Changing game

Yesterday we reconnected Netflix after having gone off the platform for a month – we had thought we were wasting too much time on the platform, and so pulled the plug, until the paucity of quality non-sport content on our other streaming platforms forced us to return.

The first thing I did upon reconnecting Netflix was watching Gamechangers, a documentary about the benefits of vegan food, which had been recommended to me by a couple of business associates a few weeks back.

The documentary basically picks a bunch of research that talks about the benefits of plant-based food and staying away from animal-based food. The key idea is that animals are “just middlemen of protein”, and by eating plants we might be going straight to source.

And it is filled with examples of elite athletes and strong-persons who have turned vegan, and how going vegan is helping them build more stamina and have better health indicators, including the length and hardness of erections.

The documentary did end up making me feel uncomfortable – I grew up vegetarian, but for the last 7-8 years I’ve been eating pretty much everything. And I’ve come to a point of life where I’m not sure if I’ll get my required nutrient mix from plant-based foods only.

And there comes this documentary presenting evidence upon evidence that plant based foods are good, and you should avoid animal based food if you want your arteries to not be clogged, to keep your stamina high, and so on. There were points during the documentary where I seriously considered turning vegetarian once again.

Having given it a day, I think the basic point of the documentary as I see it is that, ceteris paribus, a plant based diet is likely to keep you healthier and fitter than an animal-based diet. But then, ceteris is not paribus.

The nutrient mix that you get from the sort of vegetarian diet that I grew up on is very different from the nutrient mix you get from a meat-based diet. Some of the examples of vegan diets shown in the documentary, for example, rely heavily on mock meats (made with soybean), which have a similar nutritional profile to meats they are meant to mock. And that is very different from the carb-fests that south indian vegetarian food have turned into.

So for me to get influenced by the documentary and turn back vegetarian (or even vegan, which I’d imagine will be very hard for me to do), I need to supplement my diet with seemingly unnatural foods such as “mock meat” if I need to get the same nutritional balance that I’ve gotten used to of late. Simply eliminating all meat or animal based products from my diet is not going to make me any more healthier, notwithstanding what the documentary states, or what Virat Kohli does.

In other words, it seems to me that getting the right balance of nutrients is a tradeoff between eating animal-based food, and eating highly processed unnatural food (mock meat). And I’m not willing to switch on that yet.

Lullabies and walled gardens

There’s still a bit of walled gardens going on in the device and voice control space. About two years ago, in London, we acquired an Amazon Echo, and found that Alexa voice assistant could be used to play songs through either Spotify or Amazon Music, but not through Apple Music, which we then used.

And so, we got rid of Apple Music and took a subscription to Spotify. And among the things we would make Alexa do was to play the daughter’s lullabies on Spotify. And that is how, at the age of two, Berry spoke her first complete sentence, “Alexa, use Spotify to play Iron Man by Black Sabbath”.

We don’t have that Echo any more, and as a household are in a complete “apple ecosystem” as far as devices are concerned. Two Macs, two iPhones, an iPad and now a pair of AirPods. However, we had quite got used to Spotify and its playlists and its machine learning, and even though the India catalogue is nowhere as good as the one in the UK, we continued our subscription.

However, bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden are critical for us, not least because their songs are part of the daughter’s sleeping portfolio. So we need something other than Spotify. And then we discovered that in India, Amazon Prime Music comes bundled with the Amazon Prime membership. And so we created the daughter’s sleeping playlist there, and started using it for bands not available on Spotify.

It was an uncomfortable arrangement, not least because Amazon Music is a terrible software product. Since family subscriptions are still not a thing with Spotify India, during periods of deep work the wife and I would fight over who would get Spotify and who had to make do with Amazon Music.

And then there is voice. Being in a complete Apple EcoSystem now, we found that Siri couldn’t control Spotify or Amazon Music, and for seamless voice experience (especially given I use it in car, using Apple Carplay) we needed Apple Music. And given how painful Amazon Music is to use, I thought spending ?149 a month on Apple Music Family Subscription is worth it, and took the subscription yesterday.

Since then I’ve been happily using it using voice control on all devices. Except until an hour back when I was putting the daughter to sleep. She requested for “baby has he”, which is her way of saying she wants Iron Man by Rockabye Baby (rather than by Black Sabbath). And so I held down the home button of the iPad and barked “play lullaby renditions of Black Sabbath”.

