Sunday, 20 February 2011

Sheep Cellulose, Gutenberg’s Rift and Civil Servitude

Tell me this.

The Digestive products of herbage consisting of cellulose in sheep are
a. glucose
b. maltose
c. dextrins, maltose and glucose
d. fatty acids

An extract from a test paper on agricultural science? Biochemistry?

Hardly. It's from the General Science Section of the UPSC conducted Civil Services Preliminary. Here's another

What is meant by "willy-willy"
a. tropical cyclone near Australia
b. An Earthquake
c. A very high tide
d. tropical cyclone near India

It's only an iron will(y) that prevents me from making the requisite comments involving ailing sports masters, female villains and Diphallic Terata.

These are sample questions from the general studies paper. Watching my nephew struggle through reams and reams of paper - Brilliant Tutorial Notes, Tata McGraw Hill Manuals the size of single volume editions of the Complete J.R.R.Tolkein makes me wonder what the fuck its all about.

What’s next? Multiple choice questions to identify Paris Hilton’s dog?

How does most of the stuff even matter to a civil servant?  Is the district collector supposed to recognize podzolisation in his or her province and get the farmers of the area to turn their fields to pastures? I get that India's bureaucracy is arthritic and making changes near impossible, but if I had to go through all this I would certainly not be interested in making anywhere a better place.

Ultimately, the result is the most corrupt bureaucracy in Asia and one of the slowest moving. I mentioned this to my nephew and he nearly tore my head off, talking about national diversity and the insulation of the educated middle class from the polity and a hundred other things that make system change difficult to impossible here.

And that’s true too. By and large, the exams work. The quality of people who make it through the IAS is high. But even the most principled ones can at best hope to end up like this – if they don’t kow tow to the closest elected thug and end up cleaning footwear.

Even so, I still don’t get why someone who has to deal with law and order or revenue collection and policy implementation must learn the Gutenberg’s Discontinuity has little to do with pioneering printers and is the boundary between the earth’s core and mantle.

And the sheep shit? No clue.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


I really tripped out on the late Michael Turner’s art, and I think the best looking comic I have ever seen is his work in Superman/Batman Supergirl – written by Jeph Loeb and inked by Curt Steigerwald.  It’s a retelling of Supergirl’s arrival on earth – and is, as far as I know, unconnected to the main DC timelines.

The animated version was disappointing. The biggest hink was finding Darkseid voiced by Andre Braugher – instead of Michael Ironside.Not even the presence of squee queen of the SciFi genre, Summer Glau, could undo this.

The second was the art. The art was supposed to resemble Turner’s rendering of the characters, the way that Public Enemies art was supposed to resemble Ed McGuiness’ work on the original comic title. But the art seems off. The actual art just does not come anywhere near the brilliance of the work Turner and Steigerwald put in the comic.

And finally

And take a look at the movie

Bats and Darkseid: You Dare?

Tell me which works better.

Sunday, 13 February 2011


Went to the Jawaharlal Nehru Zoological Park. I had visited it about 30 years back and had been pretty impressed. But then, when you are 41, it’s a depressing experience.

Weekend, right? Lots of people. We entered the zoo, lone patches of colour in a black sea of the burkha clad. And their children. Twenty bucks per adult, ten rupees for a camera. No Plastics, please. Pushed our way through the crowds to the first enclosure.  Chelonidis Nigra. Why Nigra, I wonder. They looked more gray-green than black. There were two in the enclosure. The first had splashes of paint – or some other white stuff on its side. The other had several pieces of well masticated chewing gum stuck on its shell.

I usually like kids, but at that moment, I admit I wanted to commit absolute and total childicide at that point. Starting with the ones hooting and giggling and trying to add their contributions to the poor creature’s shell.

Hyderabad 001

Things got slightly better when we went through the monkey enclosures.

There were some good specimens – lion tail macaques, the ubiquitous langurs and there was this specimen – Captain Allan from Tintin would have wondered who this guy reminded him of. “What a conk” Indeed.


And then there were these. I had to take a picture of her bottom.

