Thursday, January 29, 2009

I'm normally a cynic, but this is incredible!

This video warmed my heart, brought a lump to my throat, and generally blew me away. I must apologize to the folks in Britain because this is old news for them; America does occasionally find out about cool things like these, even if a bit late. Hat tip to Josie, and courtesy of Komando.

Turn the sound up!

More from Komando:
Paul Potts was an unassuming cell phone salesman from Wales. But he had a special hidden dream. He wanted to sing opera.

His big break came on the television show Britain’s Got Talent. It’s a variety show in the vein of American Idol. It even features the famous killjoy, Simon Cowell, as a judge.

In this video, you’ll see his first-round audition. Watch the judges’ faces. They don’t expect much from Potts. But that doesn’t last long. Potts went on to win that season of Britain’s Got Talent. And Sony released his first album in 2007.

Here's Paul's semi-final winning song:

And, the final (Nessun Dorma again):

The verdict:

Friday, January 23, 2009

News that should be more prominent

Afghanistan now has a road in the western part of the country that links to an Iranian route to the coast. India built the road at a cost of $85 million in order to be able to trade with Afghanistan by sea and through Iran, thus avoiding the need to go through Pakistan--to-date the only viable access route to Afghanistan. India has a major vested interest in a free, prosperous Afghanistan, much more so than the U.S., because of historic (and well-founded) worries that Afghan radicalism will quickly transfer to northwest India through Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan, being joined at the hip with Afghanistan thanks to the Durand Line monstrosity, cannot tolerate an independent Afghanistan or a close Indo-Afghan relationship for fear that India will seek to destabilize Pakistan from the west. Afghanistan for its part needs an alternate route to the coast to reduce its dependence on Pakistan. This is one of the reasons why India and Afghanistan have much to gain from a closer relationship with Iran, something the previous U.S. administration was loath to sanction because of their deep distaste for the Iranian regime. IMHO, Iran is the key to Afghanistan's future development. U.S. interests would be well-served if we recognize this. The Central Asian route being planned right now for U.S. military access is fine for the short- and medium-term, but this only connects you to the Caspian Sea and you also have to worry about numerous sources of instability, including the Russians and the Caucusus. A normalized relationship with Iran would be a Gordian Knot solution to Afghanistan--a country that one can safely say will persist as a concern for the long-term.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes I did

Tuesday, January 20, 2009: How I made it to Obama's Inaugural (and back).
7:15 a.m. Home: I had planned on getting on the metro at King Street Station by 7, but was still dilly-dallying at home trying to cram random supplies into my coat pocket when my wife turned on the TV and showed me the huge crowds that had already gathered on the mall. That was a necessary kick in the end to my feeble hopes that all those predictions of record crowds would prove to be wildly overstated and that I could simply saunter to the middle of the mall and find a good spot. I'm not sure why I thought this; maybe because over the last month many of my friends had decided against going, citing such novel reasons as the difficulty of getting to DC, uncertainty about the metro system's reliability, inadequate access to restrooms, large crowds, cold weather, etc., that I hoped most people would elect to stay home. I was channeling my inner Yogi Berra ("no one goes there any more; it's too crowded.").

7:30 a.m. King Street Station: Yawn, not much of a crowd. Bring it on! I mutter confidently, in the spirit of our outgoing President. Then, a train comes. It's a Blue line train and it's packed. Already! Just two stops into its journey. One person gets off, four squeeze into the spot she just vacated. My cheer is dulled a bit, but I hope my Yellow line train fares a little better. Optimistic chap, that's me. Enter Yellow line express, equally packed to the vents. I shuffle to the edge of the platform and assume a proper stance--wide with knees flexed in order to lower my center of gravity--to hold my position against the frantic mob behind me. Luckily, the train stops with a door exactly in front of me. Like a good NFL running back, I pick my slivers of daylight among the huddled bodies and soon disappear into the belly of the car.

