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On Salaam Bombay!

This is one of the movies that one means to watch but keeps forgetting to. And what a movie it is. Directed by Mira Nair in 1988, Salaam Bombay! tells the story of Krishna, a boy who runs away to Bombay and the hardships he faces (along with other street kids). The cast of characters is no less exemplary. From Nana Patekar being Nana Patekar as he only can, in his role as Baba the pimp, to 80s TV star Anita Kanwar as Rekha, the former prostitute he married, to Raghuvir Yadav as the initially loathsome but ultimately sympathy inducing drug addict Chillum.
The movie has a timeless quality to it - that even 26 years later it remains relevant as to the plight of street children (all the kids shown were actual street children). Unlike say, Slumdog Millionaire with its obsession to show the seamy underbelly of Bombay and its succession of tragedies visited upon the protagonist that would do the Heart of Gold's improbability drive proud, the movie sparkles by interspersing the realistic gloom and misery with a few sparks of joy. Little Manju playing with a telephone and having an imaginary conversation. Krishna's concern for the brothel's newly acquired virgin who will fetch a high price. The children laughing and playing in the rain and singing along with a Bollywood song in the theatre. And the little indignities, the petty cruelties, all pile up. Krishna's tea stall employer who cheats him out of the money he's given for safe keeping. Chillum the drug addict who bums cash off him initially but ultimately becomes the only close friend he has. The cop who catches the kids after they've worked as waiters at a wedding party and snatches their hard earned money away. The hard nosed madam at the brothel, who appraises the new virgin like a side of meat and comments on what a high price she will fetch. The government social service worker coldly informing Rekha that her daughter Manju will be better off under State care in a remand home than growing up with a prostitute mother.

And yet, this story could just as well be set in 2014. Or in any other big city anywhere in the world. Poverty is a universal theme after all, and Krishna could just as well be a kid from the favelas of Rio or the inner city neighborhoods of America. The director has provided a sensitive treatment of the subject matter without being condescending or shoving the problems in one's face. Even the antagonistic characters are shown as just trying to get by in a big city, looking out for themselves and not because they get some sadistic pleasure in tormenting Krishna. It stays true to its title, and is indeed a salaam to Bombay..back when it was still Bombay and not Mumbai. As with real life, there are no happy endings in the movie, nor were there any for the protagonist child actor Shafiq, who lives out his life in obscurity as an autorickshaw driver in Bangalore.

Decline of rational thought

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So I find this post about how using copper vessels can 'detox' your water. Of course the skeptic in me is roused and it's off to Google I head. To find that for a change there's some truth to this claim, a research paper hosted on the US National Institute of Health confirms this. Now this is a research paper. They describe their process in great detail, including using a control sample to compare results, and the verdict is that copper is toxic to certain kinds of water borne bacteria. The original post was hosted by the Isha Foundation, a religious cult with all the standard trappings. After mentioning the 'detoxifying' effects of copper, they go on to talk about the memory of water - and that's when my bullshit meter went into overdrive. They were correct only by chance, it's not as though they conducted an experiment to verify the anti bacterial properties of copper (which one wouldn't expect a cult to do anyway).

The larger and worrisome problem is how such new age gurus and pseudoscience movements try to subvert actual science to grant false legitimacy to their spurious claims. Quantum physics is one of the most abused fields of study where this is concerned. It is a scientifically established fact that Newton's laws of motion don't apply at the subatomic level, and the very interaction of matter and energy are utterly alien and unrelatable to anything we have experienced before. Further, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle comes into play, it says that you can either measure the position or the momentum of a subatomic particle with varying degrees of certainty, but not both together at the same time. From here, some people make the leap to say that 'nothing is knowable' or that 'science doesn't have all the answers'. Of course science doesn't have all the answers, nor does it claim to! But not knowing the answer now does not mean the answer will never be known, or automatically that "'God' did it".
Or take the wave/particle dual nature of light - this has been extrapolated to represent the Dvaita (dualism) school of Hindu philosophy at best, or is implied to be 'impossible' and therefore shouldn't we stop criticizing the wild nature of claims made by various religions legends as well?
Take a look at some of these claims:

  • Talking about 'negative' and 'positive' energy: Surest sign that the talker slept through or spectacularly flunked their 8th grade science class. Energy is a scalar quantity and has no direction, the word 'negative energy' makes no scientific or logical sense. Perhaps they mean vibes. Sure, you may get good or bad vibes about places or people, call it 'instinct' or 'gut feel'. At the biochemical level, it's your ancient mammalian fight or flight response being triggered. Nothing to do with energy, or the placement of specific objects to bring luck as demanded by feng shui.

