Friday, August 26, 2016

BookMarks #16: A Game of Thrones

Title: A Game of Thrones
Author: George R R Martin
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Setting: Fictional continent of Westeros, in medieval times
Published: 1996

“In the Game of Thrones, you win or you die”

That’s the central theme of this epic plot set in the fictional continent of Westeros. It is a tale of seeking power, in the background of political intrigue and conspiracies, with alliances being forged and broken, sworn duty and deaths (lots of them). Multiple plots are in progress across the seven kingdoms of Westeros in a gigantic chess board where each player plays his/her own game. 

We follow the tale of Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark and his family as they are torn apart having been caught in the eye of a raging political storm. King Robert Baratheon and his family arrive in Winterfell to offer Ned the position of the Hand of the King thereby setting up a series of tragic events for the Stark family, which culminate in Ned getting beheaded for treason post King Robert’s death, his son Bran crippled, his daughter Sansa kept near-hostage as new King Joffery’s bethrothed, while younger daughter Arya goes missing. Meanwhile his wife Catleyn and eldest son Robb seek revenge. The book concludes with Robb being appointed as the new “King in the North” by his fellow northern Lords. 

Ned Stark discovers the incestuous relationship of Queen Cersei Lannister and her twin Jaime. He also learns that Robert had not fathered any of Cersei’s children, thus the rightful heir to Robert's throne would be his brother Stannis. But he is betrayed by Petyr Baelish leading to his arrest for treason and later beheading on the orders of new King Joffery, Cersei's son.

Meanwhile, Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow, becomes a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch, at the Wall, which protects the realm from wildlings and mystical creatures. The Wall has its own troubles with frequent disappearances of their rangers, the appearances of undead creatures and the wildling army being raised by Mance Rayder, a former member of the Night’s Watch. Jon’s loyalty to his oath is tested when he hears of Ned’s beheading and Robb’s battles. Jon is also troubled by the disappearance of his uncle Benjen, who had gone beyond the Wall and not returned.

Catelyn captures Tyrion, the younger Lannister brother, the dwarf, accusing him of attacking Bran. This leads to Tywin Lannister unleashing his forces on Catelyn’s family. Tyrion is released with the aid of a sellsword Bronn and joins his father’s forces. During the battles, Jaime gets captured by Robb’s army. Robert Baratheon’s brothers Stannis and Renly also stake their own claim for the Iron throne.

There are multiple references to the events of fifteen years before which led to Robert Baratheon taking over the throne from the “mad” King Aerys Targaryen, with the aid of Ned Stark and Jon Arryn and other Lords. During the rebellion, Aerys Targaryen was killed by his own Kingsguard Jaime Lannister, thus earning him the derogatory title of kingslayer. 

Meanwhile Aerys’s son Viserys is plotting to take back his “rightful” throne. He marries off his sister Daenerys to a tribal warlord Khal Drogo in hopes of gaining control of the Dothraki warriors to mount a challenge for the throne. But his over-eagerness leads to his death at the hands of Drogo. Later when King Robert attempts to kill Daenerys, Drogo is ready to take on the Iron Throne for Daenerys and his unborn child. During a raid, Drogo gets wounded and is attended to by a healer who sacrifices his unborn child for Drogo’s life. But Drogo is left in a vegetative state which lead to Daenerys killing him out of mercy. Drogo’s funeral pyre is lit. Daenerys walks into it clutching the three dragon egg which were her wedding gift. When the pyre burns off, Daenerys is seen with three baby dragons while all remaining Dothraki and Ser Jorah Mormont swear allegiance to her.

This is the first book in the series “A Song of Fire And Ice” and also the basis for the megahit TV show – “Game of Thrones”.

The book is filled with a huge number of characters, too many to fit in such a short summary. Each chapter is told from a central character’s perspective (known as point of view character).

I started reading the books after having seen all the six seasons of the TV series. And also knowing about how the story unfolds makes the reading even more interesting. I could enjoy the details without losing grip of the tale. 

The storyline of the book and the first season are broadly matching. Although the books present a more vivid picture. The biggest difference is that the characters are much younger in the book than in the TV adaptation. Thankfully the TV Show-runners decided to age the characters, otherwise it would have been a show all about teenagers doing adult stuff (which would have been very weird to watch)

Although set as a fantasy in a fictional realm, the storyline has quite a few parallels to the history of Britain. 

Previously on BookMarks – Infinite Sacrifice

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BookMarks #15: Infinite Sacrifice

Title: Infinite Sacrifice
Author: L.E. Waters
Genre: Fiction, Spirituality, Religion
Setting: Across timelines
Published: 2011

The story begins with Maya having died, finds herself in a place which is different form her idea of heaven. She meets a spirit guide, Zachariah, who explains to her the rules of gaining salvation from the cycle of life and death. Maya has to review everyone of her re-births.

