The high cost of “relaxing” activities

So I have a problem. I can’t seem to enjoy movies any more. I’ve written about this before. My basic problem is that I end up double-guessing the plots of most movies that I watched (how many storylines are there anyways? According to Kurt Vonnegut, there are six story arcs).

So as I watch movies, I know exactly what is going to happen. And just continuing to watch the movie waiting for that to happen is simply a waste of time – it adds no information content to me.

The result is that I’m extremely selective about the kinds of movies I watch. Some genres, such as Westerns, work because even if the stories may be predictable, the execution and the manner of execution are not, and that makes for interesting watching.

Then, of course, there are directors who have built up a reputation of being “offbeat”, where you can expect that their movies don’t follow expected story arcs – their movies have enough information content to make them worth watching.

And most “classic” movies (take any of the IMDB Top 250, for example) have stories that are told in an extremely compelling fashion – sometimes you might know what happens, but the way things are built up implies that you don’t want to miss watching it happening.

Now, all this is fine, and something I’ve written about before. The point of this post is that while I feel this way about movies, my wife doesn’t feel the same way. She watches pretty much anything, even if the stories are utterly predictable.

For example, she’s watched at least a 100 Telugu movies (though, admittedly, during a particularly jobless stretch in her MBA when she was watching loads of movies, even she got bored of the predictability of Telugu movies and switched to Tamil instead!). She likes to watch endless reruns of 90s Kannada movies that now appear rather lame (to me). She especially loves chick flicks, which I think have excess redundancy built into them for a very specific reason.

I don’t have a problem with any of this! In fact, I’m damn happy that she has a single-player hobby that enables her to keep herself busy when she’s bored. The only little problem I have is that she believes it is romantic to watch movies together. She might sell video for Amazon for a living, but she surely is a fan of “netflix and chill” (more the literal meaning than the euphemistic one).

And that is a problem for me, since I find the vast majority of movies boring and predictable, and she thinks the kind of movies I like are “too serious” and “not suitable for watching together” – an assessment I don’t disagree with (though I did make her watch For a Few Dollars More with me a couple of months back).

I’d prefer to spend our time together not spent in talking doing other activities – reading, for example (reading offers significantly higher throughput than movies, and that, I think, is a result of formats of several lengths being prevalent – newspaper articles, longform articles, books, etc.). I’ve offered to watch movies with her on the condition that I read something at the same time – an offer that has been soundly rejected (and I understand her reasons for that).

And so we reach a deadlock, and it repeats every time when we have time and want to chill. She wants to watch movies together. I initially agree, and then back out when presented with a choice of movies to watch. Sometimes I put myself through it, thoroughly not enjoying the process. Other times, much to her disappointment, we end up not watching.

Clearly there are no winners in this game!



Dreaming on about machine learning

I don’t know if I’ve written about this before (that might explain how I crossed 2000 blogposts last year – multiple posts about the same thing), but anyway – I’m writing this listening to Aerosmith’s Dream On.

I don’t recall when the first time was that I heard the song, but I somehow decided that it sounded like Led Zeppelin. It was before 2006, so I had no access to services such as Shazam to search effectively. So for a long time I continued to believe it was by Led Zep, and kept going through their archives to locate the song.

And then in 2006, Pandora happened. It became my full time work time listening (bless those offshored offices with fast internet and US proxies). I would seed stations with songs I liked (back then there was no option to directly play songs you liked – you could only seed stations). I discovered plenty of awesome music that way.

And then one day I had put on a Led Zeppelin station and started work. The first song was by Led Zeppelin itself. And then came Dream On. And I figured it was a song by Aerosmith. While I chided myself for not having identified the band correctly, I was happy that I hadn’t been that wrong – given that Pandora uses machine learning on song patterns to identify similar songs, that Dream On had appeared in a LedZep playlist meant that I hadn’t been too far off identifying it with that band.

Ten years on, I’m not sure why I thought Dream On was by Led Zeppelin – I don’t see any similarities any more. But maybe the algorithms know better!

Books, Music, Disruption and Distribution

Having watched this short film by The Economist on disruption in the music business, I find the parallels between the books and the music businesses uncanny.

Both industries have been traditionally controlled by the middlemen – labels in the case of music, and publishers in the case of books. Both sets of middlemen are oligopolies – there are three big music labels and four (?) major publishers. This is primarily a result of production costs – traditionally, professional recording equipment has been both expensive and hard to get. Similarly, typesetting and printing a book was expensive business.

However, both industries have been massively disrupted in the last couple of decades, primarily thanks to new distribution models – streaming in the case of music, and online vendors and e-books in the case of books. Simultaneously, the cost of production have also plummeted – I can get studio quality recording and mixing software on my Macbook Pro, and I already have a version of my book that looks good on the Kindle.

Yet, in both industries, the incumbents strongly believe that they continue to add value despite the disruption, and staunchly defend the value of the marketing and distribution they bring. In the above video, for example, a record studio executive talks about how established artistes may do well going “indie”, but new artistes require support in production, marketing and distribution.

