Monday, October 30, 2006

A Shanghai Tip 

Every time I visit a city, I wonder what the most spectacular place to have a drink might be. In Shanghai, the best place to have a drink has to be "Cloud 9", the bar on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao tower, the third tallest building in the world and the tallest in the PRC. I suppose you could also add that the Grand Hyatt which owns the bar is also the tallest hotel in the world. Depending on which side of the bar you're sitting on, you get spectacular views of the river and the bladerunner-ish skyline of Shanghai and Pudong (more on that later). The last time I saw views like this from a bar was when I used to frequent "Windows on the World" on the top floor of the World Trade Center in NYC.

BTW, don't let the Grand Hyatt brand name throw you off. This is a very affordable bar, especially when compared to similar spots around the world. Four cocktails cost about $46 all inclusive, which is really not bad at all given the location and the five-star hotel ambience. I will certainly recommend at least one night at this bar to anyone who is planning a visit to Shanghai. You will not regret it.

I was planning to write a longer series of posts, but the blue curacao, vermouth and vodka combination is beginning to work its wonders in my head, so adieu for now and xiexie for listening.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Shanghai Surprise 

Greetings from Shanghai, folks. I got here this afternoon and I am on a well-deserved two week vacation, of which China will take up the most time. This is a trip that I've been excited by more than most, because I've always, always, wanted to visit China. I know China is not Shanghai or Beijing, but one has to start someplace, right? First things first though. All this talk of comparisons between any Indian city (specifically Bombay) and Shanghai is absolute rubbish and noone who has seen both cities will even bother making any comparison. Shanghai is lightyears ahead of Bombay in terms of liveability, infrastructure, style etc. It will take Bombay about 20 years to get to where Shanghai is today, and even that will take about $50 billion in additional investment in the next 10 years. The real benchmarks for Shanghai are New York and Hong Kong, not any city in India. Not even remotely.

The two things that most impressed me today since I arrived were the Maglev train from Pudong to Longyang, and the seemingly amazing freedom enjoyed by women in the city. The Maglev train is clearly one of the fastest trains in the world and it feels unbelievably fast too, though at some sharp turns, one does feel a little nervous given that these turns are being done at 300 kmph+. The top speed I observed today was 431 kmph, which the train maintains for about 2 mins, and the distance was covered in about 8-9 mins. Here are a couple of before/after pics to illustrate my point.

A quick word about the freedom enjoyed by women as well. I just returned from a stroll down from my hotel to the Bund and it's about 2:30 am now. All along the street I walked on, there were women strolling about, with and without men accompanying them. There were single women waiting at bus stops (the buses seem to run regularly at night) and there was absolutely no issues. Now, I don't know if this is peculiar to the area I was in, but nonetheless something that really impressed me. The ability for women to walk about in peace and without fear of harassment, is to me, a hallmark of a great city.

Depending on the availability of access, I hope to keet this blog updated with my general impressions about Shanghai, Beijing etc. In the meanwhile, if any of you are in Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, Singapore in the next couple of weeks, and would like to grab a beer, please let me know via e-mail. I am looking forward to hanging out with my co-blogger and wikipedia maven, Andrew Lih, and my close friend from NYC, Valerie, whilst in Beijing. Anyone else?

PS: Lest any of you think I have become an unadulterated fan of China, that's not true at all. Shanghai might have all this insanely good infrastructure and architectural style that would leave most western cities in the dust, but that still does not mean I can access blogspot with any reliability, for obvious reasons, I presume. I cannot seem to access any blogspot blog including ZS, though it's no problem reading then using bloglines. And between basic freedom of speech and an insanely fast train, you know what I would choose :)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Lazy Listening 

Is there ever a justification for subtitling English dialogue in a movie using English text, for an English-speaking audience?

