Sunday, September 29, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 330 ( The nightingale turns ninety. A personal tribute to Lata Mangeshkar)


In the Indian subcontinent, playback singing is not merely a part of cinema, but a consummate, eclectic and widely embraced art form in itself. From the very beginnings of Indian cinema, the makers have always attempted to tell their stories through songs. “Alam Ara”, the first full-length feature film released in 1931 had seven songs, the next film in the same year, “Shireen Farhad” had forty-one songs. Early Indian Movies resembled the operas, and before long, like operatic music, the songs began to take a life of its own. For a nation fighting its way out of foreign rule, and for millions of people unaccustomed to any entertainment beyond their regional folklore (and deliberately kept out of classical music by the pundits and upper castes) film music became a luxurious national entertainment encapsulating the mood of the nation, the ebb and flows of human life and above all a reflection and voice of the innermost feelings and aspirations of the common man. By the 1940s, Film music emerged as an independent industry closely allied with the film world but creating, incubating and channelizing a new breed of musicians who had their base in Indian classical traditions; but willing to adapt and sacrifice the rigid tonal structures of its meter to fit the mood on the screen. Audiences loved it; and the Men and women who composed, sang and recorded these songs became iconic figures in their own right, often masking the puritans both commercially and in popularity. Quite a few of them cutting across the Indian states and languages elevated film music to esoteric levels of dedication, passion, commitment, and discipline. Lata Mangeshkar, the only true nightingale of Indian music, is one such iconic genius.
Reams and reams of ink have been spent writing about Lata and her incredible work over six decades. I cannot add anything more to her legend, except record my appreciation of her phenomenal talent. If Playback singing is an art form, then Lata Mangeshkar is its anointed god. There are few others who have equaled or surpassed lata in their versatility of singing and the range of songs sung, but for sheer purity of tone, precision of musical notes, clarity of diction, and longevity of work, none comes close to Lata, except, perhaps with the exception of SPB from Southern India, and Asha Bhonsle-Lata's younger sister.
There is no clear record of how many songs Lata has lent her voice to. Some say 25,000, others 45,000; but nobody is sure, and Lata herself hasn’t kept count of numbers. From 1940 to around the early 2000s, Lata dominated the world of Hindi music, and with each song a gem, and sung with such complete absorption and discipline, numbers really don't matter. It is only when quality is shaky that quantity assumes importance. However, it is the period between 1940 - 1990, that is Lata’s greatest era. Not only was her voice at its pristine best during those years, but some of the finest music composers, lyricists, and male singers happened to work in the same era. Composers of the caliber of Madan Mohan, Roshan, Jayadev, Lakshikant Pyarelal, the father-son duo of Burman’s, Shankar Jaikishan, Naushad and OP Nayyar among others; and male singers such as Rafi, Kishore and Mukesh imbued with a golden masculine voice that complimented the pitch-perfect notes of Lata ; and gifted lyricists like Sahir, Shailendra, Shakeel Badayuni, Gulzar who wrote meaningful lyrics of such beauty fully aware that in Lata’s hands not a word will be mispronounced, out of place or tune. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of Lata was her ability to not fragment or compromise the lyrics, even in the highest notes. You will never hear a Lata song, where the words are unclear. She intrinsically understood the inseparable connection between the lyrics and the tune. The debate over tune versus lyrics or vice versa loses its meaning in Lata’s singing. There are songs when Lata’s soaring voice has magically transformed a pedestrian lyric to a sparkling immortal melody, and there are equally enough number of songs when Lata showcases the sheer weight of the lyrics over the tune. Like all great artists, she knew the right balance without any dispute or debate.
To some composers, Lata was the Muse. For Madan Mohan, without Lata, the song was incomplete. In the great composer’s repertoire of work, Lata has sung the maximum number of songs. Nobody else could have sung them. Madan Mohan’s compositions are not merely complex, but deeply nuanced and intricate. It is difficult to coach anyone to sing them appropriately. The singer should grasp the musical phrases that spring from a deep classical base and imbue it with lightness or heaviness required by the mood of the song. Nowhere is that perfect synergy visible than in that great song “Lag ja gale..”. In all these years, many aspiring and accomplished singers have attempted to sing this composition on stage and in cover albums; but it is the unanimous opinion of listeners, that Lata’s original rendition is unparalleled in its spacing of notes, and the emotive force behind each phrase. This is just one instance among many others. Similarly, for the young RD Burman, who faced the onerous task of living up to his father’s genius, Lata was his savior. Who can forget the songs of Aandhi, or Kati Patang or that splendid album “Amar Prem”. This list can go on.
