Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year 2013

and a thoughtful one too, for there is much to think about in the coming days, no matter which part of the globe you live in.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Imaginary Portraits

Could it really be a lost portrait of Jane Austen...or rather someone's imagined version of the famous author?

I came across this article today highlighting a to-be-released book in January 2013, along with an intriguing graphite on vellum portrait of some lady in an Empire dress, with quill in hand, flattened lace bonnet on her head and pronounced nose, gazing determinedly into the distance.

From the Guardian article:
"The portrait drawing, in graphite on vellum, had been in a private collection for years, and was being auctioned as an "imaginary portrait" of Austen, with "Miss Jane Austin" written on the back. "When my husband bought it he thought it was a reasonable portrait of a nice lady writer, but I instantly had a visceral reaction to it. I thought it looks like her family. I recognised the Austen nose, to be honest, I thought it was so striking, so familiar," Byrne told the Guardian. "The idea that it was an imaginary portrait – that seemed to me to be a crazy theory. That genre doesn't exist, and this looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination."
Of the experts consulted by Byrne as to the authenticity of the painting, two agreed that it was most likely Jane Austen, while a third thought it to be an imaginary portrait.
The term 'imaginary portrait' appears to have been coined by Walter Pater in 1878, which is well after Austen had passed on. If the dating of the portrait holds (estimated at 1815, based on the clothing details), it might very well be an actual portrait rather than an 'imaginary' one.
Origin of the phrase aside, the only problem with Byrne's assertion that the genre of 'imaginary portraiture' doesn't exist, is that art is full of imaginary portraits of all kinds, some adapted from living humans, others the figments of the artist's imagination and skill.
Here, for comparison, is a portrait of Jane Austen attributed to her sister Cassandra, in which she looks rather cross.
There are more images of Jane Austen in this blog post on Austen blog - real, or reimagined, softened, prettified (turned into a veritable Regency belle by the 'photoshoppers' of the Victorian school of romanticized painting). The portrait of 'Miss Jane Austin' has a lively reality to it, without any attempt to soften the features.

James Austen-Leigh's memoir of Jane Austen is available in full at Project Gutenberg, and is separated from his aunt's era only by the filters of a single generation. Will this new biography by Byrne shed any new light on Jane Austen?
I'm not quite sure. But the portrait, if it is indeed that of Jane Austen (Austin, as the portraitist appears to have spelled it), shows her with a sharper, thinner face than the widely accepted 'only existing' portrait, gazing into a distant future, absorbed in thought, while the cat keeps her company.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Just another day

a normal Winter Solstice, a normal end of the 13th Mayan Bak'tun (400 year cycle). Much hailed by the globalized doomsaying crowd as the 2012 Apocalypse.

There have been many predictions of doomsday, from time immemorial, to the present day, when spectacular failures of the said predictions are much more quickly disseminated, the better to be laughed at. There are groups of people who make it their life's mission to be prepared in such an eventuality, which when it comes, is likely to be millions of years into the future, by which time, it will either be a post-human civilization, or a bunch of robots who couldn't care less about survival, or a bunch of microbes, which may not have the consciousness to care either.

Here is an interesting round up of predictions from Stephen Tomkins of The Guardian. Of these, some of the most entertaining are the ones  made by Winston Churchill in 1931. Surprisingly, he fares quite well on many of his predictions, though some are perhaps better applied to 2012 than to the 1980's, which are the years he was attempting to foresee.

In the meantime, this is the way that my morning started. I went out for my usual constitutional at 5:30 am. The sky seemed lighter than usual, flush with the pink glow on the east, not from the sun, but from the glow of a thousand sodium-vapor lamps near the mall. Clouds loomed, threatening something. Not rain, but snow. A snowpocalypse was expected in time for rush hour, according the local weathercasters. The air was chilly, but not bitingly so.

As I walked, gazing up at the black outlines of bare trees against the grey-orange sky, little gusts and eddies started blowing, with a hint of colder air in them. 

A day like any other, is what I predict. Tomorrow will be the start of a new Mayan era, though.

Happy Winter Solstice, and Happy New Mayan Bak'tun!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More Musical Musings

Today, I came across this article in the online edition of The Hindu, discussing some of the pros and cons of online gurukulas, as the author, Rohan Krishnamurthy, likes to term it, for music. So fascinated is he by the phenomenon, that he is dedicating a few years of his life to researching this for a PhD program.
" I became fascinated with this radically new system of techno-pedagogy and chose to pursue it as the topic of my PhD dissertation, focusing on the realm of Carnatic percussion (mridangam, ghatam, kanjira, and konnakol vocal percussion). I arrived in Chennai in August to conduct ethnographic fieldwork to study the musical, social, and cultural impact of virtual music lessons in Carnatic percussion."
Let me suggest at least a few other possibilities, other than the usual suspects, of why some would want to rigorously pursue online lessons other than the admitted serious and honorable ones enumerated in the article.

(1) Keeping up with the Krishnans syndrome. ("Oh dear, they have little Anusha already singing raaga alapanais in online lessons with ____ (insert name of famous Chennai singer) twice weekly. Shouldn't we try to get Madhavan mama's uncle's nephew's wife, who is a student of _______(insert another famous singer) to take Skype lessons for our budding genius. Let's see who will take the prize at the next Cleveland Aradhana competition for pallavi singing!"

