Wednesday, December 31, 2008

'Best of' 2008 D-List

Since there's no obvious way to do this and you know I'm going to have a lot to say about my choices- lets get straight to it: Presenting yet another 'best of 2008' list! (Now with notable contenders and 'worst of' categories and multiple entries!)

Best Book of 2008: (and straight away we're off to a tie!) Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri and American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Notable Contenders: Netherland,The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a certain Qualitative Methods book

( Note: I'm chastised by the entries I have received so far for my contest. Apparently, many people interpret 'best book' to include academic books. That this did not immediately occur to me worries me a little.)

Worst Book: A Good Indian Wife NRI writing at its worst.

Best Album: Ok, so if you read this blog and you don't know what I'm going to pick you haven't been reading closely enough!
'Where the light is' sealed my love for and started my, lets admit it, slight obsession, with all things John Mayer this year. This live album showcases JM's different avatars- the acoustic singer-songwriter, the guitarist, the blues musician of the JMtrio and the pop musician with the hits, the hyper-articulate performer etc. Great.

Notable Contenders: I rarely listen to entire albums but from what little I heard I liked Modern Guilt (Beck), Duffy , the Vampire Weekend album and Sara Baraeilles and Ray LaMontagne.

Best Song: In your atmosphere (in Mayer world) and (in other music-world) Paper Planes by M.I.A. (Any song that makes me bop my head to gun shots and a cash register has to rock. Catchy as hell)

Notable contenders: Shut up and let me go- the Ting Tings, I'm not going to teach your boyfriend how to dance with you- Black Kids, Circus- Britney Spears, House of Cards - Radiohead, Lost- Coldplay, Electric Feel- MGMT, Winter Song- Sara Baraeilles, Mrs. Officer and other Lil Wayne songs I wanted to hate but can't...ok I'll stop here.

Worst Song: (Sooo many choices here) Womanizer- Britney Spears, Single Ladies- Beyonce and I was assaulted by a Miley Cyrus song once and have not yet recovered.

Best Movie: Wall-E. This movie took not-so-appealing elements for me - environmentalism, robots, scifi, cockroaches, silent movies- and made it magical, touching and profund.

Notable Contenders: The Visitor, Jab we met

Best TV:: drama, scandals, endless comedy, an audacious bimbo spoiler, teenage pregnancies, unforgettable cameos by plumbers and mooses, an irresistible tagline, celebrity appearances, audience voting and participation, a powerful steely heroine who holds her own, the older godfather who isn't quite what he seems to be, an impossibly charismatic hero prevailing in a feel-good ending...the best show this year had it all....yes, ofcourse, I'm talking about the Presidential Election 2008.

Notable Contenders: The Ivory Tower Half Hour and This Week with George Stephanopolous (which are the perfect complements to) The Hills, Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer Wimbeldon Final

Worst TV (not in a good way) : Moment of Truth. Hands down

Best Meal: I've blogged about my fav sandwich but best meal encompasses more than just food. I'm going to go with a delicious lunch I ate with bluebell and fleur in San Francisco during ISA at B star on Clement in San Francisco- edamame humus, kabocha croquettes, calamari, , satay, lychee ice teas outside in the sunny patio.

Worst Meal: The fancy lunch I had to keep down all the while our annual funding meeting was going on- didn't taste a thing, really.

Best Party: Normally this would be a slam dunk for my first entry but this was a special year and so I have a tie.

So my first party of the year was My 90's themed birthday party February 2008 The elements: the dinner with my best girl friends, the slide show (if there was a category called best ego boost, it would go to that slideshow). AND then the surprise 90's themed after party with everyone dressed up in their 90's best (read: lots of flannel, torn denim). The 90's music was the icing on an already delicious cake- and the cherry was everyone hilariously getting down to 'Baby one more time'. Thanks Tulip!! And Heather and gang for the music and everyone who helped make this the BEST. PARTY. EVER.

How could there even be another contender, you ask? Well, this was also the year my sister, Daisycat got married!! My sister's wedding May 2008 The wedding was lovely- intimate but lively, beautiful with San Francisco and our garden at its best, family and friends gathered and the cake of the year. My sister was just the loveliest, most glowing bride I've ever seen and my brother in law rocks....for the emotions and the love, this also ranks as party of the year....

Best New discovery: blogging (and other new modes of self expression)

Best podcast:: Slate's audio book club

Best trip: San Francisco (always)

Best blog: Daniel Drezner for the content, Go Fug Yourself for the laughs

News story of the year: Obama is the obvious story but two others stood out: the Mumbai attacks and the global economic crisis which I followed but am still not sure I fully understand.

Notable contenders: Olympics opening ceremony and architecture, The rise and fall of Sarah Palin, The fall of Spitzer, The fall and rise of Britney Spears, Hilary Clinton's tears, Carnage in Gaza, dodgy Chinese toys, milk and gymnasts, and Somali Pirates!

Obsession of the Year (In the venerable tradition of my obsessions such as Michael Jackson - I know but in my defense I was 12/13-, Steffi Graf, Nirvana, Sachin Tendulkar, Cricket, Cats): John Mayer

Best Days: Sister's day out and the shoes, the birth of my goddaughter, Nov 4th, days bonding with tulip in Ithaca, Seth in SF and Heather in the bay/online and baking cupcakes with the gang, seeing the QMIR book with my name on it and doing my first interview!

Funniest Moments : Sarah Palin's interviews, details of the Salman-SRK spat

Worst/Saddest Days: Bombay attacks, annual meeting May 2nd, leaving San Francisco, goodbyes, discovering what acid reflux feels like :(

Buzzwords of the year: 'yes we can', 'change', 'stock markets plunge', 30, 'John Mayer', 'Funding', 'Babies', 'Trivia'

Lessons Learned: 1. To thine own self be true. 2. Basic HTML coding 3. I have wonderful friends and family

Challenges of the year: are not over yet...

On that cheery note, I'm done!

Goodbye 2008- you gave me moments of joy (my sister getting married to a very cool person, my adorable goddaughter, conversations with my lovely friends, being able to talk to my parents so often, the Obama victory, Sachin's form). But you were also really, really tough (work frustrations in the first half, saying goodbye to people and places, that whole recession thing, the horror of 11/26 and Gaza, growing up and all that comes with it).

But you sure were eventful, 2008 - sisters getting married, pregnant friends, we're losing jobs and getting new jobs, moving on, confronting our fears, getting published, saving, thinking about the 'future', being distinctly on the wrong side of 20 or even, gasp, turning 30!

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto....

2009 is going to be 'interesting' no doubt with many uncertainties but also much to look forward to. Here's to 'hope', 'change' and all the rest of it.....and to the joys of wandering through it all....

Monday, December 29, 2008

Not for the feeble brained

This looks a lot easier than it was to do...

This (from Scramble Squares) was one of my stocking stuffers from the lovely Christmas I spent with tulip's family. I'm capturing the fact that I actually successfully finished a puzzle ( and a really hard one at that) for posterity. May never happen again...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On Samuel Huntington (1927- 2008)

In my world there is no figure that people love to hate more than Samuel Huntington, who passed away earlier this week. Much of this is targeted at Huntington's last few works, most notably 'The Clash of Civilizations' and 'Who are We'. The common charges are that Huntington is a (perhaps 'the') neo-conservative, is a shoddy academic because he makes grand, sweeping arguments without the requisite research, that he is anti-Islam and anti-multi-ethnic societies and has that agenda for US foreign policy, that he is arrogant etc.

What this translates into in classes is an all too easy dismissal of Huntington even before one has the chance to talk about the work at hand. A snigger here, a snarky comment there and we're done with our 'discussion'. I have rarely seen a group of otherwise argumentative and opinionated people fall into such complete agreement than when it's time to bash Huntington. I predict that in the weeks after we all come back to school, there will be much of the same reaction.

