing local football news. In spite of that, there is probably not much doubt that he is the greatest sportsman in the history of India so far as we are talking about athletic sports that involve two or fewer players in a team. This fact was reiterated by an old classmate---and now a facebook friend---of mine in a facebook comment. He rued that people in India do not accept Paes as India's greatest sporting icon, that it is very very rare that he is in the news, and that Indian sports fans reserve their adulation for "...that colonial game : cricket". Here's my reply.

Well, I don't know about very very rare. You see, the last two times he was in the news were when (a) he won the Wimbledon and (b) when he was scheduled to play at Kolkata alongside Bhupathi and Mirza after a gap of a lot of years. At those times, he was definitely in the news quite a bit. As far as greatest sporting icon is concerned, yes, I can't think of another Indian athlete who has achieved so much consistently over a long time in an individual (<=2 people) sports. However, if you bring other forms of sports into consideration, then V. Anand might also lay claim to that particular epithet. If team-based (>2 people) sports is included, then perhaps Dhyan Chand might also get the nod. 

Now we come to cricket. Yes, it is a colonial game and yes, people do faTafy their gawla a little too much about Tendulkar & Co. However, if you look at the public perception of the game in the seventies and the eighties, apart from the World Cup victory, there wasn't really much to distinguish the Indian cricket team on the world stage, and people like Gavaskar and Dev were respected, but not adulated. I'm pretty sure that Kolkat...Calcutta people of the decades leading up to the nineties got more excited about EastBengal-MohunBagan derbies than India-Pakistan cricket matches, and more newsprint was spent in comparing Manna-Goswami-Habib-Chima-Chibuzor-Christopher than Vishwanath-Amarnath-Chandrashekhar-Nawaz-Qadir-Khan. Cricket really took over the collective Indian psyche (just like Baseball and Gridiron have for the people of the US) after Hero Cup 1993, which the Indian cricket team won, and due mostly to the incredible business acumen of Dalmiya et al., who got together with the then novel cable sports channels to ensure that this erstwhile colonial cure to insomnia would become the national pastime. So people have really started to concentrate on cricket after it has become a neo-colonial game, a game...nay, a product that India exports to other countries.