Saturday, 26 April 2008

How Wikipedia Conquered my Reality Soap/TV Addiction

I was typing a comment on Uma's post A Bad Habit Called A Reality Soap and realised I had written a comment long enough to be a post :)

Most of the reality shows that I used to watch - I realised I was watching them because I liked seeing who would get eliminated next.

I was lucky, because most of the reality shows I watch are the American ones which come to India a couple of months after they are released in the US. So after losing a couple of hours spent unproductively watching reality shows, I realised that just checking the Wikipedia entry for that season cured me of it.

Wikipedia lets me know who got eliminated and why and who won & thats it, no longer any compulsion to watch the show. Thats because my trigger to watch most of them was the suspense and surprise.

With my location change and different seasons playing in different countries on different channels, I was getting confused with sequence of events on serials like Lost, Prison Break, Desperate Housewives. Wikipedia also helped me catch up on all the seasons of Lost with 3 hours of reading. Same for the other serials too.

Of course there are the shows like "So you think you can dance?" which I watch for the performances but I'm not too interested in the results show the next day because I know I will figure out next week who has been dropped anyway.

I used to be a huge fan of American Idol till Constantine, Latoya, Jennifer Hudson, Melinda, Daughtry consecutively kept getting out, way before their time while lesser performers were still kept on. I just stopped watching each season when my favorites got out because I no longer felt it was worth watching. Proof of the flawed voting system is that only 2 of the winners of this show in its 6 seasons - Kelly Clarkson (Season 1)and Carrie Underwood (Season 4) - have received commercial success while many of the finalists who were dropped on the side have had a better success rate. Season 7 which is currently on does not have a single finalist who seemed interesting enough for me to follow the series and Simon is now more obtuse than brilliant, so I just watch it intermittently.

With Rockstar INXS and Supernova seasons, I had slightly better luck. My favorites made it to the final 3 each season although they lost out to the person I least liked from the entire bunch both times. While I have reconsidered my opinion on J D Fortune, I still think Dilana was the best of the second bunch.

I used to love The Amazing Race till it started blurring the lines with Fear Factor. When competitors on The Amazing Race had to start eating weird stuff it grossed me out too much to follow it.

Each of my favorite reality shows/contests gave me its own reason to stop me from being addicted and obsessing about watching it on time every week. The downside is that I seem to have replaced it with an addiction to Wikipedia.

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Monday, 21 April 2008

Book Review: The Innocent Man - John Grisham

After lying unread on my bookshelf for over 9 months, I finally got around to reading John Grisham's latest offering and first work of non-fiction - The Innocent Man.

Growing up on a steady diet of Erle Stanley Gardner and in love with Perry Mason, it was but natural that I become a fan of John Grisham's legal works of fiction. But other than Skipping Christmas which was moderately interesting, his non-legal fiction did not excite me at all. So I wasn't sure what to expect with his work of legal non-fiction.

Fortunately it was interesting reading for the most part except the botched trial that got really slow and repetitive. Since this was a true story and Grisham was using actual court transcripts, he had to keep it so, but could have edited it a bit to make it crisper. Maybe all the legal serials we watch - The Practice, Law & Order, Boston Legal, and others of their ilk have gotten me to expect snappy, sharp detective work, logical but persuasive arguments by counsel and crisp closing statements. The way the case was handled was completely slip shod and pathetic and makes you wonder at the possibility of truly getting justice unless you are in a TV serial.

Little wonder that a libel suit was filed against John Grisham on 28, September 2007, by Pontotoc County - Oklahoma, District Attorney Bill Peterson and Gary Rogers, a former Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent.

This true story, is remarkable for the fact that the main accused Ron Williamson who was framed by the law enforcement team of Pontotoc County was not just a "white" man, he was a semi-FAMOUS "white" man.