7:30-8:15 a.m. Yellow line train: I became familiar with some strangers. Quite unintentional, really. But when one is pressed close against other people, you can't help but hope they don't think you're acting fresh. L'Enfant Plaza, our preferred destination to the south of the mall area is apparently ridiculously full, so much so that our train is hurried along to the next available stop: Gallery Place/Chinatown. Groans in the train. Cheers when we get off at GP/C. Groans when we see the crowds there, wondering what "ridiculously full" looks like. In an attempt to salvage some dignity, I sheepishly take out the water bottle from my coat pocket and show it to the dude whom I had been pressed up against on the train. He allows a small smile.

8:15-8:35 a.m. Gallery Place/Chinatown Station: This long to get out of the damn station.

8:35-9:45 a.m. Trying to get to the Mall: Crowds. OMG, crowds. Everywhere. Since we were unceremoniously dumped to the north of the mall, we were caught up in the masses trying to get through security and onto the parade route. Yes, the parade that's scheduled to happen in the afternoon! I'm walking on H Street, about five blocks north of the mall, but can't see any way of going south. Street after street is closed for the parade and I doggedly continue, hoping to see some daylight somewhere. Me and a hundred thousand of my closest friends. I am about to give up in despair and sit down and sob somewhere quietly, when I round the White House and make it to 19th Street. Hallelujah, I can see the Washington Monument, and more importantly, a clear path to it.

9:45-10 a.m. Washington Monument: I made it! I try to inch my way up the mall closer to the Capitol, but a patient security chap informs us that that part of the mall is full. So, I backtrack and find a spot of high ground right under the Monument with a clear view of the Capitol in the distance. By distance, of course, I mean a mile away. But, hey, I can see the Inaugural stage and little people dots. To my left and right nearby, two giant jumbotrons provide a great view of the proceedings. People of all colors and shapes litter the place. That's when I realize that I'm in the minority. Yep, I'm the only one in ski pants and snow hiking boots (God bless my time in Colorado). With my ACU hoodie sweatshirt and my grey wool dress coat on top of it all, I realize I'm cutting a strange figure, but at least I'm warm. Lots of dust everywhere.

10-11:45 a.m. The wait: Interminable wait for our new royal family. It's cold and a bit blustery. Families with unbelievably patient kids everywhere. Everyone taking pictures of the crowd with their cellphones. Few scattered couples keeping warm by periodically giving each other tongue massages. Some geospatially challenged individuals attempting to guide their lost friends to themselves by giving incomprehensible directions over the phone. Which is just as well, seeing that any empty spaces have rapidly filled in long ago. I myself have a spotty cellphone signal (damn you, AT&T), so I can't call anyone. I content myself with the occasional text update to my wife. Lots of chants: O-BA-MA; Yes We Did; O-BA-MA. The giant screens show us a live camera feed, but are not accompanied by any commentary. That's when I realize how much I miss Peter Jennings. I also realize how important the media narrative is in shaping our experiences. The PA announcer kindly keeps us company by periodically informing us that Grand Poobah so-and-so has just shown up. Muted applause for Jimmy Carter. Enthusiastic cheering on seeing a motorcade on screen; the crowd assumes that's Obama. Polite reception for H.W. Bush. Crazy cheers for Gore and Clinton (more so for Gore). Boos for Dubya. Lots of boos. More so for Dick Cheney. Wildest cheering reserved for Malia and Sasha. Rapture and relief on seeing Obama. General sense of relief that a new administration is coming in. I have an Onion-style headline in my head: "Black man gets crappy job." PA guy kindly requests everyone to sit down. Many laughs from the crowd. The crowd's really big by now. I thankfully munch on a granola bar, my only nourishment of the day. I have my bottle of water, but I dare not drink more than a sip, for fear that I would have to give up my hard-earned spot to relieve myself. Not to mention my fear of portable restrooms. I turn my head left to right and see nothing but a sea of heads and American flags. I grew up in India, in the land of a billion people, and I've never been in anything like this.

11:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m. The inauguration of Barack Obama: Biden says his oath, and many in the crowd instantly yell, "No More Cheney!" Chief Justice Roberts flubs Obama's oath. Dude, that was your only part all day, and you messed that up? First black President, a moment that will likely be replayed endlessly for future generations, and you couldn't say 39 words. Also, since Bush's term expired at 11:59 a.m., America had no President for ten minutes, or at least an oathless one. Constitutional crisis, anyone? Still, when Obama concludes his oath, there's a lump in my throat and I'm overwhelmed by the moment. I'm taken in by the magnitude of what just happened, thinking about the fact that a black man is about to take up residence in a building that used to have slave quarters. I'm overcome at the thought that Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the other end of this very mall, and I'm watching history happen in front of me. Many are freely crying, hands on their heads. I wonder if MLK would also consider this a fulfillment of his dream, like so many seem to imagine. I'm ecstatic that I am here, in this moment, in this place, on the freaking mall! The cheers are deafening; I can't help but sense a common feeling that we all need him to succeed. Obama's speech is good, not great. But, I'm grateful to have a President that I can listen to without cringing. I'm hopeful he will change our image in the world. I also notice how confident he is. Good, he'll need it. I also think: congratulations, it's your shit now, buddy. Don't let us down. Break a leg. (Note to Secret Service if you're reading this: that's just a saying.)

1:15-2:30 p.m. Home: Yes, I left without staying for the parade. I'm glad too, the thing didn't start till 5 and only those with tickets could be there anyway. I look toward the L'Enfant Plaza Station and alertly notice that there is no earthly way I can make it there in less than two hours through the crowd. I decide to hoof it to Arlington Cemetery Station, a mile behind me, over the bridge. I make it there in 30 minutes, notwithstanding the blisters on my feet (I ruefully realize that my hiking boots are meant for the snow, not for concrete). The station is less crowded than I expected and a Blue line train comes along in a minute. I sit down with a grateful sigh. I also realize that this is the first time I've sat down or leaned against anything all day. I'm weary, but thrilled to have experienced Obama's inauguration in person.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Info Dump; Or, What I've Been Up To

2008 is thankfully behind us...undoubtedly, a global "annus horribilis." Although, because Queen Elizabeth II famously used the term in 1992 to refer to her family's soap opera travails the previous year, "annus freaking ridiculous" might be a better descriptor of this last year. Dave Barry's review of 2008 has to be one of the finest satirical works of modern times. Obama is about to take power as most noble purveyor of all that he sees--literally. And, he has the burden of having to craft an inaugural address that actually measures up to the moment of the times. I'll be there in the million person mob on the mall, listening to our new King attempt to do so.

In these incredible times, life brings joy for me in the little things, perhaps because I can actually understand them. Nationalized economy? I honestly still don't comprehend. Here are some of the mundane, personal activities that have been preoccupying me:

Watching HDTV on my computer: My wife and I have long used our pc as our primary TV. Just a Dell with Vista Home, 22" LCD monitor, and an ATI 250 Wonder tuner card. Windows Media Center is a very satisfactory DVR, so we can record our favorite shows for free, without paying for another box. It had long bothered me that we weren't making full use of the tuner card. It has two coaxial inputs (what you hook up your cable/antenna to, just like the one on the back of a regular TV): but, one input is for regular analog TV signals, while the other input is for digital signals. The question was how to get digital TV on our pc without paying our cable company for a high definition package. From all that I read online, I was told that I could just hook up a simple rabbit ears antenna to this input to watch HDTV because these antennas can also pick up HD signals "off the air." Well, for some unknown reason this didn't work for me when I tried it a while back. I thought that maybe the antenna wasn't oriented properly to pick up the signals, but unlike the old school analog signals, HD is On/Off only: there is no fuzzy picture if your antenna is facing the wrong way. This can be frustrating setting up HD because you're not sure if your setup/equipment is wrong or if the problem is with the antenna. There is either a crystal-clear picture or nothing. So, I decided to try one more time a couple of weeks ago, and, presto! We now have several digital TV channels from local Washington, DC stations. These broadcasts are all in DTV, with some shows in the higher definition HDTV--most sports games and shows like Lost. The difference in picture quality is simply staggering. Even plain DTV is so much clearer than analog. HD is over the top good. Next step: get a second tuner card so we can record a show while watching something else. We can do that now only if we're recording a cable TV channel while watching a DTV channel or vice-versa.

