Cryptic script

The Thirumailai (Mylapore) station of Chennai’s elevated train system (MRTS) has this sign pointing out their reservation centre. (Despite what it says, you don’t reserve computers there: you reserve seats on trains.)

The sign is in Tamil, English and… what’s the third language?

My guess is it’s an encoded insult to Hindi.

(photo credit: my wife krithika)

Cryptic script

The Thirumailai (Mylapore) station of Chennai’s elevated train system (MRTS) has this sign pointing out their reservation centre. (Despite what it says, you don’t reserve computers there: you reserve seats on trains.)

The sign is in Tamil, English and… what’s the third language?

My guess is it’s an encoded insult to Hindi.

(photo credit: my wife krithika)

Beyond chutzpah, Indian style

Every few months I receive, generally from some well-meaning but unthinking source, a mail claiming that India’s national anthem was written in honour of Britain’s King George V. Today’s version begins “Did you know the following about our national anthem, I didnt (sic)” and ends “Please dont(sic) break the chain lets see how many people are coming to know about it” which suggests that it may have started life as a joke. Indeed it would be a joke if it didn’t show up in my inbox (and on numerous websites) with such regularity. As it is, it proves my contention that right-wingers have absolutely no sense of humour, irony or subtlety.

The true story, well described here, is that Tagore was asked to compose a song in the King’s honour in 1911 when he visited Calcutta; and he did write this song for that occasion. But the song is certainly not in the British king’s honour. It basically flips off the king by proclaiming that there is a higher deity that rules the land. But I suppose this point is too subtle for some.

It is exceedingly distasteful that Tagore, one of the greatest figures India has produced, a man who was associated with the freedom movement for decades, should have his patriotism questioned by the sort of scum who destroy historical archives and wreck hospitals, descendants of the scum who assassinated Gandhi. And it is repugnant that such rubbish continues its way around the world’s inboxes, forwarded by, as I said, well-meaning but unthinking people.

Meanwhile, over in the new world, Bush, who used his father’s influence to avoid combat, can persuade his people that Kerry, the Vietnam veteran, has a dodgy war record. I wonder where the right-wing, everywhere, gets such chutzpah.

Dylan recording in modern times

So yesterday I picked up Dylan’s(*) latest CD, the one that has been getting rave reviews and even topped the charts in the US.

My reaction? First — the sound is every bit as bad as Dylan complains (“Atrocious… these songs probably sounded 10 times better in the studio when we recorded ’em.”) Except that he blames it on modern recording technology and, in particular, on CDs, which he says “are small. There’s no stature to it.”

No, the medium is not the problem. I have a few hundred CDs and most of them, whether originally recorded in the ’30s or the ’00s, sound excellent — as does a lot of live audio (in particular, the soundboard recordings) that you can pick up from places like archive.org. The problem in Dylan’s case seems to be an excess of reverb and echo (it sounds a bit like Phil Spector’s disasters from the 1970s) combined with a “flattening” of the dynamic range, so that all the instruments, and Dylan’s own voice, have roughly the same volume. As a result it all sounds indistinct and muddy — or, in Dylan’s words, “no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like … static.” Dylan should get himself some new sound engineers.

Musically the band is competent. It seems extreme of Dylan to call them “the best band he’s ever had” (what about The Band?) but they do their job well. And the words? Mostly they’re reworkings of old folk and blues tunes (and I don’t see why Dylan can claim music-writing credit for “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”, but maybe he figured that nearly all twelve-bar blues songs have the same tune anyway).

And the lyrics are disappointing. First, I find it hard to follow them by listening, and second, even if I “read along” (on the web — my CD booklet did not contain lyrics) they don’t seem to mean anything. “Visions of Johanna” didn’t seem to mean anything either, but it seemed to speak directly and insistently to its listener. Not these songs. Taken as poetry, they’re pretty bad, and the messages seem pretty naive too. (“There’s an evenin’ haze settlin’ over town / Starlight by the edge of the creek / The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down / Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak / Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory / It’s a new path that we trod / They say low wages are a reality / If we want to compete abroad”). While it doesn’t plumb depths such as 1983’s “License to kill” (“Oh, man has invented his doom / First step was touching the moon”) or his late-1970s born-again music, it doesn’t soar to any particular heights either.

Comparisons are odious, so I’ll be odious. The other elderly poet-singer enjoying a renewed burst of activity is Leonard Cohen, who released his last album (“Dear Heather”) in 2004, and followed it up this year with a book of poetry (“Book of longing”) and an album where he doesn’t sing or perform but contributes lyrics (Anjani’s “Blue Alert”). Most of “Blue Alert”, and much of “Dear Heather”, really is poetry set to music, and in songs like “Undertow” and the title song from Dear Heather he says more in a stanza than Dylan does in ten.

Cohen tells a story of how he and Dylan were sitting talking in a cafe in Paris; at that time Cohen had been impressed by Dylan’s “I and I” (in fact he’s an outspoken admirer of Dylan), while Dylan had been performing Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in concert. Dylan asked Cohen how long it took him to write “Hallelujah”, and Cohen said two years. Then Cohen asked Dylan how long it took to write “I and I”, and Dylan said 15 minutes.

On this occasion I wish Dylan had taken a bit longer over his lyrics.

All the same, this is probably his best album since “Desire” thirty years ago.

(*)update – I mean Bob, of course

Blogging musicians

Sometime back I found an official Neil Young anti-war blog. I was impressed for a moment, but it appeared that he did not himself blog there, though it was “officially” his. (And for some reason, the most recent post is dated May 2007.)