Ron Williamson was a local hero on the baseball field and was also the 41st pick in baseball's 1971 amateur draft, a second-round selection by the Oakland Athletics. Due to poor performance, he did not hit the big time but he was still quite a local celebrity when he was accused as the murderer of cocktail waitress Debra Carter.

His co-accused Dennis Fritz had nothing to implicate him except that he and Williamson were occasional "drinking buddies". Ironically Fritz's own wife had been murdered 7 years ago.

The police used forced dream confessions, convicted felons as snitches and witnesses, junk science and other dubious means to get them both convicted. Williamson got the death penalty which automatically set a series of appeals in motion while Fritz got a life sentence.

Through his incarceration, Williamson deteriorated physically and mentally despite the efforts of some good hearted souls until the Innocence Project - (basis for the serial In Justice) helped get them both acquitted after 12 years on the basis of the new technology - DNA testing.

Grisham read Williamson's obituary when he died (5 years after being released) and was inspired to research and write this book.

I started out reading the book, knowing that the main accused was innocent (could the title have been more descriptive?). Grisham wrote the book, knowing that Williamson was innocent. But even someone who didn't know some of the data presented here in hindsight, could have seen that this was a wrongful conviction. And it appalls you that even though the case came up for appeal multiple times, each person upheld the original wrongful conviction.

Hence Grisham seems to have achieved his major goal in writing this novel.

"If you believe that in America, you are innocent until proven guilty, this book will shock you.
If you believe in the Death Penalty, this book will disturb you.
If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, this book will infuriate you"

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Sunday, 20 April 2008

Shajar al-Durr - The Only Sultana of Egypt

Shajar al-Durr was the only female Sultana to have ruled Egypt for 80 days in 1257 A.D.

She was of Turkish origin and was originally a slave in the harem of the Caliph of Baghdad. She was later gifted to the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt and Syria who fell in love with her and married her.

On the Sultan's death, his son took over. The son alienated the Mamluk slaves, who soon assassinated him and the step mother Shajar al Durr was proclaimed as Sultana.

Several months later-- due to political pressure for a male sultan-- Shajar al-Durr married an important Mamluk officer, Aybak. Together, they initiated the first Mamluk Dynasty of Egypt and Syria. They shared power for seven years. She thus was a Sultana of Ayyubid Egypt and also the co-founder of the Mamluk dynasty.

She later murdered Aybak, her second husband when she discovered that he had been plotting against her. She was subsequently beaten to death with shoes by the rest of Aybak's concubines.

To date, to the best of my knowledge, she has been the only female ruler of Egypt other than Cleopatra and Hatchepsut.

Her tomb can be visited even today in Cairo. My friend Camel, who is extremely knowledgeable on these matters (location and history of various monuments in Cairo) gave me these directions:

Dear Kim, I visited the Tomb of Shajar al-Durr before, and it sure is around Ibn Tulun Mosque, a walking distance from it. It is not the most pleasant of neighbourhoods, but the locals know the place, and they call it "Obbet el-Sitt Shagaret el-Durr". Just before Ibn Tulun, there is a street called al-Khalifa. Ask anyone to point the direction. If they don't know, ask them for the Mosque of al-Sayyeda Sakina (it's in al-Khalifa Street). Walk that street till you reach al-Sayyeda Sakina Mosque, then go on straight ahead in the same street, and you will find the Tomb of Shajar al-Durr to your left. If you go on in this street, you will reach Midan al-Sayyeda Nafisa, and you can visit her mosque too. Enjoy! Camel - Keeper of the Temple

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Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Travel Report: A Short Trip to Egypt

Being in Egypt for the last 18 months, I receive a lot of requests from friends asking what they should plan in their itinerary in Egypt. We have been here for ages and manage to do a lot more than an average tourist can hope to accomplish unless they are the type with endless vacation time)

This article is written in my 18 year old sisters voice. So it may not read like anything I have written before, but please bear with me. Its a new style, I'm experimenting with. Comments on the style are welcome, provided they follow the Desicritics code of conduct :)