This is precisely what one old lady, Patricia (not her real name) repeatedly demanded of director Mira Nair at a post-screening Q&A session with her, last Friday. Nair was here to receive the Dartmouth Film Award for 2006 and the Dartmouth Film Society honoured her with a tribute that included an advance screening of her upcoming film "The Namesake." The movie is based on Jhumpa Lahiri's novel and you can find out more about it at the usual websites. For the present discussion, all you need to know is that the central characters are a Bengali couple, settled in the United States but maintaining strong ties with their family in Kolkata, and their two American-born children. The film is set in Kolkata and the US.

This setting and the story naturally call for three kinds of dialogue: (1) dialogue spoken in Bangla, (2) dialogue spoken in heavily Bangla-accented English and (3) dialogue spoken approximately in American Standard English. Given what I have told you so far, and putting yourself in Nair's shoes, which of these kinds of dialogue would you subtitle?

I hope there is no disagreement that dialogues of the first kind need subtitles and those of the third kind don't. Dialogues of the second kind are trickier, in that logic does not lead one to a clear decision. One must appeal to aesthetics. Nair made the aesthetic choice of not subtitling such dialogue. I cannot speak for the 1000-strong audience at the screening, but the 150-odd who showed up for the post-screening Q&A seemed to have had no difficulty following along with the Bangla accent. Except, that is, for the aforementioned Patricia. Stridently, and repeatedly, she asserted with complete conviction that those pieces of dialogue were "unintelligible" and that they ought to be subtitled. Putting aside the issue of her tactlessness and recalcitrance, do you agree with her that subtitles were warranted?

My own judgment is in line with Nair's, who responded that there is "something condescending" about subtitling English dialogue in English. I would add that the condescension is twofold: such subtitles imply that (1) the audience is incapable of figuring out an accent or will listen too lazily to do so and that (2) the speakers (and, by extension, the group of people they represent) are incapable of communicating comprehensibly in a language they have clearly internalised. Such condescension would have caused serious aesthetic damage to the film, IMHO. Bravo, Mira Nair!

I am interested in hearing your opinions and any anecdotes you have on this issue of understanding an unfamiliar accent. In lieu of the recently-closed blog comments feature, please send me email. If you are a regular reader, you know how.

PS: Nair managed to disentangle herself from Patricia's heckling most wittily: she suggested that Patricia watch the movie in nearby Canada, with French subtitles!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Comments and Trolls 

I had taken a blogging break because I was seriously overstretched in terms of time, and I have only returned to blogging in the last few weeks. So, I am amazed at the alacrity with which ZS trolls have returned, albeit in different disguises. What I don't understands about these trolls is why they bother reading this blog if the content offends them so much. I do not claim this blog is the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, it's just nuggets of my own personal opinions and biases and if you don't like it, go someplace else (at last count, there are 30 million blogs out there). What's worse is that the trolls seem to have no appreciation for sarcasm and imagine every light-hearted post is directed at them. There is no way for me to set up a spam filter of sorts either because they keep coming back in other disguises from other IP addresses.

Many of you have told me in the past to just take a deep breath and let the morons be, but that's easier said than done, isn't it? As I said, I am severely bandwidth-constrained these days, and despite that, I make the time to blog a bit and the last thing I want to have to deal with is trolls. The other option is to ignore comments altogether, but the comments and the discussion were really part of the fun of doing this blog, so that doesn't make any sense either. So, I am left with no recourse but to do what several bloggers have done in the past, namely to turn off comments and buy myself peace of mind. For that, I apologize, because I have enjoyed 90% of the comments on this blog and I hate that a moron or two screws things up for everyone else. Unfortunately, I am not endowed with the zen personalities that many of you readers are blessed with and I am not about to waste my energy again on morons. As always, if you really want to reach me, regular readers know how to.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Corus Deal and FDI flows 

I haven't really commented on the TATA-Corus deal, partly because the news media was saturated with coverage of the deal. Suffice to say that from a strategic standpoint, it makes perfect sense given Tata's ability to produce low-cost steel. I'd say both sides got a good deal with Corus shareholders getting a fair premium, while Tata lands itself a company in good shape and with a global marketshare, at a reasonable price. That said, there might yet be a bidding war since there are supposed to be other steel companies planning to make counter bids and the belief among some Corus shareholders that Tata bought the company on the cheap. Tata must have factored this in, though they claim not to want to enter a bidding war. More importantly, Tata Steel was fundamentally a debt-free company that has now taken on a huge amount of debt, which may or may not make sense in the long-term. We'll just have to wait and watch.

