Friday, October 31, 2014


the scrapbook 

Easy Halloween crafts

Paper jack-o’-lantern

- Sheet of orange card paper
- Pieces of green and black paper
- Scissors and/or paper cutter
- Glue

1. Take a sheet of thick orange coloured paper or card paper. Fold and refold lengthwise and cut into eight roughly equal strips. (You can add another two to four strips from a second sheet of paper if you want to decrease the empty space between strips in the finished jack-o’-lantern.)
2. Place the strips in an eight pointed asterisk arrangement with one end overlapping in the middle, gluing them together as you add each strip to the formation. You can staple the centre for reinforcement.
3. Lift the open ends of the strips upwards, and glue each of them at the top till they form a round shape.
4. Paste green paper leaves and stem on top and add black eyes, nose, and mouth to finish the jack-o’-lantern appearance.

Paper web

- Sheet of paper
- Scissors (or cutter)

1. Cut the sheet of paper into a square.
2. Fold across the diagonal to get a triangle.
3. Fold across the middle to get a smaller triangle.
4. Lift the right edge and fold one third of the way in. Repeat with the left. (This is the same fold that is commonly used for snowflakes.)
5. Cut equidistant (straight or slightly curved) slits across on one end while leaving one edge intact. Cut off the pointy end as well as the excess paper at the top.
6. Unfold.

Halloween candy wrappers

- Sheet of white paper
- Black marker
- Scissors
- Candy bar

1. Place your candy bar in the middle of a sheet of paper, and cut the paper to about three times the width of the bar and two inches longer than the bar’s length.
2. Cut a round shape at the top of the paper and draw a ghost face in it.
3. Fold the bottom of the paper inwards.
4. Fold the paper inwards from the left and right till it covers the bar.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 31st October, 2014 *

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Begin Again - once more, without feeling

movie review

Ironically, Begin Again lacks the very same authenticity that its characters are searching for in their music

The popularity of a movie often tempts its film-makers to repeat the same formula in their subsequent projects in the hopes that they will replicate the success of their previous hit. That appears to be the motive behind musical drama Begin Again — director John Carney’s revisit to the stylings of Once, the 2007 film that impressed audiences and critics alike. This time, however, the experience has been stripped of pretty much everything that made his breakthrough effort special.

The movie revolves around Gretta (Keira Knightley), a young singer reeling from her breakup with musician Dave (Adam Levine), who strays as soon as his career takes off. Heartbroken and dejected, she reluctantly takes the stage at an open mic night, where she is spotted by troubled record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo), the co-founder of an independent record label. Blown away by her potential, Dan offers to help Gretta land a record deal. But instead of coming up with a demo, the duo eventually sets out to work on a live album in New York City, recording each song outdoors at a different location.

Along the way, the struggling songwriter and disgraced producer try to sort out the various fractured relationships in their lives, with Gretta seeking closure on her breakup with Dave, and Dan trying to connect with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld).

Corny to its core, Begin Again fails to exude the sincerity that is necessary to elevate its premise into something memorable. Its most glaring flaw lies in the fact that the very authenticity its characters claim to seek in their music is missing in the movie itself. It also doesn’t help that the run-off- the-mill indie pop tunes it tries to pass off as exceptional are, in reality, disappointingly forgettable. Passion — the very thing that should be the driving force behind the music — is sorely lacking in the songs. And while Knightley is lovely, she is completely unbelievable as the singer-songwriter unwilling to compromise on the authenticity of her craft, which makes it hard for viewers to be invested in her journey. Compared to the very real talent in the actual indie scene, both the film’s protagonist and its music seem unremarkable.

That said, the cast, on the whole, is very likeable (possibly with the exception of Levine, who could have been replaced by just about anyone else and it would have hardly mattered). Knightley is (perhaps overly) delightful, despite being miscast; Ruffalo exudes scruffy charisma; and Keener is engaging, making her scenes with Ruffalo the most affecting parts of the film.