While there are some substantial reasons for some of this derision, the quality of it has always troubled me. At the very real risk of alienating or annoying professors and peers, I and a few of my peers have tried to address this in class only to be met by a unified response of incredulity and half-joking accusations at being secretly conservative! And I don't even really agree with the man on his core hypotheses.

Don't get me wrong- Huntington was too influential, powerful and successful to need defending. His work was at its best powerful and insightful and at all times enormously provocative and designed to spark debate and dissent, which by all accounts he enjoyed. Secondly, I agree that some of the arguments about the flaws in his research are valid and his conclusions, while provocative, can be troubling for those who see themselves as fundamentally liberal. So this is not a blanket statement to rescue a scholar who needs no rescuing. Instead this post is to make two observations on Huntington's legacy:

First, I think (and this is not very social-sciency of me) that Huntington's role as a public intellectual far supersedes his role as an academic political scientist or a social scientist. To those of my interlocutors who point to the flaws in his 'research design' or 'case selection' and bemoan the lack of theoretical or literature review, I can only say that that was not Huntington's aim in his later work. His early work has all of that and those are still powerful and important works in political science. But the later work, for which he is most often criticized, was all about larger ideas. Surely we can agree as constructivists that there is a core place for and a power of large ideas in the world?The charge that Huntington cannot account for Case A or Case B ignores that he is often pointing his finger at, in a prescient way, large, complex and abstract forces and phenomena in society. The role of holding up those larger patterns, and even shaping the contours of the debate on huge issues such as identity, religion and violence or immigration is a pivotal one. And it is different from the important work of 'normal science', to twist that term.

Secondly, many criticize Huntington's influence on guiding the shaping of contemporary U.S. foreign policy, specially in the post 9/11 period. The argument is that Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' idea predisposed a certain (misguided) interpretation of those events and strengthened the idea that this was a religious struggle rather than one over concrete political conflicts. This is a huge and un-resolvable debate in many ways and I'm not sure that we can easily separate the domain of the religious from the political in any of the conflicts Huntington was talking about; but at a very minimum shouldn't his influence on U.S.policy mean that we should engage with his ideas in a much deeper sense? How can dismissing Huntington out of hand help us truly understand the making of U.S. (or indeed other) foreign policy? Huntington's passing alerts us to the enduring problem of the harmful mutual disengagement of scholars of international relations with practitioners of foreign policy. Both see the other as misguided and out of sync with reality and because each side thus has their pet intellectuals, the bridge is harder to divide.

Thirdly, and related to the points above, to truly understand the workings and deeper sociological roots of foreign policy anywhere requires us to give up the rote conventions of academia, to be wary of political correctness and to take more seriously the arguments of those we disagree with. We owe it to ourselves as members of academia as Kanti Bajpai reminds us in a fairly devastating piece he wrote on the Clash of Civilizations in 1998. To 'pirouette dismissively' from Huntington, Bajpai says, is lazy.

Thus, I, like many others, have my differences with Huntington but I respect his contributions to our discipline, will engage with his many insights and admire his always provocative, always challenging mind.

And, in true Huntingtonian spirit, I relish any and all arguments that this post might provoke!

ETA: Here's the NYT obit
on him

Monday, December 22, 2008

Arundhati Roy and the voices...redux

Read here an excellent rebuttal of Arundhati Roy's '9 is not 11' piece that I wrote about earlier. There have been other forceful denunciations of her writing about 11/26, by Salman Rushdie amongst others with good arguments made about Roy's willful disregard for geo-strategic realities etc. but this piece deserves its own post.

Abhinav Kumar, a serving IPS officer has written an open letter to Roy that brings into sharp relief for me many things that Roy's piece (and her other writing in general) lacks- balance, a willingness to think one's arguments through to their logical end, a avoidance of moral relativism and a sense of the bigger picture. And he writes pretty well too.

Kumar beings by acknowledging Roy's role as a voice that prickles our collective conscience, which I think is more generous that he needs to be but that's where the familiar sense of ambivalence ends. I think he nicely and much more succintly devastates Roy.

Kumar echoes one of my previous commentators (Jai) in the thought that Roy appears to be more interested in her own brand as the Indian voice of dissent than in formulating a genuine and original response to each issue that she wants to talk about. Thus, she has an Arundhati Roy agenda with its well establishes and predictable talking points (this is me, not Kumar). For Kumar, this means that Roy ignores the moral responsibility of a public intellectual. And he directs most of his essay at Roy's callous disregard for the human loss of the Bombay attacks and her petty at best tirade against the security forces. These parts struck a particularly sour note in her piece.

His comments on the stupidity of comparing Hindutva to radical Islam are more controversial and will not please everyone but on balance, I think he's right if you have a sense of perspective and are not excessively politically-correct.

If you're at all interested in this, you should really read the whole essay but I'll leave you with two points that impressed me particularly:

You seem to passionately believe in and defend the 'right' of the Kashmiris to ethnic, cultural, religious and geographical exclusivism. If this is correct than why should we vilify Raj Thackeray or any other chauvinist who seeks to preserve the purity (however defined) of his people (however defined) from outsiders (also however defined)?...I do hope you have taken the trouble to examine the fundamental assumptions underlying all such movements based on an assertion of a cultural identity. The creation of a hated outsider, in the case of Kashmir, the Indian; in the case of Raj Thackeray, the bhaiya of UP and Bihar; and in the case of the jihadists, anyone and everyone who does not subscribe to their virulent strain of Islam, including Muslims, is common to all these ideologies but you seem to pick and choose the bigotries you will demonize and the bigotries you will defend. Is it possible to freeze identity to a moment in time and on the basis of this demand recognition, retribution and rights for all time to come?

I wonder what Roy would say to that. Actually, I have a good idea of what she would say but indeed her defense would be hollow.

and this..

The liberties you have exercised in the past and continue to do today, however gratuitously and offensively, do not exist in a vacuum. I am not sure if any of these liberties would have a place in a Naxalite Utopia or a Jihadi Caliphate or even in a self-determined Kashmiri paradise that you eloquently espoused... In any case, the liberties that you have recently taken with the sensibilities of proud Indians too exist in a cultural, political and constitutional context, a context that is ultimately safeguarded by men such as Hemant Karkare and Major Unnikrishnan with disregard for their own life.

My anti-Arundhati voice to my pro-Arundhati voice: Take that!

Tear jerker

Due to distinctly unpopular demand, I'm extending the dates to the first Wandering Through contest. I figure it's christmas, people are traveling and seeing family- the last thing they want to do is to fill up a contest on a blog....So you have till Jan 5th now to do it!! So now you have no excuses!!

It won't take more than a couple of minutes really. AND (here's where I have to level with you) it will make a poor, cold, shivering grad student (ie. me) who couldn't even go home this winter soooo happy. As I write this pleading message, it is 15 degrees fahrenheit (that is -9 degrees celsius) here, the central heating is powerless against this sort of cold, it has been snowing relentlessly for the past 3 days and the 'real feel' is more like 7 F (very, very freezing in Centigrade), all my friends are gone and it is too cold and snowy to venture out....and amidst this misery all I want is for people to take my one measly contest....

Are you feeling guilty yet? If so, you know what to do...It will be fun, there's a prize and who doesn't like making end of the year lists..huh? huh? Come on now, you can do it, now take that mouse and click here

See, wasn't that simple?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Watch now, thank me later: Yes Minister

When I was a kid one of the most popular shows in our home was the 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes Prime Minister' series. My parents loved the show and I would watch along with them, only half following the plot. I must have been 10-12 years old and so I didn't fully understand the sophisticated humor but even then I could appreciate the excellent performances of the 3 major characters (the baffled, pompous but occasionally wily Minister Hacker, the diabolical and cunning Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne is masterful) and the naive, pedantic and slightly corruptible Bernard Wooley (who I used to have a crush on! Is that weird?). Later on, I read the brilliant spinoff books coming out of the series.

