23 July 2016

'Star Trek Beyond': Review

Review of 'Star Trek Beyond':

In 2009, Paramount Pictures rebooted the Star Trek movie series. Director J J Abrams and scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers series) made Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). For the third movie, Paramount made two disastrous changes. First, Abrams went away to direct Star Wars: Force Awakens. So they replaced him with Justin Lin (Fast & Furious series!). Second, scriptwriters Orci and Kurtzman were replaced with actor Simon Pegg (!!!) and rookie Doug Jung.

Hollywood action movies have a formula: beginning action scene + middle plot sequence + ending action scene. Star Trek Beyond follows this formula, but screws up 2 out of the 3 parts:
a) Beginning – Justin Lin's dal-roti is cars racing on the road, not spaceships fighting in space. So for the opening spacebattle sequence, he copies Michael Bay – yes, the jerky camerawork that gives you a headache. The over-complicated battle scene is badly shot and edited.
b) Middle – There is not much of a plot here. At best, it is a plot for one TV episode. Simon Pegg plays Scotty here, and Benji in the Mission Impossible series. His one-point agenda in writing this script was to give himself a Tom Cruise scene (hanging from a cliff). The entire middle is poorly written and directed.
c) Ending – Here Justin Lin dumps Michael Bay and tries his own thing. The result is a climax that is at least watchable. (Any Beastie Boys fans around? Kirk and co destroy an entire alien invasion fleet just by playing their song 'Sabotage'!)

The cast (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, etc) do the best they can with this average script. And why hire a good actor like Idris Elba (the villain) just to wear a plastic mask on his face? Heck, I could have done that job (for a lot less money). This year is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Hollywood has reduced the classic sci-fi saga to a mediocre product from its assembly line. Creator Gene Roddenberry must be rolling in his grave. Star Trek Beyond joins this year's big-budget duds: Star Wars: Force Awakens, Superman Vs Batman, Avengers: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse. Mainstream Hollywood is as dead as mainstream Bollywood. (STB has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 85%. This puts one more question mark on the honesty of American movie critics. The cynics seem to be the only honest guys around)

PS: I felt so guilty about dragging my parents to this B-grade show that in the interval I booked tickets for a Kannada movie for the next day – to atone for my sin :-p

13 July 2016

Universalism and Particularism

Everything in the world can be divided into two categories:
1. Universals – ideas, concepts, principles
2. Particulars – things, events, humans

# Giving importance to universals is universalism. Giving importance to particulars is particularism.

# 99% of humans are particularists. 1% of humans are universalists.

# Universals are fundamental. Particulars are expressions of universals.

# Universals are permanent. Particulars are temporary.

10 July 2016

2008 American Financial Crisis (AFC)

In 2005, Raghuram Rajan (IMF's chief economist) warned that America was headed for a major financial crisis. Most American economists ridiculed him. 3 years later, his words came true. The 2008 American Financial Crisis (AFC) was the worst since 1929. And it plunged all the industrialised countries (America, Europe, Japan) into the Great Recession - the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In 2010, Rajan wrote a book called 'Fault Lines: How hidden fractures still threaten the world economy' to explain the causes of AFC:

1. In 1980, something strange happened in America: the salaries of the majority of Americans stopped increasing - and instead started decreasing. Why? From 1980 onwards, technology started advancing very rapidly. So demand for high-skilled workers (with a college degree) went on increasing and demand for low-skilled workers (with a high-school degree) went on decreasing. So salaries for people with college degrees went on increasing, whereas salaries for people with high-school degrees went on decreasing. Majority of Americans do not have a college degree. Hence their salaries have gone on decreasing.

2. Since 1945, America has been having a recession almost every decade. But every time it recovered quickly: the lost jobs came back within a year. In 1991, another recession struck. But this time, the recovery was much slower: it took 2 years for the lost jobs to come back. As a result, President George Bush (senior) lost the election that year.

3. All industrialised countries have an unemployment support system. That is, the government pays money to unemployed people. America has the weakest unemployment support system among the industrialised countries. Both the money paid and the duration for which it is paid is the lowest. This made problem #2 worse.