DVDs on my iPhone: Being cheap, I didn't want to pay for software to convert my DVDs and load them on to my awesome iPhone (3G, 16GB). Enter, Videora. This fantastic freeware comes in several versions, depending on what you're trying to convert movies for: iPod, iPhone 3G, or the old iPhone. Stark, but simple interface made converting my movies a snap. I used this before going on a flight, and I tell ya, 'twas a wonderful flight with my own personal movie selections at my fingertips.

Better Shaving: Yes, I can hear the chuckling from those that know me and my propensity to shave as infrequently as possible. But, hey, when I do shave twice a year, I want it to be worth my time. In November, I tired of my normal gillette/shaving gel setup and decided to bust out the ol' double edge safety razor and shaving brush that I had kept around for some reason. Took me twice as long to shave, but the results were astonishing. I had lost practice using the safety razor, so I had a couple of nicks, but the effort was truly worth ingrown hairs and a much more even and close shave. A little ironic, considering that this is how I began shaving as a teenager in India and that the only reason I ditched these medieval implements was because a friend made fun of me. On a whim I decided to research shaving, and I discovered this lovely article on "wetshaving":
The perfect shave is what all men strive for every morning when they bring their razor up their chin – an effortless shave that’s baby smooth, and without any of the usual skin irritation, redness, and that burning sensation most guys seem to feel is par for the course when it comes to shaving.

Why do so many guys find this so hard to achieve? Because proper shaving has become a lost art. Shaving is one of those glorious male traditions that used to be passed down from father to son, but somewhere along the line, when shaving became more about cheap, disposable razors than a nice, precision-made metal tool in your hand, it became a brainless routine to rush through in the morning without even thinking about it. A dull disposable razor dragged across a layer of foam or gel on your cheeks is a step backward from the past, not an improvement. Now that men of all ages are paying more attention to their appearance, it’s no wonder that the hottest trend right now in male grooming is a return to the traditional wet shave – and millions of men have been shocked to discover that the “old fashioned” method of shaving they thought went out with the Hula Hoop is actually the best quality shave you can get.
Lost art, indeed. Sniff. Glorious male tradition. Very moving. The article discusses shaving brushes at great length, and I learned that there are different kinds of brushes. Mine had synthetic bristles, but I saw that there were more advanced "throwback" options: natural hair brushes such as boars bristle and badger hair. Apparently, the progression in effectiveness (and cost) of shaving brushes is as follows, with a major leap between each:

Synthetic --> Boars Bristle --> Badger Hair

More research told me that badger hair brushes come in various grades, from "pure" (dark, stiffer hair, starting at $20) to the premium "silver tip" (softer, denser, and as much as $550!). Being the aforementioned cheap bugger that I am, and not wanting to spend $500 on a freaking shaving brush, I asked and got a basic "pure" badger hair shaving brush for Christmas. Yes, I'm weird, but I have a loving and understanding wife. No doubt she also has a vested interest in me having smooth cheeks, so she readily got one for me from Amazon for $30. Wow! I believe. The brush is dense, holds water beautifully--necessary for a great lather. The proof is in the second lather after the first brush shave (ha ha, so punny). Even against bare skin, the badger hair brush brings up a wonderful lather, unlike the old synthetic one that was pretty wimpy on the second run. Suffice it to say that shaving is now a semi-religious experience, lasting approximately 30 minutes, with my trusty iPhone's most awesome Pandora radio application playing my favorite tunes in the background. Have I mentioned that my loving wife is very sweet and understanding?

Happy 2009 and happy shaving. It's good to be a guy.