One of the common accusations against Lata is that she wasn’t as versatile a singer as, say, her younger sister. That is true. Very early in her career. Lata made a conscious decision not to sing songs that in her calibration seemed immoral or improper. In Bollywood music, versatility means singing for any occasion or emotion, regardless of the musical sensibility; and Lata made a choice not to go down that path. Just as a Michelangelo refused to paint the Sistine chapel as the pope wanted him to, yet ended up creating something vastly more beautiful than anything anyone could have conceived; so also, Lata politely refused compositions that offended her demure sensibilities and accepted commissions that she could influence creatively. She had nothing against anyone composing or singing those compositions; just that she wouldn’t do it. The composers respected her decision and gave her songs - even sensual ones - only if the composition met the right aesthetic standards of tune and lyrics. A song such “Baahon me chale aa.”, which borders on the edge of lust and romance, is elevated to a different plane by the smooth texture of Lata’s voice that soothes the senses and doesn’t agitate.
The lady turns ninety today. What a creative life? A whole generation and a half have grown up listening to her voice, and many more generations to come will listen to her voice in equal awe. There is a purity in her singing that cannot be defined in words. In one of my earlier essays on Lata, I mentioned that Lata’s dedication to her art is exemplary in the world of cinema. Untainted by controversy, loved, admired and respected by all, she epitomizes how true art stands heads and shoulders above petty trifles. Age cannot dim the sweetness in her voice and the reach of her music. “Tu Jahan Jahan chale ga..” haunts every Indian living in a foreign country, “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” still evokes the sensuous appreciation of feminine grace clothed in mysticism ; or “Aaayega Aane wala” sung by Lata when she was barely twenty, continues to mesmerize; or the languid melody from Pakeezah “ Chalte Chalte” which expresses a weariness that comes out of fullness of living - all these, and many, many more will remain our national treasures for as long we cherish Indian Film music and its ability to capture different emotions in short musical compositions.
Lata may have stopped singing, but her melodious voice still echoes each day, unwilling to fade away or replaced by a newer voice. Like the soothing sound of a spring breeze, her notes will linger forever in the ears and hearts of her countless fans. Age has no meaning for a great artist; their creative work will remain ageless - always.
Wishing you health and rest Lataji. You have done enough.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala


Friday, September 13, 2019

The marriage of US Open 2019 to IBM Watson - the Artificial Intelligence engine, that helped conjure the magic of tennis on our screens.

Jottings - Slice of life - 325
The marriage of US Open 2019 to IBM Watson - the Artificial Intelligence engine, that helped conjure the magic of tennis on our screens.
The digital experience of watching the 2019 US open was exemplary. Along with the spectacular tennis demonstrated by top players in the world, the USTA and IBM combination created a technological revolution in collecting, analyzing and presenting the game in all its varied and frenzied splendor that made the event look so intimate and personal to millions of viewers across hundreds of countries. The USTA ( United States Tennis Association), like many other sporting bodies, is a non-profit organization. The only season to rake up big bucks is the two weeks of US open. Broadcasting rights, sale of food and beverages and sporting memorabilia bring in hundreds of millions of dollars; but among the three, It is the undiluted and enhanced user experience on the television sets or mobile devices of tennis fans worldwide that will ensure that this two weeks of tennis extravaganza will remain an event to cherish, bring in more money, and keep coming back to — year on year. The Arthur Ashe or the Louis Armstrong stadium can only accommodate a combined capacity of fewer than forty-thousand people who get to watch their stars close in person; but for the millions watching on their devices, It is the digitized experience that must fill that void. That experience must be close and personal, must recapture the excitement and the aesthetics of the game, and should provide the immersive experience of being in the arena along with others. For years now, IBM, the pioneers of Artificial intelligence and digitization, have been partnering with USTA to transform the Tennis experience for its remote viewers, to enhance the job of editors and commentators by recreating exciting highlights in quick time, and providing interfaces for those present in the stadium to enjoy the sport better. IBM has a separate business unit that works with sporting and the entertainment industry. They have been doing great work collaborating with USTA not only in transforming the visual experience but in helping the spread and nurture of talent in the USA through cutting-edge technological aids. This year, IBM introduced several revolutionary breakthroughs in digitizing the tournament. Powered by IBM Watson engine, built on top of Redhat’s OpenShift, these breakthroughs are examples of how Artificial intelligence, Data collection and analytics, and simple application of sporting rules can combine to create an experience that can be overwhelming for human beings to reproduce in quick time. If we consider the aim of AI is to augment the capacity of Man, and not make Man redundant, then what we see IBM doing in the US Open is indicative of the blessings such synergy between man and technology can bring to the table.
