Friday, May 31, 2013

Lessons learned the hard way

book review

Book: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future – Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned
Author: Michael J. Fox    
It’s hard not to love Michael J. Fox and it’s even harder not to admire his resilience. As an actor, he has seen immense success, and his career has been quite remarkable. He is still much adored for his portrayal of Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy, and has also played some unforgettable characters, including Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties and Mike Flaherty on Spin City, as well as voicing the title character in the Stuart Little movies. But he has also faced a major personal challenge; at the height of his success, the star was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative condition that forced him into semi-retirement in 2000.

He has since authored three books that have taken an autobiographical look at his life and shared stories from his past, the most recent of which is 2010’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future – Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned, a tome in which he shares his experiences with students and new graduates.

“I’ve never let my schooling interfere with my education,” said Mark Twain, but in Michael J. Fox’s case, he never let his lack of schooling interfere with his education. A high school dropout who has since earned his GED (at the urging of his son, “approximately fifteen years after I left high school in the eleventh grade”) and has even been awarded several honorary doctorates, Fox says he has been “alternately fortunate and unfortunate enough to receive an amazingly comprehensive education, albeit unstructured, and often unbidden.” “I had been a humble and grateful student of, if not the School of Hard Knocks, then at least the University of the Universal,” he says, and these “Life 101” lessons are relayed by the author with his standard wit and charm in this book.

“What I’ve done here is draw a few observations based on my life experience and organise them in response to the broader question: What constitutes an education?,” writes Fox, before elaborating that he feels that while “there really is no substitute for a solid education to inform a maturing mind,” at the same time it is inappropriate to “make character judgments based solely on one’s alma mater or post-graduate degree.” He then draws a parallel between his learnings and the courses students are taught at school, and speaks of prospering “not through avoidance of a classic education, but by finding a way, if not to replicate it, then to approximate it”. “Whether you go to school or set out on your own, certain lessons are unavoidable,” he says. “Speaking from personal experience, it might be less painful to learn them in the classroom.”

For the most part of the book, he maps his life experiences onto various subjects. For instance, he talks about learning economics from Alex P. Keaton, encountering the concept of “supply and demand” as an actor, and coping with financial troubles at the start of his career; experiencing physics on the set of Back to the Future; appreciating geography while shooting the Vietnam drama Casualties of War; and his love for reading as well as the comparison between books and their movie adaptations under the guise of comparative literature, before eventually coming to the conclusion that “one’s education is never complete”.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future is both witty and inspiring, but its major flaw is that it’s too short. At only about a hundred pages, the book is a very quick read, and is perhaps a little light on content, especially new material. If you have read his previous books (Lucky Man: A Memoir and Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist), then you might find A Funny Thing repetitive and a bit redundant, as the author has mentioned most of the same topics and stories in his earlier books. Still, Fox shares his insights in a humorous and engaging style, which makes the book fun to read, and students and recent graduates might glean some inspiration from the wisdom he shares with his readers.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 31st May, 2013

Educational websites: Know

on campus: cyberia 

Scouring the web for useful educational tools and resources

Taking notes while you’re reading a textbook or attending a class is very likely to help you retain information, and your notes will also make it easier for you to revise your course material later. And with Quicklyst, the note taking process just got a lot neater. The service aims to help you “take better notes” by providing you with the tools to “take beautiful outline-style notes that help you structure your ideas”. It works on any device with a modern web browser; you can make use of Quicklyst whether you’re on your PC or a mobile device (like an iPad, iPhone, Kindle, or any Android device). The site is secure and backed-up daily, so you don’t have to worry about losing your data. The service is useful for classes of any kind; you can even insert formatted mathematical equations into your notes. You can also use the website to “easily structure your ideas before you begin writing that A+ essay, impressive report, or amazing story”. Quicklyst has a simple interface and is extremely easy to use, so whether you are “a student, professional, thinker, or tinkerer”, the site can help you organise your thoughts, and create lists and notes quickly and easily. Simply sign up to Quicklyst for free and get started.

