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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Chennai's Words to Live by

Everyone has potential. You just have to discoverOne of Chennai's lovely quirks of public space are these series of inspirational and motivational wall slogans in several areas of the city. This sequence is from along GN Chetty Road in Chennai as you approach Gemini Flyover and is one of the longest stretches.

I find the concept of putting such words so dramatically in the public space fascinating. Because clearly some of the phrases are more inspirational in nature while others may be said to be more prescriptive. Some are clearly moral, some feel-good Some are deft, others clumsy. Clearly they are well meaning and honest-intentioned. But they are also windows into the belief systems of the government who drafted them and the society at large.

Those who concentrate upon the task and forget about the reward may be called persons at their best.Clearly society here has a tendency towards such statements, visible by the profusion of rhyming traffic safety signs, the “thought for the day” daily added to the white board in our office, and perhaps epitomized best by the common use of the phrase, “do the needful” in business, government, legal and journalistic contexts. Chennai and Indian society at large seems to be happy throwing these phrases at each other in a belief they improve social cohesion and are listened to by otherwise “anti-social elements.” And clearly there is an entrenched hierarchy of class and caste that may play into how those in power see their role.

Be a sun which dries someone's tears.Personally, I've never liked pat, packaged answers to life's ills – platitudes that are in fact meaningless or at least prosaic – given as advice to every situation. Yet some are undoubtedly distillations of age-old wisdom, ones young people sometimes struggle to accept in their quest for self-discovery. And some are just good, healthy reminders to make a better world. What does a government's preference for such phrases mirror its view as parent and moral leader of its people? Is that a good thing? Does it reflect an underlying belief in a hierarchy that invokes the passing on of your godly wisdom on the ignorant masses?

Look for strengths in people, not weakness, for good, not evil. Most of us find what we search for.Yet, reading the sequence I am also forced to think on whether my finding many of them cheesy platitudes is a reflection of a North American jadedness of something seen as old-fashioned and reserved for the dogmatic or the neo-spiritual feel-good, and not something serious people and serious governments say in public. But are we right in thinking so? Am I?

The person who provides for this life, but takes no care for eternity, is wise for a moment, but a fool forever.How much does the decision to promote such moral advice stem from an underlying patronizing attitude of the leadership and how much of it is at heart simple old-fashioned, but still-relevant sentimentality towards better living? What is the difference between believing simple messages are still effective versus them being simplistic and patronizing? Does it reflect a leadership’s sense of righteous beneficiation to those below or instead the government’s socialist ideology and the local valuation of service?

Time is a versatile performer. It flies, marches on, heals all wounds, runs out and will tell.And of course what is the value of printing them with care along a busy road people will surely drive by and ignore as they compete with the thousands of images, slogans and jarring colours of a city buried under its advertising and encroachments on public space. At least with the long, continuous stretch, it is trying and one of the cleanest stretches of wall in the city.

Very much thoughts in progress I wanted to share. And some nice advice to pass on at the same time.

You can see the full 21-photo sequence of slogans on my Flickr site at:

But they did miss my favourite one of all: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What are your favourites we should petition Chennai to add?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stalking Your Digital Self

We are rapidly having to adjust to the new reality of our lives being in the public sphere and just how easy it is becoming to find information, and how integrated into our normal days it becomes. Where once, only the determined, the stalking (for good or bad) could find information, even online, it evolves into an everyday and we race to catch up. Even now, we joke (but only half) about Facebook stalking someone, but it really isn't stalking anymore when everything is shared freely and on purpose and easier than compiling a homework assignment. At some point it becomes normal. I don't know when it became normal, sometime between highschool and last Tuesday, but it did. Our lives, our digital fingerprints are all over the web now, parts logged without our knowledge in databases and directories, but vast, growing parts added ourselves with abandon. And not only online, but searchable, and findable and compilable also with growing ease. We can't even call it stalking anymore, the ability for people who want to know us to find us - let's say mostly friends and family, but of course also employers and undesirables - without even trying. And how fast can we get used to this surrender, this new reality? Maybe you haven't even thought about it yet. You should.

To share an example of just how easy, and inadvertent in the stalking, here is a simple chain of events on how I found out about a friend's change in job she hadn't posted or mailed about by random browsing, a few clicks and one association that brought her to mind.

