Atomic Blonde


This post is not just about one movie.

Whenever I travel, I get to see multiple movies. During my recent travels, I saw the following selection of movies on Singapore Airlines flights:

  • Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron (one of my favourite actresses and James McAvoy)
  • American Made, starring Tom Cruise
  • American Assassin, starring Michael Keaton and Dylan O’Brien
  • Security, starring Antonio Banderas (one of my favourite actors) and Ben Kingsley
  • El Bar (The Bar), a Spanish movie starring Blanca Suarez

There were other movie that I wanted to see, but couldn’t for lack of time. I will surely see them in the near future.

In all the above movies, there is a sense of escapism – I do not think such movies are “real” in the experience of a commoner like me. However, these movies could have happened in real life in the Western world – the first three movies involve spy agencies such as MI6 of the U.K., and the CIA of the U.S. The 4th movie is an unbelievable one – just a few security guards who lack any weapons defend a helpless girl against a massive team armed to the teeth wanting to snatch the girl away, her only crime being a court witness in a trial against the armed gang. The last one is totally unbelievable – it is a story of a simple coffee bar in downtown Madrid which gets into trouble with security services due to the fact that couple of its patrons were carrying the Ebola virus – hey, come on. Totally incredulous, the remaining ordinary folks in the bar all kill each other in search of the anti-virus serum, and all action during the entire movie happens in that tiny bar and underneath in its cellar and sewer.

I admire the directors who venture to take such daring movies – I would be surprised if any of these movies were to become big box office successes, though all of these movies are interesting action movies. Adventure and thrill characterise all the movies, and some of the actors are outstanding – Charlize Theron, Tom Cruise, Michael Keaton, Antonio Banderas, et al.

I look at the very short synopsis of the movie in the KrisWorld magazine, look at the names of the actors, and check to see if there are English subtitles. Then I select the movies, and tackle them one by one. I see non-stop, right through the flight, so that I get to the finish of the last movie – if for some reason, I cannot do that, then I continue from the last movie onwards during the return flight.

Movies make me think on the sheer escapism of life. We like to see what we ourselves cannot or will not do in our own lives. It is simply because of the pleasure of imagination – I like to visualize myself as a CIA or MI6 Agent for instance, and parachute into action in a global city with all the resources of the State supporting me, and with the thrill of rapid fire action encompassing me. How about that? I am not going to drive a bike even at 80 KMPH anymore in real life! I have never touched a gun (except for the thrill shots in game machines in a video parlour), and it is likely to remain so for the rest of my life!!

So, here we are – we know there are spy agencies, and well-trained secuirty guards almost everywhere. But we do not see spy action or the Antonio Banderas action. As I walked back from the gym yesterday, I realized how much muscle buildup would be necessary to tackle any surprise attacker – I do not have even 40% of what would be required. We do not pay attention to gym workouts and do not focus on body exercise and development, so we do not stand a chance in fighting an usurper. I am happy the younger boys are getting military training, and I would think that the girls also should pick up similar training. It is essential pre-requisite for self defence.

Enjoy your weekend folks, we have one more day off due to the Chinese New Year long weekend!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

18th February 2018

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The Culture of Materialism


The premise of this post has been to establish the link between materialistic greed of (certain) people and corruption and overall destruction of value for citizens who lead normal lives. I went for an event today, and this topic was discussed among a set of trusted friends who had very different views. As an author, I am supposed to state my views in a non-diluted manner, while accepting criticism or praise in equal measure, which is exactly what I am going to do now – I have not changed any of my views in this final version which is getting published this evening (Saturday evening in Singapore), though I did think about some of the alternate views expressed by friends today on this topic.

Here is my view in a few bullets (this is not the normal way I write, but I thought it would be good to highlight):