Study Blue
Study Blue is a free mobile social facility that lets you “make, study, and share online flashcards, study guides, and quizzes”. A digital study tool for students, the website serves as a platform to “learn better, learn together, and get smarter” by helping you improve your study habits through digital flashcards and online class notes that cater to the ever increasing demand for more mobility. Sign up and log in to your Study Blue account and you will be able to join a class, make flashcards, and upload files; your documents will be stored and available on-the-go and you can also easily transform the uploaded material into flashcards. Plus, if you’re looking for something in particular, you can search for keywords to find the best matched results for either materials, classes, or people. So visit Study Blue and let the website help you achieve your academic goals.

Almost akin to a web based, multidimensional, and more engaging substitute for PowerPoint, Projeqt is a service that helps you create “real-time presentations with dynamic slides” online. Aimed at both students and teachers, and hoping to encourage creativity in the classroom, the site lets you insert elements like videos from the web, audio clips, and even live tweets or blog feeds into your presentations. After you are finished working on your project, it will be automatically optimised for every screen, from bigger PC monitors to smaller tablets, and you can also embed it on your own website. With Projeqt, students can “access, share, create and review their work from anywhere, at anytime”, and express their creativity by “tapping into the best of the web”.

Newsletter, general knowledge
Now I Know
You learn something new every day. Or do you? If you’re starting to feel like this old expression is failing you, then go to and sign up for their newsletter to learn all sorts of interesting things every day. You will get a daily email that will teach you something completely new and different that you (probably) didn’t know before. The newsletter covers everything from significant events to remarkable people, and you are very likely to come across information that you had no idea about. Did you, for instance, know that carrots used to be purple? Or that Abraham Lincoln created the secret service … on the day he was shot? There is a lot of information here waiting to be discovered, so go through the archives to see what interesting facts and trivia have been discussed so far, and sign up for daily emails to find out something new every day.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 31st May, 2013

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The original boy banders

album review

New Kids on the Block was the first boy band and while others came and went, NKOTB are still 'hangin’ tough'

Band: New Kids on the Block
Album: 10

The recent resurgence in the boy band phenomenon has not only inspired new groups to sprout up but has also encouraged pop acts from the past to make a comeback. Giving rise to the concept of the ‘man band’, these reunions have ridden high on a wave of nostalgia and often proved fruitful.

New Kids on the Block's reemergence a few years ago is in sync with this trend. Often attributed with paving the way for groups like the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync to subsequently take over the charts, the premier boy band of the '80s found home in millions of teenage hearts before disbanding in 1994. Solo ventures and acting careers followed, albeit with varying levels of success, until 2008 when the group reunited, released a solo album, and subsequently set out on a tour with the Backstreet Boys in 2011.

Continuing on their comeback journey, the group has now released 10, their second new set since their reunion (sixth studio album overall). Another collection of straightforward pop, 10 makes no attempts to be different or innovative. Often taking its cues from Europop and making frequent use of electro beats, the set sees NKOTB rely on outside songwriters to come up with more generic boy band material that mulls over love and heartbreak.

Helmed largely by Danish production and songwriting team Deekay, the album's 12 songs (plus one hidden track) offer enjoyable urban pop propelled by catchy beats, and it's all clearly meant to sound stylish and modern. What's missing though is any sense of freshness, novelty, or even distinctiveness. Standouts include the playful first single 'Remix (I Like It)' and the upbeat, synth-ridden 'Crash' (which brings Nicki Minaj's 'Pound the Alarm' to mind), but songs like 'Fighting Gravity', 'Now or Never', and 'Back to Life', while competently delivered, offer little in terms of uniqueness.