I use Twitter. I am reading my Twitter feed. I follow a couple people who report a lot on tech. I find reading about tech interesting. One of the tweets is on 10 search engines to try rather than Google for a day. That is interesting enough. Decision 1, click 1. Browse the list, mostly boring, not Google-killers. One though near the bottom catches my eye: a search site called Pipl "The most comprehensive people search on the web". Generic self-praise, but I'm intrigued because I've tried to people search before for various reasons, never to any satisfaction. Decision 2, click 2. Simple boxes for people info. Obviously I try my own name first. I like the design. It breaks the results into categories which is helpful. Nice presentation, but it doesn't return anything a Google search hadn't. But your own name is boring. So who to try next? Immediate idea is a certain close friend, because I actually did try finding her address before via the web because I had wanted to surprise her for her birthday. That didn't work then and I ended up having to ask. So she's the first one that comes to mind. Decision 3, click 3. And her results pop up.

And there are the details. Clearly her, no doubt: age, city, profile pic, yup. 4 addresses, all nicely formatted (would have been very useful several years ago) and background reports avail for purchase. Profiles, like Facebook, etc, blah, blah, already know her there. Web pages, blog posts, documents on her. I skim down absently to see if it shows anything interesting. And wait, keep seeing that org name and "Director of Development". That's new. Seems my friend's got herself a new job, and one that is savvy and widely syndicated with press releases. That seems good. Click #4 to one of the press releases confirmed yup, she started last month. Well, well...

Three half-interested, half-absent-minded browsing decisions and four clicks of the mouse and I found a not-so-secret secret that a close friend I clearly have not spoken to enough has a plum new job. And a whole lot more about her I already knew, but maybe you didn't. And in 2 clicks, if I had given you her name, you would be able to know too.

Scary or empowering or just plain different? The jury is obviously still out and we're all still catching up to the idea, but I tend to feel it is a good thing. We'll learn new boundaries and new ways and customs of protecting and respecting those. We'll get used to each other's profiles being there and learn to be balanced in our Mutually Assured Knowledge. Maybe we won't expect each other to be so perfect or try to project such obviously silly perfect images of ourselves to the world. Maybe it is just a personal reaction of having a name that leaves crystal fingerprints, but I think we'll be OK with all this out there. It isn't so scary. 4 thoughts and 3 clicks and 1 congrats on a new job. I just hope my friend agreed. :)

Monday, December 01, 2008

Thanksgiving and trying times

It is grey and dripping outside, like I feel. Or I don't know what I feel. The world is crazy this week and we struggle for normalcy and meaning.

Bombay is under fire, on fire. We refresh our browsers compulsively, glued to the up-to-the-minute reports on the attacks of Shining India's most shining city. 195 dead when the shooting stopped and no more sense for 3 days of watching, reading and talking about it.

Chennai is under water. Chennai's skies are not falling, but are leaking all the tears of Bombay this week, drowning our streets and homes in a rising tide of sewage-tinged stagnation, unhealthy and floating with everything that littered the streets the days before. Traffic grinds to a sputtering halt, harshly represented by the dozens of stranded motorcyclists pushing their choked and flooded bikes through water past their knees. Offices close and we closet inside, not wanting to wade out.
India - Chennai - Monsoon - 01

Bangkok is under protest, both airports closed. We've been following it closely, for our own selfish reasons, and I've got my fingers crossed it will simmer down and the airport re-opens before our upcoming Christmas plans.

The world seems in chaos, panicked. We ignore the financial crisis back home in North America and its echoes here for more immediate issues and needs. Everyone has their stories. Friends miss their flight stuck in traffic and waste deep water seeping into the car for 4 hours trying to get to the airport. Commuters literally see people swimming - swimming! - outside their car, making batter time than they are. The whole southern suburbs are completely submerged. People are sick. I've got a cough that won't seem to fully go away. Worried phone calls flood in and swirl like the rain: are we in Bombay? Are we all accounted for? Are the Thai airports going to be open for Christmas? Our laundry just won't dry. The auto prices have jacked 100%, assuming you can get one at all. The power's out and now what do we do. Oh good, there, it's back.

It all is enough to paralyze and hide under the covers. And for a day or 2, we mostly do.