I don’t know if you’ve read Gerald Durrell’s The Stationary Ark. The book details the setting up of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust at Les Augres Manor in Jersey. There’s a bit where he recounts a visit by Princess Anne (The horsefaced Brit one)  and he’s showing her around and he comes to the baboon cage. The baboon courteously shows the princess his bottom, and Gerry, at his babbling best – says something like – “What a splendid bottom, wouldn’t you love to have a bottom like that?”. The princess examines the proffered posterior closely and then, replies –“No, Mr. Durrell, I would not”.

Hyderabad 027 Then it was off to the carnivore cages. The first one we saw was a reasonably large enclosure. And at point at the greatest possible distance from all visitors, a white tiger lay sleeping. I don’t know if he was moth eaten or magnificent, all I could feel was a bit of disappointment that he had neither company nor energy.

Hyderabad 032

The next enclosure was paisa vasool. This one contained a full grown male tiger, and was he magnificent. Huge bugger, and obviously hungry. He was prowling up and down the the  keeper’s door and didn’t mind posing for pictures.

Cormac Standish Varadachari

Beyond that was the Jaguar enclosure. After Cormac Standish Varadachari, the lone jaguar wasn't impressive. But the keeper was feeding him, and he drew the crowds. The jaguar enclosure was much more of a cage. A green painted dome of green painted wire.  Beyond the jaguar enclosure was an identical dome – this time for a distinctly mangy looking leopard. From there, it was onto the large and comfortable layout of Hyderabad’s own Keith and Roderick – a couple of sacked out lions.

Hyderabad 042

The board outside their quarters was titled “Panthera Leo”. So when did that happen? The last I knew, lions were Felis Leo. So when did they stop being Felis?  And another thing. There were two males in the enclosure. No females. And both seemed content with the situation. Have they resigned themselves to permacelibacy? Or just occasional buggery? Don’t they have issues over territory?

Hyderabad 046Things got bleaker from there. A single  dhole. A single striped hyena. A single Asian Black bear, looking sad and forlorn. It was sitting alone in its enclosure, looking at us, as though begging us to get it out of there. There were two trees in its territory, and both had their trunks covered by rusted sheets. Didn’t they need the wood on those trunks for their territorial markings?
It’s possible the bear was completely happy in its solitude. Maybe the metal sheets rolled around the tree trunks were for its own protection. But I couldn’t shake of the feeling of despair that seemed to radiate out from the creature.

I couldn’t take much more. I just had to get out of there. But my cousins were tired of walking, and we went to a soft drink and snack shop within the grounds. The place was packed. Every now and then a pair of trash collectors would struggle their way through the messy picnickers, picking up discarded “Mineral Water” bottles – to be returned to the stall for Rs. 10 per bottle. Tetrapacks and plastic bags don’t fetch anything, so they remain as litter.

We went down to the reptile house. A rat snake. A rock python. A reticulated python, fresh from moult, its old skin discarded near the glass. A Russel’s  viper. A cobra. A vine snake. A monitor lizard or two. No hamadryads. No kraits. No pit vipers or saw scales. Seemed pitiful, compared to the Snake Park. 

The place left me with mixed emotions. One part was irritation at my own ignorance. Were the animals happy? The Hyderabad zoo is supposed to be one of the biggest in India. They claim to

“ have successfully bred exotic and indigenous animals and birds in captivity including the Indian rhino, Asiatic lion, tiger, panther, gaur, orangutan, crocodile, and python. To counter the depletion of the natural populations, we have bred several animals at the zoo and rehabilitated them in various deer parks and sanctuaries.

But I didn’t see orang utan or rhino. And most of the carnivores were single specimens. Its possible that they had their mates stashed away in zenanas, out of sight. This is Hyderabad, after all.

Why is it so hard to realize that zoos are vital here. That you have a better chance of building tiny but increasing captive populations than saving them in the wild? Oh yes, saving them in the wild is better, no arguments there – but how is anyone going to do it with our gluttony for resources – land and firewood and everything rapacious and steadily affluent populations need? It’s quite probable that the last wild tiger in India won’t last the decade.  Or for that matter, any tiger in the wild, anywhere.