  • Reiki, homeopathy and other forms of 'alternate' medicine: I'd love to see a Reiki practitioner heal someone who's unconscious, in a coma, or not physically present nearby, so that we can rule out the placebo effect. Of course that's before asking how one proves the existence of the 'life force' whose being out of whack causes problems. It wasn't long ago that the phlogiston theory of combustion was thought to be the reason for fires burning, or that there was an 'ether' for electromagnetic waves to propagate1. Any Reiki substitutes for neuro/open heart surgery, organ transplants or cancer therapy?

I'll end with Tim Minchin's brilliant short, Storm:

[1] The former was disproved by the discovery of oxygen, the latter by Maxwell's equations.

On recycled culture

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Over the last 2 years I've built up a massive collection of movies, and I'm able to see the difference between those made until a decade ago and what we have today. I'm referring to the standard big budget blockbuster type movies, not the indie/arthouse type, though I have plenty of both types.
It seems like every Hollywood blockbuster movie released these days is either based on a superhero, or a sequel to the former, or a remake of a cult classic that kills whatever made the original look good. I'm not a fan of superhero comics as I've said earlier, and turning them into a movie is just lazy writing at best. As for sequels, it makes sense if there's actually a basis for continuing the story. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are examples of sequels done right. Then again they're movie adaptations of books, so you would expect that since an entire book story won't fit into the standard 2 hour movie duration. The Matrix was another case of sequels gone wrong - while visually appealing, they made a hash of storytelling, mixing up Judaeo-Christian and Eastern philosophy, while Revolutions had a rather disappointing ending. The original Matrix still is a cult film, and it stood on its own, at the end it is implied that Neo defeated the machines without getting into the details of how.

So why on earth does a frat boy comedy like Hangover require not one but 2 sequels, with the exact same premise in a marginally different setting? Look at the rest. Multiple sequels to X-Men, Transformers and the like. Or take the Fast and the Furious franchise. It's been running for the last dozen years and is quite visually appealing in terms of the underground racing scene, and has a memorable cast of characters. Yet the story's stretched paper thin by now, and the 6th and latest installment has the crew receiving a pardon at the end of the movie so that they can go back to living normal lives in the US. One of the characters returns to the series and is reunited with her beau, while 2 others who became a couple are now raising their infant. It could have just ended there, the gang back together and looking forward to retirement since they've struck it rich and are no longer fugitives from the US government. But no, there's going to be yet another sequel next year. Even the tragic death of actor Paul Walker didn't stop them from going ahead.

What's even worse are the remakes. Totally antiseptic, bland, PG-13 rated and airbrushed for a wider audience, getting rid of the trademark low budget special effects and violence that characterized the originals. Paul Verhoeven's classic Total Recall starring Arnie was remade recently. And apparently Mad Max, the bloody post apocalyptic Australian movie that launched Mel Gibson's career 35 years ago, is also getting a sanitized makeover starring Charlize Theron.
Blame it on the uncertain economy maybe, but studios are really scraping the bottom of the barrel. The last truly interesting and fresh story I can recall was Inception, and even that was 4 years ago.

Years from now we'll look back on this period with respect to cinema and wonder at the total lack of originality.

In other news, on June 14th this year, my blog hit its ten year anniversary. My very first post was rather terse, being as it was I had decided to move from my still older Blogspot blog. It's been quite the ride over the years, though I've gone months without posting in recent times. My habit of faithfully tagging each post has also paid off - the tag cloud (how old fashioned it seems now) on the side show the most popular types of posts at a glance.