But then we carry on. We wade to the store to get much needed groceries. We mix cocktails of numbness, fatalism and stubbornness, and go to dinner at hotel chains the world witnessed on fire this week. Foregners were targets in Bombay. But we are not in Bombay. We need to live too. And then we turn even those off for a few precious hours and sit down as friends for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner - turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce (the trickiest to get), the works. We celebrate cherished friends leaving and new ones arriving. We laugh and drink foreign liquor we've squirreled away from duty-free runs. We eat home-made pumpkin pie even though our stomachs are already full of turkey and our blood already 1/4 gravy.

And we find our own magic moments in the situation. We wade home through rivers that were once streets at the peaceful and haze-softened midnight hours. We dance on the rooftop in the deluge. We call our loved ones on the phone or Skype and write lots of letters and posts. We hold tightly to each other. We watch bad movies, which will always be wonderfully, consistently kitch no matter how the world spins. We make a meal, 7 people in the kitchen, and it's damn good. We shrink the world to the personal, the viceral, the understandable.

And the world spins. Today Chennai is safe and not under threat. It is drying out and coming back to life. Bombay is finally quiet, able to grieve and rebuild. Thailand gets worse, but rumours are whispered of it being over by the King's birthday on the 5th. And me, my days are largely unaffected. The office re-open tomorrow, friends come and go in a maddening cycle and I don't know what I feel. I feel inspired and lonely both. Not sure if any of the week's events heightens that or just uncovers.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Where the $!&?# am I?

Please hold and an operator will be with you shortly... You have been placed in priority sequence and this blog will be updated sooner if you stay on the line rather than hanging up and dialing again...

So yeah, blogging kind of fell off just a wee bit. Can't believe it has been 10 months since I posted. Can’t believe my last post was on Pirates! My God! What have I been doing?

My apologies for anyone still reading this. I do mean to get back to it.

What happened? Why the breakdown in writing? Can’t say really. It just happened. A ton has been going on with work, life, love and everything. I’ve been travelling. I’ve been back to Canada for Christmas and and a new visa. I’ve had drama and have settled into a good space. I’ve quit my job because it was going nowhere and my boss was crazy. I found another one, one I really love. I've said goodbye to friends and met new ones. I’ve had many, many winding, squirrelly lines of thought. And I’ve been writing a novel’s worth. Just not online. Somehow the posts and pieces just never seem to get completed, perhaps symptom of my scattered thoughts and others don’t make sense to post out of order, showing a life in flux. And my slowed as I spend more time on photography and an increasingly crazy schedule at work. But that doesn’t really explain it. So no reason; time just went by and then more and more of it.

But the very quick update so you know what I'm doing: I'm still in Chennai, with a different NGO. After getting a new visa home in Canada after Christmas, I 've been working now for 6 months. Crazy how time has gone by. I'm here open-ended and have moved back more settled than year. It feels good to not be so much in flux for a while, to have a better sense of what I'll be doing 6 months from now. I've got a flat and can walk to work which has really increased my quality of life. I sometimes miss the fun of the commute by auto, but then I remember 45 minutes in polluted traffic and daily negotiations getting home and don't miss it quite so much. I've a good group of friends.

So I'm over here for a while and have lots more stories to tell. I promise to get back to writing soon. Since I'm in India, let's say, "2 minutes!"

Cheers & I love ya!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Life in Chennai #21: Pirates in Madras!

Avast me hearties! Haul out th’ 10 pounders! Hoist the jolly roger! Shore the rigging and drop anchor! There be riches in this here exotic port, landlubbers ripe for the pillage. Smartly ya scalleywags and show em yer mettle!

Arrr! T’is be Cap’n Morgan “Savage” Roberts to tell ye it be International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

My pirate name is:

Captain Morgan "Savage" Roberts

Even though there's no legal rank on a pirate ship, everyone recognizes you're the one in charge. You've got style and swagger. And if they don't like your singing, keelhaul the bile rats! Arr!

Get your own pirate name from
part of the network

'ass rye, there do be an International Talk Like a Pirate Day! And it’d be today. Me don’ like repeatin’ me self ya bilge rat! Everyone be in on the bit o’ the high spirit – and the spirits – today, cursin’ and hollerin’ and leerin’ with our good eye. Even Flickr has the jolly roger on its logo today.