And its not just tigers. There’s a whole list of endangered creatures in India – none of which seemed to be in the zoo. I mean – how many of us have seen Salim Ali’s Fruit Bat? Or the Red Panda? Let’s not even go near the Snow Leopard – which seems to be approaching Unicorn status. Or the great Indian Rhino.

It’s not that the Hyd zoo is noticeably short of funding. There’s construction work happening. The crowds are huge. But the money doesn’t go to the animals. Its for the junta who come to watch and hoot and throw chips and spit gum at the animals. Oh, and the best kept enclosure? The curator’s home.

I don’t want to whinge, but I can’t help doing it. I mean, isn’t conservation a fashionable cause? You have "Save the Tiger” ads starring Dhoni and Jackie Chan. You have Bollywood starlets giving each other prizes for environmental activism. Zoo Tycoon sells hundreds of thousands of copies. Why is it hard to have a good zoo? Is it because in India, we really don’t care for our fantastic fauna? It’s certainly not because we place poverty alleviation or suicidal farmers higher on our cause list.

I know the answer, of course. It’s easy to wring your hands and moan about the nation, its much harder to actually do something. But surely there must be some NGO or the other that does work with zoos? A smart ad/publicity campaign to raise funds, and a couple of committed NGOs could do wonders. I am, as doubtless many others are, willing to contribute money. But the actual work? SEP

So I’m back now. Feeling down. Feeling fucking impotent. I would have been better off playing Civilization V or DoTA all day. Not Zoo Tycoon, though.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Mazes of Menace

Recently, you have begun to find yourself unfulfilled and distant in your daily occupation. Strange dreams of prospecting, stealing, crusading, and combat have haunted you in your sleep for many months, but you aren't sure of the reason. You wonder whether you have in fact been having those dreams all your life, and somehow managed to forget about them until now. Some nights you awaken suddenly and cry out, terrified at the vivid recollection of the strange and powerful creatures that seem to be lurking behind every corner of the dungeon in your dream. Could these details haunting your dreams be real? As each night passes, you feel the desire to enter the mysterious caverns near the ruins grow stronger. Each morning, however, you quickly put the idea out of your head as you recall the tales of those who entered the caverns before you and did not return. Eventually you can resist the yearning to seek out the fantastic place in your dreams no longer. After all, when other adventurers came back this way after spending time in the caverns, they usually seemed better off than when they passed through the first time. And who was to say that all of those who did not return had not just kept going?

Asking around, you hear about a bauble, called the Amulet of Yendor by some, which, if you can find it, will bring you great wealth. One legend you were told even mentioned that the one who finds the amulet will be granted immortality by the gods. The amulet is rumored to be somewhere beyond the Valley of Gehennom, deep within the Mazes of Menace. Upon hearing the legends, you immediately realize that there is some profound and undiscovered reason that you are to descend into the caverns and seek out that amulet of which they spoke. Even if the rumors of the amulet's powers are untrue, you decide that you should at least be able to sell the tales of your adventures to the local minstrels for a tidy sum, especially if you encounter any of the terrifying and magical creatures of your dreams along the way. You spend one last night fortifying yourself at the local inn, becoming more and more depressed as you watch the odds of your success being posted on the inn's walls getting lower and lower.

In the morning you awake, collect your belongings, and set off for the dungeon. After several days of uneventful travel, you see the ancient ruins that mark the entrance to the Mazes of Menace. It is late at night, so you make camp at the entrance and spend the night sleeping under the open skies. In the morning, you gather your gear, eat what may be your last meal out side, and enter the dungeon...

So begins the Nethack guidebook. Your only introduction to the Mazes of Menace. One of the hardest games ever. One of the simplest premises ever. Go down a bunch of dungeons, recover an Amulet. Get out.

Oh, you can go in as a human, a gnome, a dwarf, an orc or an elf. If you are playing the Slash’em variant, you could be a Drow, a Doppelganger, a Lycanthrope or a Vampire.

Your could be lawful, neutral or chaotic, and will have an appropriate aligned deity.

You could be – oh – so many things – an archaeologist with a fedora and a bullwhip, a barbarian answering the call of Crom, a caveman – a newly trained troglodyte, heralded as the Chosen one, a healer- starting off as a Rhizotomist. Perhaps a tourist - praying to Blind Io, Offler or the Lady, trying to find the Amulet with the Platinum Yendorian Express Card.