Carney does apply some interesting touches to the storytelling (particularly in the flashbacks towards the beginning, and how Dan visualises Gretta’s song when he first hears her sing), but the film fails to capture the magic of the significantly more organic Once or create compelling character portraits like the far superior Inside Llewyn Davis did not too long ago. There is nothing unique about the very clichéd, splintered relationships the film’s protagonists are trying to heal, but, to its credit, the film handles the chemistry between its two leads with grace and doesn’t take them down the predictable path. Overall, Begin Again isn’t nearly as genuine as it wishes it were, and its lack of plausibility and mediocre soundtrack make it far less compelling than it could have been.

Rating: 2.5/5

Recommended movies for music fans

Once (2007)
A Dublin busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant flower girl (Markéta Irglová) come together to make music in John Carney’s acclaimed Once, which has also spawned a successful stage musical.

Crazy Heart (2009)
Propelled by an Academy Award-winning performance by Jeff Bridges, Scott Cooper’s adaptation of Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel follows the story of a washed-up country music singer-songwriter, whose relationship with a young journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) inspires him to turn his life around.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The Coen brothers’ latest drama Inside Llewyn Davis is a skillfully crafted case study of a folk singer (Oscar Isaac) who is struggling for success and marred by a series of self-inflicted misfortunes.

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 19th October, 2014 *

Saturday, October 18, 2014

From exotic to trite

album reviews

Robert Plant releases a tender record while Maroon 5 loses track of its sound

Artist: Robert Plant
Album: lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar

Few musicians have a chance to front a genre defining band; fewer still can follow such success with a wildly prolific solo career; and almost none can hold a candle to Robert Plant, who very emphatically stands in a class of his own. The former vocalist of Led Zeppelin, the rock band that is often cited as one of the most influential groups of all time, has had a successful solo career spanning over three decades, and, as is evident from his new album, is still going strong.

Produced and co-written by Plant himself, his latest release, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, marks his maiden studio voyage with backing band The Sensational Space Shifters and sees the singer come up with an intriguingly eclectic set that brings together his many influences to create a thoroughly satisfying sonic experience.

Flavours of folk and blues shade this offering of rock that is sprinkled with exotic world music. The skills of its accomplished creator are on display at every turn of lullaby. Whether he is coming up with arrangements that are intricate (the reworking of the folk standard ‘Little Maggie’) or sparse (the beautiful piano ballad ‘A Stolen Kiss’), the results never fail to impress.

Powered by the grace of his delivery and the warmth of its material, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar revels in its rich textures and gives us much to discover while making it evident that Robert Plant isn’t resting on his laurels. Admittedly there is more lullaby here than roar, but with songwriting this stunning, there’s hardly any reason to complain, because ultimately this set of songs is so riveting that it practically forces you to hit replay the second it’s over.

Highlights: ‘Little Maggie’, ‘Turn It Up’, ‘A Stolen Kiss’, ‘Poor Howard’
Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Band: Maroon 5
Album: V

Even though televised singing competitions are supposedly a platform for hitherto undiscovered contestants who are trying to break into the music industry, the real winners of these shows are usually the so-called mentors and judges, who often benefit from a boost in their profile and popularity. Adam Levine is a prime example of this phenomenon. The Maroon 5 front man has gained considerable attention due to his stint as a coach on The Voice, and a collaboration with fellow mentor Christina Aguilera in the form of ‘Moves like Jagger’ has given the group their biggest hit to date. Now the band is trying to chase the same sugarcoated sound on their new album, V.

For this set of over-produced, saccharine electro-tinged pop rock, the band is working with the same pop producers and writers (Max Martin, Benny Blanco, Ryan Tedder, Shellback, Sia) that everyone goes to when they’re desperate to pander to the masses and not particularly concerned with individuality or substance. Relationships continue to be their subject of choice, as they blend chart trends to create a slick collection of pop that somehow manages to be both catchy and forgettable at the same time.