Seeing as we old salts and sea dogs are marooned in this here Eastern port of call, we’re in need a proper saloon to sing our shanties and trade our coin and toast our brethr’n across the oceans wide.

And begad! there be such a place! And it be called “Pirates”, fitting for sea dogs like us. Ah, they’ve merried it up nice. Take a gander. Brings a tear to me good eye, a place called “Pirates” in Madras do. And a smile to me face.
Pirate's Bar in Chennai
Photo credit: J.A.

There we’ll be with a mug o’ rum singing tales of monsters o’ the deep, mateys on the account, and lads and lasses fine. Join us for a drink we’re ye may be. Arrrr!
The Pirate costumes of the staff

Photo credit: J.A.

And one more ARRRR! for good measure.

Life in Chennai #20: Jumbled Thoughts & Experiences

I am not sleeping well. My room is stuffy and thick, the heat of the afternoon still trapped in its walls, the fan just swirling warmth onto my face. I get up and do a pooja of sorts on my bed, vigorously shaking droplets of poured water out of my cupped hand onto my sheets, floor and pillow and lie back down. Momentarily cooled, I drift back to troubled dreams and sweat once more.

But I have so many thoughts jumbled and swirling in my head that I cannot sleep.

Crowded bus rides through humid air. I love that. Not having a plan. The friendliness and helpfulness of Indians. Feeling the local expert. Laughing at how far off that is. Girls. New friends and old. Reconnections. Walking darkened streets. Quitting my job for good reasons. The excitement, fear, relief and anxiety of that decision. The poetry of my friends, in person and in print. The joys of Indian food, but also of Domino’s pizza. A bar called Pirates. India beats Pakistan in the Twenty20 match. The annoyance 2 nights of power outages in the last 4. Being seriously sleep deprived. Dancing. Monsoon thunderstorms. Fitting in. The smiles and laughs of bright-eyed children. Never taking enough pictures. New ideas. Home? Home. Girls. Unexpected changes. People I care for. Frustrated tears. Giving up. Trying again. Yoga and Swimming and Motorcycles (not at the same time). Ganesh Jayanthi in clay and blinking neon. The Mylapore Temple. Hare Krishnas. Having 6 missed calls on a Saturday evening. Meeting friends randomly in the street. Beginnings. Endings. Transitions. Possibilities.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sidebar #4: More Random Thoughts from TV

Justifying my laziness, my descriptions of life here in India would not be complete without a post on what I watch and catch on TV. Like anywhere, there are good programs and bad and plenty of commercials. Personally, I mostly watch movies and the Dicovery Channel.

Here are some random things that have occured to me in those deadened hours.


The old grunt-and-shoot action movie Predator produced a remarkable 2 State Governors: Jesse Ventura for Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger for California. I'd say that must be a record if there was any rational reason to regularly count and compare how many futures Governors have appeared in any action movies in the first place. Makes you wonder what poor dialogue, flimsy plots and pyrotechnics has in common with politics doesn’t it...

Catching part of the 1995 movie Johnny Mnemonic (only worthy because it is based on stories by the excellent future-noir writer William Gibson), I had to laugh at how dated its projection of future technology was already. Johnny is special because he can store a whopping 80GB in his brain as a secret courier. 80 gigs? Wow. Today you can get the same storage in an ipod for a few hundred bucks. I certainly hope my brain hold more than Johnny’s, or my ipod. Just goes to show though how fast technology can outpace fiction.

I thought it was funny that they play Shakespeare in Love here with subtitles for the English accents. No joke. I didn’t pay attention though to see if they were the same. They aren’t always, although I’d hope those on TV would be better than most. Most of the ones on the pirated DVDs that dominate the video scene here are so bad to as to be funny. Watching the first 5 minutes of The Last King of Scotland without sound but with subtitles and I could not figure out what was going on. They were not even close.

Discovery Channel Programs:

What is it about Discovery Channel programs that suck you in?

Tonight I was watching a program about the big cats of Africa. Did you know that when a lioness is in heat, in order to get pregnant she may have to mate 100s of times (and not always with the same male) and will mate twice an hour for up to 4 days. Often several females of the pride will go into heat at the same time with the alpha male mating with all of them until he tires and one of the lower males gets a chance. Social little kitties. And we joke about rabbits! (likely because it is less a good idea to poke fun at lions) But being slightly serious, the program also estimates that each lion will mate 3000 times for each cub that will survive its first year. Beyond our technology (and opposable thumbs), it is certain that our much superior ability to procreate (and again, we make fun of rabbits...yeah Kettle...) is at least as important a factor in our dominance of this planet.