I don’t know what Siri interpreted (this is a standard command I’d been giving it back in the day when I used to exclusively use Apple Music), but rather than playing Lullaby Renditions of Black Sabbath, it played some “holy lullabies”, basically lullaby versions of some Christian songs. I tried changing but the daughter insisted that I let it be.

And so she kept twisting and turning in her bed, not going to sleep. I soon lost patience. Abandoning voice, I opened the iPad and switched from Apple Music to Spotify, where I knew the Rockabye Baby album was open (from last night – we hardly use the iPad otherwise nowadays), and started playing that.

Before Iron Man was halfway through, the daughter was fast asleep.

Serials and movies

Yesterday I finished reading Gita Krishnankutty’s English translation of MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham. It’s the story of the Mahabharata told from Bhima’s perspective.

This wasn’t the first time that I was reading a translation of this magnificent book. A few years ago, journalist Prem Panicker had created a series on his blog where he would put up translations of bits of this book daily. I remember quite liking that, and a lot of people raving about it.

Prem’s version of the book was far longer than the version that I finished yesterday (Gita Krishnankutty’s version is 380 pages long, which comes to around 70000 words or less. Prem’s is 120,000 words long). It was also far more passionate. Rather than directly translating the novel, Prem took liberties in adding his own inputs.

It’s been over a decade since I read Prem’s version, but from what I remember, the parts of the story where Bhima mourns Ghatotkacha’s death, for example, are far more well sketched out in that version. It is similar with the parts which show Bhima’s frustration with Yudhishthira’s leadership.

Thinking about it, though, one reason why Prem was able to go into such detail was that he presented his book in a serialised format. Every day he would put out the translation of a few pages’ worth of a book, and the translation would come out to be the length of a long form article (the kind of articles that Prem became a specialist in writing during his time at Rediff).

When you’re reading it in book form, in which you read the whole thing together, reading in such detail may not work so well since that might make the book unnecessarily thick, and people might put NED midway. Give the inputs in small doses, however, and people will be happy to consume the greater detail. In that sense, Prem’s and Gita Krishnankutty’s translations are both excellent, and both very well suited for the formats they came out in.

It is a similar story with movies and serials. Movies have a 2-2.5 hour length because that’s how much typically people can consume at a time without putting NED. Serials, on the other hand, because they are consumed bit by bit at a time, can go much longer in aggregate (sometimes unnecessarily long).

Netflix releasing all episodes of a series at the same time, however, is changing this dynamic. Sacred Games apart, I’ve been unable to get through any Netflix fiction series because of their sheer length. Because binge-watching has become a thing (thanks to Netflix putting out an entire season at once), the entire season comes to resemble a movie. So a season with 8 one-hour episodes effectively becomes a 8-hour movie. And unless it’s extremely well made, or has sufficient stuff going on through the 8 hours, it becomes incredibly hard to sit through!

 

Amazon and Sony Liv

Amazon is pretty bad at design of products they’re not pioneers in. They’ve built a great shopping engine (25 years ago) and a great cloud service (15 years ago), but these were both things they were pioneers in.

Amazon being Amazon, however, they have a compulsive need to be in pretty much every industry, and so they’ve launched clones of lots of other businesses. However, their product design in these is far from optimal, and the user experience is generally very underwhelming.

Prime Video has a worse user experience than Netflix. The search function is much worse. The machine learning (for recommendations) isn’t great. The X-ray is good, but overall I don’t have as pleasant a time watching Prime as I do with Netflix.

However, the degree to which Prime Video is worse than Netflix is far far smaller than the degree to which Amazon Music is worse than Spotify. The only thing going for Amazon Music (which I only use because it comes free with my prime delivery membership in India) is that they have inventory.

Spotify in India has been unable to secure rights to a lot of classic rock and metal bands, such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Dream Theater. And these form a heavy part of my routine listening. And so I’m forced to use Amazon Music (Apple Music has these bands as well, but I have to pay extra for that).

The product (Amazon Music) is atrocious. The learning is next to nothing. After five months of using the service to exclusively listen to Classic Rock and Heavy Metal, and zero Indian music, the home page still recommends to me Bollywood, Punjabi and Tamil stuff! History is not properly maintained. Getting to the album or playlist (the less said about playlists on Amazon, the better) I want takes way too much more effort than it does on Spotify.