All too often, it feels like New Kids on the Block - who, let's face it, are neither new nor kids - are yearning for the glory of their heydays while trying to sound relevant in the contemporary market. However, it ultimately feels like the group members - Jordan and Jonathan Knight, Joey McIntyre, Donnie Wahlberg, and Danny Wood - who are now middle-aged men, are singing songs that would have made more sense coming from younger artists, like Justin Bieber, Conor Maynard, or One Direction. Songs like the synth ballad 'We Own Tonight' and the propulsive 'Crash', for instance, would be at home on one of these artists' albums and could potentially even be hits. Coming from NKOTB though, the effort seems unconvincing.

On the whole, 10 is serviceable commercial pop, but there is absolutely nothing exceptional about it. The set is a collection of songs that have been competently put together but sound generic and uninspiring. It's the kind of middle of the road pop that NKOTB's fans will probably enjoy but that is very unlikely to expand their appeal or win them any converts. 

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday- 19th May, 2013

Friday, May 17, 2013

Of shattered hopes and renewed expectations

white paper

Dear outgoing government people,

Hello, and congratulations on completing your five year tenure as the Government of Pakistan. It isn’t clear whether one should be impressed or appalled by the fact that you guys are the first Pakistani government to ever do so. At any rate, I would like to tell you that you did a great job running this country. Well, I WOULD like to tell you that, but I can’t because I’m quite fond of the current size of my nose and don’t particularly want it to become longer; it just wouldn’t suit me is all.

At any rate, you are now a part of the history of this country, and will forever remain so, no matter how much some of us may wish that we could, well, wish you away. Wouldn’t it be something if we could just collectively wake up from the nightmare that has been the last decade and find ourselves in a country that is peaceful, prosperous, and actually has electricity for more than half the day?

Speaking of which … what exactly DID your administration have against electricity? The reasons for your deep-rooted hatred for power generation never became fully apparent to me. What was up with the whole no power for 12 or 15 or 18 hours a day thing? Was it the misappropriation of funds, the lack of power plants, the unavailability of natural gas, or just plain misadministration? Or were you simply trying to make us more grateful for what we have, as we yearned for the good old times when there was only 6 hours of load shedding per day, while teaching us endurance and patience? In which case, touché! Lesson learned.

Before we go any further, I would like to clarify that I do fully appreciate the efforts that you did make to turn Pakistan into an even better country. For instance, who can forget your response to that marathon bombing after which you guys brought the whole city to a standstill while you quickly identified the two suspects, combed the entire area for these men, and didn’t rest until you found both culprits, and … oh wait, that was America. Sorry, my bad. I'm sure you would have done something about the bombings and shooting too had they not turned into white noise over the years. But hey, you did make the valiant effort of turning off our mobile phones, so who can say you guys weren’t as dynamic and effective as the American forces?

While with the Americans, it was an unforgettable highlight of your regime when the U.S. Navy SEALS violated our sovereignty to carry out a covert operation in Abbottabad and assassinate the most wanted man in the universe, he who must not be named. It’s hard to decide whether his presence in this country or the U.S. operation, right under your noses yet without your knowledge, was more shocking. Or maybe it was your inability to stop the U.S. drone attacks in our north western regions? How about I leave it up to you? You can let me know what you found most appalling. Send me a tweet when you figure it out.

I’d say leave a message on my YouTube video wherein I read this letter to you, but you have very astutely made that impossible. I applaud your decision to block an entire portal that hosts millions of useful, educational, and entertaining clips because of one man’s display of stupidity and insensitivity, instead of only blocking that depraved piece of work. That’s just the kind of smart and intelligent administration that you were. Letting one degenerate disrupt something for millions of people is always the right way to go.

As we part, I would like to thank you for being coerced into holding elections this May. Leaving just might be the best thing you did for this country. You will forever have our gratitude for it. Now let’s see if you have brought this country to the point where we think your best replacement is an ex cricket player, or if we still need more lessons in patience and endurance and therefore opt to go for five more years under the likes of you.

Oh and thanks for the inflation too. We would have had no idea what to do with all our money without your help, so muchos gracias for making sure that all of it goes towards feeding our families and putting food on the table. If we’re lucky enough, that is. And my commiserations to you for the Supreme Court’s efforts to thwart your attempts of becoming the richest people in Switzerland. Maybe next time.