I approach the city of Cairo from the air and the first thing I see is the river Nile, which shimmers and glistens catching the rays of the rising sun. I am lucky enough to be on the left of the plane and catch my first view of the Pyramids of Giza, right outside the city which still stand majestically even after 5000 years – a silent testimony to the grandeur and glory of ancient Egyptian civilization. We circle and then land. It's been over 5 hours since I got on this flight & I’m ready to come back to earth. I rush through Customs and baggage claim, eager to meet my sister (who currently lives in Egypt with her husband)

We then drove back to my sisters house, while she pointed out a few statues, an obelisk and some other famous constructions along the way. Cairo pretty much resembles Bombay. The Shanty towns, crowding, pollution and above all non-observance of any rules related to traffic.

Our first visit was to Saqqara, the site of the Step Pyramid. The Step Pyramid is the oldest and the first of the Pyramidal Structures from which all other Pyramids evolved (Tombs of early Egyptian kings were flat mounds called mastabas) The step pyramid was designed to serve as a gigantic stairway by which the soul of the deceased pharaoh could ascend to the heavens.

We then proceeded to Giza, the place of THE Pyramids. The pyramids of Giza are the only remaining wonder of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. The Pyramids were built by Khufu, his son Khafre and Khafre's son Menkaure. The biggest and tallest Pyramid of all (the Great Pyramid, as it is referred to) is the Pyramid of Khufu. The Sphinx (built by Khafre) was supposed to guard the pyramids.

The next day we went to the Egyptian Museum. This place is filled with artifacts taken from various ages. Most notable of what I saw were the innumerable gold treasures taken from King Tut-Ankh-Amun’s tomb and the mummies of about 30 famous kings and queens.

We spent the next few days visiting the Citadel, which is the old city enclosed by a huge wall built by Saladin. We climbed inside the wall and visited the beautiful Mohammed Ali Mosque (Incidentally Cairo has the most number of mosques compared to any other city in the world).

We visited quite a few old Coptic Churches (Egypt has a lot of significant churches along the path taken by Mary and Joseph when they fled to Egypt after the birth of Christ) and a Synagogue .

We finally went to the Khan-el-Khalili market. We climbed the Bab Zuwayla – one of the 3 remaining gates of the original walled city – and both its minarets (about 8 floors high) and had a wonderful view of the whole city around. You get all sorts of hand crafted items in this market – hookahs, colourful tents, Pharaonic souvenirs, galabeyas and belly dancing outfits to name just a few

We also went to Fayoum Oasis and took a boat ride to observe the water birds. I also rolled down a sand dune thrice near the Oasis which was loads of fun (It was the only safe place to do this as there were no scorpions in this part of the desert)

The next day we took a flight to Luxor to embark on a 5 day cruise on the Nile between Luxor and Aswan stopping along the way to see places of Interest. After breakfast, we boarded a Bus to go to the Temples of Karnak and Luxor. (The Ancient Egyptian Kings built temples to Glorify the Gods / themselves) One of the biggest reasons these temples / monuments are almost intact is weather oriented. As it hardly ever rains in Egypt, the low humidity has protected the structures except for the ravages of time over 5000 + years.

After Spending around 2 hours at Karnak, we drove to the temple of Luxor. The Temples of Karnak & Luxor are about 3 Miles apart. During the reign of the Pharaohs they were connected by an avenue lined with Sphinxes on both sides. The Pharaoh used to go in a grand procession from one temple to the Other. Today you can find about 40-50 metres of Sphinxes before each temple. Civilization has crept in in-between with Houses and roads.

We left on the next day to the West Bank & started with the Valley of the Kings where most of the Pharaohs are buried. King Tut's tomb and treasure was found here. We visited the 3 tombs opened for that day. These tombs are shafted deep into the mountains and are decorated with a lot of paintings from the book of the dead on the walls and ceilings. Some of the colours can still be seen today .