In other words, the only thing that keeps Amazon going in businesses they’re not pioneers in is inventory – Prime Video works because it has movies and shows other streaming services don’t have. Amazon Music is used because it has music that Spotify doesn’t.

I figured it is a similar case with Sony Liv, Sony’s streaming service in India. They sit on a bunch of lucrative monopolies, such as rights to broadcasting Test cricket in a lot of countries (all three Test series being played right now are on Sony, for example), Champions League football and so on. Beyond that it’s an atrocity to watch them.

I remember missing a goal in the Liverpool-Porto Champions League quarterfinal because of a temporary power cut. There was no way in the broadcast to go back and see the goal. If I by mistake pause for a couple of seconds, I’m forever behind “live” (unless I refresh). Yesterday during the classic Ashes Test, the app simply gave up when I tried to load the game.

The product is atrocious (actually more atrocious than Amazon Music), but people are forced to use it only because they have a monopoly on content. And in that way, it is similar to Amazon, which can get away with atrocious products only because they have the inventory!

I’m glad the Premier League is on Hotstar, which is mostly a pleasure to watch! (actually back in the day when I had cable TV, the star sports bouquet had significantly superior production values to the sony-zee-ten bouquet)

Super Deluxe

In my four years in Madras (2000-4), I learnt just about enough Tamil to watch a Tamil movie with subtitles. Without subtitles is still a bit of a stretch for me, but the fact that streaming sites offer all movies with subtitles means I can watch Tamil movies now.

At the end, I didn’t like Super Deluxe. I thought it was an incredibly weird movie. The last half an hour was beyond bizarre. Rather, the entire movie is weird (which is good in a way we’ll come to in a bit), but there is a point where there is a step-change in the weirdness.

The wife had watched the movie some 2-3 weeks back, and I was watching it on Friday night. Around the time when she finished the movie she was watching and was going to bed, she peered into my laptop and said “it’s going to get super weird now”. “As if it isn’t weird enough already”, I replied. In hindsight, she was right. She had peered into my laptop right at the moment when the weirdness goes to yet another level.

It’s not often that I watch movies, since most movies simply fail to hold my attention. The problem is that most plots are rather predictable, and it is rather easy to second-guess what happens in each scene. It is the information theoretic concept of “surprise”.

Surprise is maximised when the least probable thing happens at every point in time. And when the least probable thing doesn’t happen, there isn’t a story, so filmmakers overindex on surprises and making sure the less probable thing will happen. So if you indulge in a small bit of second order thinking, the surprises aren’t surprising any more, and the movie becomes boring.

Super Deluxe establishes pretty early on that the plot is going to be rather weird. And when you think the scene has been set with sufficient weirdness in each story (there are four intertwined stories in the movie, as per modern fashion), the next time the movie comes back to the story, the story is shown to get weirder. And so you begin to expect weirdness. And this, in a way, makes the movie less predictable.

The reason a weird movie is less predictable is that at each scene it is simply impossible for the view to even think of the possibilities. And in a movie that gets progressively weirder like this one, every time you think you have listed out the possibilities and predicted what happens, what follows is something from outside your “consideration set”. And that keeps you engaged, and wanting to see what happens.

The problem with a progressively weird movie is that at some point it needs to end. And it needs to end in a coherent way. Well, it is possible sometimes to leave the viewer hanging, but some filmmakers see the need to provide a coherent ending.

And so what usually happens is that at some point in time the plot gets so remarkably simplified that everything suddenly falls in place (though nowhere as beautifully as things fall in place at the end of a Wodehouse novel). Another thing that can happen is that weirdness it taken up a notch, so that things fall in place at a “meta level”, at which point the movie can end.

The thing with Super Deluxe is that both these things happen! On one side the weirdness is taken up several notches. And on the other the plots get so oversimplified that things just fall in place. And that makes you finish the movie with a rather bitter taste in the mouth, feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.

That the “ending” of the movie (where things get really weird AND really simplified) lasts half an hour doesn’t help matters.

Kader Khan and Slippery Fish

Until I read his obituaries, I didn’t know that the just-deceased actor Kader Khan was also a dialogue writer, having written the dialogues for several iconic Amitabh Bachchan movies such as Laawaris, Muqaddar Ka Sikander and Agneepath (I highly recommend his obituaries by GreatBong and by The Economist. Both are brilliantly written and highly informative).

