Thursday, June 30, 2011


Tombstone (1993)

'Hell's coming with me!'

"You tell them I am coming and Hell's coming with me, you hear! HELL is coming with me!!" — Lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) in the 1993 western Tombstone directed by George P. Cosmatos. Earp, his two brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), and old friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) fight a bunch of outlaws in Tombstone, Arizona. Don't miss the gunfight scene at the O.K. Corral.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Copyright: DC
Shazam! I am Superman

Captain Marvel—the world's mightiest mortal—gave Superman many sleepless nights after his debut in Whiz Comics in 1940, two years after the Man of Steel hurtled to planet earth in Action Comics #1. During the 1940s Captain Marvel came perilously close to wresting the ‘most popular superhero’ title from Superman, till DC Comics sued the mighty mortal’s publisher, Fawcett Publications, for copyright infringement.

Fawcett stopped publishing Captain Marvel in 1953 and, in fact, sold the rights to DC which relaunched him in February 1973 in a comic book titled Shazam! The Original Captain Marvel—where he is introduced by none other than Superman himself (see above).

By the time Captain Marvel was integrated into the DC Universe, his appeal and popularity had already waned, even though DC tried to revive him again in 1994.

While Clark Kent pulls off his glasses and rips open his shirt on the run and becomes Superman, Billy Batson merely shouts the magic word “Shazam!” and turns into Captain Marvel.

The only similarities between the two invincible superheroes, as far as I can see, are that both Kent and Batson are reporters—one news, the other radio; as Superman and Captain Marvel they dress and look alike—one in blue, the other in red; and both can fly. Copyright infringement, eh?

Psst!: Whenever young Billy Batson cries out the name of the wizard, Shazam, he is instantly bestowed with the powers of six ancient gods and mythical heroes—Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury—the first letters adding up to, you guessed it, Shazam! Powers equivalent to the combined powers of all the superheroes known to you and me. No wonder Superman felt threatened. One more thing: Shazam is not Captain Marvel, it's only a war cry that brings the mightiest mortal alive.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Growing up with Harry Potter

Last week I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on HBO thrice, each time in bits and parts, though, and yet I can’t claim to have seen the whole film. There are two reasons: I am still reading the book and, frankly, my obsession with Harry Potter, at least the movies, ended with The Order of the Phoenix—the fifth and decisive book in the series where Harry and his friends grow up too fast, too soon, and begin to lose their childlike innocence to emotional upheavals even as they dig up a new and terrifying adventure at Hogwarts.

Like all 10 and 70-year olds, I have fond memories of the little boy who lived, from the time Dumbledore leaves him on the Dursley’s doorstep till he finds out what lies behind the chamber of secrets, learns he has a guardian and single-handedly takes on the Dementors, unwittingly participates in a dangerous inter-wizardry school competition, and forms Dumbledore’s army to fight Voldemort and his Death Eaters in the Ministry of Magic—the crux of the stories in Harry Potter 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5. No more.

Books 5 & 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, have their share of hair-raising tales and scary scenes and appear more for grown-ups than children.

The special effects in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, as in all the Potter films, are mind-blowing, especially the scenes where the Death Eaters, in a fury of cloud and dust, whiz through Muggle territory and destroy a London bridge. I have not yet seen the first part of Deathly Hallows.

I will still read about the deaths of Dumbledore, Snape, Lupin, Tonks and Fred in the final two installments of the Potter fantasy, if only because reading a book gives you an imaginative space that no film on earth does. And yes, Rowling's boy wizard continues to tickle my imagination. Voldemort do you want?

Snape and Bellatrix take the honours

Prof. Severus Snape
Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange
Here's a question all Harry Potter fans ask each other: Who are your favourite characters in the Potter series? Mine are Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Snape, in spite of his cold and evil character, is comical, unintentionally so, and Bellatrix is arguably the most hideous character I have seen on screen in a long time. Both are fine actors and are eminently watchable. Do you agree?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Incredible Hulk: Man or monster or both?

"Within all of us, oftimes, there dwells a mighty, raging fury."

Issue #1 released in May 1962
The Incredible Hulk, the strangest man of all time, is also the most misunderstood of all the superheroes. One moment he is the reclusive physicist Dr. Bruce Banner and the next the raging monster Hulk with no particular agenda. And yet the Hulk's existence is not so strange. There is, after all, a Hulk inside all of us. A terrifying alter ego that gets out of our true character every once in a while. Perhaps, not in the angry, impulsive and destructive manner as the green monster. But who doesn't want to be like the Hulk and take on the world? Imagine the boost to your self-esteem.

This week I reread Marvel's Special 30th Anniversary Issue of The Incredible Hulk [Vol.1 #393, May 1991] which commemorates the first issue of the "man or monster" released in May 1962. The covers of both editions are identical in every way except for the Hulk who looks meaner, greener and more menacing in the reissue. In contrast, he looks like a knucklehead in the original.

The Special 30th Anniversary Issue
Dr. Banner, predictably, looks out of sorts in both. Like he would rather be some other place even as he is metamorphosing into the Hulk. Either way, there is no escape for poor Banner, is there?