I don’t know why the lion was ever considered the king of beasts though. The tiger is way bigger, meaner and tougher.

But whatever the lion’s position on the savannah and the tiger in the jungle, cheetah cubs are definitely the cutest – fuzzy furballs with big eyes and all the curiosity of domestic kittens. Cheetahs are amazing creatures to watch running, so fast and sleek and efficient. The adolescent cubs though, like all young, are far less agile and funny to see learning to stalk.

Now, the leopard however is smaller than the lion and slower than the cheetah, but is the most adaptable of the three. It will eat most anything from beetles to antelope far larger than itself. It will live in any climate across Asia from the savannah to the jungle to the snowy mountains, is excellent climber and doesn’t mind water. I think if I was a cat then I’d definitely be a leopard.

Now wasn’t that interesting and educational!

I caught a program today about base jumping from the top of Angel Falls. Oh my God, so cool. Sorry mom and dad, but I have to say I’d love to do that if I got the chance.

I caught a cooking program the other day where a UK chef was showing us the wonders of Indian cuisine and this week focusing on Tamil and South Indian regional dishes. It was great fun to see Chennai in the backdrop (as an aside, it is actually quite easy to pick out the major Indian metropolises on TV due to architectural styles and even more so, the colour scheme of the auto rickshaws. As one program coverage switched its stock background shots, I could easily differentiate Chennai from Bangalore from Delhi based on the ricks).

He did a great job showing how simple much of the cuisine is to cook and which wonderfully colourful spices form the core of all Tamil cooking (especially turmeric, chilli & curry leaves). He kept calling the city Madras though, which is a bit colonial considering the city is now named Chennai and most people use the new name.

But then he explained the venerable, but simple masala dosa and showed his total lack of local savvy. He goes to Saravanna Bhavan, a popular and recommended chain and then proceeds to explain how you break off chunks of the crispy dosa, spoon some masala onto the piece and eat it like a taco or brochetta...using both hands! I really wanted to reach into the TV and slap him. Anywhere in India, one of the most basic and first rules everyone learns is that you only eat with your right hand. No using your left hand. No using both to cup the dosa. Just no OK.


I've written some about this before, but again for the record: 1 in 4 commercials on all channels are for age and beauty products. Ponds, Olay, Dove and a dozen others local and international compete to make you believe you are ugly, unsuccessful and un-marriable unless you improve your skin and hair using their products. Age spots, glow, shine, smoothness, miracles and above all lightening all get pushed with campaigns tailored to hit every fear, insecurity and societal weakness. It’s disgusting and a plague on ourselves. And India’s caught the virus as firmly as any country.

Indian car commercials are even more outrageous in the romantic driving image than North American ones. Wide, empty highways, smooth roads, fast speeds. Here in India? Where? Trying to sell these images and roads as anything realistic in India is a seriously tall tale.

Based on the image they are trying to project and strong brand message of “High performance. Delivered”, Tiger Woods for Accenture has got to be the most ideally suited spokes-person I’ve ever seen. He just oozes clearly recognizable brand on his own that conveys hard work, perseverance, detail and reinvention as the source of excellence. Of reaching the top then starting again. And of course Accenture wants to convey that exact message that even the top companies need to retool, reinvent and research-based insight. “Having the right information. Making the right decision. Looking for ways to improve.” One of the cleanest current brand images I can think of. And what is remarkable is that it is for consulting services that are not easily differentiable and far tougher to package than a product. Tiger Woods is bar none the best sports hero to come out since Michael Jordan. Wonder how long it is before he starts doing movies with Looney Toons too.

McDonalds on the other hand though has a terrible current set of commercials here and ones that I can only assume are culturally tuned only to India. Their tag line is “call for happiness” somehow trying to connect their brand of food with euphoric giddiness and exuberance, that if you call for McD’s delivery, your life and arguments with your girlfriend will be solved. I have yet to see such an over-the-top image. I mean come on! No legal substance possibly can be believed to make such a turn-around in your evening. Indians are not ignorant consumers, but perhaps they find it funny-stupid not just stupid. Maybe McD’s just got snowed by the ad people. I don’t know, but it is not even annoying, just embarrassing. Making it even worse, their call number is 66-000-666. Not such a good number I figure for the Christian population, particularly when you’re going for associations with happiness.