More recently I came across David Knopfler’s very lefty blog. David is no Mark, having extricated himself from Dire Straits after an early Communiqué, but his music (available at his myspace page) seems pretty listenable.

I came across David’s myspace page by way of Anjani’s. David is the brother and one-time backing guitarist of a well-known musician with a sandpapery voice; Anjani is the girlfriend and long-time backing singer of another musician with a gruff (or, as he puts it, “golden“) voice, Leonard Cohen. More to the point, Anjani has recently released a fine album, Blue Alert, that combines Cohen’s moody lyrics with her own tunes and musical arrangements: minimalistic jazz, mostly just her piano, a relief from Cohen’s own recent pop-synth arrangements. Outstanding stuff. Other reviewers have said that she sounds like a female Cohen or that Cohen’s voice (though it doesn’t actually appear) “permeates the album like smoke”, but I think she brings a quite different dimension to his words. (Compare, for instance, this version of “Nightingale” with the one on “Dear Heather”.)

I don’t know whether Anjani blogs, but she apparently reads and posts to them, actually getting into an amusing discussion with a reviewer who expressed his desire to bed her (simultaneously with two other female singers). LC himself chips in at one point.

I look forward to more from LC and Anjani. More music I mean, but the blog exchange was fun to read, too.

A scandal in Philadelphia

Today I came across this news (well, it’s some weeks old, but I didn’t know until a blogger friend linked it). A professor emeritus at Wharton, one of the top business schools in the US, was arrested on paedophilia charges.

The remarkable thing is that he’s been in trouble before: he was caught in a sting operation in 1993, did not admit guilt but acknowledged the evidence against him, and in 1999 was sentenced to five years probation; the judge opined that he would “respond very appropriately”. Indeed he did: this time he supplied even better evidence, in the form of mini-DVDs depicting himself engaged in sex acts with children.

I can picture the conversation with his lawyer. It would sound like Holmes and the king in “A scandal in Bohemia”:

“How are they to prove you’re a paedophile?”
“There are the trips to Thailand.”
“Pooh, pooh! Academic research.”
“My laptop.”
“Stolen.”
“The videos on it.”
“Planted.”
“The mini-DVDs.”
“Bought.”
“I was in the mini-DVDs.”
“Oh dear! That is very bad!…”

Far-out resort

Recently I attended a meeting held at one of the numerous swanky new resorts that surround Indian cities these days (in this case Bangalore). It was bright and shiny with several “quirks”. Well, quirky is cool, so here are some advertising lines they could use:

Be different: Their shower taps turn the opposite way of every other tap in the world: clockwise to open, anticlockwise to close. Makes it easy to scald yourself if you feel the urge.

Farm-fresh drinks: Some of India’s best vineyards are in the neighbourhood, and the brochure suggests going out for “vine-tasting”, particularly recommending “a glass of red vine” with lunch.

Let it all hang out: Almost, but not quite, hidden by the bed and the bedside table was a hole in the wall from which numerous wires were trailing under the table. We noticed only as we were checking out though, so no sniffer dogs were called in.

Get high on pot: The toilet seat was uncomfortably high, and sloped backwards: it felt a bit like riding a horse.

Two cities

One more visit to Bangalore, one more trip to a watering hole after a day’s work, one more inevitable turn of conversation comparing Bangalore (where I spent 6 years as a student) with Chennai (where I live now).

The plus points of Bangalore are obvious: the weather, and the watering holes (the sort you can sit around in having a good time). The former Chennai can’t compete with. As for the latter, Chennai has its share but they tend to be either expensive or illegal, and that’s thanks to the politicians. It’s not a prohibitionist city — far from it — but the trade is government controlled, and only the larger hotels can get alcohol licences. And the government-run shops only sell the cheapest and ghastliest junk.

(For those who haven’t heard of Chennai, it used to be called Madras until the politicians got at that.)

In addition, Bangalore has a greater concentration of high-quality academic institutions than any other Indian city. This was its claim to fame long before it became an international synonym for outsourcing.

So what, I was asked, are the plus points of Chennai? Off-hand, I could come up with two — the beaches, and the relatively disciplined traffic. (I couldn’t have imagined saying this two years ago when I moved there. Chennai’s traffic is horrendous. It’s a mess, it’s maddening, it’s chaos. But it is far better than Bangalore and Delhi, the two Indian cities I visit most often.)

But it goes beyond. Chennai, I think, is a nice mix of relaxed-ness (like Bangalore 10 years ago) and happening-ness. You get good films, good theatre, good music, good food. Infrastructure is stressed, like in all Indian cities, but not at breaking point like in Bangalore. Roads are good, electricity is fairly reliable. And perhaps for all those reasons, there’s a bunch of very interesting people living in the city, that I’m just beginning to get familiar with.

And the weather hasn’t turned out so ghastly after all. It’s pretty bad for about 3 months in the summer, but I work in an air-conditioned office and my home gets a good sea breeze in the late afternoons and evenings. And as for the monsoon rains, Chennai handled them much better than Bangalore or Mumbai last year.

Come to think of it, I’m happy about Chennai’s weather: if it had been like Bangalore’s, the city would have been choked worse than Bangalore years ago.

W and music


Today I picked up a CD from my shelf that I hadn’t listened to in a while, and was struck by the resemblance between Chet Atkins and someone else.

And some time back Jon Stewart commented on another connection between Dubya and music… [update – it’s about 4 minutes into the thing]

W and music


Today I picked up a CD from my shelf that I hadn’t listened to in a while, and was struck by the resemblance between Chet Atkins and someone else.

And some time back Jon Stewart commented on another connection between Dubya and music… [update – it’s about 4 minutes into the thing]