If you see blogs and news articles on publishing and self-publishing, on the other hand, most of the talk is about how little value publishers themselves bring into the marketing and distribution process. While publishers continue to have a broad monopoly on the traditional distribution chain (bookstores, primarily), they have no particular competitive advantage in the new channels.

One of the successful indie artistes interviewed in the above video talks about how he was successful thanks to the brand and following he built up on social media, which ensured that his album had several takers as soon as it was released. It is again similar to advice that authors who want to self-publish get!

As someone who has completed a book manuscript and is looking for production and distribution options, I find the developments in the indie space (across products) rather interesting. Going by all this, maybe I should just give up on the “stamp of approval” I’m looking for from a traditional publisher, and go indie myself!

I leave you with a few lines from one of my favourite poems, which I believe is a commentary about the music record label industry!

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.


Offshoring and the daNDapiNDagaLu moment

Sometime in the early 2000s (2000 or 2001, if I’m not mistaken), there came a sitcom on Kannada television (Udaya TV, if I remember correctly) called “daNDapiNDagaLu” (no direct translation to English available, but it translates to something like “waste bodies”).

The sitcom was about the travails of five boys who had studied one of {B.A., B.Sc., B.Com. } and were subsequently unemployed. Directed by Phani Ramachandra, of the Ganeshana Madhuve and Gowri Ganesha fame, it was rather funny and mostly well received. The most memorable part of the sitcom, however, was the iconic title song (the version on Youtube is audio-only, but that will suffice for our purposes).

For non-Kannada speakers here, the song is about people who study B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. and subsequently fail to find a job, and then roam the streets with little to do. The song also talks about the unwillingness of these people to do menial jobs, of not being of the “right caste” to avail reservations, and not having the ability to get good marks which can get them a job.

Thinking about it, the song was extremely appropriate for its times, and the release of the serial coincided with the low point of the value of a B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. degrees in India (I remember feeling rather proud when the sitcom came out that I was studying engineering, and hence wasn’t one of “them”).

Until the 1980s or so, the possession of a bachelor’s degree qualified you for a large gamut of opportunities, mostly in the government. So it didn’t matter that much what you studied, and if you weren’t particularly useless, you’d find a job to get by on.

To take an example, my mother had a bachelor’s in biology, but spent most of her career in an accounting job (she entered the workforce in the 1970s). In other words, it didn’t matter what degree you had, as long as you had one. So people gladly did whatever degree they could get into.

In the 1990s, however, with the government sector on the decline and liberalisation not having had enough of an impact to massively expand the job market, there was trouble for these graduates. Government was no longer recruiting as it used to, and the private sector wasn’t picking up the slack either. It was at this time that most such graduates started going jobless, and the value of these degrees diminished like crazy.

It is no surprise that around the time I finished high school (2000), everyone wanted to study engineering – opportunities for most other degrees were very few. With liberalisation in the education sector having kicked in, supply in engineering college seats expanded to meet the demand (in some states at least). It was a popular meme in those days that anyone who studied for a B.A. or a B.Sc. did so only because they couldn’t get an engineering seat.

It was around this time, the absolute low point for B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. that daNDapiNDagaLu came out. The sitcom lost its relevance rather soon, though.

With liberalisation in full swing in India,development in communications technology, and slowing growth in developed markets, “offshoring” became a thing. Companies in developed western markets figured out that they could get routine stuff done for a lot cheaper by “offshoring” them to emerging markets, where labour was a lot cheaper.

And some of those jobs came to India, which had a large pool of (hitherto unemployed) graduates, most of whom spoke English. It started with call centre jobs (where Indians were trained to get Western or “neutral” accents, and Janardhans became Johns). Then came slightly higher value adding jobs, like accounting, secretarial services, etc. Business Process Outsourcing was soon a thing, and it didn’t take Thomas Friedman too long to write The World is Flat.

With the coming of these jobs, the market for people with B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. was suddenly opened up, and there was a range of jobs these people could do. Today, someone with one of these degrees, as long as they are reasonably capable, can expect to find a job after graduation.

Society hasn’t kept up, though. A lot of people are still in the daNDapiNDagaLu mode, and consider those studying B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. as potential “waste bodies”, not realising that the time now is different!

Movie plots and low probability events

First of all I don’t watch too many movies. And nowadays, watching movies has become even harder as I try to double-guess the plot.

Fundamentally, commercial movies like to tell stories that are spectacular, which means they should consist of low-probability events. Think of defusing bombs when there is 1 second left on the timer, for example, or the heroine’s flight getting delayed just so that the hero can catch her at the airport.

Now, the entire plot of the movie cannot consist of such low-probability events, for that will make the movie extremely incredulous, and people won’t like it. Moreover, a few minutes into such a movie, the happenings won’t be low probability any more.

So the key is to intersperse high-probability events with low-probability events so that the viewer’s attention is maintained. There are many ways to do this, but as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote (in his masters thesis, no less), there are a few basic shapes that stories take. These shapes are popular methods in which high and low-probability events get interspersed so that the movie will be interesting.