From upbeat opening track and lead single ‘Maps’ to the piano ballad closer ‘My Heart Is Open’ (the now requisite duet with another coach, this time featuring Gwen Stefani), the material is largely non-descript and over-polished. Save the beautiful, Nate Ruess co-penned ‘Leaving California’, which smoothly reminds us that this is the same band that made Songs About Jane (2002), V doesn’t have the emotional resonance or texture of their early material. There is enough variety between these songs to keep their fans pleased, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Maroon 5 doesn’t even sound much like a band anymore. Ultimately, you may find their latest installment infectious or cloying, depending on how you feel about standard chart-friendly pop as well as your level of tolerance for Levine’s falsetto.

Highlights: ‘Leaving California’, ‘Maps’, ‘In Your Pocket’
Rating:  2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 18th October, 2014 *

Sunday, October 12, 2014

22 Jump Street - leaping on the same bandwagon

movie review

The boys in blue are back in college and a lot can happen the second time around

In one of its many meta moments, buddy cop comedy 22 Jump Street concisely lays out its own game plan. “Do the same thing as last time,” its characters are instructed, “[and] everyone’s happy.” And that is precisely what the film does. The sequel to 2012’s 21 Jump Street (which itself was based on the 1980s crime drama) sticks to the template of its predecessor while doling out the same brand of self-referential humour that made the first movie such a surprising delight.

The target, this time, are sequels and their inherent trappings. Officers Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are on a mission almost identical to the one that made them a success in the previous instalment — busting a drug ring by going undercover and posing as college students. But before they can unmask the perpetrators, they realise that being a pretend college student comes with its own set of problems. When they make new friends and bond with kindred spirits — with Jenko gravitating towards the jocks and Schmidt finding himself amidst the artsy, bohemian crowd — their bromance is put to test, making it uncertain whether their partnership will survive this episode.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have once again created a zany, playful comedy that is high on energy and brimming with self-awareness. The plot doesn’t seem to hold much weight and it (intentionally) isn’t the most important element of the film. Instead, it’s the meta-commentary that propels the movie’s engine. As it spoofs itself and makes fun of its own existence, 22 Jump Street misses no chance to remind us that this is a sequel about sequels, repeatedly finding humour in franchise clichés, thanks to a sly script that never fails to make you laugh. Even its end credits vignette, which features a mock montage of future instalments, is a hoot and makes an amusing short in itself.

The odd couple dynamics between its leads have also been put to good use. Both Tatum and Hill are in fine form here and seem totally committed to their goofy roles. The supporting talent is also impressive, led with a knowing wink by Ice Cube and Nick Offerman who play Jenko and Schmidt’s superiors. Other standouts include Wyatt Russell, who portrays a jock that sparks camaraderie with Jenko, the Lucas Brothers, who play a pair of stoner twins that occupy a neighbouring dorm room, and Jillian Bell as Schmidt’s new girlfriend’s (Amber Stevens) intensely hostile roommate.

Of course, sticking to the same template also has its downsides. The humour becomes a tad predictable, and the proceedings aren’t as exciting as they were the first time around. Moreover, at times it feels like the movie rambles on, and sometimes it repeats its jokes too many times, drawing out the gags longer than it should.

Still, the overall experience of the film is very enjoyable. 22 Jump Street’s simultaneous embodiment and takedown of sequels as well as buddy cop movies is quite thoroughly entertaining, thanks to a witty script and slick performances, and the film is likely to amuse the viewers who enjoyed the first instalment of the series.

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 12th October 2014 *

Friday, October 10, 2014


cover story

Exposing common misconceptions, one myth at a time

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” says an old adage, and that just might be the best advice you’ll ever get. With the (both intentional and unintentional) prevalence of misinformation around us, many of the things that make their way to our eyes and ears aren’t rooted in reality. Accounts are misrelated, facts are manipulated, data is misquoted, and sometimes incidents play a game of Chinese whisper before they make their way to our ears, getting distorted along the way. All too often, the truth is the casualty.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that there are many commonly held myths and beliefs that simply aren’t true, but since they have been relayed to us repeatedly, we haven’t stopped to challenge them.

