Friday, July 24, 2009

The Hungry Device

Last night, a few hours after I went to bed, something woke me up.

I had retired at 1:00 a.m. as usual and was sleeping oblivious to the world (or so I thought) in my attic bedroom all alone in the large house when this sound penetrated through the layers of sleep and hit my primary auditory cortex. It was an electronic beep. As I floated up to the surface, I first thought it was my laptop, and then thought it was my phone, and as more and more of the conscious mind took charge from the subconscious, I decided it was my burglar alarm letting me know in no uncertain terms the presence of a burglar downstairs.

This idea worked better than a cup of coffee in chasing away the last vestiges of sleep and I was alert in an instant, only to realize that it couldn’t have been the burglar alarm after all. The burglar alarm is on my bedside table and this beep was coming from somewhere else. Besides, the sound was different. It was a sharp beep - almost a screech - and it occurred once every thirty seconds or so. The burglar alarm beeps non-stop.

The windows were open a crack as it had been rainy yesterday, and I opened them wide in hope of tracing the origin of the sound. It only helped me establish the fact that the sound was coming from downstairs of my own house.

By this time I had a very clear idea what the wretched thing was, but I couldn’t even begin to guess why it was making all this fuss in the middle of the night. So I cautiously opened the door and switched on the staircase light. Then, armed with the burglar alarm control in one hand and my cell phone in the other, I cautiously proceeded to descend to the second floor. And even before I reached there I could see the source of the sound. It was the carbon monoxide detector fixed on the wall of the second floor hall. It was blinking red and beeping once every thirty seconds. Obviously, I was in some kind of danger.

My first thought was that I had left the gas burning and something was on fire. I started sniffing the air in hope of detecting a burning odour and failed. I also realized that if I was up to the ears in this carbon monoxide stuff, I should not continue all that spirited sniffing. So I came down and tried to open the window. This time the burglar alarm detected me and made me jump out of my skin by beeping right in my hand. However, I managed to open the window, and turn off the burglar alarm. In other words, I did precisely what a burglar would have liked me to do. Unfortunately for them, they weren’t nearby. Unfortunately for me, the CO detector did not quit beeping.

So I went downstairs and peered into the dark kitchen, too afraid to switch the light on; I knew that switching the light on is precisely the kind of thing that triggers a fire from a gas leak. So I felt my way through the dark kitchen and checked the gas burners. Nothing. They were tightly closed. I am too short to reach the kitchen windows, so climbed the counter as usual and opened them. Then I opened some other windows around the house. When I reached the CO detector again, I found it was continuing its shrieking unabated. I also found I had a throbbing headache and was feeling at my wit’s end, which were, as I realized due to my extensive reading, the first signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. Besides, I had a growing feeling that it was all a false alarm and nothing would happen to me after all. This is exactly the kind of complacent feeling that lack of oxygen brings. I tried to reset the device, but it only started shrieking louder and more frequently. Taking out the batteries stopped it, but then, I wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t call the fire department if I kept the batteries out for good. So I put the batteries in again and it resumed its beeping. I felt like strangling the device.

I couldn’t call anyone for advice at this hour. I tried calling my landlord who is in Europe, but the call never went through. So I dialed 911. It started ringing at the other end, and just when I thought it wouldn’t be answered, a sleepy man picked up the phone. Evidently, his sentiments towards me were the same as mine towards the CO detector. The conversation went somewhat like this.

“This is the emergency assistance number. If you are calling at this hour you better have a proper emergency. I hope you understand this and have sufficient reasons to call us.”

“Uh, hello.”

“Oh yes, hello. What’s the problem?”

“I would like to know…”

“Sir, I hope you understand that this is an emergency number! If you are seeking information then this is not the…”

“Will you listen to me? I am not sure if this is an emergency and that’s what I want to know. The CO detector at my house is beeping and I do not see a fire or anything. I have opened the windows. Am I missing something?”

“What kind of a detector is it?”

“Well, it is small and round and has KIDDE written on its…”

“Please hold on while I transfer the call to our fire department.”

And he hung up. I couldn’t connect again.

By this time, I knew there was no CO anywhere in sight. I just wanted the alarm to stop. I went upstairs and did what I do best – Googled for a solution. It took me to the Kidde website where I found the user manual of that device. And what the user manual said was this: my CO detector was hungry for power. No, not power over me – it already had enough of that to make me climb on kitchen counters at 4:30 in the morning. It needed power in a more literal sense – it had run out of batteries. It would continue beeping until I put in fresh batteries. Luckily I had half-used Duracell AAs in my SLR’s external flash unit and I fed them to the alarm which silenced it. My job was far from done though – I had to shut all the windows in the house again, climbing on kitchen counters wherever necessary. Finally I could get back to bed around 5:20, an hour after I had left the bed. I still had the headache.

And in one night I got an idea of what parents of newborn kids feel like when the little ones cry in the middle of the night and wake them up for food.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-book Movie

Or Harry Potter and the Half-baked Movie.

Whichever name you call it by, the sixth movie in the Harry Potter series keeps the average Pottermaniac glued to the seat for most of its 2 hour 33 minute duration and leaves them longing for more in the end. Quite literally. And I don't say this as a compliment. I say this because the movie leaves out very important plot points in favour of some fancy scenes invented by the director.