A sporting event faces similar challenges as any other organization to provide great customer experience. For USTA, the product is Tennis, and customer experience for them is engaging their diverse audience of tennis fans with high voltage highlights, answering questions in native languages relating to the tournament, and the ability to interlace past data points to the visual experience of watching the game live or even create artificial simulations. The US open 2019 is powered by Watson - IBM’s pioneering work. In 2012, Watson ( named after the legendary father-son duo who founded and nurtured IBM for the first sixty years of its existence) was designed to beat humans in the game of Jeopardy - A complex linguistic game that was considered beyond the ken of AI till then. The birth pangs of Watson, its eventual victory will be told in another installment, but for this essay it is enough to state that Watson’s ability to “learn” and predict patterns from previous data points is an important feature and one that would play a key role in the visual experience of US open 2019.
In modern days, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to spend three or four hours watching a sport live. Tennis fans have no time, but even if they do, the patience, understanding, and appreciation required to watch every shot, every strategy unfolding on the court, is dwindling. With television equipped with DVR ( the ability to record) and content producers and sponsors more than willing to offer “Highlights” capturing the key moments of a match, the need to ensure such highlights are true to the game and equally exciting becomes imperative. For a vast majority of viewers, these short capsules are more or less the real game. But the problem is that condensing a fluid work of art or sport is difficult, and more importantly, shouldn’t be biased. When a five hour battle on court between two quality players is condensed to thirty minutes, it better contain the key moments of the game that turn the tide of the match, moments that are not swayed because of the popularity of the players, and it should also be exciting, generate enough adrenaline to keep the viewer riveted, interested and wanting more.
The first task is to have the Watson engine to digest large volumes of data from the previous US Open tournaments. Based on twelve years of data, around 31,000 data points from sources including, audio, videos, text and raw feeds were fed into the system. Watson had to ingest and “learn” about this voluminous data first, through codified rules and weights assigned to different factors, before it can be made to work on real-time data. The Arthur Ashe stadium was specially equipped with hundreds of audio-visual equipment strategically placed around the stadium to capture the game from all possible angles. The visual feeds, the sound of the ball as it leaves the racket, the change of volume in sound made by the ball during the rally, the height of the ball toss, speed and angle of the serves, the intensity of player’s grunting noises, the length of the points, the context of the point — whether it is a game, or set, or a match point, the facial expressions and grimaces of the players before and after a shot, the undulating levels in decibel in the auditory response from the crowds as their loyalties periodically shift from the champion to the underdog and vice versa, the expert insights from the commentators, the climatic conditions on court, the number of medical interventions requested, the gesticulating comments by players on and off games, the controversies — all of this and much more are captured and analyzed based on rules and weights embedded in the AI engine. A human being can process much of this information seamlessly and unconsciously. When asked, we could quickly recount the key moments of the match without much thought. But for a machine to do it, all these symbols, rules and variables that constitute the key moments of play must be explicitly stated, analyzed, derived and extrapolated. IBM AI highlights 2019( for those who watched the live coverage, these highlights appeared frequently as sponsored capsules) used IBM Watson Acoustic Insights to analyze sound, IBM WatsonOpen scale features to iron out known biases, IBM Watson Media to understand the visual feed of points played and the context of it, and IBM Watson’s visual recognition API’s to study Human gestures . It is the exciting combination of these different features that helped Watson engine to curate the highlights of a match within seconds, against the hours it would have taken for Human editors to scan through every frame of a video and audio feed. This year, the curated highlights are further sent to experts for moderation. That’s just the last leg of the race. The bulk of the work has been done by IBM Watson engine. Within seconds, it sifts through millions of video and audio frames to focus on quality moments. The noise produced by millions of data points from the feeds is cleared, and only pristine moments of breathtaking tennis is presented to the experts for their consideration.