On product packaging


Everything's sold in plastic sealed pouches or plastic bottles these days, and it's been the case for 20 years and counting. But there was a time when metal tins and glass jars were the norm. I recall how my mother used to reuse glass jars for storing spices, pulses and provisions in the kitchen, and we would reuse glass bottles of ketchup and squash for storing water in the fridge. Glass is an excellent container because it's chemically inert and doesn't react with or leach chemicals into any of the foodstuffs inside.
Marketers knew about the consumers' thrift as well, and would sell 'refill packs' made of cardboard alongside the glass jars so that you could reuse them without accumulating too many glass jars.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find Cadbury's Drinking Chocolate still being sold in tins. Opening a tin for the first time is a bit of a ritual. You pop open the lid with the edge of a spoon, then are faced with a seal over the mouth made of tin foil. So you slice the foil with a knife, being careful to smooth the sharp edges left behind, and out comes the foil circle sealing the good stuff inside! Whack the lid back on, and it stays airtight. And once it's finished, you have a robust metal tin that can be used to store anything else you want. The same goes for open mouthed tin cans; I use a Milkmaid tin to store spare change and a Fox's mints one as a pen/pencil stand.

For me, metal, ceramic and glass denote longevity and robustness, as compared to the cheap plastic containers that degrade with age and may contaminate their contents. And some of them hold memories. We have ancient metal boxes of sweets, Quality Street chocolates and even Indian cookies that remind one of long ago festivals or visiting relatives from abroad who got them, and other family members have glazed ceramic pickle jars that have held generations of batches of home made sun-dried mango and other types of pickles. Time passes, things change, people come and go, but certain simple connections to the past of this sort endure.

Farewell, Nokia


So well, the inevitable has happened. What was once the largest mobile manufacturer in the world, a beloved brand name in India, one whose familiar ringtone chirped across 5 continents, has been totally destroyed and is being sold for peanuts. For over 6 years, I've owned Nokia phones, changing them on an average every year, each time moving up to the latest and greatest in camera and hardware. Most of the photos on this blog, and the posts tagged 'mobile', were composed on a Nokia device. And every time I've changed phones, I've blogged about it here, or written reviews about it.

There's a lot more detail in this blog post, but looking back it suffices to say that Nokia's fate was sealed when they hired Stephen Elop as CEO. The man probably holds a world record for trashing a company from market leader to nobody in record time. Nokia simply killed itself overnight and handed over its market to Samsung, which occupies the niche that it once did.

I remember the day I read the news of Elop's infamous 'burning platform' memo, where he openly trashed Symbian and announced that the company was switching to the utterly useless at that point Windows Phone. This may sound dramatic, but it felt like hearing about a favorite celebrity being assassinated. In one stroke, everything that I loved about Nokia was dead and gone. I knew from that moment that the company was doomed, that they had utterly betrayed their customer base - whether loyal Symbian users, low end budget phone users from the Third World. And for what? A shot at the moronically primitive US market, by squeezing on a mobile OS so crappy and restricted that the iPhone looks good beside it. Windows Phone is a joke and remains so.

At the time, I had the Nokia N8. I loved the sturdy aluminium construction, the jaw dropping 12 megapixel camera & Xenon flash, the built in offline maps with free voice navigation (that Google rolled out only recently in India). 3 months later, that phone would be stolen from my pocket while on a crowded bus. The day it was stolen was the day I realized my last connection to Nokia was gone for good. Android was the obvious and only alternative, as another multitasking and freely customizable OS. Since then I've owned 2 Android flagship devices (catch me dead with an iPhone!) with gorgeous displays and 3D graphics that heat up to 60°C, gobble down 3G data without a care in the world and die out within 6 hours unless you turn off everything.

If things had gone according to Nokia's original plan, today I'd be carrying around a proper Linux based Meego device with all of Nokia's strengths and a battery that doesn't give up the ghost before the day is done. Sadly that was never to be.

I sign off with a suitably apt music track.

Still haven't fallen out

Think back to 1950's America. A booming economy, beautifully streamlined cars and trains, sanitized Norman Rockwell portrayals of the ideal family and a conformist society where feminists, non white people, homosexuals and immigrants did not exist. Now think of the typical 50s' vision of the future - Robby the Robot, vacuum tube based technology, cheesy special effects, streamlined rockets with fins and gender/racial portrayals exactly the same, but set about a century in the future. Mix in a bit of the political atmosphere of the time - a healthy dose of McCarthyist paranoia, aggressive Cold War posturing and an exaggeration of the Red Threat. Include the 'duck and cover' instructions of various civil defense and 'what to do in case of nuclear attack' literature.