And now, years later as a political scientist (in training) and following the Obama cabinet building process I'm redicovering the show all over again via netflix (can I just say now- I love you, netflix). I marvel at how relevant the humor is even today, how sophisticated and subtle the writing is and how spot on the characters are. Then I weep for what passes for a sitcom these days.

I present to you this gem of an exchange in the episode 'Open Government':

Sir Humphrey (on a memo entitled Open Government which he naturally and virulently opposes, being a bureaucrat): "Always dispose of the difficult bit in the title, does less harm there than in the text."
Cabinet Secretary: "Yes, it's the law of inverse relevance. The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it'
Bernard Wooley: (uncertainly) "But what's wrong with open government? Why shouldn't the public know more about what's going on?"
Cabinet Secretary:(in utter amazement) "Are you serious? My dear boy, it's a contradiction in terms. You can be open or you can have government"
Bernard Wolley: "But..But surely the citizens of a democracy have the right to know"
Sir Humphrey :(with strained patience but utter conviction) "No. They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity and guilt. Ignorance has a certain dignity."
Cabinet Secretary:(profoundly) "If people don't know what you're doing, they don't know what you're doing wrong."

and this..

'We have decided to be more flexible in our application of this principle' means 'We are dropping this policy but we don't want to admit it publicly'

Classic- British comedy at its absolute best. They just don't make shows like that anymore. Does anyone else share my love for this show?

For my polisci friends and fellow lovers of British Comedy- this is a must watch...Hence the title of this post.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arundhati Roy and the voices in my head

It's hard to be neutral about Arundhati Roy.

I loved (in an unqualified way) 'The God of Small Things' (GOST). I was just out of high school when the book came out, to tremendous hype and I was determined to find it over-rated. Instead, the book blew me away - at this point it's almost a cliche to say how inventive the language is but I'll just say that it captured smells, sounds and textures in a way I have rarely seen since, though there are many bad imitations. The plot is beautifully paced, the narrative device felt utterly genuine and organic. I still feel tension and sadness as the book reaches its climax...and I still marvel at her small insights - this particular feeling of unease that I have always associated with her image of the fluttering moth in your chest since the book.

I don't think Roy could have topped GOST and so in a sense I'm glad she hasn't written more fiction.

Since GOST, Roy has become passionately committed to many causes, general and specific- the enviornment and anti-dam movement in India, taking on the neo-liberal order, anti-Indian nuclear tests, anti-Iraq war and American imperealism. Most of this is done via writing in a series of articles that have found wide circulation internationally, many of which are first found in Outlook India.

While I loved GOST, the articles - not so much. But still, I can't be ambivalent about them....

This is the internal dialogue I wrestle with when thinking about Arundhati Roy:

Pro-Arundhati voice: She really can write well- she just has a way with words.

Anti-Arundhati voice: 1. What's the point of writing well, if you're just ranting and raving. She has no sense of proportion or balance. Everything is really, really black and white for her. 2. So much of it is her marketability and persona- I get really annoyed by academics in the west who think she is the real voice of the 'Indian masses'. 3. Plus Ramachandra Guha says she's unoriginal and frequently gets things wrong (in much better words than I can muster) and I am inclined to trust his opinion.

Pro-Arundhati voice: But are you saying that because 1. she says some really uncomfortable, unflaterring things about India and 2. exposes deep rooted facets about your own privileged existence. At the end of the day, isn't she speaking truth to power? Isn't your vehemence born out of your own discomfort at being confronted by the ugly truths about the parts of of the neo-liberal world order that benefit you?

Anti-Arundhati Roy: Yes, she does make me uncomfortable for those reasons. In fact, I don't disagree with much of her agenda and where she's coming from. I want to be on her side but she's just annoyingly simplistic, quick to take umbrage and just a little smug. Not to mention a little rabid. She could make her argument so much more credibly and intelligently if she was just more balanced, nuanced and open to alternative perspectives. Also, she's intellectually lazy- by making the 'they're fascists/like Hitler' argument for anyone she doesn't agree with.

Pro-Arundhati: Why should she give more space and credence to already powerful players and voices? She has courage and she backs up her words with her deeds. You need voices like hers in the forums she has access to. We are kept honest by someone with her ability with language and her visibility to press our conscience and to give voice to people ...

Anti-Arundhati: I'll give her the courage part- but really, she is supported and lionized by the same systems and people she criticizes. I would just like to see her acknowledge that just once. I'd be more willing to listen to her if she would be willing to have a dialogue with people she disagrees with. You can't have a dialogue with Arundhati- she's an ideologue in the same way as G.W. and she is so convinced by her own stance that she is unwilling to question her own mistakes

And so it goes on....

Mostly, as I've read her work over the years (increasingly more incoherent and badly edited), the anti-Arundhati side of me has prevailed over the pro-Arundhati side...

So, after reading her latest article in Outlook entitled '9 is not 11', the debate has restarted and surprise...the pro-Arundhati voice is winning.

Yes, it needs an editing job and it lapses into her usual rant against America and also a somewhat inappropriate but understandable tirade against neo-liberalism when discussing (rightly) the excessive coverage of the Taj versus other, less glamorous targets. It's also way too rambly. But she does make some good points and in the language and style that she does like no one else.

Some interesting lines/points:
1. First, can we just agree that the '9 is not 11' title is vintage Roy- clever, simple, stark. On this desire to brand 11/26 'India's 9/11' she writes:

"We've forfeited the rights to our own tragedies. But November isn't September, 2008 isn't 2001, Pakistan isn't Afghanistan, and India isn't America. So perhaps we should reclaim our tragedy and pick through the debris with our own brains and our own broken hearts so that we can arrive at our own conclusions."

I agree. Calling 26/11 out 9/11 is easy and understandable but dangerous. Yes, the Bombay attacks were on an unprecedented scale symbolically but they were not a bolt from the blue in the same sense. It should not undermine the unacceptability of the series of attacks India has suffered. More importantly, we should be wary of equating responses to 11/26 with that of 9/11. The domestic and strategic context is different, India's identity is distinct and different and so we need to recognize and work with those differences.

2. A provocative but useful discussion on the politics of calling Muslim versus Hindu groups terrorists. This is a debate that is very much alive in India and she raises the important question - does discussing the context or root causes of terrorism amount to excusing it (Side A) or is it necessary to understand the deeper bases of violence (side B). She chooses side B. I've always struggled between Side A and Side B. I don't buy her reasoning getting to that point. or her simplistic and predictable linking of the Bombay attacks solely to domestic politics (though that no doubt fuels movements in Pakistan) but....she goes there and she juxtaposes the ugly side of 'context' with all that is 'magnificent' about the idea of the India. It is uncomfortable, perhaps too early to talk about but I think it is only by asking ourselves the questions about our own 'context' instead of just pointing the finger at Pakistan that we truly live up to all that we pride in ourselves as a secular, inclusive democracy.

Again, instead of constructing barriers to asking tough questions about our own legacy and place in the world, as happened in the US after 9/11, we would do well to have a discourse about these questions. Certainly in the non-inflammatory and less sensitive arenas that public intellectuals occupy.

3. Most of all I like the end:
The only way to contain – it would be naive to say end – terrorism is to look at the monster in the mirror. We're standing at a fork in the road. One sign says "Justice," the other "Civil War." There's no third sign and there's no going back. Choose.

Amen Sister. The choice is pretty clear to me.

Soon, no doubt you will write some crazy 50 page essay comparing Bill Gates to Pol Pot. And I'll feel vindicated in my irritation with you. But tonight, Arundhati, I'll give you half a thumbs up.