Whatever you are, whoever you are, you start off at level one of the Mazes of Menace - a series of randomly generated dungeons - with ASCII characters representing everything from you - @ , a white at, walls , armour  - boxes and chests.

And the bestiary?

abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz. ABCEDFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ. ':

How do you fight? By moving on to a square with a monster on it. But thats not the only thing you can do. You can dig through walls. You can find secret rooms. You can drink from fountains and use toilets. And if youre lucky - and lawful- you can dip a longsword into a pool and have the lady in the lake transform it into Excalibur. You can eat a mushroom and start hallucinating that your pet is a Mother-In-Law or a PushmiPullyu Llama. You can kill a long worm and enchant its tooth into one of the best dagger based weapons - a crysknife.

You can polymorph yourself - and if you can cotrol your polymorphism, you can become a dragon  - or even better a cockatrice. Why a cockatrice? Because you can lay eggs. No ordinary eggs. You can lay petrification grenade eggs. Or if you are a dragon, you can use your breath weapon - burn your enemies, freeze them, melt them in acid - or disintegrate them.

You will come across all kinds of stuff as you travel. Good stuff, bad stuff, artifacts. Say a prayer if you find a named lawful silver saber - the amazing Grayswandir. (Withywindle isn't there though). If you are playing the Slashem variant - you may find the Wallet of Perseus, an artifact Bag of Holding with 6 times the capability of a normal Bag of Holding. Or you may find the Houchou. A weapon that instakills if it connects. What kind of weapon, you ask? It's a spoon.

There are special dungeons, too.  There are the Gnomish Mines, leading on to Dwarftown. There is the Oracle, who gives you answers to questions you don't need answered.There are the quests - tailored by class. A samurai deals with Ashikaga Takauji. A Valkyrie has to fight Lord Surtur. A caveman or woman Tiamat. A barbarian has to fight Thoth Amon for the hear of Ahriman. Lord Carnarvon instructs your archaeologist to retrieve the Orb of Detection from The Minion of Huhetotl. Or youre a knight? King Arthur commands you to retrieve the Magic Mirror of Merlin from the Dragon Ixoth. A tourist? Twoflower wants the Platinum Yendorian Express Card- which unfortunately is in the Thieves Guilds Hall, deep in the Shades. And you know what they call a horse in the Shades.

So what can you do? Fly? Sure. Walk on water? Get the right boots, and no problem? Genocide entire species of monster - no worries. The fabled scroll of genocide will do ya. Bless em - by dipping them in Holy Water and you can wipe out the entire class of families of the monsters you wish to destroy. Tip - start with the Liches.

And then theres all the things you can do with cockatrices. I won't even get into that.

If you’re lucky, you get the amulet, make your way past the elemental planes of Earth, Air, Water and Fire to the Astral plane to sacrifice the Amulet to your God – and you meet three of your compadres – guys mentioned in the Bible – Revelations Chapter 6 – Pestilence, Famine and Death. By now, you are the other Horseman.

Oh – and how long does it usually take you to get this far? Anywhere from a year to a decade. It took me seven years for me to complete the game. My only ascension, Tez the Samurai. Haven’t done it again, though it’s supposed to get easier.

It doesn't matter what your games are - whether you’re the Solitaire/Minesweeper corpo type, or the hookey playing Seal Clubber from the Kingdom of Loathing or the master of multiplayer Halo – the Pwner of N00bs across XBox live – or the Raja of the RPG, the boss of Bethesda, Blizzard and Bioware – you have not seen gameplay that comes close to the gameplay NetHack provides.Or as this guy puts it -While the graphics may seem primitive by today's standards, today's gameplay seems primitive by NetHack standards. So will gameplay twenty years from now. By NetHack standards, positively paleolithic.

There’s a Telugu proverb about books- some are like grapes – pop them in your mouth, and you get their sweetness, others are like bananas – you have to peel them to get the edible stuff. And there are those like coconuts, where you have to take a machete to them, before you can even think of peeling after which you have to crack the nut to get at their sweetness.

NetHack is the ultimate coconut. Once you get past the shells and the fibre, the payoff is incredible