Finally, throw in nuclear Armageddon and comic book physics. Welcome to the world of Fallout. The cult RPG that started in 1997, and spawned a handful of sequels. The first game begins in 2141, 64 years after nuclear war wipes out the future world depicted above. Some people survived the apocalypse in massive underground vaults, and in the first game you as the protagonist are a descendant of one of these groups and have lived all your life in such a vault.

Now you have to venture out into the wasteland to fix a problem with the vault's water supply. You emerge into a strange new world, a desert like wasteland. Nuclear radiation follows comic book conventions, so you face off against hilariously large mutated versions of scorpions, geckos and other critters. Human beings exposed to the radiation don't die of cancer - they turn into ghouls, who continue living for centuries and are the only ones left who still remember prewar society. The second game, launched in 1998, has you playing as the descendant of the previous game's protagonist. This time, there are various groups and factions in the post war wasteland - slavers, ex military types who covet prewar technology, and your actions affect your standing with each one.
Both these games feature classing role playing elements - you can customize your character's initial attributes and skills. So you can build up as an aggressive gun slinging type, or a silent stealthy type with a high pickpocketing skill, or one with high charisma, intelligence and speech, who can resolve situations without resorting to violence. The gender of your character also influences gameplay and dialogue choices in interacting with people encountered in the world, and you can recruit some of them to follow you and assist you during combat.

The first 2 games had hand painted backgrounds and lovingly paid homage to 50's appearances and conventions. You carry a huge bulky PDA known as a Pip Boy- it has a big cathode ray display and chunky knobs and dials. Computers are bulky and use a commandline interface. Laser and plasma weapons seem inspired by Flash Gordon comics. The jumpsuits worn look straight out of 'Lost in Space'. People use bottlecaps as currency, and there are bottles of Nuka Cola lying around from before the war in abandoned buildings that you can still drink. Everything in this alternate timeline appears to run on portable nuclear power, so you often find computer terminals, robots and other prewar equipment still functioning after a century. And all this set to a haunting ambient music score by Mark Morgan, and an introduction(in every major game of the series) narrated by Ron Perlman!

But I've saved the best for last. Below the fold is the introduction to Fallout 3, launched a decade later in 2008.

This has a full blown first person shooter engine, while still supporting the turn based combat of traditional RPGs. Set around the ravaged outskirts of Washington DC in the year 2277 - 200 years after the nuclear apocalypse. The game has jaw dropping detail of a war torn DC, with ruins of famous landmarks like the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial(which has ironically become a camp for a band of slavers) and the entire underground metro network. Outside the city proper, you see a bleak wasteland of ruined houses and streets littered with the rusting husks of nuclear powered cars that explode with a small mushroom cloud if shot. The area is dangerous, filled with mutated critters ranging from radscorpions to the fearsome deathclaws, feral ghouls and bands of armed raiders.
In addition, there is a radio station in the wasteland that plays old music from the 50's, and the DJ comments on major events triggered by the player. (Why 1950's music was still popular in 2077 when the bombs went off, don't ask me). But it's not any of these that hold me captivated. It all boils down to epic storytelling. 2 skeletons lying holding hands in bed, amid the ruins of their house. An abandoned computer terminal showing the desperate attempts of a relief worker during the early days after the nuclear war.
And awesome backstories involving the enemy during the war - China, not Soviet Russia (which continued to exist in the game's alternate timeline). In the ruins of Washington, one comes across a food processing plant that had been infiltrated by Chinese spies before the war, and they continue to haunt the premises after being ghoulified by radiation. Computer terminals show emails coordinating a massive spy operation. In one of the game's addons, you get to replay the battle of Alaska, fought between American and Chinese troops in 2077. In another one, you retrace the path of a Chinese agent sent to destroy a sunken Chinese mini submarine off the coast.