It's chaos but it's MY chaos!

A nyt blogpost that tackles one of the biggest trials and tribulations of academic life: how to roganize all the materials you work with. As someone who has a gazillion documents called 'proposal', 'terr' or 'final paper' with random numbers after it this post is after my own heart.

The basic point being made is that it is so easy now to just download and save articles that you often end up with more chaos on your computer than you can handle- multiple copies of the same article with different names depending on idiosyncrasies, emails with the same paper saved every 5 minutes etc. She's absolutely right that what happens now is that you end up re-researching every paper you write, even if it is substantively close to other things you have done before. It's just easier to re-google scholar an article and download it than sift through various folders and oddly titled files named pdf.17973567. The small enviornmentalist in me is also aghast at how easy it is to print off reams of articles, most of which remain unread (studying by osmosis anyone?) and then get thrown into recycle bins. Recycling does not mean that we should be printing copies of the same article every couple of weeks.

The article suggests some new software to get around this problem that seem worth checking out. They sound like more organized and functional variants of endnote.

But it only addresses the download problem, not other hassles like how to back up work in an organized fashion or how to arrange your own materials. Also, it still means that you have to be disciplined enough to enter the information about each work into the database. If you're struggling with an impending deadline, or if endnote is bugging as it seems to on Mac, that's easier said than done.

I could be a lot more organized (for those familiar with my desk, this is patently obvious) but there are a few things that I do that seem to work (ie. I can generally find things I need, I don't have tons of copies of the same things) that I'm surprised to see my friends and peers don't. So, in the best tradition of unsolicited advice, here are some tips for more organized filing:

1. Save things in multiple places- not just on a flash drive. I strongly recommend a gmail account- there is more space than you will ever know what to do with and it's free.

2. Email yourself your work every 20 minutes or so when working on a paper. I've learned the hard way of never going too long before saving and backing up work.

3. Name your documents in a standard, logical manner with some sort of numbers. like Version/V 2 or really helps later on

4. Delete! Delete! Delete! Every few months go through your computer and delete the multiple copies, the million emails with the every-20minutes-backed up paper. It makes life a lot easier and a lot less daunting to look at 600 emails all sent to yourself with identical looking attachments. Just keep the final couple of versions of any completed papers.

5. Use folders on the desktop instead of just putting individual paper icons..

Those are my words of wisdom. Now if I could only practice what I preach. I think I'm going to try extra hard...

...and give up chocolate, take up jogging and write 5 pages by 10:00 am every day. (Don't get your hopes up papa!)

Reason No. 23652: interfaith baking contest

One of the many reasons I think John Mayer is cool is that he has sustained a direct and 'unmanaged' relationship with his fans despite having exploded onto the mainstream. Despite his rapid success etc. there is something genuine and unpackaged about how he comes across...

Exhibit A: For the past few weeks Mayer has been really into baking. Over the past few weeks, his blog has been taken over by all things baking....the famous obama cake, his families cakes, fan submissions and even more fan submissions (some of which are just stunning in design and concept), his live baking posts etc. That's cool in itself.

Then came the 'interfaith baking contest'. The idea was simple- send in a picture of your holiday baking. JM will then pick his favorite and the winner gets a John Mayer autographed signature series fender stratocaster, which even I with zero knowledge of guitars can tell you is a pretty sweet prize. Contest closes on the 22nd btw

The response has been really cool. JM sites and boards are full of earnest discussions about fondant and frosting and just where to get the perfect cupcake stands instead of gossip about Anniston., the email account for submissions is constantly full etc. It has been a lot of fun to follow. And to take part in!

Very early on I decided to enter the contest but I've never really baked anything! Slight problem! I had an idea but no skills, scant equipment and little courage...So I sent a message to 7 of my best friends (about whom I have a long- overdue post coming soon). I didn't really expect much of a response- it was the end of semester, people had stuff to do, places to go, parties to plan... but lo and behold a week later we found ourselves at tulip's house, baking away.

I present to you the following pictures along with an extract of the email I sent:

Title/Concept: 'The (cupcake) world as we would like it to be' (cupcakes for peace)

(Basically we took the 'interfaith' part of your contest seriously and decided to make the most inclusive, all encompassing, interfaith bunch of cupcakes we could think of). You'll see the major religious symbols sure, but also cupcakes for atheism (the white one), agnosticism (the question mark), darwinism (the jesus fish with feet), pro-gay rights (the rainbow) and even one called enlightenment (can you guess which one?).

Medium: cake mix, frosting, sprinkles, silver and other balls, icing (baking is a lot easier than I thought!!)

Having seen the really brilliant works of art submitted by fans (seriously check them out), I don't think our 'cupcakes for peace' are going to make the cut. So I may not win the fender or john mayer's heart....

But that's not even the point. I have something way more valuable....7 of the best friends anybody could ever hope for.

To my gang: thank you guys for coming in the middle of a snow storm, despite busy schedules in a crazy weekend to help me bake. It was such a lovely afternoon! I'll always remember tulip's expert baking, lotus teasing me about my 'multi-culturalism' cupcake which she thought (incorrectly) looks like nothing, bluebell's intricate evil eye and heather's irreverent atheist and darwin fish designs... Saffron's meticulous, professional looking cakes and violet's painstaking beautiful rainbow...We played with tulip's beautiful baby, devoured our cupcakes and photographed them lovingly, while laughing and chatting about life...

So with those lovely memories, I close the book on my involvement in the great interfaith baking contest of 2008. Thanks to my wonderful friends, also for my sister's and mom's sage advice about concepts and flavors from thousands of miles away, thanks to all the people that ate our cupcakes (the downside to baking 24 cupcakes is that you're left with 24 cupcakes) and of course to a certain musician for being the impetus for it all....if Mayer's aim was to foster a communal holiday spirit, I can say from our experience - mission accomplished!

I'll close with some of my fav cupcakes-( I also loved the rainbow, the atheism and evil eye but they got eaten before I could take pictures...)

I call this 'enlightenment'

This one I call 'Will I find love? Only with divine intervention' (Or something to that effect)

The Darwin Fish

And this one by saffron sums it all up...Just perfect.

Friday, December 12, 2008

First Wandering Through Contest

I'm always talking to you about my book of the month or meal of the month or whatever but this isn't a one way street you know... it's time to hear what's going on in your lives too. Soooo in preparation for my mega 'Best of 2008/Reflections' entry, I'm going do the ultimate blogging thing and start a little contest for my readers. Aggressive blog promotion to follow so please bear with me.

Here's what I'm thinking: Send me an email or use the comment box to answer the following things:

Best Book you read this year:

Best Album/Song/Musical Discovery:

Best Blog: (apart from the obvious one of course)

Best Movie:

Most memorable Meal/Party:

News Story of the year:

Buzz word/quote of the year:

Ok, that should do it. You don't have to fill every category... (for people like my mom who might not have a best album of the year).

That should give me a good snap shot of what 2008 was about for my readers (who by default are my beloved friends)- I'll post about any interesting trends that emerge. It'll be like a little electronic capsule.

Send your entries in by Dec 30th 2008!

The Prize: I can't offer you tickets to concerts or vacations, the prize will be more modest: there will be a random drawing to select a winner who will receive his/her choice of either MY fav book/music of the year! 2 other lucky winners will win home-made 'best of 2008' music mixes by me- which as Heather will testify make up in earnestness and funk what they lack in quality and eclecticness...There will be a strict limit on John Mayer songs, I promise.

Now for the tough part- should this be a drawing? Or should it be a proper contest where I pick a winner? Opinion on this has been divided but I'll think about it and let you know. I promise to be fair.

Can't wait to see your submissions! Now is the time to prove a) that you read this b) your friendship (a little emotional blackmail to end this post)...