  • Countries which unabashedly focused on the material well-being of their citizens in the 1970s and 80s, paved the way for economic growth to be the dominant factor in their countries’ vision – examples would be South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore – the four “Tiger Economies” of Asia. This meant that citizens were led to believe on the economic vision of their leaders, in turn, leading to rapid growth over the past 3 to 4 decades, rapidly enhancing the GDP per capita of these nations, and focusing on generating material wealth for the citizens. This has already happened – Singapore now is the 4th richest country in the world in just one generation! There are pros and cons, but one cannot argue with the fact that economic progress has been clearly accomplished.
  • Countries which focused on political philosophies and social development in an Utopian manner did not progress fast due to the debilitating bureaucracies that these countries established, leading to slow progress and corruption as the main driver for faster movement of business. There are many examples of such nations, mostly democracies and some dictatorships, but I am not going to name them. Established mechanisms of corruption and nepotism led to stealing of wealth from ordinary citizens to line the pockets of politicians and bureaucrats, and the wealth generation was isolated in few family run businesses. Not surprising, however.
  • Over the past decade or so, these large countries have seen what the smaller countries have accomplished, and are trying to adopt some of the policies though in a much belated and haphazard manner. However, the institutionalized corruption continues irrespective of change in governments as the essence of bureaucracy has stayed the same. This implied focus on materialistic economic growth will take a very long time to trickle down to ordinary citizens, and will again benefit few individuals and families, as we are seeing. Tax payers’ money is being stolen brazenly to benefit these folks.
  • So, the derivation is that the focus on materialistic wealth generation is not going to work for larger countries since institutional changes and policy frameworks have not changed for the better. This would mean that corruption would accelerate and lead to larger financial scandals, while ordinary citizens would see probably a lower impact of routine corruption due to e-governance initiatives (the only major benefit, yet to be realized however).

In a nutshell, the culture of materialism will lead to skewed economic growth for larger countries, benefiting the same businessmen who benefited in the past. Lifting millions of people out of poverty towards a USD 5,000 income per capita is not a simple challenge – it cannot be compared with the easier task that the Tiger economies had with their singular focus on trade. So, there is going to be very hard time befalling on millions of honest working folks and farmers, who would be held subservient to the governments by paying more taxes and more fees to obtain banking, insurance, and other services.

This is indeed a sad situation. Expecting millions of ordinary folks to understand economic and digital principles is foolhardy, as the base of education and healthcare has not been laid out over the past many decades. When ordinary people see how the rich people fleece money in an illegal manner from the same banks and governmental institutions, what ideas would they get? When these powerfully connected and rich people escape without so much as an indictment, what message does that send to others? While a French revolution is not in the offing, ordinary people would have to take some kind of action within their control, right?

Fascinating, but also saddening. Think about the whole complex situation developing, and you will see that WhatsApp messages and Fake News do not tell the entire story. The deeply maligned people are going to scot free, and no one can do anything. This is the result of all our democracies and institutions in action. Even the U.S. is not spared, as you see in daily news, day in and day out.

The culture of materialism is destructive. It will lead to serious social divisions in society which cannot be fixed in one generation.

Think, probably with a drink like what I am doing now!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

17th February 2018

Newness


Newness is a 2017 Hollywood movie.

I selected this movie recently on Netflix for joint viewing with my wife.

May be a wrong choice, but then one gets to see the latest trends in Hollywood’s thinking on millennials. This movie, in a nutshell, is all about social media, unfettered social hookups via special apps and resultant dating, cavorting for physical pleasures, night club culture fascination, but also about how a young couple struggle together for intimacy in the midst of visceral fights and disappointments.

The movie reflects American culture today – especially amongst young folks who are not able to deal with the surprises that life throws at them, not very stable emotionally, and constantly seeking “newness” in experiences. If one hookup does not work out, so be it. Even if it has resulted in a strong physical attraction. Go on to the next one. Smoke and dance in nightclubs feverishly. Drink a lot of alcohol (the so-called “shots”). And, so on and so forth. It is all about the gist of Western culture which defines a free-wheeling drive in the spirit of men and women, not directed or influenced by parents or traditional supporters of emotional well-being. In fact these others would not even be aware of the alternate persona of young people that they are connected with. It is just the opposite variation of a traditional, family-oriented culture that was dominant in the 20th Century.

If relationships get damaged because of foolish and futile behaviour, so be it. How about mending the fractured relationship? No. Instead, go for another social hookup, in the hope that the newness of that new potential relationship (which always ends in dating and sex) would heal the rift of the previous relationship. In fact, relationships are completely dispensable.

It was funny when our heroine (Laia Costa) asks the hero (Nicholas Hoult) to be totally transparent with her, even after he protests on the basis of emotional damage he had incurred due to the untimely death by accident of his sister with who he was close, and due to the divorce that happened in his first ever marriage after a short 8 months. The Spanish heroine resembles so much of an Indian girlfriend who is perennially nosey and totally intrusive, and will not tolerate even minor indiscretions or secrets. It was again funny when she, after having obtained the oath of transparency from the boyfriend, proposes that it would be perfectly all right for each of them to continue dating others as long as they tell each other what they are upto. Absolutely amazing!