Despairingly yours,

A citizen who may or may not be a teeny tiny little bit disgruntled


Dear new government folk,

Hello, and congratulations on winning the elections. It brings me great joy to see you in power, because now you will improve the education system, help business flourish, eradicate poverty, fix the energy crisis, and bring peace to this country, just as you promised. I, of course, believe all your promises. Partly because no matter how hard you and your predecessors have tried, I still carry the hope in my heart that someday someone will prove that the term “honest politician” isn’t an oxymoron. And partly because I’m a gullible idiot. Well, mostly because I’m a gullible idiot.

Which makes what I’m about to say all the more important: for the love of what’s left of my sanity (and you can very clearly see that not much remains), please do something about the load shedding. I am not so much close to losing my marbles as I am to taking all my marbles and then smashing them to smithereens with a giant hammer. Yes, we are a resilient people, but that doesn’t mean you have to take our resilience as a challenge. Give us a break. And don’t, for the second time in a row, make us regret our collective democratic choice.

Democracy, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, is a peculiar thing. First we watch you all sling mud at each other for a while; then – after all your faults and flaws have been thoroughly highlighted – anoint one of you as our leader; and then wonder why things aren’t getting better for our country. A tongue in cheek political ideology suggests that anyone who wants to be a politician shouldn’t be allowed to be one, and the last few years add credence to this claim. Despite all that, there’s a sense of empowerment and exhilaration that comes with the electoral process, one that isn’t diminished by the fact that we have to choose between less than ideal options. Ultimately, and perhaps in a triumph of hope over experience, it is still good to see that we have now elected you as our new government and done so despite the many uncertainties that surrounded the process.

Once again, a most hearty hurrah to you on making the utterly splendid decision of opting to take the reins of a country that is about as stable as francium. By some celestial miracle, be different and be better. Be the anomaly. Be the change we yearn for and deserve. As they say, third time’s the charm.

May the force be with you. Heaven knows you’ll need it.

Skeptically yours,

A disgruntled citizen who is trying really hard to fake optimism

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 17th May, 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013


movie review: in the picture

Oblivion **1/2

Starring: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo, Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Tagline: Earth is a memory worth fighting for.

So you think Hollywood lacks originality? Well, good news: Oblivion proves your point! A hodgepodge of ideas from science fiction past, the film borrows heavily from the far superior movies that have preceded it to create a special effects laden collage of familiar bits and pieces.

Derivate to its core, Oblivion takes us to post apocalyptic Earth, where an attack by aliens called Scavengers (or Scavs) has turned the world into an uninhabitable wasteland. It is year 2077, and the surviving humans have been whisked away to a colony on Saturn's moon Titan. Technician Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his “effective” partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are still stationed on Earth to secure the remaining resources and repair the drones that are overseeing this mission and fending off the Scavs.

Things, however, start to unravel with the arrival of Julia (Olga Kurylenko), a mysterious occupant of a crashed spaceship, who has haunted Jack's visions prior to her appearance. A series of events - not necessarily predictable, but very comprehensively unoriginal - lead Jack to question his mission. Then Morgan Freeman shows up, as he often does, to tell us what is really going on.

With not a single original bone in its oversized body, the film comes off as an unevenly paced dystopian drama which occasionally gives way to some frantically convoluted action. The initial setup feels all too familiar; think WALL-E, minus its irresistible charm and joy. It then turns into a game of 'guess the inspiration' as Oblivion trudges from plot points of one sci-fi classic to another. Its derivativeness might not have been such a massive problem had it not been so obvious and the borrowed points had been concealed under a layer of creativity. Creativity, however, rarely makes an appearance in this film.

A better script would certainly have helped. Oblivion's overreliance on voiceover narration, with Tom Cruise walking us through the story, acts in its detriment; it would have been more interesting had they let us discover things on our own and made the reveals more nuanced. While Cruise does put in a considerable effort to bring Jack to life, his generic action hero character could have done with a more distinctive personality, and the icy Victoria and the vacant Julia could have used more substance that would have turned them into better defined and more engaging characters.