Yes, blogging has been sporadic. And for the legions of my fans/readers (there's such a fine line between the two..sigh) that have been wondering where their humble blogger disappeared I say - I'll be right back! Now that the semester is winding to a close I will have plenty of time during my first winter in da cuse to blog away...

You have been warned!

Rare Lost Stills from Dr. Zhivago?

Nope, just your average winter's day in da Cuse.

Woke up this morning to find these delightful sights... I'm not being sarcastic when I say 'delightful'. I LOVE snow. Specially new snow when it falls fluffily and softly on your head...

Yes, two days from now it will be slushy and ugly and yes, it makes even the shortest walk to the bus stop hazardous, mildly harrowing and disorienting (nothing like snow to make you lose you way on a 5 minute walk you do daily)

But just look at pure, so pretty....this is the snow falling with the music school in the background

...and this is snow falling over the Hall of Languages - the building that supposedly inspired the house in the original Adams Family show. Old Syracuse lore.

Give me this over a sunny, sandy beach any day (blech). Now I'll stop extolling the virtues of snow because few things irritate people who have waded through snow, slid all over the road as they tried to drive or shoveled their sidewalk for hours more than hearing how beautiful it is- I know, I learned that the hard way.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

D-List November

It has been quite a month. There was too much going for much extra sources of stimuli and none of it really can be reflected in the monthly list tradition. But tradition is tradition and so it must be upheld. Since there were many tumultuous happenings, I'm dispensing with some of my usual categories (blog, book, article, podcast etc.) Either nothing stood out or I didn't have the time. They will be back next month when I do my best of the year D-list.

So without further ado:

Best New Discoveries: 1. The hidden depths of myself 2. the Body Shop's Hemp hand cream. Fellow sufferers of dry skin: I think we have a winner.

Best TV moment: Watching Barack Obama making his acceptance speech and the amazing pictures of the Obama's and the Biden's on election night. I might have shed a tear or two.
Close second: JM singing Sinatra on Dave Letterman. Sigh.
(Worst TV moment - watching the coverage of the Bombay blasts- for so many reasons)

Best Movie: I've realized I hardly watch any movies so this category is a bit redundant. But this month I have a clear winner. You guessed it: The Visitor. The other contender was Sex and the City (the movie) which wasn't half bad but was no competition to the Visitor. Put it on your netflix queue (it took me 5 tries to try to spell that word)

Best Songs: The Things I do- Teddy Thompson. A little melancholy, ok a lot melancholy but it works for me. And because JM provides the sound track to my life 'In repair'.

Best meal: A delicious home cooked Turkish meal cooked by my neighbor- there was a spinach-lentil dish, a peas pilaf and the piece de resistance a grilled eggplant dish with little bits of feta cheese that managed to be smoky and creamy all at once. You're supposed to eat it with meat but i could eat it all by itself. Oh...just thinking about it makes me hungry. (Hint-hint to my Turkish friends).

Best Moment: 4th November 2008. (I think the worst one is obvious)

Picture of the month:

I took this at the vigil for Mumbai held at school yesterday. When we observed silence, all we could hear was the wind and the flag poles creaking and rattling in the wind. It was sad but there was a solidarity there.

Challenges of the Month: 1. How to keep the sweet in bitter-sweet. 2. Paper cuts

Lessons of the month: 1. YES WE CAN. Yes I can. 2. In Britain they call stapling clipping.

Quote of the month: 'Then, the circle of your friends will defend the silver lining'

Next month: the best of 2008 d-list! Lots of exciting categories for me to mull over...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What good PR looks like

Watching This Week with George Stephanopolous and they had the Ambassador of Pakistan Hussain Haqqani. Haqqani is a very intelligent scholar and diplomat and an excellent choice for Ambassador in my opinion. I heard him speak once at the Council of World Affairs in San Francisco a few years ago and came away extremely impressed.

He showed how such situations should be handled: hit all the Pakistan talking points (Pakistan is a democracy, also a victim of terrorism, we feel India's pain, acknowledges the Pakistani roots of the problem but blames it on non-state actors).

At the same time he acknowledged that there is a problem with Pakistan and Afghanistan being the locus of 'Jihad central'. He also did not make any pejorative claims or arguments against India.

He also made the very important point that these attacks should not be viewed in the usual India-Pakistan prism.

Throughout he was calm, progressive in thinking and articulate.

Good PR and diplomacy 101.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Immediate Thoughts on Bombay

It is still too early to say anything meaningful about Bombay, while the bodies are still being counted, but here a few thoughts:

Someone held up this placard on NDTV today:

Mr. Terrorist I am alive. What can you do?
Mr. Politician I am alive despite of you
I am a Mumbaikar

Yes, there is a real, palpable anger in Bombay right now. And it is directed not just at the terrorists responsible for what happened but against politicians of all hues and the political system in general. The reaction of Bombayites and Indians all over the world is one of anger- but mostly directed against the political class. Farookh Sheikh (one of my favorite actors of the 70's and 80's and now a respected public commentator) pointed out the stark contrast between the sense of duty displayed by people like Taj GM Kang who continued to direct operations at Taj even though his wife and children had been killed by the terrorists on the one hand and the absolutely self-serving attitude of politicians on the scene.

There is much to be angry about. From politicians like Modi who tried to garner political points even as the operations were continuing, to the growing accusation that the NSG, who were thoroughly professional in their operations, were unsupported and tied up in protecting security for politicians - the disgust with the political system is apparent.

Why? Lets just take 2 examples:
This from the Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R R Patel who spoke of the attacks (translated from Hindi) in the following way: "such small incidents keep happening everywhere. It could have been much worse so there was no intelligence failure"

What do you even say to that?

Narendra Modi (about whom the less one can say the better) standing in front of the Trident as operations were still continuing, taking up valuable resources that were no doubt employed to ensure his security and announcing 1 crore rupees to the family of the slain ATS chief Hemant Karkare. This when Modi and his goons placed enormous political pressure and threatened Karkare for his investigation of possible Hindu militants involvement in the Malegoan attacks. And he had the gall to offer a crore to the Karkare family? How crass can you get? The widow of Karkare revealed her strong but dignified revulsion by refusing the money outright.

And the Thackrey's? They and the MNS who deserve whatever is coming to them - they actually blamed the attacks on 'overcrowding of the city' no doubt referring to N. Indian migrants. This when the core of the NSG, army and people who gave up their lives in Bombay were from all over India. Scum is too kind a word.

Scum is too kind a word.

Yes, there is anger. And I feel it only too strongly, sitting thousands of miles away.

Vir Sanghvi has an op-ed in todays Hindustan Times in which he notes that there are only three countries with repeated terrorist attacks today- Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. I could add iraq too but he has a point. For all their faults, the Bush administration has ensured that no major terrorist act has occurred in the US. Bali, London and Madrid were also all turning points for their countries which have not occurred again. In contrast India has suffered more attacks in the last month than Iraq, according to a startling statistic.

And yet nothing concrete changes. Something's got to give. It just did and it is time for big changes.

If that sounds vague, let me offer 6 concrete, doable things that can change:

1. Their must be a review and reform of the security of important public places. That terrorists walked into the VT station, the Taj and other such obvious symbols and centers of Mumbai is mind-boggling. Bags should be checked, metal detectors need to be places at the entrances of such areas, security personnel need to be present. At all entrances. Not just the front. This is a given - it feels stupid to even write this.

At the very minimum, politicians, celebrities etc. they should not be allowed access to such areas and in crisis situations like this unless absolutely necessary. They should definitely not be allowed to conduct mini-press conferences, touting their own party platforms when a situation like this in progress. Also free up resources be reviewing the 'z' level security provided to VIPs.