This all reveals the innate desires of young people to keep experimenting with newness – new people, new experiences, new adventures, irrespective of any moral value destruction in the process. However, at the end, they do not discover anything “new”. As the close friend of our hero (Matthew Gray Gubler) says “it is critical to keep working on the relationship, and not give up on each other”. Long-term hookups (to use the terminology of the movie), meaning “partnership-based marriages” are tough to sustain, and are prone to blowups similar to the ones which happen in this movie. We all know that it is tough to stay invested in wedded bliss forever, but then we stay committed though there are issues and challenges. It is a partnership that should not be broken despite strong differences, emotional fights, dislikes, and potential misbehaviour on either side. The new theme of life tends to ignore the valuable life lessons of a true partnership, and makes it fleeting – something which is like most other things in life – non-permanent. The couple in this movie try to hurt each others’ feelings almost constantly despite their very obvious physical attraction for each other; this is nothing but destructive progress towards an unintended separation, which occurs couple of times. Feelings can be hurt only when you do not care about your partner, like what our heroine tells her older partner (Danny Huston) towards the end of the movie. The director has done an excellent job portraying the emotional breakups and impact on the actors.

What about romance and falling in love “permanently” with someone? Does it not happen anymore? Does the young generation of tomorrow surrender their ability to fall in love to, after all, a dating app?

Come on.

This is not the way it was supposed to be. Technology cannot destroy love and romance, and cannot also induce moral destruction.

This is an interesting movie which deserves to be watched. It proves that human relationships are not eventually dictated by dating apps, but by real feelings for each other. Struggles and disappointments are common in life, and if younger folks haven’t yet realized it, then that is a shame. As our heroine says……”…..I am yet to start my life……” which only means that she has all along been experimenting with herself but now has arrived at a milestone when she is ready to start living her life seriously with just one serious partner. No more wild experimentation, but she acknowledges the fact that her partner is likely to spew some disappointments at her, and she should have the strength of character to deal with them.

New-age movie. You “might” just like it. See it.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

11th February 2018

 

Gini Coefficient


I am not going to explain what exactly is the Gini Coefficient or how it is computed for a country or society.

Suffice it to state that the Gini Coefficient is a good measure of income inequality – how wealth is distributed in a country. A perfectly income-equal country (where everyone earn the same amount of income) has a Gini Coefficient of 0, and a completely unequal wealth distribution leads to a Gini Coefficient of 1 (wherein one person has all the income, and the rest have none at all).

There is, of course, no country in the world with a Gini Coefficient of 0 or 1. The dispersion lies somewhere between these two figures, but the best “equal income” countries have a Gini Coefficient below 0.5. It is not practical to expect a figure better than that (like a 0.2 or 0.3) in a largely capitalistic world that we live in. Examples of such countries include South Korea, Canada, and many Western European countires. The Gini Coefficient has been deteriorating over the decades, as concentration of wealth in the hands of few people increases, as we have seen in many countries.

Governments are severely handicapped when it comes to tackling income inequality in their respective countries. Economic and taxation policies do not curtail the increase in the concentration of wealth. Many governments allow fixed capital formation in their countries with little tax impact, in order to attract investments and wealthy folks to their countries. As societies become prosperous in developed nations (in Asia that would include Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore), the desire for further wealth accumulation increases in an unfettered manner based on past successes. Real estate prices go up in an uncontrolled manner, leading to a societal segmentation which segregates society into multiple fragments, and engender a more unequal income to be the cause of undesirable thinking in the disadvantaged populace. An “entry” price is eventually established for each such segment of the society, and the wealthier sections of the society become distanced from the so-called proletariat, even in advanced countries. This kind of “pricing” manifests itself in multiple ways – more BMWs, Jaguars, Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamborghinis on the roads is a good example; the other example is the inherent price fixation in real estate for exclusive high-end zones which precludes consideration by even the “above-average” dual-income couples who aspire to move into a better accommodation in such zones. General cost of living increases, and economic fundamentals adjust to serve the needs of the well-heeled. Gradually, the segmentation sets in firmly, and several enclaves form to cater to the respective segments, leading to even more dispersion.

While many of us have heard about the Gini Coefficient not so frequently, it is a commonly used economic term which concerns global multilateral economic and financial institutions. The global concern about unequal wealth distribution and concentration of wealth in the hands of few oligarchs is well placed and requires urgent tackling. Socially progressive governments in countries such as Switzerland are actively and very seriously considering various policy actions in this regard.

