Thursday, May 26, 2011

The new Yahoo! Mail sucks

Two weeks ago, I switched to the new Yahoo! Mail that is supposed to take on Google, and I'm regretting it bitterly. The Search function works maybe one time out of ten; and I need search desperately because of a personal quirk: I don't maintain a contacts list or an address book. It's silly, I know, but I fear sending out a virus to friends through the account. The only way to prevent this from happening, as far as I can tell, is not to have a folder of addresses that the virus can access.
Absent an address book, I depend on the Search function to help me out every day. Without it, I'm left trawling through 14000 mails seeking the addresses I need. It's been a nightmare because I've had to send out invites to dozens of people for an event in Delhi tomorrow. Luckily Facebook's functioning well. Small mercies.
Back when I worked in a dotcom, Yahoo! was what every website aspired to be. Now we ask how the company could ever have been a dominant force in tech, the way we wonder how Britain ever managed to rule the world.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bashar the Basher

My fortnight's column on Yahoo! is about Bashar al-Assad and other dictators, and can be read here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cops and robbers: dumb and dumber

Early this month, my sister Renuka's Mitsubishi Pajero was stolen from her building's compound. A compound ought to be secure, but for some reason this one has a gate at the back. The guard was hanging out, or napping, at the front door while thieves managed to break into the car and drive it out the back gate.
By the time the robbery was discovered at least five hours had passed and the thieves could easily have been at the state's border. It was pretty devastating. Renuka and my brother-in-law Ashutosh filed a complaint, but the police said a professional gang had been targetting Pajeros for four years and chances of the SUV being found were slim.
Then, a week ago, Renuka received a call from Jalpaiguri police station saying they had her car. Jalpaiguri is on the Nepal / Bhutan border, so the thieves apparently aimed to drive it right out of India. They'd crossed a dozen states seemingly without hassle, but were stopped in West Bengal by cops who felt they didn't appear to have the means to be driving an SUV. They asked the men, one Nepali, one Bihari, for their papers, which were not in order. They searched the car and found, wait for it, the car's original license plates in the dickey. Guys who couldn't throw out license plates were unlikely to have erased chassis numbers. The police traced the Mitsubishi dealer through the vehicle identification number; the dealer gave them my sister's contact. And so it was that, out of the blue, Renuka got a call that lifted the depression which had hung about her house for two weeks.
Maybe the thieves believed they could bribe their way out of any tough spot. Maybe the police were more alert and more honest because West Bengal's administration has just changed after 34 years of Communist rule. Whatever the story behind their arrest, it was very nice of the robbers to preserve evidence of their crime, and to keep it in the first place anybody would look.
The car hasn't actually been returned yet. After impounding it, the Jalpaiguri police asked for the original FIR to be faxed to them. The Versova cops reluctantly agreed to do it, but then forgot, or decided that helping to convict criminals was not part of their job description. Finally, Ashutosh faxed his own copy of the complaint, and that should hopefully do the trick.

The Central Bureau of Investigation has shown the world exactly how incompetent it is by making public a list of terrorists and criminals it claims are being sheltered by Pakistan, only for the media to discover one fearsome militant hanging out in a suburb of Bombay, and another lodged in Arthur Road jail. No doubt more of the missing terrorists will soon be found in plain sight. When I read stories like this, I wonder how police manage to catch any criminals at all. Well, the story of my sister's car indicates that, if our cops are dumb, our thieves are often dumber.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Vadilal does a Häagen-Dazs

Vadilal ice-cream had retreated for years to its home base, Ahmedabad, but is now taking another stab at capturing a chunk of the market in other Indian cities. It is advertising a new range called Vadilal Gourmet. The ad, which you can see here:

is a straightforward copy of commercials Häagen-Dazs has run for a while:

The question is: can Vadilal's Belgian Chocolate flavour mimic the Häagen-Dazs taste? Now that would be a copy worth checking out.