We see Maya in different forms in different births. First, as a priest in Egypt, who breaks the temple's rules but condemns another for his crimes and meets his end.Then as a lady in Sparta, who tries to protect her progeny from the strict Spartan traditions. In the third stage, Maya is an Irish boy who gets kidnapped by the Vikings and lives amongst them before returning to his own village. In the fourth part, she is an English woman living in the times of plague.

The book ends with Maya moving partially out of her confusion and gaining some insight to her lives. But there are still more re-births to go through.

1st book in "The Infinite" book series.

The story is based on the concept of karma and souls undertaking multiple births before getting salvation. We see the character of Maya empathizing more with her srroundings as we progress through here many births. Also there are certain physical characteristics which pass on in each life and act as a continuity for the soul.

And I wonder, why London is always depicted as filthy and dirty in almost every book that I have read set in the 19th century of before.

Previously on BookMarks: Harry Potter & the Cursed Child

Friday, August 19, 2016

LearnNBlog #9: Repechage

Sakshi Malik's Bronze winning effort at the Rio Games, makes it the 3rd successive Olympics in which India has got a Wrestling medal through the repechage, after Sushil Kumar in Beijing and Yogeshwar Dutt in London. In fact, repechage is fast becoming India's favorite sporting terminology.

What is Repechage?
Repechage is giving a second chance to those competitors who failed to make through the initial qualifying rounds. It is a French word meaning "rescuing" or "fishing out". 

In sporting competitions it is done to give a second chance to those strong competitors who might have been eliminated at an early stage because of the bad luck of draw. (a la Djokovic getting knocked out by del Potro in the first round of the Olympics Tennis tournament. Unfortunately there is no repechage rule in Tennis). 

There are multiple forms of repechage with different formats being used across sports.

In Olympics, it is used in the sports of Wrestling, Judo and Rowing.  Wrestling has a knock-out format with only one winner going through to the subsequent round. When the two finalists are identified, everyone who has lot to them enters the repechage rounds. The loser in the first round plays the loser in the second round. The winner of this bout takes on the losing particiapnt of the subsequent round and so on till the semi-finalist. The winner of the repechage is awarded the Bronze medals. Wrestling has two sets of repechages (one for each of the finalist).

With the repechage action, Wrestling embodies Olympic spirit. The moment you lose, you start hoping that your opponent goes on to win every successive bout and reaches the final, thus giving you a second chance.

Further Readings

Previously on LearnNBlog: Gerrymandering

Sunday, August 14, 2016

India @ 69

15th August, 2016 – Time for my 10th annual Independence Day blog post - a little round-up of all things India. (Here is the 2015 edition).

How is the nation doing as a whole? Current mood of the nation seems quite grim, especially if one is in the habit of watching TV news and following social media. Apparently, intolerance has been rising to new Himalayan levels while the nationalistic pitch is reaching the moon and hyperbole on every single topic has piggy-backed to Mars riding the Mars Rover. Meanwhile there are intense debates (mostly hot-air) on freedoms of expression, choice of food etc. And there are new folks demanding different forms of "Azaadi". Oh, and there are intellectuals who are disturbed enough by the goings-on to return their well-earned awards. Where we begin wondering how many awards are given.

The country seems to be in a perennial state of elections. And that means that our elected leaders are in a non-stop campaign mode rather than in actually running the country. Hunger for quick take-over of power has resulted in a couple of states having governments changed and then reinstated via court interventions. In fact, we are seeing too many court interventions, certainly not a healthy sign for any democracy.

Governance of the country is being done through Twitter. While it feels good to see ministers addressing individual grievances, it also shows a lack of proper complaint redressal mechanism in our massive bureaucratic set-up. From missing passports to trains running late, if every complaint requires ministerial intervention, there is something terribly wrong in the system.

Its becoming increasingly difficult to separate the real from the presented news. There is a media version and there are multiple social media versions (depending on the ideology). Not sure which is more dangerous, the message shaped by conventional media (whatever their agenda) or the more extreme one shaped by social media based on one's belief. Add a multitude of whatsapp forwards which are mostly in the nature of garbled version of truth. Why people join online (and in some cases real) lynch mobs  and outrage without doing any basic fact-check is something beyond me. And there seems to be a constant need to fix the narrative has led to history books being re-written.

Meanwhile nature has started fighting back. We have had played enough with nature. It was a year of drought in many parts of the country. And followed by floods all over. Floods in multiple cities (Chennai, Bangalore, Assam, Gurgaon) have shown up the reality of our mismanaged development. World class IT parks surrounded by medieval drainage system, certainly a recipe for disaster. That the monsoon is still the single largest factor in the economic indices in a telling comment on the state of infrastructure development of the country. The sensex maybe growing at a steady rate but it hasn't been able to keep up with the food prices.

Start-ups are the new cool thing in the business domain. Everyone seems to be starting up something or working in a start-up. And there is a whole industry of start-ups. Start-ups seem to mushroom out of nowhwere and many either get absorbed into another company or simply disappear. Anything and everything is coming under the aegis of start-ups. A fellow running multiple blogs is now termed a "serial entrepreneur". Lets see how much longer this cash-burn continues.