2. On a larger scale, this was obviously a colossal intelligence failure. How did 10-15 people create all this chaos? This has to have been planned for months at the very least. They came by boats, they brought bags of ammunition, they had booked hotel rooms at the Taj where they set up control rooms and stored ammunition, they knew the hotels inside out...
The most galling thing is that RAW had apparently received intercepts that talked about a possible attack on Bombay around Nov. 18 where the route would be via sea. We hear this and you wonder- and? What are we supposed to do with that?
Regardless, this is a huge wake up call for Indian intelligence-obviously there needs to be a massive investigation into the missed signals and intercepts, there needs to be greater coordination between the different agencies, more material support and infrastructure for core groups like the NSG ( a dedicated plane seems to be a minimal starting point, so is better equipment) and much more support for basic policing and law and order.
Unburden the NSG from being tied up in protecting VIP's- there must be cuts that can be made.

3. Fire/ get rid of incompetent leaders and officers. Start with Shivraj Patil who is an unmitigated disaster.
ETA 11/30/08 He quit. And P Chidamabaram is the new home minister. Good

4. We must identify and be clear about what we mean by 'elements in Pakistan'. Does this mean the government? the ISI? non-state groups? Surely not the common people? By repeating age-old rhetoric about the 'foreign hand' we fail to acknowledge the paradigm shift of events such as the Mumbai acts, we hamper cooperation between the two countries on counter-terrorism which is imperative, we create more anger among diverse groups and we fail to focus on the groups and targets we need to combat. Words and concepts matter- they should be used widely.

5. Linked to this: Reassess political rhetoric. Be more circumspect and cautious when giving public and official statements. The entire Indian political class needs a lesson in PR - words are crucially important and this entire episode has seen irresponsible, self-aggrandizing and age-old tropes in the official reactions to the crisis.

Contrast this to the simple, effective and professional conduct of the people actually in the midst of the situation with the most to lose- the NSG commandos, policemen, fire fighters, hostages, tourists, Taj staff and ordinary civilians. They were quiet, matter of fact and humane. There is a lesson there.

6. The media needs to seriously introspect about their own ethics and professionalism. I've posted about this before so I won't belabor the point but if the Indian blogosphere is any indication, they will hear the disdain of many people and should think about it.

These 6 things are not small things but they are doable - they would go a considerable way in what is to follow.

I end this post feeling what so many Bombayites must feel right now- deeply sad, angry and disgusted at the way our politicians have responded to this crisis and immensely proud heartened and touched by the stories of bravery, kindness and (lets say it) heroism (trite as that may sound) from so many nameless people.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Day 3

And still this nightmare goes on...
There has been nothing like this- total urban warfare. I can't wrap my head around the idea that this is now 3 days in and Bombay is still bleeding.

And what can one do but keep a virtual vigil?

And hope and pray for everyone there, and for all.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Taj as I will remember it

The Taj of Mumbai
Originally uploaded by betta design

Taj Mahal Hotel
Originally uploaded by reidmix

I remember how stunning the Taj looked on a bright day in 2002 when I wandered around the Marine drive.
The sheer scale combined with the intricacy of carving on the facade is just beautiful. The Heritage Wing, which was just gorgeous has been destroyed in the last few days. Pictures can be found here
Pictures courtesy Flickr

Watching Bombay Unfold

It's way too early but from what I see there are a few outright stories of bravery already emerging from the mayhem in Mumbai/Bombay:

First, the Taj Hotel Staff has come in for unified praise by guests who were trapped inside the hotel and made it outside. By all accounts, they appear to have been calm, clear in instructions and with a clear plan for what the guests should do. I can't imagine how people can stay professional and calm in such terrifying circumstances. Amazing.

Second, the NSG, Army, police and firemen who despite crumbling infrastructure and rampant chaos have persevered for more than 34 hours now, despite losing some very important figureheads.

Third, stories of heroism from Bombayites and from foreign visitors who focused on the task at hand and displayed an unnatural calm. This is the least surprising given what one knows about Mumbai/Bombay but remarkable nonetheless.

I will not single anyone out for criticism but I'll just say how appalled I am by the Indian news media's coverage of this whole situation- initially they were hysterical and breathless which is perhaps understandable but as time has gone by two things have really disgusted me 1. the insensitivity towards waiting relatives and 2. the absolute lack of restraint and respect for the requests of security personnel not to reveal details of the operations that are going on. They keep parroting how they've been asked not to reveal anything but then happily reveal all sorts of information that even to my untrained eye are patently sensitive.

There is a lot of growing up that clearly needs to occur but perhaps this is the turning point for how the media handles situations such as these. This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a Professor of PR at the Newhouse school about the lessons the US media leaned from the terrible mistakes made during covering the Lockerbie bombings. There must be a lot of introspection later about the language, tactics and thrust of the way the media has covered this event.

Can someone please shut Barkha Dutt up? She might as well be directing the terrorists with a GPS system and don't even get me started on her interrogation (there is no other word) of relatives and victims.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


What can one possibly say? This is just sad beyond belief. 
Be strong Bombay...

Fox news has a live stream from NDTV

Monday, November 24, 2008

Parrots and Prawns...

Today is quite the day for animals, first Yang Yang the assertive Panda and now Alex the African gray parrot.

I just finished reading this NYT review of a book about Alex the Parrot. I've really been drawn to the story of Alex who seemed to have been an intelligent, loving bird with a really colorful personality.

By the way, this is what gives me pause about being non-vegetarian (although I rarely eat meat). I would totally become vegetarian except for two things- my mom's cooking and shrimp (and don't even get me started on my mom's shrimp)...

As P.G. Wodehouse knew, there is just something about prawns that is a persons undoing. Wodehouse fans should immediately get this reference. For others, go read Wodehouse for the 'story of the prawns'! But before that read the magical, heartwarming story of Alex the parrot.

Kung Fu Panda?

WTF story of the day: Some genius in China got bitten by Yang Yang, a not-so-cuddly Panda recently because he thought that the Panda was cute and thus would be amenable to a hug. So he promptly decided to jump into the Panda enclosure at the zoo. The panda, of course, did not appreciate this interest and responded to the friendly overtures by biting the poor idiot, who made it out safely...

What I love about this story is the following line:

"Yang Yang, who was flown to Guilin last year from Sichuan province, was behaving normally on Saturday and did not seem to suffer any negative psychological effects.."

Of course Yang Yang is fine. S/he has the satisfaction of having much the higher IQ here.

This story reminded me of the San Francisco Zoo incident last year (curiously also around this time) when three drunken louts enraged a female tiger so much that she miraculously jumped 30 feet and mauled them. Most public opinion was firmly on the side of the tiger on that occasion too...

Moral of the story: Let sleeping Tigers/Pandas/what have you lie...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The importance of enemies: Al Qaeda's statement on Obama

Its been a while since I posted something (you know how it is, life intervened) so it's fitting that I should write about something close to my mind, if not my heart- yes, my area of academic interest: the discourse of political-violence.
ETA: Not writing for a while really shows. Sorry for the clunky text that follows (though it is International Relations so how exciting could it have been anyway?)

Al Qaeda released its first statement after the election of Barack Obama and it is not pretty. Most of the media reports have been focusing on the use of racial epiteths against Obama in the statement. I think the real story is in the way AQ has wasted little time in signaling that it is business as usual for them. Those, such as Andrew Sullivan for instance, who thought that the Obama era would make it more difficult for radical groups to rail against the USA, the statement puts an end to that sort of thinking. It shows that all that will happen is that al Qaeda and other groups will adapt their rhetoric in the service of the same position against America and try to undermine the positive feeling in the US and elsewhere.