Next stop was the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. She is famous for declaring herself as Pharaoh and ruling as one, depicting herself as male (with a false beard) in all the representations around her temple. She was recently in the news for her mummy being successfully identified.

After that we got back and set Sail for Edfu where we visited the Temple dedicated to Horus. 604;

From here we sailed to Kom Ombo crossing the locks at Esna which was an interesting experience to say the least. As we waited for our turn to cross the locks at Esna, we were besieged by rug sellers in tiny boats who surrounded our moored boat and engaged everyone on board with hectic and loud bargaining and banter.

After dinner we had a "Galabeya Party". Galabeya is the long gown traditionally worn by most Egyptians. Almost all of the tourists, had bought Galabeyas from the boat salesmen and got all dressed up. We had some singing and dancing to the melodies of Nubian Music.

The Next morning we docked at Kom Ombo and visited the temple dedicated to two Gods. Sobek (the Crocodile God) and Horus. This temple is located at a bend in the Nile where crocodiles used to congregate until their movement downstream was stopped by the construction of the dam at Aswan. Hence the need for a God to protect the Egyptians from the crocodiles.

At Aswan the next day, we took a motor boat from a small ferry landing, to the Island of Philae. This is one of the many monuments that was affected by the building of the ASWAN dam. This temple was submerged (partially) under water before it was moved block by block to its current place on the Island of Agilika. The project was one of the two funded by UNICEF. The other was the masterwork of moving the temple of Abu Simbel.

The temple of Philae, dedicated to Isis, contains a lot of Greco-Roman and Egyptian architecture. As these lands changed hands frequently in ancient times, you tend to find some of these temples containing influences of various cultures. (Greek, Roman & Egyptian) There are even some Coptic crosses etched in some of these temples from the days when the Copts hid from Muslim raiders on these premises.

We then proceeded to the Aswan dam and then took a bus to Abu Simbel. This is the second temple that was moved to a higher ground to avoid being submerged by the water from the Aswan Dam. This temple is dedicated to Ramses II and his queen Nefertari. The Main temple dedicated to Ramses, has four 18 Metre statues of Ramses in a seated posture at the entrance. A couple of metres higher than the Gomaeshwara at Shravanabelagola! This is followed by a hallway lined with eight standing statues of Ramses (4 on each side). The Inner sanctum contains the statues of Ramses and 3 other Gods. Twice a year, on Ramses' birthday and on the day of his ascension to the throne, (February 22nd, October 22nd) the rays from the rising sun stream all the way into the inner sanctum about 100 metres deep inside the temple.

This happens to this day, even after the temple was moved from its earlier place. A work of sheer genius on the part of the ancient architects and the modern ones who shifted it. The modern architects constructed a huge dome before relocating the temple over it, to ensure that the phenomenon would continue.

The adjacent temple of Nefertari, has Six 15 Metre statues at the entrance (4 of which are of Ramses and 2 are of Nefertari). Ramses, just did not get tired of his face !!! The notable feature was that for the first time, a Pharaoh depicted a wife at the same height as himself. Otherwise wives and children were always shown below knee level to emphasise the Pharaoh as a God and everyone else as his subjects.

We then took the 4.5 hour bus ride through flat arid desert back to Aswan and boarded the flight back to Cairo.

The last day we drove to Alexandria (A port built by Alexander the great) explored the complex Catacombs a couple of feet below the ground, visited the Bibliotheca Alexandria (One of the largest libraries in the world, at the site of the original Library of Alexandria) the Qaitbay fort - built over the site of the Ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria (another wonder of the ancient world) and we admired the wonderful Mediterranean sea and its many shades of blue.

We returned to Cairo the same night and packed our bags and left to the airport. As I looked out of the window I felt despondent to leave Egypt with its 7 centuries of historical monuments, its wonderful feteer, koshary and Cinnabon rolls and my darling sister.

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BCA Chronicle - My 7 Favourite Bookshops in Cairo

You can read the text of this article here.


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