You know when commercials are forced to say a “conditions apply” statement and say it really fast and in one breath at the end of the commercial, like “closed course, professional driver. If you’re a dumb ass and try this you cannot sue us” or one they use seem to have to use here, “mutual funds are subject to market risk. Read the offer statement closely”?

Yeah, well you should hear them do that in Tamil. Holy shit can they get those statements out quickly!

And that’s entirely enough TV for one article...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Culture #11: The Wine Shop Revisited

See my earlier post on learning the value of things at the wine shop the hard way. Here is an update on a recent purchase.

I am buying 2 Kingfisher beer. I give him Rs 500.

He gives me Rs 270 back. I look at it briefly, call him back over and point out it isn’t enough change.

He tells me the price is Rs 220.

Of course 500 minus 220 is not actually 270, but I let that one go and focus on the bigger problem: that the beers are in fact only Rs 60 each so the price is only Rs 120.

He nods OK, OK. Takes the money and remakes change.

This time he gives me back Rs 290 with a smile. We're getting closer, but still short.

I patiently do the math for him one more time: 60 Rupee (pointing at one), 60 Rupee (at the other). 120 Rupee vilai. Rs 380 michapanam kudunga Boss ("change please give") I say smiling, but firmly, looking at him . We’re both pretending it is simply a mistake of math.

He takes the money one more time, does some fancy money swapping at his till box and proffers Rs 380 this time. Finally!

So an updated warning: you really have to keep your eye on what you should get back because in the speed of the exchange, the busy counter and their hope you don't know the cost, they will definitely screw you. But they’re not usually bothered if you call them on it. Funny guys.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sidebar #3: The Legend of the Greasepole Game

A big shout-out to Rob Burke who made this all happen!

I am deliriously giddy as I relive all the fun and memories of my university experience.

The Legend of the GreasepoleSo back in University, one of my good friends Rob decided it would be a great idea to make a video game based on one our orientation rituals, the Climbing of the Greasepole. I think we were drinking. But good idea or bad idea, the idea eventually came to fruition and our Class has an actual video game built around it and containing all the friends, faces and voices that made my 4 years (ahem…5 years) there wonderful. It even has our year song (More Human Than Human by White Zombie).

Of course in the age of Facebook, as the story goes, it was only so long before someone said, “Hey Rob, so when are you going to release the game for Xbox360?” And because he is just far too bright and keen for anyone’s good, he did, and hot off the presses I’ve got myself a copy and am happily, grinningly demoing it on my laptop (is “demoing” a word? It is a conversational word, but Word doesn’t seem to like the word so maybe it isn’t a word, at least according to Word…OK, I’ll stop now. Random jolts of joy just jar me jumpy).

Greasepole 2005So what is this game about? Really hard to explain, or to explain remotely well, but basically…at the culmination of Frosh Week at Queen’s Engineering, the first years – aka Frosh, as they shall for ever known by their upper years – are summarily dumped in a muddy pit of cold water and told to climb a well-greased goalpost. Only once they retrieve the tam (Scottish headgear) well nailed to the top, will they be considered a year. If it takes all day, so be it. As the upper years say, “We’ve got plenty of beer and no where else to be.”

Greasepole 2It started back way back in the mid 50’s and has been the centrepiece of orientation ever since. Classes boast of the fastest time or laugh at the slowest (one year in the 70s had to come back a second day, the clock ticking the whole time). Eras are marked by when girls were first allowed to join in or when they switched from axle grease to lanolin due to changing environmental regulations. The pole has been stolen by rival faculties, upper years (including ours) and schools and ransomed back. It has been a lightning rod (to use the pun) for Administration criticism and rallying point of change. It is extremely important to the Society. The climbing is about teamwork and bonding and despite some heavy taunting by the upper years, everyone wants your year to succeed, eventually. Nothing like the thrill of achieving something pointless, but coveted and having your new classmates and all the upper years celebrating as one.