The next game in the series, Fallout:New Vegas, takes the storytelling up several further notches. This game is set in the Mojave desert and parts of Las Vegas, which survived the bombing, and is not a direct sequel. You play as a courier who got shot in the head, miraculously nursed back to health and is now looking for his would be assassins against the backdrop of an upcoming battle to take control of Hoover Dam, where again one has to choose between different factions. Here, there's a whole side adventure on the genetic experiments done by mad scientists before the war - that resulted in mutated insects and other creatures roaming the wastes. The most haunting of all was Dead Money, where you travel to a hidden casino that was apparently built as a fortress and a monument for one woman who the owner loved. You see the whole sad story play out through recordings, emails and finally, a hologram of the woman herself, walking through empty rooms like a ghost and calling out with mounting panic to be rescued.
The best of the lot was Lonesome Road, which explores your character's back story, and leads to a confrontation with another courier you knew before. Again, your conversation choices determine how the story plays out and accordingly affects your karma with other in game factions.

Games of this sort are extremely difficult to make. And yet you can see how much work has gone into making them, how much research into 50's style architecture and design, music and fashions. Not to mention the fabulous voice cast - starring Liam Neeson, Malcolm McDowell, Danny Trejo, Felicia Day and of course, Ron Perlman!

Of the most memorable in game experiences, nothing beats walking across a realistically rendered Mojave desert at night, listening to Peggy Lee singing Johnny Guitar on the in game radio.


A molesting we go..


The latest rape horror story from Delhi is still ruling the headlines as I write this. And since reams have been written about the topic, here's something a little different. A view of sexual abuse from the other side, as I witnessed years ago. No, this is not about men being abused by women, but there are occasions when I was privy to the actual act of harassment, and the potential for someone to become that way.

It was my final year at college in Madras and we had a cultural festival towards the end of the year. One of the usual, with skits and music performances and dance shows. I used to hang out with this bunch of dentistry students from Delhi, 2 guys and 2 girls, and they were also sitting around at the fest. At one point, we got bored and decided to go for a movie. The girls declined, but 2 of my classmates decided to join in, since one had a car. So the five of us guys pile into a rickety 800 that belonged to one of them, and make our way towards Satyam theatre. On the way, we point at the huge movie posters of south Indian 'heroes' and laugh hilariously at how middle aged and paunchy they look. It's fun, and we're having a good time. Then it happens. 2 girls in front of us on a scooter at a traffic signal. Suddenly, the guys in the rear seat sort of transform. They start leaning out of the window and catcalling and hooting at these girls. The girls get alarmed and when the signal changes to green, they speed off. Whereupon Mister Schumacher in the driver's seat also floors it and starts tailgating them. By now the guys in the rear seat are going wild, calling out abuses and lewd comments. Through this all, I'm like WTF have I gotten myself into with these assclowns and I'm shouting at them to stop, to no avail. Finally I tell them that if the girls get scared enough to fall off their scooter, we're all in for the high jump and only then do they come to their senses. Or maybe because there was a traffic cop at the next approaching signal.

We stop at the signal, again right behind the 2 girls. The one on the pillion seat turns around, gives me a venomous look and mouths "Assholes". That was it. They drove off, and we ended up returning to college after finding that the show was sold out. I stopped hanging out with those guys after that - in any case I would graduate a month later. But I did tell the girls about what happened, and they were horrified and stopped talking to the other two for a while.

The second incident was during my first job. One of my colleagues lived in Gurgaon and his neighbor also worked in the same industrial park as we did, so once in a while he(the neighbor) would drop us home in his car. This guy was your standard Delhi horndoggie. He had been married a year, and while driving would being to describe the geographical contours of his wife in graphic detail, as also the various ways he made the beast with two backs. And he was several years older than us to boot. Then one day he begins to expound on the great theory of how women who dress a certain way are asking for it. We're stuck in traffic in GK, at the notorious bottleneck of the Savitri cinema signal (long before the flyover was constructed). There's a girl walking on the pavement on the other side of the road. Immediately, the guy goes into MC-BC mode, commenting on her breasts (and hindquarters and sirloin) and graphically describing what he would do if he only got hold of her. My colleague gives me a sheepish look, as though to apologize for the guys' crass behavior. The next day he tells me that 'don't mind him, this is how he talks, he doesn't really mean anything by it'.