I think hidden in all the media hype is an interesting story vis-a-vis FDI flows. For long, Indians have obsessed about the amount of inbound FDI, especially when compared to China. Interestingly enough, if this deal and the Videocon takeover of Daewoo Electronics does go through, India's FDI outflows will, for the first time, exceed FDI inflows. Effectively, the projections for 2006 are that India will receive $9 billion in inflows while outflows stand at $19 billion, spread across 100+ deals, turning India into a net exporter of capital (to be precise though, a lot of the external acquisitions are not funded by domestic capital, but from foreign sources). At the very least, the investment bankers among you, especially those working on outbound M&A deals, can expect a big, fat bonus this year :)

PS: To put things in perspective, the U.S.'s outbound flows were at $250 billion in 2004.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Hypocrisy and God Lounges 

I was in Bangalore last weekend and staying in Cox Town. Quite close to the place I was staying at, they were celebrating the Car Festival. Needless to say, the car festival is celebrated with a breathtaking combination of one's drug of choice (bhang, i am sure), incredibly loud, monotonous and tuneless drumming, and believe it or not, house music. The bedlam started at about 5 pm and just went on and on, without stopping at any point during the night all the way through to 2 PM next afternoon. In the meanwhile, the buggers had overdrawn power and by 6 am, there was a complete blackout in Cox Town, which makes the entire experience even more surreal. You're short on sleep and the lack of electricity makes it worse.

Now, imagine if we had a rock concert that did the same thing. By about 11 pm, someone would have complained, the cops would have arrived and everything would have to be shut down. For that matter, why is it that consumption of hashish is okay when it's a religious festival and 10 years of prison (technically) otherwise?

None of this should come as news to anyone who has lived in India, but it does seem like anything goes in this country as long as it is justified by religion, be it Hinduism, Christianity, Islam or whatever else. There are obviously constitutional provisions that exist to prevent nonsense of the sort that I experienced in Bangalore, but the enforcement is non-existent when it comes to religion. On the other hand, moral policing and enforcement (letter of the law, not spirit of the law) is very quick when it comes to concerts, lounges and discotheques (all bars have to shut by 11:30). It's this hypocrisy that bothers me. They claim the externalities are high to keeping bars open beyond 11:30, but how come the externalities associated with religion are not submitted to the same rigorous taxation on externalities?

So, the obvious solution seems to be to start lounges and bars with a religious theme. Maybe we can also hold a few religious moonlight raves? That way, some of us can enjoy our tipple in peace. God Lounges anyone?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Academic Bullshit!! 

To the fans of cultural studies/media studies/deconstructionism/post-colonialism and all other isms of the sort, I apologize in advance and you should quit reading this post right away to avoid a bust vein or two.

I have never managed to understand the bullshit that parades under the guise of academic discourse in some of the above-mentioned subjects. The raison d'etre of the mavens seems to be to make up with incomprehensibility what they lack in terms of having anything useful to say. And then there are the disciples who pretend to understand this bullshit. I dare any of you cultural studies mavens to translate this bullshit that came to me via e-mail the other day.