(2)  The pleasures of learning music in your pajamas, or whatever you wish to wear, without driving miles and miles back and forth, spending a whole day in your peregrinations to acquire musical moksha. Actually, the traffic situation in some places has gotten so bad, that teachers do online lessons with students who live only a paltry 20 miles away, instead of 20,000.

(3) It's the perfect excuse to bow out of attending that pesky soiree. ("Sorry, Mami, I will not be able to attend. Anusha has a two hour music Skype class that evening, time difference problem, you know...")

(4) It gives the techie-NRI crowd ample opportunity to brush up on the appropriate terminology, which can be dropped, along with names at the latest pot-luck party.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


do innocents get killed by disturbed young men who have no business getting hold of guns?
do politicians pay tribute, but never take action ?
do gun lobbyists come out with "but it wasn't the guns" excuses after the nth occurrence of a mass shooting?
do people affirm 'never again' after a shooting, and yet it happens again, and again?
do we react in horror only when tragedy strikes closer to home, rather than in distant climes?

Too many whys and not enough why nots.

Why not..

provide more support to those whose mental health is in question?
make it harder to obtain guns and ammunition without questions asked?
guarantee that anyone with mental disorders is never in the vicinity of guns?
recognize that we may never be able to prevent all crimes, but that we can take concrete steps towards making it much harder for the next gun massacre to happen?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gem(inid) of the Day

It's that time of the year again. When holiday writers struggling for headlines proclaim "The Geminid meteor shower is on, prepare for a fantastic view in the night skies!", along with assorted photos of  what appear to be almost fireworks-like displays of meteors bursting from the constellation Gemini into the skies surrounding.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret. It means little to the general population and much more to the astronomers who study these phenomena. The actual showers never look as spectacularly shower like as the visualizations that accompany these headlines might suggest.

I remember about 20 years back, when I went Leonid hunting with my husband and another friend to some of the darkest skies around Pittsburgh- the Hartwood acres  park.  We waited and shivered there for a couple of hours and were rewarded with the occasional cry of 'Ooh, there goes a meteor" from one or the other (never all at the same time) maybe once every 10 minutes or so. That, my friend, constitutes a 'fantastic view' of the meteor shower, in astronomic terms.

Of late, as the days darken early and the sun takes its own sweet time rising, my morning walks have been moonlit and starlit. How nice it would be if I could catch a meteor in the morning, I thought. So I kept a watchful eye out in the media for the increase in numbers of exclamation points regarding the Geminids, and saw them ( the exclamation points, not the meteors) peak yesterday.

So off I went this morning, determined to keep my eyes glued to the western sky, focused fiercely on Castor and Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini, that give the showers their name. Unlike the photo that is up ( from, staring at the Twins did nothing for me.

It's all my poor luck, I muttered and  turned eastward, walking back to  my home. And there, in the blink of an eye, a meteor shot across to the northern sky, vanishing somewhere in the vicinity of the Little Dipper.

And that's my Gem(inid) of the Day!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Not Quite a Classic

A long-lost early short story by Hans Christian Andersen has been unearthed in Denmark, shedding some light on the thought processes that might have preceded his rise to fame as a writer of fairy tales. 'The Tallow Candle', as it is called, reads more like an essay of an earnest schoolboy ( I recall that we were often asked to write essays along the lines of 'One day in the life of a rupee note'  or "A day in the life of a post card'.)

Here is an excerpt:
"It sizzled and fizzled as the flames fired the cauldron.. it was the Tallow Candle’s cradle - and out of the warm cradle came a flawless candle; solid, shining white and slim, it was formed in a way that made everyone who saw it believe that it was a promise of a bright and radiant future – promises that everyone who looked on believed it would really want to keep and fulfil.
The sheep – a fine little sheep – was the candle’s mother, and the melting pot its father. Its mother had given it a shiny white body and an inkling about life, but from its father it had been given a craving for the flaming fire that would eventually go through its marrow and bone and shine for it in life.
That’s how it was born and had grown; and with the best and brightest anticipation cast itself into existence."

To read the complete tale, go to

On a side note, I wasn't quite sure of what 'tallow' meant until I looked it up. I knew it was some sort of solid fat, but didn't realize that it is actually rendered animal fat that is used primarily in cosmetics and specialty cooking, these days. That would explain the reference to the sheep being the 'mother' of the candle.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reel Life

Is Glenn Greenwald making a mountain out of a mole hill in his recent Guardian piece lambasting the depiction of waterboarding in the critically acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty?

James Poniewozik of Time magazine ponders whether 'great' movies and the depiction of violence in those acknowledged as such can be tantamount to endorsing the violence, as Greenwald argues is the case in the making and reviewing of Zero Dark Thirty.