The problem with the fast developing countries such as China and India is more acute as the embedded inefficiencies in these countries allow for faster wealth accumulation in fewer individuals due to nepotism and favouritism, and other factors. Wealth created by family-run conglomerates far exceeds that by public sector corporations (or largely state-owned enterprises, which are publicly listed in the bourses). While it is commendable that the private sector wealth creation and capital formation is driving the business in India, it is also responsible for increased income inequality in a country with 1.25B people.

There are no easy answers for solving this rather intractable problem, I will let you think about potential solutions. In the meanwhile, I am returning to my usual weekend glass or red wine, while thinking about the solutions. What can we all do to reduce such inequality? Such thinking is even more important and relevant in wealthier countries such as Singapore, wherein the folks who earn far below the per capita income are very disadvantaged to sustain themselves in a fast-moving, economically-driven society.

Have a good weekend folks, and please think.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

10th February 2018

Movie from Sunday – “Wanted”


I chose this movie from the Netflix “Action Thriller” offerings. It takes quite some time to choose any movie, while it is rather easy to pick a TV serial on Netflix. I had seen a number of TV serials on Netflix in the past, but dropped out of Netflix viewing some 6 months ago. I thought I will try a movie, and chose this one.

I expected lots of action, but this movie has truckloads of action and gruesome violence on its way to glory – sometimes one cannot understand why movie stories have to build in lots of unnecessary things into the final script. The movie starts in an innocuous manner, but quickly graduates into some implausible theories and unbelievable action sequences which defy reality. There are always mysterious stories circulating, especially in Western countries about secret societies and highly trained private assassins who live by an unspoken creed, and never show who they are to the rest of the world. They are otherwise normal people, but when danger lurks around the corner, their hearts start pounding, like it does to our hero Wesley, acted so well by James McAvoy.

The movie is full of “unrealities”, or unbelievable and implausible stuff that one tends to focus more on the action sequences featuring Wesley (a rather small made man compared to other assassins in the Fraternity), Fox (Angelina Jolie), and others (such as Cross, who is Wesley’s father in the movie). The “Loom of Fate” in the eerie textile mill produces the code on the next target to be assassinated, and Sloan (so well acted by Morgan Freeman) deciphers the code, and issues the kill order. I was laughing, as it resembled some cock and bull story that we usually see in Indian action movies.

Man always has wanted higher physical and mental powers than he has been endowed with, and it is no wonder that movies try to capitalize on this hidden desire. The “Wanted” movie takes this aspect to levels of incredulity like bullets which swerve from their straight path (could become a reality in future with the aid of artificial intelligence and IoT technology), and a train which stops on a high mountain bridge while at high speed and then starts hanging all the way down to the valley into which it ultimately falls, while there is a fierce gun fight waging between several assassins inside the hanging train!

This is a super-duper Rajnikanth movie – the actor who delivered impossible stuff in Tamil movies from India!

Overall, this is a good action movie that you can enjoy on a lazy Sunday afternoon instead of sleeping which action will only add inches to your waist. Sometimes, an escapist movie such as this helps to relax and enjoy the fun. Obviously, you cannot get to do any of these stuff in your own life, except to imagine the luck of actors who have all the fun, while probably laughing at all the stupidity of it all. The audience, of course, pays for their fun and get some in return.

Not recommended for the avid critic of movies and books.

Recommended for blokes who don’t give a damn and just wish to while away some time, warming up for their evening cup of coffee!

Caution: Wives do not like such movies which are full of violence, and also has Angelina Jolie. In fact, my wife told me that I selected this movie because of Angelina.

Have fun!!!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

04 February 2018

Pistachio Grill


My wife and I decided to check out this Middle Eastern/Mediterranean Restaurant recently. It is a highly rated restaurant as per reviews in Trip Advisor, Yelp, Google, Hungrygowhere and other sites, so we thought we could not go wrong. We had earlier selected this place for the New Year Eve Dinner, but switched to a Turkish Restaurant at the last hour due to some traffic constraints that evening.

This restaurant is located at an unlikely place – a small mall called Zhongshan Mall in Balestier Road, which would not be my choice for such exotic dining. However, we went wrong in two of our key assumptions.

One assumption is that such a highly reviewed restaurant will indeed be good. But Pistachio Grill was not even a restaurant!

Surprising, right?