Here’s a look at some such misconceptions. Brace yourself, and delve right in.

Human beings use only ten percent of their brains
Possibly just those who still believe this myth. The tagline for Luc Besson’s new film Lucy reads, “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.” Gee, I don’t know, maybe she could point out how ridiculous the premise of this movie is? The undisputed fact is that large portions of our brain do not remain unused. The brain is a complex organ, and any injury or disease that causes damage to even a relatively small part (let alone 90%) of it can have devastating effects on a person’s wellbeing. To perform the many functions we continuously do to survive, all parts of the brain are active during the course of a day, with certain areas more active than others depending on our actions. So while the notion of harnessing our 90% unused mental potential may sound promising, it is entirely unreal.

There is blue blood in veins
Au contraire. That is nothing but a myth. Have you ever seen blue blood? No? That’s because there is no such thing. Human blood is always red, although its shades may vary. Oxygenated (arterial) blood is bright red, while deoxygenated (venous) blood is dark red. But if you try to spot your veins on, for instance, your hands or wrists, their colour might confuse you. If blood is red, then why exactly are veins blue? Well, they aren’t. They just appear to be because of light diffusion and perception. Only blue light penetrates the skin all the way to the veins, so this is the colour that is reflected back. Mystery solved!

Lemmings are suicidal
Hold the Prozac – the lemmings would like to tell you that they’re doing just fine, but thanks for your concern. The small furry creatures are best known for committing mass suicide, but, despite what Walt Disney wants you to believe, the rodents don’t jump off cliffs to embrace death en masse. A rise in population density sometimes forces groups to migrate, and during the process many might drown when the waters they traverse test their physical capabilities; while they can swim, exhaustion may strike if they try to cross large bodies of water. The suicidal behaviour that is depicted in the 1958 Disney documentary White Wilderness was staged, and the fabricated scenes perpetuated the myth that has no basis in actual lemming behaviour.

The Great Wall of China is visible from outer space
Only if you have a powerful telescope. The Great Wall of China is often cited as the only man-made object visible with the unaided eye from space, but that isn’t accurate. It is very hard to see (and even harder to distinguish) the Great Wall from Low Earth Orbit with the naked eye, a task made even more difficult by the fact that it is the same colour and texture as the area surrounding it. And the Wall definitely isn’t visible from the Moon, as is often claimed. It is estimated that a viewer would need to have 17,000 times better vision than normal to see the Wall from the Moon.

Strawberries are berries
It’s right there in the name: strawBERRY. And it’s a fallacy. Yes, that’s right, strawberries are liars. A berry is “a fruit produced from a single flower and containing one ovary”. A strawberry, on the other hand, forms from a flower that has many ovaries, and is an “aggregate accessory fruit”, which means its fleshy part is derived from the receptacle that holds the ovaries and the aggregates merge into a single fruit. So what are some actual berries? Grapes, avocados, bananas, tomatoes, and watermelons! Who knew?

Sitting close to a television is dangerous for your health
Only if you’re still using a 1960s General Electric television, in which case you probably have bigger problems than this myth! According to Live Science, in the late ‘60s, GE sold a batch of faulty TV sets that emitted as much as 100,000 times more radiation than is considered safe. Sitting a few feet away from these units and restricting viewing to an hour or so minimised the adverse effects of the x-ray emissions, and the defective units were promptly recalled and repaired. But the myth lingered on, with people perpetually suspicious of the effects this radiation was having on their health and especially eyesight. Cathode ray tube TVs emitted low levels of x-ray radiation that was not dangerous for viewers, and modern LCD and plasma screens don’t give off any radiation at all. Concentrating on any screen for hours can, however, cause eyestrain, so don’t forget to blink!