Where the films impresses, though, is in its looks and design. The sleek visuals, the effective use of whites and grays, and the futuristic aesthetics make Oblivion's world striking. It is this aspect of the film that appears to have been crafted with artistic attention and care. The action itself is also well executed. And M83's score works overtime to make up for the lack of tension in the script. But without much heart underneath, these glossy embellishments can't help but feel hollow and squandered.

Oblivion's style over substance approach shows yet again that, as with Tron Legacy, Joseph Kosinski is more effective at creating visuals than characters. Had he paid more attention to the story and screenplay and relied less on borrowed elements, he could have created a much more effective science fiction tapestry. As it stands, the movie's intentions seem transparently commercial, and it is unlikely to satisfy sci-fi devotees. The film may want to leave the viewer with existential quandaries, but doesn't pull this off nearly as convincingly as the many films it blatantly rips off. Oblivion does have the ability to keep you watching and trying to figure out what's going on, and you won't want to abandon the film midway, but its story could have been a lot more interesting if Kosinski had come up with something more unique and creative, and made the characters more warm and the proceedings easier to invest into.

– Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 12th May, 2013

Sunday, May 05, 2013

No love for Paramore

album review 

Since the band lost two of their band members, Paramore have yet to find the sound which brought them their initial fame 

Band: Paramore
Album: Paramore

Towards the end of 2010, pop rock band Paramore found themselves in turmoil. An acrimonious split with the band's co-founders - guitarist and lyricist Josh Farro and drummer Zac Farro - left the group down to three members amidst a very public squabble. The brothers claimed that the band had “somehow morphed into a manufactured product of a major label,” turning into a showcase for vocalist Hayley Williams while relegating the others to the background.

Now, nearly two and a half years on, the remaining members of the band return with their first album since the split and do little to dissuade the Farros' claims.

With 17 tracks running over an hour in length, the group's self-titled fourth album sees the remaining trio - singer Hayley Williams, bassist Jeremy Davis, and guitarist Taylor York - soldier on with the help of Lostprophets and Nine Inch Nails drummer Ilan Rubin, who has been recruited to record the drums for this set. Producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen helms the project and brings electronic influences with him that are sprinkled throughout the record.

Wrapped in tight hooks and infectious melodies, the eponymous album re-attests to the fact that despite their attitude, Paramore really are a pop band at heart. Taking a step away from their diluted punk sound and incorporating more synth and electronica into their music, Paramore have created their most diverse album to date. From the gospel choir on the soul influenced 'Ain't It Fun' to the three ukulele driven interludes, the group tries different things on these tracks, adding whatever embellishments strike their whims. The results offer variety, but never present a cohesive picture of the group.

Experimentation is a commendable thing, and the band deserves props for expanding their musical palette, but going off in every direction at the same time doesn't result in the most self-assured project, and that is the predicament that befalls Paramore. Put together, the album feels like it's all over the place and suggests a band that is trying too hard and is uncertain of their identity and unfocused in their experimentation. Even with the supposed adventurous overtures, the record still slants towards a more pop-oriented and mainstream sound instead of going for touches that are more unique and innovative. Also, the album comes off as a little overlong; it might have helped if Paramore had left out some filler and gone for a shorter, more consistent set.

The lyrical content too isn't a particularly impressive element of the record. The lyrics could use fine-tuning and have a long way to go as far as maturity is concerned. Whether it's the clichéd ballads or the up-tempo romps, the words here aren't exactly the most striking and memorable part of these songs. Plus the group's decision to make what appear to be veiled (or perhaps even direct) references to their issues with and feelings towards the Farros isn't the most respectable way to go. Dissing your former bandmates (on songs like 'Interlude: Moving On' in which Hayley sings “let 'em spill their guts, 'cause one day they're gonna slip on 'em” and “let 'em play their songs, let 'em say what's right and wrong”) is just as charming as Taylor Swift droning on about her exes.