On both occasions I felt horribly disgusted and unclean, as though I had fallen into raw sewage by association with these people. And I never felt worse than when that girl looked me in the eye, since I ended up guilty by unintended association. I could just imagine the fear of those girls in their panic to get away from us. After all we could be anybody. How was this behavior different from the various 'rowdies' who drive by on motorcycles and snatch gold chains off womens' necks? We were this close to hitting them with the car. If anything had happened, I would have been arrested along with the rest, my own views about being decent towards women notwithstanding. And I remember thinking how humiliating it would be for me if I ran into her again, for she would assume me being part of the 'eve teasers' gang.

As for the second, it's scary what the veneer of 'respectability' can mask. To society at large, here's a married man with a kid, who probably lives with his parents. What's holding him back from acting these fantasies out but opportunity and maybe political connections? Or, chillingly, just lack of will at that time? There are many such sexually repressed men all over, who wouldn't want to take the risk of molesting a woman, but will stare hungrily when their wives aren't looking, or jeer at her or pass comments in the company of other men. Safety in numbers. It is scary to think that the only thing holding these people back is fear of social censure or of being arrested. I shudder to think what would happen if society were to collapse suddenly.

On non vegetarian snobbery

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I've been raised vegetarian, and continue to remain so, more because of a squeamishness towards the preparation and consumption of anything from the animal kingdom other than eggs (hens' only, please). Today it's easy to go and buy meat/seafood/poultry all nicely frozen and packed in a supermarket, but I've seen butchers' and fishmongers' shops, and the blood and bones, and...ugh. So yeah, I never got started on the carnivore diet. Which doesn't however result in my shunning all but 'pyoor veg' restaurants, or making faces if someone sitting next to me is digging into a non vegetarian meal, as apparently some hardcore vegetarians are wont to do.

As an asideCollapse )

I've heard of complaints against some (definitely ill mannered) vegetarians who get grossed out by non-veg dishes, or pass snide remarks about the dietary habits of their companions ('eating meat is cruel' or 'it harms the environment'). I don't condone such behavior - if you're so rattled by the sight of meat and fish, then go and eat out only with other vegetarians. I have no such problem, I'll happily chomp on my veggies while the person next to me digs into their chicken or whatever.

This post is not about such behavior, however..more the opposite. Urban India is relaxing its traditional norms, and Indians are broadening their culinary horizons to include a wide variety of local and international cuisine. No one bothers about traditional caste taboos against meat eating, or even beef for that matter, which is technically verboten for Hindus.

However, it's become fashionable to make fun of vegetarians. After my first trip to Goa, I had to hear from various people - 'Oh, what's the use of going to Goa if you're not going to have seafood?' or 'What's the point of having vegetarian xacuti?' or even 'A vegetarian in Goa? *snigger*'.
Because of course there's nothing else to do in Goa besides stuffing yourself with seafood. Or when out some place for dinner with friends, groans of disappointment ensue when one's vegetarian status is revealed. Some people persuade me to try a non-veg dish, saying that 'try it, these things don't matter', as though I'm refusing because of cultural taboos (when I quite happily enjoy eggs). Others grumble that they'll be forced to forgo one non vegetarian dish for my (and the few other vegetarians') sake, or even go to the extent of saying 'bah, useless vegetarians'.

I mean, what gives? Live and let live, eat what you please and let others do the same-especially when I'm minding my manners and not passing comments about your choice of food!
[Why I'm a vegetarian]For the record, I choose to remain vegetarian because I cannot stand the sight and smell of this kind of food being prepared - the flesh and bones and blood, the sight of butchers shops with flayed carcasses hanging outside attracting flies (yeah, your supermarket bought frozen chicken/beef etc was also once prepared the same way).
 In India, (and probably elsewhere as well) you get soyabean chunks that can be used in cooking. I've eaten them added in the form of koftas or just as a curry by itself, and am told the taste and texture is exactly like meat. Some people who've given up eating meat sometimes use that as a substitute. So well, I have some idea why people might like to eat meat, but the preparation and smell just grosses me out. As also the sight of people gnawing on chicken bones, or seeing them left over on a plate.

But you will never catch me making such statements in front of you at the dinner table.