Different parts of the tongue exclusively sense different tastes
Not true. All regions of the tongue sense all taste sensations, although different parts are more sensitive to certain tastes and can better detect certain flavours. So what’s with the tongue map then? It was a theory from the early 1900s gleamed from a research on relative sensitivity to the four basic tastes (bitter, sour, salt, sweet), which was taken out of context, simplified, and disseminated. Later research disproved it (and you can simply debunk it yourself by licking some salt with the supposedly “sweet” sensing tip of your tongue), but the misconception about the tongue’s strict regional exclusivity to different tastes has persisted.

Cracking knuckles causes arthritis
Or maybe it doesn’t. So far, this claim remains unsupported. In theory, habitually cracking your knuckles (popping the air out of the synovial fluid in the joint cavity) could cause damage to the cartilage covering the joint, but studies have not found definitive proof that this actually happens. Doctor Donald Unger even won the 2009 Ig Noble prize for his research in this matter, which he conducted for more than sixty years by cracked the knuckles of only his left (and not right) hand every day, eventually developing no ailment in either hand. More comprehensive studies have found no difference in the prevalence of osteoarthritis between those who did crack their knuckles and those who did not. Although everyone agrees that the cracking sounds awful, so please don’t do it anyway!

There is a dark side of the moon
Just as much as there is a dark side of the Earth. We popularly call it “night”. The moon does not have a fixed “dark side”. From our vantage point, it has a nearside (the one we can see) and a far side (which isn’t visible from Earth, but can be seen by spacecrafts and probes). We can’t see the far side from our planet because the Moon’s rotation syncs perfectly with its orbit around the Earth, but that doesn’t mean it is “dark”. That side actually receives sunlight on a daily basis. As Pink Floyd summed up in the song ‘Eclipse’ from their seminal classic The Dark Side of the Moon, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it’s all dark. (The only thing that makes it look alight is the Sun.)”

Bats are blind
Well, they would be if it weren’t for the fact that they aren’t. No species of bats are blind. Some have better vision than others, and many can see quite well. Of course bats also use echolocation (making sounds that bounce off nearby objects, giving them a sense of distance and direction), but that doesn’t mean they can’t see. So from now on, “blind as a bat” means “not blind at all”. Spread the word.

Lightning never strikes the same place twice
Tell that to skyscrapers! Lightning isn’t well versed in myths and strikes wherever it pleases, however-many times it likes. It can even strike the same spot multiple times within a single storm. Tall towers and skyscrapers are the most common targets of repeated lightning strikes, and can receive hundreds of hits per year. So lightning will almost certainly strike the same place twice. Just give it some time.

Christmas marks Christ’s birth
Symbolically, yes. Literally, no. The commemoration of Jesus Christ’s birth on the 25th of December in the form of Christmas is a widely observed holiday, but it isn’t literally Christ’s birthday. History indicates that the date for Christmas might have been popularised because it already marked pagan religious celebrations with solar connotations. As for his actual date of birth, no one really knows for sure, but it is unlikely to be on the 25th of December. Biblical verses cast doubt on the birth being in wintery December, although different explanations and interpretations have led to various speculative dates (spread throughout the year) for the event.

“Elementary, my dear Watson”
No, this phrase was never uttered by Sherlock Holmes in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canonical written works. Holmes did say “Elementary” and “my dear Watson”; he just didn’t say them together at the same time. The closest proximity they have is when the two phrases are uttered a few lines apart near the beginning of The Crooked Man (1893), but they appear in reverse order. That, however, hasn’t stopped “Elementary, my dear Watson” from becoming ingrained in popular culture as a line said by the beloved detective to his trusty sidekick.

Blue whales are the largest animals in the world
The jellyfish would beg to differ. Although it depends on how you define “large”. If the criterion is length, then the lion’s mane jellyfish also contends the title; their largest known specimen was 37 meters (120 feet) in length, which is longer than a blue whale and is considered one of the longest known animals on our planet. If you want to categorise by weight though, then even dinosaurs cannot compete with the mighty blue whale, which is the heaviest animal that is ever known to have existed.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 10th October, 2014 *