Kurt Vonnegut’s Masters Thesis on the shapes of stories

So once you understand that there are certain “shapes” that stories take, you can try and guess how a movie’s plot will unfold. You make a mental note of the possible low-probability events that could happen, and with some practice, you will know how the movie will play out.

In an action movie, for example, there is a good chance that one (or more) of the “good guys” dies at the end. Usually (but not always), it is not the hero. Analysing the other characters in his entourage, it shouldn’t be normally hard to guess who will bite the dust. And when the event inevitably happens, it’s not surprising to you any more!

Similarly, in a romantic movie, unless you know that the movie belongs to a particular “type”, you know that the guy will get the girl at the end of the movie. And once you can guess that, it is not hard to guess what improbable events the movie will comprise of.

Finally, based on some of the action movies I’ve watched recently (not many, mind you, so there is a clear small samples bias here), most of their plots can be explained by one simple concept. Rather than spelling it in words, I’ll let you watch this scene from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Censoring the death ceremony

So we finally watched Raam Reddy’s much-acclaimed Thithi today. Ever since we’d watched the trailer, we’d wanted to see the movie, and though reviews from relatives and friends were mixed, they helped set our expectations and we had a good time at the movie.

This post, however, is not about the movie, but about censorship. We watched at PVR Forum, and immediately after the U/A certificate (and before the movie) came a certificate with the cuts that the censor board had recommended. Even before the movie began, we knew that four instances of thika (arse) and one instance of bOLi (bitch) had been muted.

I think this is a fantastic idea – while the censor board is happy to use its scissors liberally, showing how they’ve used their scissors beforehand helps set viewers’ expectations, so that they know exactly what they’ve missed out. My only contention is that that slide should be shown for longer than it was, so that viewers get a better idea.

Anyway, once the movie started, it was clear that the censors had done a shoddy job. As a friend (who watched the movie yesterday) pointed out, the word “tuNNe” (dick) wasn’t muted out. I noticed during the movie that there is a dialogue that is translated (and subtitled) as “screw your mother” remained.

(while I initially wondered why a Kannada movie was being shown in Bangalore with English subtitles, I realised once the movie started that it was a good thing. The language used in the movie was quite different from what we normally speak in Bangalore.)

What the censorship of words in this movie goes to illustrate is that the censor board is thoroughly incompetent. Whether censorship is necessary is a philosophical question, and the government has appointed a committee to look into that. What is more important is that the people at the censor board are thoroughly incompetent, and hopefully that will be taken into account when the censorship policy is finally revised!

thika is something every Kannadiga kid uses liberally (though bOLi is something we graduate to only in teens), while tuNNe and nin-amman (translated as “screw your mother”) are normally not used in polite conversation. The censor board is absolutely clueless!

Censor Board as a preserver of the Bollywood cartel

The Indian Censor Board (Central board for film certification or something, to take its full name) has come under flak for the last year or so, for imposing excess cuts on movies, and more recently for some hilarious videos that its chairperson has made and uploaded (in the interest of taste I’ll not link to the video here).

The latest instalment is its decision to make over 45 edits to Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “The Hateful Eight”. The common reaction on Twitter has been that it’s useless to watch a Tarantino movie with so many cuts in the theatre, and it’s better to illegally download and watch the movie. Here is the document listing the cuts:

While the popular narrative remains that the Censor Board has been acting the way it has been because we have a “right wing conservative” Union Government, it doesn’t stand that test that the Censor Board has become especially kooky after the current government came to power (barring the hilarious videos and comments that is). The fact of the matter is that the Censor Board has been kooky with its edits much before the current government came to power.

There is a simpler explanation to why the Censor Board censors as much as it does – it seeks to protect the interests of the “Bollywood cartel”. By Bollywood, I refer to the mainstream Hindi cinema industry based in Mumbai which churns out “family movies” which don’t contain too much sex or violence, all of which seek a “U” (universal) certificate from the board.

The idea is this – Bollywood mostly makes “mainstream” movies, without much scope for the censor board to cut anything, so they’re largely insulated. Foreign language (including English) and offbeat movies, however, are more experimental, and are likely to have much more sex and violence.

Cutting parts of a movie and muting further portions (refer to above document) drastically diminishes the experience of watching the movie. Scenes cut in a non-intuitive fashion, and you are forever guessing what word was muted out.

Given such an inferior experience of watching, the value you gain from watching drops, and you might decide it is not worth watching at all. Those that have the means might instead choose to download the movie via illegal torrents, or watch it online using VPNs (effectively watching another country’s “edition”).

To summarise, competitors of mainstream Bollywood movies suffer due to censorship, by declining viewership, and viewership that moves to illegal media. Bollywood, on the other hand, by not having much that can be censored, is not similarly affected, and is thus relatively better off!

The union government has instituted a panel to review the activities of the Censor Board. The panel is headed by Shyam Benegal, who is an “alternative filmmaker” who doesn’t belong to the Bollywood clique. Hopefully some good will come out of that!