Djokovic rejuvenates tennis

I can't remember the last time I watched a tennis match, outside of Grand Slams, that didn't involve Rafael Nadal playing Roger Federer. After years of those two dominating the game, there's finally somebody else to look out for. Last night I watched a tired Novak Djokovic summon up the strength to beat Nadal for the fourth successive time, and for the second time on clay, Nadal's favourite surface.
Djokovic's accomplishment eluded Roger Federer even at his best. That's because Federer's game has always had one slight weakness Nadal could exploit on clay. The Swiss master finds it difficult to hit high bouncing balls for winners from the baseline on his backhand. That chink in his armour was exploited for years by Nadal to get out of tough spots; anytime Federer seemed to be taking charge of a rally, Nadal would go deep to the backhand corner; he could hit the ball relatively slowly and gain the fraction of a second he needed to recover position, knowing Federer was unlikely to hit a clean winner in response. Djokovic nullified that tactic last evening, repeatedly climbing on high balls and crashing double handed backhands cross-court with tremendous power and accuracy.
The final was patchy, with phases of sublimity followed by some ordinary shot-making. I felt that Djokovic, exhausted from his semi-final win over Andy Murray, needed to close the match in two sets; had it gone to the decider, Nadal would've been the favourite. Despite squandering three match points, Djokovic pulled off an incredible win.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Is Jeff Koons going cheap?

A news item about the Sotheby's sale of contemporary art last week read, "Jeff Koons' "Pink Panther" disappointed on Tuesday night at Sotheby's, falling about 15% short of its lowball estimate and selling for $16,882,500". You know you're living in a weird world when a porcelain figure of a Hollywood star embracing a cartoon character sells for over 16 million dollars, and yet disappoints the seller.

Pink Panther, created in 1988, first sold at auction in 1999, when it was acquired by the media tycoon Peter Brant for 1.8 million dollars. That was a record for Jeff Koons at the time, and you'd think a 900% mark-up in the 12 years since would seem impressive. Apparently not.

The man who shelled out nearly 17 million for the sculpture was an anonymous Asian telephone bidder.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Osama, icons and iconoclasm

My Yahoo! column today is about Bin Laden, Wahhabis and Puritans, icons and iconoclasts. Read it here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Digvijay Singh and bad old Congress habits

Digvijay Singh, who, a few months back, lied about phone conversations with Hemant Karkare, is a throwback to the worst sort of Congress 'secularism'. It's a secularism which panders to religious conservatives among Hindus as well as Muslims. It began under Indira Gandhi and peaked in Rajiv Gandhi's time, symbolised by the twin acts of overturning the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case, and opening the gates of the Babri Masjid to allow a shilanyas to take place. These actions, instead of pleasing members of both communities, led instead to sectarian polarisation, and to Muslim as well as Hindu partisans being able to speak with some justice of the Congress favouring the other side.
Under Manmohan Singh, the party has generally avoided dabbling in religious issues, which is great. But Digvijay Singh, as I said, is a throwback. As Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, he tried to counter the BJP by launching his own campaign for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter; extolling the virtues of cow urine; and accusing his opponent Uma Bharti of offering non-vegetarian cake to Hanuman.
Recently, he's switched to feeding off Muslim resentment. Yesterday, for example, he criticised the United States for not giving Osama bin Laden a sufficiently Muslim burial. Well, if he has a problem with Osama's final rites, he should be even more critical of the way the 26/11 terrorists were treated. The bodies of the nine dead men were embalmed, in direct contravention of Islamic norms, and kept on ice at the J J Hospital morgue for fifteen whole months, though orthodox Islam demands a burial within 24 hours. We have no idea if any religious rites were conducted before their bodies were finally placed in the earth.
Digvijay Singh's own party rules Maharashtra state; why didn't he lobby for a proper religious burial for the nine Bombay terrorists, since he has so much concern for mass murderers?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Thor gets hammered

A piece of advice: do not pay good money and waste two hours of your life watching Thor. Not on Tyr's day, Woden's day, Thor's day, or Freya's day. Not, that is, unless you are about twelve years old or have children that age who want to go see the movie.
One major problem with it is that the story focuses on a conflict in far off galaxies between Thor's people (who are alien beings taken to be gods when they visit the earth) and some chaps called Frost Giants. Humans are largely extraneous to the happenings.
A second issue is the lighting; James Cameron got it right first time; he knew every frame had to be brightened to the nth degree to make an impact after passing through the dark 3-D viewing glasses. No other director has quite understood that, and Kenneth Branagh certainly didn't get the memo.
Kenneth Branagh: he had an extraordinary talent for making Shakespeare's words understandable to wide audiences. Actors in productions of Shakespeare usually leave me trying hard to catch what's being said, though I've read most of the plays, some of them multiple times. Branagh had a rare gift. Maybe he still has it, I don't know if he's still acting on stage much.
With Thor, though, he's seriously compromised his reputation as a film-maker.