4. In 1992, Bill Clinton became President. He had to deal with both the immediate problem #2 and also the longer-term problem #1. The solution for problem #1 (and also problem #2) is to increase the education level of the people. But this requires changing the education system - which is very difficult. So he chose an easier solution: to give low-interest loans to poor people, especially for buying houses. America's central bank - under its chief, Alan Greenspan - supported this solution by keeping the interest rate low.

5. In 2000, the dot-com bubble burst and America had another recession. This time the recovery was even slower than in 1991: it took 3 years for the lost jobs to come back. That year, George W Bush (junior) became President. Faced with a similar (but worse) problem as Clinton, he also opted for the same solution. He not only continued Clinton's scheme, but expanded it. And again, the central bank under Greenspan supported it.

6. Poor American families (mostly black and Latino/Hispanic) with no job, salary or property applied to banks for home loans - and got them. The banks packaged these loans together and converted them into 'financial assets'. They kept some of these 'assets' themselves and sold the rest to other financial companies (mutual funds, pension funds, etc). Rating agencies - whose job is to certify the quality of financial assets - gave these 'assets' a good rating.

7. With the government pushing more and more low-interest loans and poor families buying more and more houses, house prices went on increasing. The bubble went on growing. But at some point, the borrowers had to start repaying their loans - which they obviously could not do. The bubble finally burst in 2008. Borrowers started defaulting on their loans. And the whole process went into reverse gear - at a much faster speed. House prices crashed and the 'financial assets' became worthless overnight - bankrupting the banks and financial companies that owned them. The American government had to step in with a huge rescue package to save the largest banks.

'Fault Lines' is a very good book that dissects a complex topic and explains it in a simple language to people who are not economists.

03 July 2016

'Free State of Jones' (Slavery in America)

In 1600, white Europeans started going to America. Almost immediately, they also started 'importing' Africans and using them as slaves. Northern America is cold and dry, with rocky soil. Southern America is warm and wet, with fertile soil. So the south is good for large-scale agriculture. There, whites started large-scale plantations (of tobacco and cotton) using large numbers of slaves. By 1850, America had about 50 lakh slaves and slaves made up one-third of the south's population.

In 1861, the anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln became America's President. Immediately, the 11 southern states left America and declared themselves a separate country: the Confederate States of America (CSA). The north declared war, and the American Civil War began.

The south's rich planters - who owned slaves - took their states out of America and started the Civil War. But none of them (or their sons) fought in the war. All the soldiers in the south's army were ordinary farmers - who did not own slaves. One of them was a man called Newton Knight from Mississippi state's Jones district. Disgusted with this situation, he left the war and went back to his district. There he hid in a swamp/marsh with some blacks.

More soldiers started leaving the south's army. They went and joined Newton Knight. This band went on increasing in size. They started protecting the district's farmers from the looting raids of the south's army. Next they started fighting the south's army directly. Eventually they defeated it - and overthrew the south's control over their district. They declared their district to be a free country: the Free State of Jones. They held the south's army at bay till 1865 - when the north defeated the south and the Civil War ended.

In 2001, historian Victoria Bynum wrote a book about this episode. And now, director David Ross (Seabiscuit, Hunger Games) has made it into a movie - starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight.

David Ross has made Free State of Jones with a slow and precise style. This makes FSJ an excellent history movie, but not necessarily a mass entertainer. This is a pity. Because FSJ is an exciting and inspiring story - about slavery in America, about an amazing episode in America's history and the life of a true American hero. A movie like this should be seen by everybody. If only David Ross had spiced up FSJ with more drama and action (like Steven Spielberg), it would have achieved this objective. This was especially important this year - when the Donald Trump campaign has shown how strong racism is in America. So Free State of Jones is - unfortunately - a golden opportunity missed.

When will Hollywood make a movie on the anti-slavery crusader John Brown - one of America's greatest heroes?

02 July 2016

GDP Components: India and Other Countries

GDP components of major countries:


C = Consumption
G = Government
I = Investment
X = Exports
M = Imports

GDP = C + G + I + X - M