The shrinking dimensions of the shallow screen figure the commodity form not as yearning and desire but as anxiety, a troubled relation with the disavowed past of immersion in zero's aimless satisfaction. Beneath the foreshortened image of space lies the suddenly compressed archaism of the unconscious: beneath these pictures of the nonexistent, the commodity evokes the conflicting temporalities of the nonidentical only to deny them.
In the immortal words of Fatboy Slim, what the fuck? What does this BS mean anyways? I can understand that the person who wrote this was communing with the stars aided by poison of choice when he/she wrote this, but what about the people who discuss this in classrooms in all seriousness and pretend to understand? I think what is required is the humanities version of the web-economy bullshit generator to parse crap like this. Those of you with programming skills and time to kill should seriously consider this suggestion to counter this variety of evil.

The Week to Remember for Columbia 

As always, I was wrong about my prediction about the Economics Nobel, but I was mighty pleased that it was won by yet another Columbia Univ economist, Edmund Phelps. Phelps is a damn good professor and someone whose lectures I have enjoyed attending in the past. Then came news that the Literature Nobel was won by yet another Columbia prof, Orhan Pamuk, whose work I am not really familiar with. In between these awards came Kiran Desai's win of the Booker Prize, and needless to say, Kiran is a Columbia alum as well. 2 Nobels and 1 Booker in the space of one week is a tremendous run and quite possibly one of the best weeks Columbia has had in recent times. Though I have moved on from Columbia, I remain extremely fond of the university and the wonderful 6 years I spent there, so this is special. In addition, I have met Kiran and I have to say the Booker could not have gone to a nicer person, or a better book, for that matter.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

NASDAQ and Diwali 

(Via Sree)

NASDAQ has added Diwali to the list of events it celebrates on the screen at Times Sq. As Sree points out, it would have been so much classier if it was a lamp in the pic instead of the giant flag. Well, I suppose it's a start.

The United States hits 300 Million 

According to the population clock at the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the United States will cross 300 million sometime in the next one hour. That will make the U.S. the third country in the world after India and China to reach that number, which also explains why the U.S. will remain a commpetitive economy long after the European and Japanese stars start to fade.

As Indians, I suppose we should extend the U.S. a warm welcome to the club?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Travel is overrated 

I think every one of us have at some point of time or the other glamourized frequent flying. Chances are that we weren't doing much travel either when we were entertaining such romantic notions of travel. Here's what my schedule for the week looks like:

Monday -- Bombay
Tuesday -- Jaipur
Wednesday -- Delhi
Thursday -- Hyderabad
Friday -- Bangalore

Now, this is the sort of schedule that literally drives you mad. This morning while taking a shower, I began to feel cabin pressure build up in my ears. Now, that's serious hallucinating for you. Nonetheless, I am off to Bangalore tomorrow. What am I thinking? I don't know really know. All I can say, kids, is that if you think travel is great, think again. It's probably fun if you're vacationing, but it certainly is not if you're traveling on work. Remember that when you lust after the next consulting gig. And I thought I would get an easy ride by being in academia for a while. Need to slow down. Need to slow down.

On the upside, there are those frequent flyer miles.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Economics Nobel 

Every year, when it is time for the Nobel Prizes to be announced, this blog bravely marches forth and predicts that this is the year for Jagdish Bhagwati. It's been a false alarm 3 years on the trot, but that should not stop us from going ahead and predicting who will win the Nobel in Economics (or the Bank of Sweden prize for the nitpickers) later this evening. Our guess? Why, Jagdish Bhagwati, of course (perhaps in combination with Avinash Dixit and Paul Krugman)!! Second favourites could potentially be Oliver Hart, Paul Milgrom and maybe Robert Barro. And if none of them win, be sure to tune into Zoo Station next year at the same time for our next round of fearless predictions.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Gem from the Memory Hole 

Every now and then, one comes across something amazing on the Internet that is truly astonishing from a historical perspective (to me, anyways). Here, for instance, courtesy of Thomas, is the prototype presentationfor a large-scale hypertextual web search engine. I love the little rough sketches that explain the importance of citation search. The author is a certain Larry Page.