The trope that the media has focused on is that Obama is simply a stooge of 'whites' and of the establishment. This is mildly interesting to me. I don't think being politically correct is particularly important to groups like these. What is more interesting (and alarming) to me is that the statement actively states that Obama's polices are a continuation of previous policies and that there will be no let up in the 'Islamic' movement against the US. Basically, there's no trial waiting period here folks...the statement seems designed to address voices that said that having a US President with the middle name of Hussein would seriously stymie fundamentalists. Bosh.

This should not surprise those of us who take theories of identity about the fundamental self/other relationship seriously. Simply put, actors (states, groups, people) become attached and entrenched in adversarial relationships because it is a source of fundamental stability and sense of purpose to juxtapose oneself against an 'other'. In the realm of the political, the key distinction is the 'friend/enemy' distinction as Carl Schmitt told us writing in 1927. Having a stable enemy, despite the many costs it ay bring, gives actors a better and more coherent sense of self in the political arena and this is why there was never any way that there would be any active reconsidering of the US by Al Qaeda and vice's just interesting to see it all play out so starkly. It doesn't fundamentally matter who the President is, the rhetoric would have adapted but stayed the same. So if we had had Hilary Clinton, the tropes would have been undeniably sexist and violent, if it had been McCain, the trope would have been more triumphalist and Bush-centric....but the essential stance will not change.
For those who place a premium on theories of leadership, this kind of episode once again highlights my fundamental unease with theories that place too much explanatory power on leaders. It's just a lot more complex than that.

OK IR musings done... apologies to Carl Schmitt for massacring his theory, though he was a Nazi figurehead which makes me considerably less sorry.

In the end, the only comfort this statement brings me is that it makes those people that pushed the 'pals around with terrorists' argument look pretty darn stupid...once again. But oh wait, they probably don't read the papers. Or maybe they read them all but can't name a single one.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Movie Review: 'The Visitor'

I just watched the best film I've seen all year. 'The Visitor' is an uncommonly intelligent movie about complex issues (immigration, belonging, loss, multiculturalism) facing interesting, realistic characters.

In a nutshell, the movie is about a disillusioned, slightly sad Connecticut College Professor who goes to New York for a conference on 'Economies in the Developing World'. He is intending to stay in his small, unused New York City apartment (one of the more unbelievable elements in the story- wouldn't he have rented it out?). He's shocked to find a couple (illegal aliens from Senegal and Syria) squatting in the apartment. Some strange combination of curiosity, kindness, rebellion perhaps, makes him agree to let the couple stay on for a few days till they find a new place. A fledgling friendship starts between the three of them...One day Tarek (the Syrian guy) is arrested in the subway and is placed in a detention facility once his illegal status is revealed.

What follows next is believable, human and moving. At no point is the story cliched, though it easily could have been. The professor, Walter (Richard Jenkins, I give you my own personal oscar now) is curious, eager to step into multi-cultural absolution but is too intelligent and nuanced to become a politically correct caricature. Tarek is friendly, warm and unguarded but Zaneb is quieter- more hardened by her circumstances, more withdrawn. Tarek's mother, who enters later in the film and is played beautifully by Hiam Abass is intelligent, cautious but compassionate. Their interactions with each other and each other's worlds ring true and are full of small illuminations, little moments where I found myself smiling in recognition of a situation, coming from my own strangely apt experience as a foreigner in the US academic space.

Other moments are heart breaking, only because they are so plausible. The everyday indignities inflicted on Tarek and Zaneb, and the way they cope with them, sometimes with laughter, other times with anger, were difficult to watch. Walter's discomfort and helplessness mirrors the viewers own.

It is clear where its agenda and loyalties lie- this is a film with a liberal agenda on immigration, no apologies made about it. But in contrast to other such movies, it does so in a very small scale, true to life way. And I think it succeeds greatly over something like 'Lions for Lambs' which was too self conscious of its own agenda and which I wanted to love but just couldn't. The ending is perhaps a little contrived but even though it pulls at our heart strings, I don't think it is implausible that very likeable, vibrant people all over the world have very unjust things happen to them under the hand of the 'law'. Not implausible at all.

Another notable thing- this movie gets Professors, and academic life in general, right. Movie portrayals of professors and university life are often terrible cliches. Professor's in Hollywood are either impossibly handsome and inspiring (Robert Redford in 'Lions for Lambs'), cool, contrarian and 'with it' (Robin Williams in any role) a uniform of tweed blazers and khakis surrounded by students who spout off smart one liners apathetically....OR they are stuffy, pompous and boring (and thus obviously plump, with glasses and a bald head) or sleazy and lecherous (think Legally Blonde). And of course, they all have beautiful offices with carefully placed piles of books and fabulous views of green lawns full of laughing students throwing frisbees. The students they interact with are always supposedly bright hipsters who are too lazy to care about the world until the end of the film, when its too late. Yawn.

The 'Visitor' is different. There are so many 'that's so true' moments- the insular world of professors working on similar jargony papers, the things people say that academics secretly both revel in and cringe at ( 'you have four books you must be really intelligent'), the big-buffet like atmosphere of academic conferences with the mass exodus of people from convention hotels wearing their nametags like a veritable badge, the unwillingness to talk about work when its going badly, the excuses we make to ourselves when we know we're not doing anything, the excuses made by students...all those vignettes were refesrhingly honest and bang on.

5 stars, two thumbs up...whatever rating you prefer, consider it made.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


11:03 The networks are calling Obama the winner.



ETA: Gwen Ifill just said "We know now that Barack Obama will be the next President" and I got goosebumps...

P.S. I was wrong on all my predictions except the last one, the most important one. I've never been happier to be wrong... so much for pessimism....a new day has come.

Monday, November 3, 2008

On the eve of election '08

I'm going to stick my neck out and make a few predictions:

1. It's going to be closer than people have been saying.

2. The polls will have exaggerated things.

3. There will be massive logistical problems

(wow, cheerful stuff eh?)


4. Obama will win

The last one is wishful thinking, not much more. I'm not at all one to be complacent about these polls etc- I don't trust them at all and they have been wrong so far. I think complacency opposed by zeal is the thing to be scared tomorrow.

So till we know for sure...I guess there's nothing to do but to hope for the best and vote for the best.

Is it wrong that I am more nervous about this election than any other one before this? This is just so important and historic and will impact all of us. I have to laugh at the thought that I'm turning into one of those fledgling NRI's who Jhumpa Lahiri writes about- in the Namesake she has this great line about how Indians in the US debate US politics with such passion and heat, even though they will never vote (I'm not doing it justice at all, but even as I read it in India, I knew exactly what she was talking about and now I am totally living that cliche... but it has just been such a ride. And I do political science, so this is my life...

This brings me to a huge, compelling question: what in the world am I going to do once this election is over? So much of the last few months, certainly weeks has been wrapped up in talking about, reading, thinking about and yes, writing about election '08. Now I'm going to have to find something to do.....hmm, perhaps my work?

It's going to be a big day tomorrow- we're having an election party in the department. What better way to watch the elections than with a bunch of liberal political scientists? I remember how crushing the same party was in 2004, hopefully tomorrow the US will elect Barack Obama...and this chapter will end differently and happily, for now at least.

Fingers crossed.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

D- List: October 2008

In keeping with the monthly list tradition, here are my picks of the month:

Best New Discovery: Three discoveries here- 1. The music of Erik Satie (1866- 1925), a French composer. Discovered it on NPR's 'All songs considered' podcast. It was haunting, spare, sad and beautiful. 2. World cat- thanks to 'Iowa-Syr-D.C.girl' 3. I like blogging

Best TV/Movie moment (behold, new category): I'm not going to go the obvious SNL route...I found the Letterman/McCain feud pretty funny. But really, there were no stand outs. What this should be about is how I have successfully cut down on TV watching. I can feel my brain cells growing back slowly but youtube keeps killing them...