Overall, Paramore is an ambitious but overlong pop record that is playful and catchy, but offers less punk rock and displays more mainstream tendencies. The results often sound like a cross between Taylor Swift and Gwen Stefani/No Doubt, and are likely to appeal to the same demographic. The new set might split fans, although there is something here for (almost) everyone; longtime fans are likely to appreciate songs like 'Proof', while mainstream listeners will enjoy the straightforward pop of tracks like 'Still Into You'. Those who thought of Paramore as nothing more than glorified bubblegum pop aren't likely to be impressed by this record, although they could possibly find a song or two here that they might enjoy. Hopefully this album will help Paramore figure out who they really are and decide which direction they want to take so that they can hone their creative energy and make the solid pop record that this one hints towards.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 5th May, 2013

The Office star Mindy Kaling tells it like it is

book review

TV actress, writer, director, and author Mindy Kaling shares zany insight in her book

Author: Mindy Kaling
Book: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Mindy Kaling first came to prominence as a staff writer and actor (portraying the character of Kelly Kapoor) on the U.S. version of The Office, and has since spearheaded her own sitcom, The Mindy Project. In between, the American comedian also scribed a book called, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), a collection of essays, anecdotes, and recollections.

Offering an amusing take on her life, work, and other experiences, the book sees the author talk about her childhood, being chubby, getting bullied by a Senegalese kid, her best friends, living in New York, the success of Matt & Ben, her career in television, being a part of The Office, romance, her appearance, and her legacy. Along the way, Mindy comes up with various lists on topics like the exact level of fame she wants, the rights and responsibilities of best friends, the types of women in romantic comedy who are not real, franchises she would like to reboot, and her favourite moments in comedy.

As far as its content goes, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is noticeably thin. The writer simply does not have enough substance to produce a solid book, and based on the content, doesn't appear to have amassed enough life experience to come up with a full length tome. Some of the lists work, others don't, but when she gets to the point where she has to do things like share narcissistic photos from her Blackberry, you can clearly tell that she has really run out of things to write about. The book is at its most interesting when Mindy is talking about her life and experiences; the unnecessary asides feel distracting and pointless and are not nearly as clever as the writer might have hoped. Perhaps Mindy could have written a more substantial book, had she waited a few more years and had more and better stories to tell her readers.

It also does not help that the text misses a sense of direction and cohesion. The writer meanders through different topics, seemingly at random, without fully detailing most of them. Many ideas are touched upon but not fully explored. As a result, the prose feels unfocused, directionless, and lacking depth; the prose itself isn't a strength either. The tone is fairly engaging, albeit overly snarky, but the style seems closer to that of a blog than a book. It's the kind of writing style where the writer frequently ends sentences with phrases like “or something”, “or anything”, and “or whatever”. The humour is blunt and abrasive, and while Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is mildly amusing, it rarely goes beyond being just that. For someone whose actual job is as a comedy writer, the chapters offered here aren't as funny or smooth as one would hope; you can easily find funnier and more insightful pieces on a number of blogs online.

Then again, all of that might not be a problem for many readers, because the book appears to be directed towards a certain segment, and simply isn't meant for the rest of us. The content will probably connect more with younger, especially female, readers. It will also give The Office fans a behind-the-scene glimpse of the show. Reading the tome is like spending time with a girly, overly talkative friend who jabbers on about anything that comes to her mind while trying a little too hard to be edgy. The author did not sit down to paint a clear picture of her life but just wanted to offer random nuggets of her experiences and thoughts in a friendly, informal way, and in that she has succeeded.

For the most part, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? reads more like a blog, and not a particularly well-written or interesting one. This isn't intelligent comedy that will blow you away. Sure the book is funny, but varyingly so. While Mindy may have accomplished a lot, she is unable to translate that into the book or make her story very compelling. That is why Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? seems insubstantial, unfocused, and padded, although none of that stops the book from being amusing and fun.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 5th May, 2013