When I found that Kader Khan wrote the dialogues for Agneepath, I was reminded of this old piece written by Nitin Pai, Director of the Takshashila Institution, that referenced a particular dialogue from Agneepath. In that, he talks about international relations and the “law of the jungle” that operates there. In fact, I recommend you see that dialogue from Agneepath. It’s on youtube:

Major level up in terms of my respect for Kader Khan after having re-watched this. I only knew him as a masterful comedian and actor as I mentioned. Now I want to go back and watch more of the movies for which he wrote dialogues.

In any case, if you watched the above video from Agneepath, you see that Amitabh Bachchan talks about the law of the jungle in the form of a food chain. I don’t know the Hindi names of animals precisely, but he talks about a frog being eaten by a snake, and a wolf being killed by lions, etc.

The talk of the food chain reminded me of another song which is my daughter’s favourite nowadays.  This talks about the marine food chain. Watch the song here:

I had no idea about this song until the daughter started singing it. In fact, since she liked the third stanza of the song best (“tuna fish, tuna fish”), it had also caused us a bit of a problem one weekend when she kept requesting for it but we couldn’t find it on any streaming service (you should ask for “slippery fish”).

I’m pleasantly surprised that they teach about the food chain to children as young as two years old, since it introduces to them the concept of death, and the fact that animals eat other animals to survive. Somehow I had thought that kids are told that all animals co-exist like they do in Peppa Pig (as an aside, I wonder what will happen to Peppa Pig and friends when it’s time for them to grow up and start dating), and that the concept of death is also taboo in some circles.

Anyway I’m glad my daughter likes the song. Maybe it’s time to let her graduate to the Amitabh Bachchan dialogue? But that would involve her learning Hindi, which is my wife and my “secret language” (when we’ve to say something we don’t want the daughter to understand) !

Wheels of the bus went swimming one day

One story I like to tell is about how Mozart charged so much for setting Twinkle Twinkle to tune (if he did set it to tune, that is) that propagators of nursery rhymes decided to use the same tune for several other popular songs – most prominently for ABCDEFG and with a small variation for Ba Ba Black Sheep. It’s confusing, not just for kids but also for the parents. I’d written here a month or so back about how I would play tunes on the keyboard and Berry would try to guess the song and sing along. As someone who sets quizzes occasionally, the lack of “a unique answer” drives me nuts. And it possibly drives Berry nuts as well, since she changes from twinkle twinkle to ABCD within the course of one stanza. I wonder why this is the case. Using my one data point (Berry) kids can catch on to tunes pretty quickly (she was barely a year old when she started humming the tune of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. Now she knows the full lyrics). And having unique tunes for songs means that kids are able to make easy associations between music and words – always a desirable thing. And the lack of one-to-one correspondence doesn’t just run one way – sometimes there are multiple ways in which the same song can be sung. For some songs, such as Happy Birthday, this is due to copyright issues. I’m not sure why other songs are sung in different tunes. For example, there are two clearly different ways in which the third line of itsy-bitsy/incy-wincy (depending on which side of the pond you’re on) spider is sung, and it gets especially confusing when I’m playing on the keyboard, since I don’t know which version Berry is expecting ( we invariably sing/play the “other” way). The usage of voice controlled players has made things worse. In fact, the first time I appreciated Siri on my phone was when Berry was just born, and I needed both hands to hold her and put her to sleep, and then someone turn on a lullaby (“Hey Siri, play iron man by rockabye baby”). Now, the problem with voice-controlled playing is that when there are multiple versions of the same song you don’t know which one will get played. An extreme case is like earlier today we asked Alexa to use Amazon Unlimited (we have a 3-month free trial, possibly because of my Prime membership) to play “london bridge”. It belted out some dhinchak EDM song! Within the realms of nursery rhymes itself there are songs that are sung to completely new tunes (like I had never expected that there exists a version of Jack and Jill sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle. It is most annoying). It is extremely disorienting for me – and I guess it is for kids as well, for I’m told they like predictability. I don’t know what can be done to restore the sanity of one-song-one-tune.  Yes, I can record a set of songs in unique and popular tunes, but there is no guarantee that it will take off. And with the increase of voice controlled music playing, there is no guarantee that the “bad tunes” won’t get any air time. The title, for those that didn’t get it, is a portmanteau of two songs that share a name. I must mention I have no intention of popularising these two precise renditions of these songs – they were simply on top of the search engine results.
Mommy duck said quack quack quack, all day long! PS: There are differing versions in lyrics as well. One version says “all day long”; another says “all the way to town”. As Aditya Narayan sang in Rangeela Re 23 years ago, it’s complicated being a kid.