It takes up a common space on the mall’s first floor, which means that there is no restaurant in the strict sense – it is more like an elegant hawker centre. More than that, they have very limited spaces, being part of a large corridor. Worse, they do not take orders at your table – it was very awkward (and probably, the first time for us) when we were asked to go to the cashier counter, place our order, pay for it, and then return to the table! I have not seen this practice in any restaurant – yes we pay in Coffee Shops in advance, and pick up the coffee, but Pistachio Grill claims to be a restaurant from an exotic land, where gourmet diners will die if they see such an environment. What about changes to the order, or additions to the order – you better get up, go back to the queue, and wait to order/pay. This is nothing short of ridiculous in my mind.

Secondly, they did not have the items on the menu, and offered an equivalent – while I can understand that happens some times, it occurred twice with Pistachio Grill, forcing us to drop food items that we would have enjoyed otherwise.

The service by waiters was just OK, but I do not see the need to pay the Service Charge of 10% when we could have easily picked up the food by ourselves in this restaurant-as-a-service (!!!). Any such restaurant needs to have waiters who are educated in the culture of the cuisine, and explain the items when asked, instead of dropping the menu cards on our table and expecting us to walk up to the cashier counter! Totally laughable!!

No wonder there were always couple of folks trying to get seating, but that is not surprising on a Friday evening and also not surprising when this restaurant (!) has taken up so much of visible space when you come up on the escalator to the first floor.

Well, let us come to the food part. Given the above experience, we were already below our benchmark hunger level. The Moroccan Mint Tea was just horrible with no unique taste or ingredients (just mint) – what is so special about such a tea which the Chef is touting on the menu, like all the other items? The pita bread was just OK, but could have been prepared better. The saving grace was Baba Ghanoush, which my wife said was fine. The chicken item we ordered was dripping with oil, soaked so much in it that we immediately felt so full. The saffron rice was decent, but the quantity was so small in a dish which costs SGD 17.90!

This is not fine Middle Eastern or Mediterranean or Egyptian dining. There are far better places in locations such as Arab Street for enjoying that timeless cuisine. We are going to give a total miss to Pistachio Grill in future, given the abundant choices we have in Singapore. I am totally surprised by the reviewers who seem to have gone overboard with their unstinted praise for this restaurant and its Chef.

Hopefully the restaurant will learn from its mistakes and challenges, and provide a better ambience for its diners coupled with serious quality of food. All the best!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

03 February 2018

 

eGovernment Citizen Services


Recently, I went with my mother to the Passport Service Kendra (Centre) located not far from my home in Chennai, India. We both were dreading the fact that it won’t be an easy task to spend a few hours, waiting in various queues and chasing our documents from counter to counter. Our requirement was rather simple – obtain a new passport for my mother in place of her earlier expired passport which she had not renewed on time.

However, our experience far exceeded our best expectations and it also beat out the Singapore experience of fast eGovernment service to citizens. Of course, this is only one such service, and we do not as yet know the status at other government offices in India, and cannot vouch for the same without experiencing the same.

My mother was totally taken aback at the very fast service that she got at the Passport Service Centre. We were out of that office in exactly 30 minutes! It was just amazing!! I knew that the service level for senior citizens would be faster than for the others, and it was true. What I was not prepared for was the very fast turnaround at each counter – my mother’s case was probably tagged at each service counter as she is a senior citizen. Further, since we went with all the necessary documentation, and followed all the instructions given in the appointment receipt, there was no delay at any of the counters. I witnessed several youngsters encountering problems at the counters since their documents were incomplete – I do not yet understand how younger folks can be so careless, not only that, some were even arguing with the counter staff and delaying the others patiently waiting in the queue.

Nevertheless, it was a rather (and, probably the first) pleasant experience for us. When we walked out of the office, my mother could not believe that it was over in such a short time. The mandatory police verification was waived for her, and when my mother asked the officer when she would get her new passport, she was in for a total shock – the officer replied in a nonchalant manner that she would get it in about a week’s time via Speed Post.

Things are clearly changing for the better in India. Of course, there are thousands of things which need to be fixed, and it is going to be a long and arduous journey over the next 5 to 10 years. However, I believe that we must celebrate every small success like this experience wherein a citizen enjoyed the government service in a fast, expeditious manner, in a good environment (clean office with proper chairs to sit and wait, and clearly demarcated counter zones), for the service fee that he or she pays to the government. I do not know how this service is delivered in rural areas or small second tier towns – there may not be internet availability, and it would be hard to schedule appointment or make online payments (which I did).

I should say that this experience has totally changed my perception. However, let me see how this goes on and how other critical services are delivered without hitches or hurdles like in the past. People from India will understand why I am stating this………

Overall, great service to senior citizens, and Kudos to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, for rendering this service to the citizens.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

02 February 2018