Maybe I am not a very good reviewer, because a person who wears a Hogwarts school T-shirt to the movie can hardly be expected to be objective. Also, the fact that my companion kept me waiting for a few hours in front of the theatre and failed to turn up or inform anything did not help. This is the second time I watched a movie alone (I mean without some company- the theatre was full enough) and I am not keen to repeat the experience. However, let me try to evaluate the movie in as fair a manner as possible.

First of all, this is the first movie in the series where I did not feel the flow of time. In earlier movies, there is a clear flow of time as events follow one another during the academic year at Hogwarts. Here, each event seemed to be an occurrence by itself, without referring to the notches on the time scale. It is true that we see some snow, and Christmas comes (only so that Harry could go to The Burrow), but then during the attack on The Burrow the land is still as swampy as in summer.

And while we are at it, when did the death eaters ever attack The Burrow? That was not earlier than Bill and Fleur’s wedding seven months later. Why was that scene needed? Just to show that Harry and Ginny loved each other? To provide a little more screen time to Bellatrix Lestrange (who is a bit too theatrical for my tastes) and Fenrir Greyback? All this could have happened at Hogwarts in the end. There wasn’t even a battle at Hogwarts.

Secondly, what happened to all those memories of Voldemort’s youth and his family? No mention of Marvolo GrantGaunt, the Riddle family or Hufflepuff’s cup. I wonder how they are going to continue the next movie without showing these things.

But most importantly, who is the Half-blood Prince? Why wasn’t it mentioned why he is the Half-blood Prince? We once hear him mentioned with respect to the book, and then, he himself announces of his being the Half-blood Prince in the end. The whole importance of the name of the movie is lost on the non-reading viewers.

But the movie had possibilities to excel. Although Professor Slughorn is a bit too thin, the cinematography and the music in this movie are really good. The special effects are brilliant and so is the acting mostly. However, I really do not understand why David Yates and Steve Kloves think they can tell a better story than J. K. Rowling. Evidently they do think that way, or they wouldn’t have messed up the ending so much. And the free goggles coming with The Quibbler can see wrackspurts? Really? Are these filmmakers dumber than the millions of Harry Potter fans who understand that there are no wrackspurts or crumple-horned snorkacks?

In the end, a Harry Potter movie is all about fans; fans who swear by each tiny incident in each book, and I don’t think those fans will approve of this movie. I understand that a book and a movie are very different forms of story-telling and everything from a book cannot be incorporated in a movie. I am not being unreasonable about this point. As a proof, I will say that I fairly liked the fourth and fifth movies although they omitted sections of the book. However, this movie leaves out sections that are critical to the storyline. I would like to see how they are going to fix this problem in the next movie.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Illiterate Americans

Many Americans go to school. Many of them even go to college. Many of those who go to school and college become great men and women. What happens to the rest? The illiterate ones who never learnt to read beyond A-B-C-D?

They become post office employees.

They may be slumdog beggars or call center chai-wallahs in poor third world countries. Not here in the US of A where there are equal employment opportunities for everyone. So in this land of plenty where discriminating against the literacy-impaired is a sin, the government provides them with jobs like sorting and delivering mail.

This wonderful fact was revealed to me today when I received a letter by the post. The white envelope that contained it looked somewhat like this:

The most interesting thing about the envelope was that it was addressed in my own handwriting. It was a letter that I had posted yesterday morning. Note the lightning-fast service: this is not a poor third-world country where mails get delayed indefinitely. If it has to be delivered, it is delivered without delay.

At first I was perplexed about the reason of the mail's return. Had I fixed the wrong postage? Was the envelope overweight? Was the recipient's address wrong? The second could not be true of course, and if the third was true, it would mean that the letter went to the destination in another state, verified the address and travelled back across the USA within 24 hours. That is incredible even by American standards of efficiency. I had almost settled on the first reason when it dawned on me that underpaid mails are not sent back to the sender. They are delivered and the fine collected from the recipient. Then why on earth was this letter here?

Then my friend told me that in the US, the postal employees expect the "From" address to be on the top left corner of the envelope. If it is anywhere else, the letter is delivered at random to any one of the addresses written on the envelope. This solved the mystery of the misdirected letter and also revealed this beautiful policy of employing the illiterate for the job of sorting mail, for I could come up with no other explanation for a person not understanding the words "To" and "From".

Believe it or not, there was a time in this very country when a letter written from Japan on the back of a stamp and addressed "Robert Ripley, North America" found its way to the proper recipient. But I am sure the unemployment rate was much higher at that time. In any line of work, there is always a tradeoff between efficiency and accuracy. The line has to be drawn somewhere for faster and faster service. That line has been drawn: we no longer need people who understand the words "To" and "From". Illiterate people who can efficiently look up zip codes and stack mail into piles are needed. They only need to know the digits from 0 to 9: learning all 26 letters of the alphabet and then the meanings of two- and four-letter words (except a few) on top of that is only extra burden.

And besides, it is discriminatory too. Discriminatory against the reading-challenged.

So I take my imaginary hat off and bow to the Americans. Even though I was terribly inconvenienced by the return of this particular letter, what is a resident alien's inconvenience compared to the national employment rate? And besides, resident aliens like me won't make the same mistakes twice. We may be from poor third world countries, but we are not illiterate after all.