Banking on the data collected through its elaborate installations of audio-visual equipment, the second innovation that IBM introduced this year is the IBM Coach advisor.  Top players need to be coached based on factual data pertaining to bodily endurance and personalize training regimens for each player, based on scientifically collected measurements. While the coaches can continue to rely on their experience and intuitive judgments on the potential of a player, they cannot ignore the effect of physical strength and endurance on performance. In a competitive game of tennis that could last several hours, a player runs on an average around six miles back and forth with abrupt starts and stops( which can be even more tiring). Even the most talented of players will succumb to physical fatigue and reach the limits of one's bodily endurance. IBM Coach adviser is designed to work on two measurements - the physiological load and mechanical intensity of the player collectively called the Energy system. The physiological load takes into the account the height, weight, amount of running done by the player to measure the total energy expended during the match; and the Mechanical intensity measures the cumulative weight of acceleration and deceleration on the court and its impact on the body. The product indexes each data point collected during play by factoring in the number of steps run, the number of shots played, the type of shot and its power and so on. With these vital insights, the coaches now have the ability to spot and correlate specific periods of play that correspond to fatigue and lack of physical energy. Though tennis is not an endurance sport, a match like that of Nadal versus Medvedev can turn out to be one. Nearly five hours in court with long rallies, and raw power can test the limits of bodily endurance. As of now, The Coach Advisor is in its trial phase to be used on selected players. However looking ahead at the future of the sport,  players who can survive long points, and can hit the ball with increasing power are likely to dominate the sport. Tools like IBM Coach adviser will become indispensable in training such athletes.
What is interesting in all these innovations is how IBM works closely with domain experts to understand and customize the product for their needs. When IBM Watson shot to fame in 2012, that was IBM’s promise to the world - to implement Watson based systems in healthcare, entertainment, banking, and engineering disciplines. Apart from the features described in the essay, IBM’s natural language processing capability was put to good use by allowing tennis fans to interact with an in-house app in more than two dozen languages. The daily schedule, score-lines, the layout of the tennis courts, the location of shops and restaurants, and much more were available in multiple languages. The USTA has a long term contract with IBM, which gives the software giant to systematically create value for the end-users. Since 1990, IBM has been the USTA partner for AI-based data and security. The recent acquisition of Redhat has only fueled the IBM innovative engine even more. The power of containerization on IBM cloud is now orchestrated by Redhat’s elegant OpenShift offering. In fact, the IBM coach adviser runs on a fully managed Red hat OpenShift instance provided by IBM cloud. It is a stroke of marketing and technical brilliance that within less than a month from the date of formally acquiring Redhat, IBM chose one of their pet platforms - The US Open, to usher and showcase in this important partnership.
On a side note, ESPN won the Emmy award for Outstanding Technical Team Remote for the US Open Tennis Championship. The purpose of the digitization is to allow service providers to consume and present the same stream of data in different formats and for multiple devices. ESPN’s integration with the US Open’s stream of visuals and audio-only enhances the experience for the end-user. ESPN’s ability to tap and package the digital stream, with primly dressed experts and conversationalists zooming in and out of the television screens, sipping coffee and munching nuts and making small talk and sharing predictions — only adds a layer more on top of the sporting wizardry that IBM Watson provides. So, in many ways, it is an end-to-end technology cake with varieties of icing on it.