I read the original issue more than three decades ago though I don't have it in my collection. I do, however, own the commemorative issue.

I liked several things about the reissue, including the stories, but most of all the full-length posters of "Classic Hulk Battles" as they appeared in the original comics.

To begin with, you have the green monster battling Wolverine in Canada. "In his wanderings through Canada, the Hulk came across the most unlikely of foes—a short, feisty government agent who could not even begin to approach the Hulk's immense strength," the caption says. "But Canada's Weapon X proved to be the mutant we know as Wolverine, in his first recorded adventure. And Wolverine's agility and unbreakable adamantium claws make him a match even for a monster who could level mountains."

The battle with Wolverine is followed by posters of other epic battles with superheroes like Thor, Silver Surfer, The Avengers and The Thing, to name the more famous.

The bonus in this special issue is an eight-page section titled Psychological Ramifications of Gamma Radiation, a case history of the Incredible Hulk submitted to the American Psychological Association by Leonard Samson, Ph.D. The text and pictures chart the life and times of the green monster—a fascinating tale of one who asserts loudly "Hulk is the strongest there is."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Top 10 Incredible Instrumental Music

I am no expert on music but I enjoy listening to all kinds of music as long as it is music to my ears—and puts me and those around me in a good mood. I have compiled below a very short list of great instrumental music, including classical, that you might want to listen to. If you already have then pass it on to someone who needs a boost. God knows we all need it...

   1. 5th Symphony by Beethoven

   2. Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer (soundtrack of Gladiator)

   3. Full Sail by Ryan Farish

   4. 500 Violin Orchestra by Jorge Quintero

   5. Black Hawk Down by Hans Zimmer (soundtrack of Black Hawk Down)

   6. Requiem for a Dream by Clint Mansell

   7. Toccata and Fugue by Johann Bach

   8. Slow Down by Paul Collier

   9. O Fortuna by Carl Orff

10. Ballade Pour Adeline by Richard Clayderman

Now you might not agree with the choice of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down as uplifting numbers but they work for me.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

When The Times cryptic was a religion

British newspapers, notably The Times, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent, carry some of the world's finest cryptic crosswords. My own favourite has been The Times cryptic which I first began solving in my teens, together with my father who was a devout crossword buff. He used to compile them in the 1970s for the erstwhile Sunday Standard, the Sunday edition of Indian Express.

The Times of India subscribed to The Times crossword for several years before it abruptly stopped carrying it somewhere in the early 1990s. That single act of foolishness must have cost the leading daily scores of readers. For, the crossword had legions of loyal fans among the readers of ToI. Before its sad demise, the crossword used to appear in the bottom left-hand corner on the last page of the paper, in black and white, as all crosswords should be. The cryptic was replaced by an American-centric crossword and buried in the entertainment section. I have never solved it.

So popular was the London Times cryptic among crossword fans in Bombay, it was not uncommon to see early-morning commuters, travelling to work by the local suburban train network, having a go at it. I know people who merely glanced at the headlines and promptly turned to the back page, for better part of an hour or even a day. You just didn’t give up on the crossword till you had cracked a decent number of clues.

The joy of cracking a London Times cryptic clue was indescribable while unravelling a 15-word anagram was an absolute delight. You felt a true sense of achievement, like a medical or engineering student clearing his or her entrance. I don’t know how far this is true but the crossword, I am told, is compiled by many hands, which probably explained why there were “good days” and “bad days” every time you tried to solve it. On some days you got through most of the intelligent clues and on other days you barely made it past ten, up or down. So you counted your friends and foes behind the cryptic by the clues you could, or could not, solve.

In many ways the departure of the famous cryptic in The Times of India marked the death of the crossword in Bombay, to be replaced by that numerical brain teaser Sudoku. People still solve the “concise” or “quick” or “easy” crosswords but it’s not the same thing. Now Hindustan Times has brought back the crossword, by arrangement with The Times, London, which is running 23,005. May its number keep growing.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Superman and Jerry Olsen

Copyright: DC Comics

Craig Thomas: Teacher who became spy master

The Welsh author died in April this year.
Craig Thomas, the English teacher who became a well-known novelist and who died on April 4, 2011, aged 68, introduced technology to spy thrillers long before other writers of this genre did, most notably the famous American author Tom Clancy.

While Thomas’ novels lacked the high-octane drama and edge-of-the-seat action associated with Clancy’s works, the Welsh author captured your imagination no less.

His main characters worked for British Intelligence (Secret Intelligence Service or MI6), wore dark overcoats and bowler or trilby hats, and quietly went about their cloak-and-dagger activities of keeping the world safe, usually from the Soviets. They were commonplace and could pass of as your next-door neighbour who left for work every morning.