Podcast of the month: Slate's cultural gabfest. Experts sit around and come up with surprisingly insightful takes on everything from Sarah Palin to Microsoft ads to whether the economic depression will make for better movies....good stuff.

Blog of the Month: Lulu loves Bombay. 'Lulu' also had previous blogs about Manhattan and London- these are great food blogs with recipes, reviews and nice pictures too. Lulu seems cool too, very cosmopolitan and an inventive cook.

Best Book: I went back to Salman Rushdie's 'Shame' this month, after reading a thought provoking essay on him by Amitava Kumar. I wanted to see again, does Rushdie over write? Are his characters thin metaphors? Is he ultimately just a talented expat writer who exoticizes South Asia? Upon reading Shame, I think not. It's still as powerful to me as it was the first time I read it. That doesn't mean his last few books weren't disappointing but Rushdie at his best is formidable.
Next week I will finally read 'White Tiger' so I'll blog about that hopefully.

Best Song: Rather than a song, I'm liking Ray LaMontagne's album Gossip in the Grain. Great lyrics, interesting textured voice...(I bet you're just happy I didn't make a JM reference. Oh... too late!)

Best Article: This was a great month for articles, so I'll present two: First, Andrew Sullivan's essay on why he blogs. Apart from being of interest to anyone who writes or reads blogs, it's a nice look at the emotions and dynamics of this relatively new (but perhaps no more) but rapidly flourishing medium.
The second one was a New Yorker piece on Leonard Trilling, the Columbia University professor of English who was a famous literary critic. That's the beauty of the New Yorker, to take something that screams snoozefest and then write about it so you're sad when it ends.

Best Academic Article: "The naming and shaming" article in IO. Scarily close to my dissertation - being 'scooped' is the grad student's ultimate fear but useful over all.

Best meal: 2nd story's Ham, brie, fig jam and onion sandwich...I love it so much I even took a picture of it.

It's the kind of sandwich that makes you understand Joey's love for sandwiches on Friends. It probably means I'll never eat anything else at 2nd story (it's a book store on the second storey, get it?) though the entire menu looks good. It looks fairly easy to make too and even if you're vegetarian- the idea of melted brie and fig jam (or any kind of textured jam that's not too sweet) works very well. Oh god... now I want one.

Best Moment: Realizing that I get an extra hour...starting right now. So this is an hour of my life that I will get back...

Picture of the month: My African Violets are blooming again, for the third year in a row...My name is not Dr. Green Thumb (bonus points to anyone who catches the reference) so this is quite an achievement. Thanks to 'tulip' for the gift, which was a house warming present.

Challenge of the Month: Articulating

Lesson of the month: Good things (papers, ideas, minds, friendships, bonds, art) get better with time... if they don't, they're not good things.

Overheard in the 'Cuse

Halloween Night 2008

" I say that to all the girls, even if they're ugly, makes them feel good..."- Indian guy talking to his friend after shouting "what's up cutie" to a sluttily dressed girl across the street.

See, chivalry is not dead...

"From the back I thought he was Jesus" - my friend spying a guy dressed as the 'Dude' from Big Lebowski

' Look!! Look!! Slutty Cop/Nurse/School girl/Devil/fairy/cat/bunny/referee/maid....!!" - Me every 5 minutes...

Such are the small pleasures in life....

ETA: The title of this post comes from the insanely funny 'Overheard in New York" website.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Proposition hate

Proposition 8 on the California ballot aims at reversing gay marriage. I think this would be a real shame and should be defeated but it is going to be close, even in California. Regardless of our sexual and gender orientations, I think we should be concerned about proposition 8 going through for its adverse implications on justice and equality in our society.

This got me thinking: I can understand conservative arguments on many things- on fiscal matters, on abortion, on the death penalty and even gun rights. Apart from the death penalty (and even here I have my doubts), I don't really agree with any of those arguments or find them convincing but I can appreciate that there are arguments there, some more solid than others.

But I cannot truly think of a single intelligent argument against gay marriage. I'm not being sarcastic but I just can't think of one- the closest one is that it would involve opening up economic breaks etc. to gay married people too. Is that the reason why people oppose gay marriage? Are there other reasons? Whose rights does it harm? What is a good, rational argument against it? Is there one?

I'm genuinely curious....

So until I hear a good reason (and I'm not holding my breath) I'm thinking of this as proposition hate.

ETA: As we celebrate Obama's victory, the prop 8 race seems to be too close to call BUT it does not look good. What is particularly disheartening is the way the vote has broken down racially, by age and by religious background. What is wrong with people? How can you vote for equality in one direction, and deny others the same. A sad sad note (and a big one) on a wonderful night.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reason No. 436030

For your reading pleasure, John Mayer's post on Huffington Post on Obama and why hope is not a buzz word....

I won't post the whole thing here but I here is a snippet I particularly like:
That's why hope is a worthwhile commodity. To those who question whether hope is a tangible product worth building a campaign around, I'd say take a look at despair and how powerful that has been in reshaping how people think and live.

Talented, funny, smart, a good writer, and yes hot.. and supporting Obama. ....what, pray, is not to like?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Seeing Green

Last post today, I promise:

Though I came to blogging rather late, I like it so far. There's nothing like the instant gratification of seeing 'Published Successfully !' exclamation point and all, when most of your life is spent thinking about, avoiding, trying to work on, working on, contemplating, dreading, writing, planning etc. an unending project that may or may not ever be published. You can see the appeal.

But I'd be the first to admit that blogging, fun as it is, is pretty passe. For every truly good blog, there are a 100 others (mine included)that are basically glorified diaries or photo albums.

That's fine with me in general but this gave me pause...a Japanese potted plant now has a blog. Yes, I said plant.

The saddest part is that there will probably be more people that are going to seriously read this plant's blog compared to my dissertation, let alone my blog...

ETA: Great, and now the friggin' plant is on SNL's 'weekend update'. What's next? A 'Bloggie'?

Who would the world vote for?

Daniel Drezner has a post on data from several polls that talks about who the world would prefer to see as the next US President. Now the instinctive answer would be 'Barack Obama of course' and the polls seem to reflect that to some extent.

This reminds me of a conversation that I had with two Indian friends the other day. We were saying the usual foreign student things about the elections:
'man, if only we could vote', 'foreigners should be totally allowed to vote for the U.S. President' and 'Americans better get it right this time...' etc. until we started to think of what it would look like if the US President was popularly voted on by the whole world...

Now keep in mind that this was a rushed, 5 minute chat and we weren't thinking very seriously but this is what we thought:

China- would mostly vote McCain because of their economic interests and fundamentally realist world view.

India- a significant amount of people we thought would vote McCain because of the mis-guided perception that democrats = cuts on outsourcing etc. Also if the Desi lobby is anything to go by, Republicans are quite popular with rich Indian entrepreneurs (except for the ones that love Bill Clinton, but really, how could you not?)

Parts of central Asia = Also McCain because of the tougher stance on Russia? Interesting that the most support to McCain comes from Georgia.

At this point we hastily decided that it would not be a good idea after all if everyone in the world got to choose the US President and gave our blessings to the US elections in their current form...


Not a very good book?

Since I'm in a picture-y mood: Meet Rama, my best friend's cat (wow it's hard to say those last 3 words together fast- try it)

I liked the book (American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld) but Rama thought otherwise..

Funny, that's exactly how I look when I'm 'working'...

Friday, October 24, 2008

After the fall...

Fall is a riot of colors in upstate New York. These pictures don't really do it justice but nevertheless here they are....

This is a magnificent tree on the street I used to live on...

Sometimes when the sun comes through the leaves, it looks as if they are glowing like fire...

I never knew trees could be pink till I moved here

Even the ivy turns pink and red...

These pictures are from the country side...

And then just like is winter.