Greenwald on the waterboarding shown in the film:
"If Bigelow had merely depicted episodes that actually happened, then her defense that she is not judging and has no responsibility to do so would be more debatable. But the fact that she's presenting lies as fact on an issue as vital as these war crimes, all while patting herself on the back for her "journalistic approach" to the topic, makes the behavior indefensible, even reprehensible. Is it really possible to say: this is a great film despite the fact that it glorifies torture using patent falsehoods?Ultimately, I don't believe that this film is being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It's more accurate to say it's so admired because of this."

Poniewozik's counterpoint:
"It’s a simplistic way of looking at art, but it’s not surprising, because Greenwald is a political writer (or at least an ideological public-affairs writer), and this is the political way of looking at art. For someone who’s passionate about policy and public issues, aesthetics are secondary. Utility comes first. Things help the cause or they hurt it. There are Parts of the Solution and there are Parts of the Problem.
There are several bad assumptions that go into that kind of thinking. For one, that the primary function of art is to serve, or at least not undermine, one’s desired political arguments. For another, that artworks have literal, direct and easily predictable effects. In this kind of worldview, one kind of entertainment makes people more conservative, another makes them more liberal."

If you live in the Foxian world, where every thing shown on (especially a TV) screen is gospel truth, then Greenwald's argument about the waterboarding scene rings true. Like '24', it will attract the goodwill of those addicted to seeing violence perpetrated on any that they see as enemies.  24 was much praised and awarded, no doubt the same critics who lauded it, are now jumping on to the 'Praise Zero Dark Thirty' bandwagon.

But in the real world, will it be regarded by most thinking people as anything more than an off-note in an otherwise excellent recreation of the events leading to Bin Laden's killing?  Many reviewers have commented on it seeming like gratuitous violence, designed to sate the film makers' thirst for the dramatic, in a movie that is dedicated to showcasing the painstaking (and sometimes very dirty) work of how OBL was traced to his hiding place in Abbottabad.

Of course, I haven't seen the movie yet, and will most definitely catch it when time and circumstance permit. Somehow, I don't think Greenwald is going to give this a pass and miss seeing it, torture glorified or not.

Update: Three U.S. Senators agree that the film wrongly conveys the impression that torture produced some information that helped get Bin Laden. Most notably, Senator John McCain (who himself had been tortured), said so after viewing the film.  The senators are demanding that the filmmakers alter the movie and make it clear that torture did not produce the information.
"We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see 'Zero Dark Thirty' will believe that the events it portrays are facts," the three senators wrote. "The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner."

The End of an Era

Accidental Blogger is closing, remaining just as an archive on the internet. It was where I had my first taste of blogging, having been invited by its owner and main blogger Ruchira Paul to contribute a post.
My association with Ruchira and A.B. has lasted almost 6 years, and it is with a bittersweet feeling that I report its closure.

In Ruchira's words:
"The launch of Accidental Blogger was indeed accidental - an impulsive move that turned out to be a wonderful experience. The decision to end it however, is a deliberate and considered step. Among other things, blogging began for me as an exciting journey to a mostly unknown place. I had a vague idea of what I hoped to achieve but none whatsoever of what lay en route. The time, the place and the emerging technology of web based communications offered a ticket to ride and I set out with much anticipation and very little preparation. I always enjoyed writing and sharing my thoughts with anyone who would care to listen. Blogging was the perfect vehicle to pursue that interest. Now, after 7+ years, the trip is near the inevitable end. Again, the changes in time, place and technology, as also the diminished energy for the process of putting one's thoughts in order for a meaningful exchange with others, have played a role in the decision to apply the brakes, get off and move on."

I owe Ruchira an enormous debt of gratitude. It was primarily through her introduction to the world of blogs that I started to gain confidence in voicing my opinions and presenting my writing to a larger public.

What will I do, now that A.B. is closing? What about all those posts that flit across my mind, more serious stuff regarding the latest in world news, science, medicine, and so many other areas? Maybe I will start recording them here. There might be less fluff and more stuff coming up, further down the line, if this mood holds.

But never fear, this will still remain the outlet for my random musings on fun and family, as well. It was designed as a personal outlet, but will now be supplemented with other more general essays.

Stay tuned for more...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Can do Craft

Of late, I've rediscovered a love of crafting. I've resurrected a couple of knitting projects, one being an afghan with blue, black, green and white squares,  that I had intended to get ready before S went off to college. Now that he is at college, it behooves me to finish it up and send it to him before he completes his first year.
The second is Barbara Walker's Learn to Knit afghan, which was stuck at square 11 out of 63. I completed 11 and am now ready to tackle square 12, in cream and country blue.
The reason for all this, I confess, is a new-found addiction of sorts to Go online, check out the boards in the DIY and Craft categories, and I would defy anyone to not get drawn into thinking- "That's so easy! I must try it myself!"
And so I did, starting with trying out an aluminum foil craft ( with reasonable success) for a group of teens attending M's birthday party. Then it was off to embellish a couple of Pirouline cans, dolling them up with a lovely printed paper napkin from Pier One Imports. Here is the end result. The method is simple, just paint the can sides with glue, wrap the unfolded napkin around. The ends are clipped, folded and glued on the base and on the top. The same technique works for the lids as well.
Now I envision a series of specialty paper napkin inspired cans and canisters, maybe with a coating or two of Mod Podge.