On the sporting front, we have sent our biggest contingent to the Olympics, which is a tremendous achievement. But mid-way through the Rio Games, things haven't exactly panned out in our favour. Michael Phelps has now moved ahead of India in the Olympic medal tally. Well, there is always cricket to fall back onto for the Indian fan.

The most tragi-comic news of the year -  ISIS considers its Indian recruits inferior to those form other countries. (Indian Express). Hmmm!

All said and done. things not looking so good. But we are relatively better off given the goings-on in other parts of the world. And one always carries a sense of hope. After all, tomorrow is another day!

Happy Birthday India

Monday, August 08, 2016

BookMarks #14: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Title: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Author: JK Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne 
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Play
Setting: The Parallel world of Witches & Wizards
Published: 2016

Official Synopsis
It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn't much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband, and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

All of us thought that the journey of Harry Potter and his fight with Voldemort was over. And they all lived happily ever after, but as in real life, that is not the case. 

The story continues from the epilogue of the concluding book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. We follow the paths of Albus Severus, Harry’s son and his new-found friend, Scorpius, the son of Harry’s old school nemesis Draco Malfoy. Both of whom are seeking to survive in the wizarding world, burdened by the names of their fathers’ reputations. Meanwhile, efforts are on to revive Voldemort once again but this time the Dark Lord has a different ally.

We live in the times of cinematic universes with stories spawning from one central theme and going on and on. Seems the Harry Potter universe is also expanding along similar lines with spin-offs and sequels adding to the original tale. And in multiple media - books, movies and now a play [As a fan of the series, I am not complaining].

Lots of references to the previous stories, as would be expected in any fictional universe. Always brought a smile while reading, whenever anyone of the old characters makes a cameo appearance in the tale.

This story is different from the others. After all it is a play and not a novel. Thus we find more dialogues and less action. And that changes quite a bit of the reading of the story. Also necessitating jumps in the storyline. [Reminded me of reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice & Hamlet – compulsory part of our English Literature exams]

I do not like this business of time-travel as a plot device. It is too convenient, creating alternate realities. Although in this case somehow we are spared changes in the main timelines. Add the “Interstellar” inspired source of sending a message through time. Playing with time adds its own share of plot-holes.

Plot-holes (or maybe not)
  • Whose wand is Albus using in the climatic duel?
  • In one of the alternate timelines, how are they taking Voldemort’s name?
  • And with so many illegal time-turners floating around (and in the hand of death-eaters), why wasn't any similar attempt made in the "past"?
Aside - I like the word discombobulated.

After many years, actually managed to read a whole book in a day. In all a fun read.

Previously on BookMarks: The Privateersman

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

LearnNBlog #8: Gerrymandering

Following the seemingly never-ending American Presidential elections provides a fascinating learning experience, even for a citizen of the world’s largest democracy (India, just in case you are wondering). This long-drawn process of selecting the person for the most powerful post in the world keeps throwing out interesting terms – electoral colleges, primaries, delegates et al. Seemingly a fair and transparent process but open to manipulations through procedures like “gerrymandering”.

What is Gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries during the process of defining electoral districts (constituencies).

The term was first used by the Boston Gazette on 26 March 1812. Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts passed a bill to redraw the senate election district boundaries to benefit his party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. 
The Original Gerry-mander (Source Wikipedia)
Gerrymandering has been used (rather, heavily used) by incumbent officials (in US) to ensure their re-election. The incumbent official would re-adjust the district boundaries to ensure that his voters have a larger share in higher number of districts. 

Gerrymandering has been a fairly common practice conducted by both the major parties at times in collusion. And its not just at the ground level. North and South Dakota were created along this line instead of a single Dakota state. It has ensured that the likelihood of change in guard at the Congress is quite low. 

This could be done by ensuring their voters are spread in more areas, or that all the opposing camp voters are packed up in a single area. “Cracking”, “Packing”, “Hijacking” & “Kidnapping” are some of the different methodologies of gerrymandering. 

This has resulted in creation of very odd-shaped electoral districts. 
Stealing an election via gerrymandering (Image Source - Wikipedia)
US townships have historically been divided along racial and ethnic lines with different areas belonging to different communities, which generally tend to vote as a block. Thus easing the work for the incumbent officials who also have the power to re-draw the boundaries. (Unlike say in India, where all election activities are conducted by a fairly independent and neutral election commission).

Manipulation is the name of the Political Game everywhere in the world.

Other Readings
  • Gerrymandering (Wikipedia)
  • Electoral District (Wikipedia)
  • What America would look like without Gerrymandering (Washington Post)
  • Understanding Congressional Gerrymandering (NPR)
  • Why are there two Carolinas and two Dakota (MentalFloss)
Previously on LearnNBlog – Tax & Cess