For instance, in one particular scene in Snow Falcon (1979), Sir Kenneth Aubrey, the veteran of many Craig Thomas novels, sits in on a debate in the public gallery of the House of Commons at Westminster and ruminates over his long career in MI6 which is about to come to an end. Moments later, a junior officer approaches the ageing Aubrey and escorts him downstairs to discuss an espionage matter with a ranking military officer. The conversation, amidst upturned collars, is brief and banal, but effective. That apart, the Cold War story revolving around a high-tension arms-reduction summit between the two superpowers keeps you glued to Snow Falcon.

Thomas shot to fame with Firefox in 1977, which was adapted into a film by Clint Eastwood. In this book the CIA and MI6 hatch a daring plot to steal one of two advanced MiG-31 Firefox prototype aircraft built by the Soviets. Firefox can go completely off radar, attain speeds of Mach 5 or more, and is armed with weapons controlled by the thought impulses of the pilot. This was long before America produced stealth aircraft.

Seven years later, in 1984, Tom Clancy wrote The Hunt for Red October, the first of many techno-thrillers, where the US tries to get hold of a highly-advanced renegade Soviet missile submarine defecting to America. A story idea that originally belonged to Craig Thomas: in his Sea Leopard (1981), the Russians are out to "kidnap" a British nuclear submarine with the most sophisticated anti-detection equipment in the world.  

Thomas wrote nearly two-dozen novels that included his first Rat Trap (1976), Wolfsbane (1978), Sea Leopard (1981) and A Different War (1997), each with an intricate plot, graphic detail and an utterly believable story.

Craig Thomas and Sir Kenneth Aubrey will be missed.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Beyond Deep Blue: Chess in the Stratosphere

More than a decade has passed since IBM's Deep Blue computer stunned the world by defeating Garry Kasparov, international chess champion. Following Deep Blue's retirement, there has been a succession of better and better chess-playing computers, or "chess engines," and today there is little question that the world's best engines are stronger at the game than the world's best human players.

The new book Beyond Deep Blue: Chess in the Stratosphere by Dr. Monty Newborn tells the continuing story of the chess engine and its steady improvement from its victory over Garry Kasparov to ever-greater heights. The book provides analysis of the games alongside a detailed examination of the remarkable technological progress made by the engines-asking the questions, "Which one is best?" "How good is it?" and "How much better can it get?" 
The book:

* Presents a total of 118 games, played by 17 different chess engines, collected together for the first time in a single reference.

* Details the processor speeds, memory sizes, and the number of processors used by each chess engine.

* Reviews Deep Blue's matches with Garry Kasparov in 1996 and 1997.

Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997.
* Includes games from 10 World Computer Chess Championships, and the three most recent major computer chess tournaments of the Internet Chess Club.

* Covers the man-machine matches between Fritz and Kramnik in 2002 and 2006, and between Kasparov and Deep Junior in 2003.

* Describes three historical matches between leading engines: Hydra versus Shredder, Junior versus Fritz, and Zappa versus Rybka.

This fascinating account of the ongoing evolution of computer chess will appeal to both the general reader and to specialists in artificial intelligence and computing. Chess players and aficionados will also appreciate this remarkable insight into the new superstars of the classic game.

Dr. Monty Newborn is an emeritus professor in the School of Computer Science at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the successful Springer titles Automated Theorem Proving: Theory and Practice and Deep Blue: An Artificial Intelligence Milestone.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Separated at birth: Bahadur and Bachchan

Bahadur (The Brave), the Indian comic book hero created by Aabid Surti in 1976 and published by Indrajal Comics for over a decade, has an uncanny resemblance to superstar Amitabh Bachchan, the angry young man of Hindi cinema. Bahadur came into comic book limelight around the same time that Bachchan began his ascent to the Bollywood throne. There may or may not be a connection but Bahadur's comics and Bachchan's cinema of the 70s and 80s were all about bringing dacoits and criminals to justice. For some years now Hollywood has been doing a spectacular job of transporting superheroes from comics to celluloid. I wonder why the Bombay film industry never cast Bachchan as Bahadur and made a film out of the guardian of the little town of Jaigarh. It would have been an instant box office hit, as all Bachchan films were in those days.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Phantom's properties

The Phantom—The Ghost Who Walks, The Man Who Cannot Die and Guardian of the Eastern Dark—lives in an expansive skull cave in the deepest recesses of the African jungle and owns a mountain-high mesa in America called Walker's Table, an Isle of Eden where wild animals live in harmony and a medieval castle in the ancient world.

If the Phantom were real, what would his properties be worth today? Your guess is as good as mine. But let me guess first: even a simple Return on Investment would be staggering. Correct me if I am wrong: while Eden was created by Kit Walker, our 21st century Phantom, Walker's Table and the old castle were founded or discovered by his father or forefathers. Imagine their value in 2011.

If hit by recession, here's what the Phantom could do with his real estate: rent it out. The Isle of Eden can serve as a tourist hot spot with an African safari; the old palace can be leased out to Hollywood and Bollywood for film shoots; and Walker's Table can be rented out to NASA.

And the skull cave? Let's first get past Guran and the Bandar tribe—the pygmy people with poison arrows and the Phantom's Secret Service—then we'll see.