Why Indian Classical Music is Superior to Western Classical Music

I’ve been half-watching this atrocious movie called “Thank You“. Rather, the wife has been watching and I’ve been eavesdropping once in a while. Apart from the odd lame joke, it’s a horrible movie, so I wouldn’t recommend you to watch it.

But there’s one scene in that that illustrates that Indian Classical Music is superior to Western Classical Music. So the plot of the movie is that there are three stupid guys who are trying to find a conman who has been messing with them. Despite mostly obvious clues, they fail to identify him.

Until this day when they are all in his office, and one of them finds some sheet music and starts playing the notes on a conveniently located keyboard. This piece of music is something associated with the conman through the movie, and the three stupid guys immediately figure the identity of the conman.

So what does this have to do with Western Classical music? One of the key differences between Indian and Western Classical music is that in the former the performers mug up the notes of the songs – at least the parts where they don’t have to improvise. Once you know a song, you can dispense with the book. It is almost unknown for professionals to look at notes while performing.

Western Classical, on the other hand, spares performers of using up valuable memory space in their heads from remembering music, and has performers read the music from a sheet as they play it. While this has its advantages – notes are never “forgotten”, and all performers are easily in sync, and valuable memory space in the brain is not wasted – there are disadvantages as well.

Like if you have a signature tune, and if you play it often, you are likely to leave the sheet music of the tune lying around in a convenient location – which can then be found by your pursuers who can then identify you. If Akshay Kumar’s signature tune in the movie was Indian classical, he is unlikely to have had sheet music lying around in his office, and thus not got caught!

Now, if this is the way that stupid guys identify a conman, you can imagine how bad the rest of the movie might be. As if it wasn’t absurd enough, they’ve even tried to shoehorn some senti-max social messaging into the movie, making it utterly bizarre.

And once again I must point out that I didn’t really watch the movie – I just occasionally  eavesdropped as the wife watched it!

Why I don’t like standup comedy

The other day, the wife was watching some standup comedy on Netflix when I walked by, and she asked me to stop and watch for a couple of minutes. Apparently the joke was funny.  Maybe it was, but those two minutes also taught me why I don’t like the genre. It’s the low “bit rate”.

Recently I read this book called The Design of Everyday Things. Among other things, it talked about why most people prefer reading to listening – because reading is much faster. We read at approximately 300 words per minute, while we can listen to a maximum of 50 words per minute. So minute-for-minute, you get a lot more information (in terms of words) from reading.

Which is why podcasts are hard to listen to unless you’re combining them with another activity, such as driving or commuting or exercising. If you’re only listening to a podcast and doing nothing else, you’ll get bored. Because the rate of information flow is low. In that sense, a good podcast offers much more than words – there will be information embedded in the voices, tones, any accompanying music, etc. so that more information can be transmitted to compensate for the low bit rate.

The same thing applies to video as well – the rate of flow of words is much lower than text, but the visuals more than compensate for it. In fact, good movies and shows (in my view) are those that overwhelm your senses with a high rate of flow of information that they keep you engrossed and occupied, and deliver “high information”.

So coming to standup comedy – the reason I don’t like it is because of its low bit rate. Most standup comics speak at a rate slower than Atal Behari Vajpayee, possibly because they want (canned) laughter during each of their pauses. So standup usually goes at well under 50 words per minute.

And there is nothing to compensate for this low bit rate. Visuals are flat – just a person standing on a stage and talking. There is very little action. In the samples that I’ve sampled, the jokes are nice but nothing extraordinary. And there is no information content – it’s just jokes for the sake of it. Finally, you are expecting to be told jokes all the time, and so there is no surprise in the timing of jokes.

So if it were up to me (I’m no standup comic, so it would be never up to me), how would I change it to make it more interesting? The first thing would be to convey additional information through the visual. The low verbal bit rate seems to be endemic to the genre, so that might be hard to change. So adding further information through better visuals can help.

Props might be a good first addition (from my experience with NED Talks, lecture demonstrations were very very well received). Better sets, maybe. Maybe some music (Shekhar Suman already had this with the “rubber band” on Movers and Shakers all those years ago). Anyway, I’m least qualified to comment on this except as a non-customer!

There’s one thing I’ve never understood about standup comics, though – why do they never use collar mikes?