But to really understand it and see the whack of pictures from its many decades, you should delve into the detailed companion compendium for the game, now hosted online here. I highly recommend it as a fun and in-depth insight into who the hell these crazy purple-clad engineering students are and what damage 4 years of conditioning have done to my psyche. But then, I wrote it as a contribution to the game (I’m also one of the crowd voices, how fun is that!). I had a lot of fun digging into the archives and old papers for the history, stories and photos. It was my first attempt at writing anything public, a long-ago prelude to this blog come to think of it. It’s got some good stuff in it and some of the only archival records online (the Queen’s archives are, I hear, way behind the times and still resisting digitazation). I’m mildly embarrassed that it also contains record of some my early and feeble attempts at poetry. Poetry, I’ve learned, is not my format. I had forgotten Rob had posted it. But oh well, points for bravery I suppose. :-) Mercifully, I’ll stick to blog writing and story telling.

Game SreenshotSo the game version puts you in charge of a spectator with the task of stopping the Frosh from climbing. Like lemmings (and like real Frosh, come to think about it) the AI Frosh aren’t so bright, but they are persistent little monkeys and get better with time, building successive pyramid layers towards the top. In your arsenal, you’ve got an array of wacky and odd-seeming items mined from our dubious traditions to distract, disrupt, weaken or pick off the frosh like the happy, little targets they are. It is a game against the clock and you hold them off as long as you can and get a few laughs along the way.

The game is just plain fun and silly all its own, full of frivolous elements and inside jokes, but what really has me giddy it is how perfectly it captures and brings me back to my time there. The game simplifies life back into the things we most cherished (pizza and beer), the things we most coveted (our jackets and iron rings) and the things we most feared (physics exams), where we belonged (discipline) and our stereotyped rivalries (other faculties).

But deepest of all, it brings back the people. The characters are actual digital representations of my friends and classmates, their faces and voices bringing a stream of good memories, funny stories and questionable adventures. I had many really good times at these events and with these people. And to be reminded in full-motion glory was a treat.

I remember our day in the sound studio recording the effects, laughing at the script, “You want us to say what?” Every voice in the game pulls a name and a smile. It is like we were all back there for a moment. It’s like nearly being famous, but without the paparazzi. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and one memory. So how many words and how many memories is a whole game worth?

Once the game is out of beta, I’ll post a link to it for anyone who wants to know what this is all about (don’t download the game from the LegendWeb site as it is the original version). You may get it, you may not, but it is a fun diversion either way.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Life in Chennai # 19: Massages Good and Bad

The vast industry of hair salons, products and marketing is the reverse here in Chennai than in North America in that it is all geared predominantly for men rather than women. Supply and demand of course. Here boys and men coif their hair, spent hours in the salon, strut about town with dramatic moustaches and, ala 1950’s Hollywood, carry combs in their back pocket. Women on the other hand wear their hair long and straight and held back pretty much as is. So 180 degrees to the trends at home. So here there are hundreds of men’s salons (or saloons as they are variously signed, I’m unsure if this is a purposeful marketing ploy or merely a poor spelling), but my female expat friends consistently complain about the inability to get a decent haircut (and risk of trying).

This of course is mostly all wasted on me given my current (and unfortunately permanent) hair style of clipped short, but on the plus, it does mean finding a place is convenient. I’ve become a regular at one just around the corner from me and I usually drop in on my way home. They don’t speak a whole lot of English, but the demands of what I want are pretty simple so we have sorted it all out.

So in I go the other day, sitting down for my usual cut using the clippers with a 1 guard. At most places, the hair cut comes with a 20 minute “relaxation” head massage. I typically skip this to for getting home to dinner a little sooner, but today I decided to give it a go.

And it was...interesting... I really like having my head and face massaged. But I can’t say this was so much a massage as more a vigorous beating. I can’t say it was particularly relaxing either. My guy appeared to be new to the salon (saloon?) and it at first seemed they were just letting him go and do his own thing on me and see what he did. But I later revised his skill level or at least my appraisal of his musical background when he kept excellent rhythm drumming my head in sync to the music video playing on the TV down the row. Realising this made me have to stifle a giggle, which may have just encouraged him. Oh dear. His technique in the end was probably quite good for what it was. It just wasn’t the kind of “relaxing” head massage I was expecting and it left my scalp feeling if not sore, certainly very invigorated.

So I suppose I need to revise my statement and qualify it as I usually like my head and face massaged.