Letting the cat out of the bag

It's kinda hard to run an oppressive Communist state. All the past regimes have had to establish extensive ministries for censorship, 'ideological purity' and in general, a massive secret police infrastructure. East Germany was the best example, with the Stasi having around half a million personnel, both employees and informers. The reason is simple - a system that goes against the basic desire of every human being to look out for their own self interest is bound to fail. After all you don't find the US forcing people to read Adam Smith. Hence you had 'political officers' who were installed in every organization, be it a factory, the army or even a housing society cooperative. Their job was to snoop on the daily lives of the people and report any form of dissent. There are stories of how Red Army troops in WW2 were more terrified of the NKVD commissars attached to their units than of the Germans - because they would be shot if they retreated despite lacking supplies/ammunition.It was even more insidious in East Germany, with citizens being spied on by their own family and neighbors. The award winning film The lives of others chillingly illustrates the sort of power the Stasi wielded over the common people there.

Now running such an operation costs money. Loads of it. Salaries have to be paid, spying apparatus has to be bought/stored/maintained, records have to be kept...
In short, people are being paid to snoop on telephone conversations, record them on paper, attach microphone bugs around apartments, capture and take dissidents to prisons etc. Today China does the same thing, employing a huge number of people to spam message boards with pro government propaganda, to maintain the Great Firewall, and also presumably to knock down the doors of malcontents in the dead of night and cart them off somewhere for 're-education'. None of these activities are in any way economically productive. Small wonder such a system becomes top heavy, inefficient and eventually collapses under its own weight as was seen with the Communist bloc.

Imagine instead, a system where people voluntarily disclose reams of information about themselves, their social interactions with others, their likes and preferences for different products, their political and religious views. Oh wait.
I'm sure retired KGB and Stasi personnel must be shaking their heads and wishing they had had this level of access to information back in the day. Why employ people to listen in on conversations and hide bugs in apartments if there had been something like Facebook back then? Already law enforcement and intelligence agencies are starting to use social media to find out more about people of interest to them.

Another point to note - technological progress is inexorable. Take the commonly touted idea of installing closed circuit TV cameras in public places for 'security'. Currently all CCTV systems require a human being to sit bleary eyed in front of the screen and watch for suspicious activity. It is time consuming and tedious, and it's extremely rare that crimes have been averted by CCTV. Rather, they serve for post mortem analysis, to look for suspects after the crime has occurred. At the same time however, work continues on real time image recognition and processing, and robots are learning to interpret gestures and body language. The day is not far when CCTVs will be monitored by sophisticated programs that can instantly match faces in a crowd from a database of perps in real time, or even identify suspicious behavior. Towards that day, present CCTV systems continue to archive and store thousands of hours of footage. It's a short step from using this only to hunt criminals to keeping watch on all citizens all the time. After all, the only constraint now is processing power and algorithms. Once these problems are solved and the cat is let out of the Pandora's box, to mix metaphors, there's no going back.

The best sort of cage is one that's invisible, and gives you the illusion of freedom. Welcome to the Matrix, though it's quite different from what we might have thought it would be.

More like gloom...

max shout
Eight years ago, there I was - drooling over Doom 3. Supposedly a reboot of the franchise, and with the patron saint of FPS himself at the helm it was gonna be perfect, right? Back then, as I noted, playing the game was impossible, since Id in their typical fashion gave it the most insane graphics requirements of the time. The new innovation back then was pixel shaders. Basically, dynamic lighting that could reflect off anything in the game, allowing for rotating lights and interesting shadows. Take a look(and yeah, that's Steve Jobs introducing Carmack in the beginning:

Lighting effects of the type shown are far more common now, a decade later, but it was mind blowing back then. And lack of a graphics card with pixel shaders meant that I couldn't play this game back then. Cut to now, when I've got the latest greatest setup for gaming circa 2012. I've always had a soft corner for Doom, the first FPS I ever saw when back in school, and the only one until now to give me a nightmare. Since then, I've played a plethora of others, and grumbled about lack of storyline (which has also happily been addressed with the ones I been playing recently). Doom 3 is 8 years old now, but its playing style is unabashedly OLD old school - a throwback to the original Doom that predated it by a decade. Shoot anything that moves, get the key, unlock the door, clear the area. Except that this time, they've thrown in usable computers, and audio logs (hello System Shock series), huge laboratories bustling with scientists and a monorail ride (Hello Half Life) and apparently even in the year 2145 computers will have junk mail.
Recently, the game was re-released as a special edition with all the extra levels that originally came out later, and even copies of the classic Doom included. So I got it. First impression - you move through an impressive lab on Mars and talk to scientists and other soldiers, before being sent to fetch a runaway scientist from an abandoned facility. On reaching him, hell literally breaks loose, the facility is overrun with randomly teleporting demons, and humans turn into zombies. Oh, and everything is dark. And it stays that way for most of the game. Sure, it was scary at first, but soon you find this tactic the equivalent of someone standing with a bedsheet over his head shouting 'Boo!' when you step into a dark room. It just gets irritating. So you find a crate of ammo, and just as you pick it up, a fireball tossing demon spawns nearby. Another one spawns directly behind you. After the first few times of this Abbott & Costello routine, I learned to turn around and blast the sneaky jackass behind me first. And the zombies. Every dark doorway you enter just has to have one of these fellows behind it, to swipe at you. Every computer room will have them lurking behind the mainframes or in corners. And don't get me started on demons hidden in secret chambers behind the wall that jump out at you when you pass by.
And the weapons, oh god, the weapons! You start off with the time honored pissy little pistol. Fine,not like I'm gonna use it for long anyway. Ah, here's a shotgun! Why hello mister demon! Turns out it takes nearly 6 shots to take the bastard down, the shotgun holds 8 rounds, and reloading is so slow, it looks like your player character is on pot. Fine, I'll just down a zombie soldier and grab his machine gun. 60 shot magazine, 500 shot capacity should be good right? Nope. Again you end up almost draining the magazine for each demon that spawns. When several of em start spawning to start a gangbang with you while you're stuck reloading either of these, you're totally fucked. Must..not..use cheat code. Must..not..use cheat code.
Next, I find..a chaingun. This one packs a heftier punch, but the uglies I'm seeing just got meaner. And it takes a couple of seconds to spin up and spin down so forget about firing in short bursts. Oh, and it has a freaking 60 shot magazine that empties out like a girl's bathroom after spotting a cockroach in the washbasin. Ok, I've had enough now.

>give ammo

That should do it. Now I have a chain-saw, a plasma gun, a rocket launcher and..the BFG9000. The last, the Big er..Freaking Gun, was the most powerful weapon in the original Doom - firing a huge plasma ball that could clean out a roomful of enemies. The one here..not so much. There are bigger fellows who take THREE shots to go down. I could tickle them to death with the chaingun if I wanted to. The plasma gun, while fun to fire, takes ages to reload (a common curse with Doom 3). Which leaves the rocket launcher as the only satisfying weapon of the whole bunch..with a 5 shot magazine. There's nothing so satisfying as sending a rocket up the ass of a demon before it can fully spawn.

Oh, and I forgot to add - the game is mostly pitch dark. Half the time you have to go through dark corridors with emergency lights casting moving shadows..wait, what was that? And in the original Doom 3, you could either carry a torch or a weapon. So you either see what's coming to eat you, or spray bullets and pray. Fortunately, the re-released BFG edition that I'm playing doesn't have this limitation.

However, I still haven't come to the worst flaw in what could've been a far more interesting game. And that's the utter lack of subtitles. Look, one can't always play a game with the volume turned up, and sometimes it's plain hard to make out what a character is saying against the ambient noise. But no, you strain to hear the dialogue, or forget about it and just move on and keep shooting. Even worse are the audio logs. The game has storage lockers scattered everywhere, secured by a 3 digit code. Usually you can find the code in an email on the PDA of a dead scientist nearby. But in several cases, you have to listen to them drawl through a freaking audio log with no subtitles alongside! This decision alone is the stupidest of all for anyone who wants to follow the backstory.

So I slogged through the 3 episodes I had entirely on God mode - and it felt more like a necessary chore to complete than anything else. Oh well. Apparently there's a sequel in the works. While I've no doubt it will raise the bar for graphics once again, I'm not holding my breath for gameplay or story.