So my massage goes on for quite a while, far longer than 20 minutes. No one bothers to stop him I suppose and I don’t have a watch on. I do actually feel more uplifted and relaxed at the end, but I question how much that has to do with the massage, how much is the aromatic oil he’s used, how much is because I found the whole experience humorous and how much is simply because sitting, closing your eyes and doing nothing for 20 minutes is calming in its own right. I tend to think the actual massage was the least contributor of the four! But whatever, I suppose the results speak for themselves...

For the grand finale of the massage though, he strapped this giant, clunky metal motor thing to the back of his hand. It looked like some oversized ray gun out of a cheesy ancient sci-fi flick. It looked serious bizarre and like a good, heavy weapon in case of a fight, like if the other guy pulls out brass knuckles, you just smile and put this bad boy on and watch his eyes go wide! He turns it on and magic: it turns his head into a vibrator. Killer idea and this, I have to report, is relaxing and very nice on the scalp, face and ears. I’ll keep things PG and will let you make your own obvious leap of imagination to other uses for such an item. If it wasn’t so bulky and didn’t appear to draw enough power to dim the lights for half a block, it would make next year’s Christmas gift craze for sure. I can’t imagine it is that good for the user long term (carpal tunnel syndrome anyone?), but this at least met the promised muscle relaxant. Just glad he didn’t cuff me with his gauntleted backhand for laughing again... :-)

This is not my first experience with notable massages here in Asia though...

Being in India, one cannot go without trying a proper Ayurvedic massage. Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient system practiced here in India. Part of “alternative medicine” from the perspective of the West, it has proved effective when done properly and is very scientific and systematic in its approach. Like most traditional medicines, it focuses on holistic health and cures over targeted and kill-the-bad-bugs Western style. But proper health care aside, it has entered mainstream and mass marketing most fluidly as a questionably effective subset: massage and essential oils – things easily packaged and sold and most importantly things easiest to pretend expertise and credentials of. So proper Ayurvedic clinics are common enough, but everyone and their brother is adding “Ayurvedic” treatments to their spas, soaps, room fresheners, skin creams and you know the drill. It fits bang on into the world’s current obsession with herbal and essential oil additions to everything (many of which probably do have valid therapeutic effects, just not in the uncontrolled or miniscule doses that are in most of the products hawking them). If Ayurveda has not hit North America yet, don’t worry, it will, guaranteed, certainly on the west coast.

Anyway, back to my story, when I was in Mahabilapuram some months back, an area with a lot of tourist influence, I figured my back and neck were tight and I should try ones of the Ayurvedic massages that was being advertised up and down the street. So I made an appointment and later that day found myself on a table, literally drenched in aromatic oils and absolutely naked being worked on by a Keralan guy who claimed extensive credentials. No bothered by Western modesty, many Asian massages are done completely without clothes. Good thing I’m not shy about such things as I had not had warning going in.

Now maybe I’ve got too vivid an imagination or maybe I’m just too into touch (and am mildly ticklish besides), but I find full-body massage – and doubly worse here being oiled and naked – as entirely too much stimulation to ever fully relax. I mean come on! I may not be turned on by this mildly homoerotic fantasy, but seriously how does anyone handle these things without having to concentrate on igloos and icebergs?

Oh well, the massage goes well enough after a spell. I stop alternating between wanting to squirm and giggling at myself for it and the work on my tight shoulders and neck did what I had hoped to ease tension from bad ergonomics at work and too little exercise. I don’t have any background or prior experience in Ayurveda so I can’t vouch for its authenticity or whether it did anything more than a regular massage, but for a good deep massage, it was worth the paltry cash outlay. After, he gives me a bucket of mud stuff to get all the oil off with and a place to shower and I leave feeling slightly like I should want a cigarette or something. ;-)

A couple months later I get another massage, this time at the fancy spa in my 5-star hotel in Udaipur, with the usual little towel and a pretty Filipino masseuse, and I decide that I am just not wired for the full body massage thing as a relaxation tool. Just too much for me. The only exception maybe being Thai massages because in my experience there is just no way to feel sexy once you are doused in tiger balm and the slight woman has tied you into a pretzel and dug into deep muscles you didn’t know existed.

And that, I’m sure, is far more information than you needed to know about me, but I figured it was worth sharing for the story! ;-)