I hope this essay wasn’t too technical for my general readers, and wherever references were made to technical terms or products, the meaning was clear from the context in which it was written. Sometimes, it is impossible not to use tech jargon, and make the mistake of diluting the subject. I believe, in the tradition of Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most distinguished evolutionary biologists of our generation, that it is possible to write technically without sounding technical. I hope, this essay was enjoyable without proving too hard on the reader.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala



Thursday, August 22, 2019

The quest for Artificial intelligence - Part 1 - The Deep Blue story

Jottings - Slice of Life - 316 ( The quest for Artificial intelligence - Part 1 - The Deep Blue story )
(Note to my readers: This piece is the first of my intended three-part essay on Artificial Intelligence, and some of its glamorous role models in the last three decades. The essay is nearly 2500 words long and should take about 15 to 20 minutes of reading time. As always, I attempt to write for the general reader, who has the time and curiosity to learn more. I don't expect any prerequisite knowledge in computers to follow this essay, and at the same time, I haven’t diluted the technicality of the language to make it mean something less technical. Popular writing mustn’t presume its readers to be ignorant or lazy. If there are terms that are new, I request the reader to pause, look up the term and proceed.)
In the early months of 1997, within the majestic Equitable center building in midtown Manhattan, occupying the 32nd floor in its entirety, sat one of the most powerful computing machines ever built by human hands. It sat there quietly (unconscious, of course) whirring in its mechanical glory, cooled by a dozen fans, powered by its terrorizing computational efficiency, weighing thirty-two tons in all, containing 32 nodes ( a node is a machine) with each of them equipped with an integrated chip — the heart of a computer — capable of performing more than hundred million computations per second. Together, all the chips working in parallel could churn out results at exponential speeds and efficiency. In building those chips lay the work of outstanding mechanical engineers, informational scientists, software developers, student researchers, and corporate support. The circuitry of each chip was algorithmically built and refined over twenty years of pioneering academic work, all for just one single purpose — to play chess, as well as Humans, do, if not better. This behemoth of a machine was christened “Deep Blue” by IBM ( who sponsored this effort). The prefix “Deep” is derived from the name of the fictional supercomputer that featured in Douglas Adam’s popular book “ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”.
For long, the game of chess has been considered the archetypal symbol for Human intelligence. The spectacle of the chessboard with its sixty four squares in black and white; the coins on the board metamorphosing into rival armies as kings, queens, bishops, horses, pawns and rooks; the curious rules,, strategic openings and the rigid movement of the coins across the board, the unbelievable number of documented attacks and defenses; the subtlety of the psychological warfare between players, and above all, the capacity of the human brain to think ahead and visualize the possible state of the coins on the board, based on the current move - makes chess a highly cerebral game which need an extraordinarily nimble brain to store, assess, refactor and compute over long stretches of time. To a large extent, it is muscle memory. In general, Chess is played and relished only by people with an aptitude to retain information coupled with exceptional computational skills. The picture of the man playing chess with his heads bowed down, elbows resting on the table with chins held within the palms, eyes deeply focussed, concentrated, oblivious of the surroundings and completely absorbed in the intellectual battle at hand - has provided irresistible imagery of chess epitomizing supreme intelligence suffused with artful maneuvers. There was something about chess that went beyond the mathematics of it, and culturally, winning a game of chess became a measure of intelligence. Even Claude Shannon, the founding father and arguably the man behind the evolution of information science in the late 1950s worked out a strategy for computers to play chess. Shannon insightfully perceived the deep connection between representing information as binary rules, and the ability to apply them to a game such as chess. But to him, and many others after Shannon, such efforts were merely intellectual experiments without any conviction of immediate consummation. The sheer complexity of predicting the next move, or series of moves after that, involved an algorithmic complexity that humans seem to effortlessly possess, and so difficult for a machine to emulate. Great players “seem to know” what their opponents are thinking, and are able to devise a strategy based on the context. With computers, there is no context, every move has to be tested and evaluated from scratch with no sense of Knowing. But the disadvantage of context is often offset by the relentless computational power and the absence of any conscious attachment to the task at hand. In his wonderful book “ Godel, Escher, and Bach”, the brilliant cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter hinted at the possibility that someday machines may be computationally fast and powerful enough to play and possibly win at chess, but he wasn’t in favor of such success. In a poignantly prescient statement professor, Douglas wrote in his book: “What bothers me is the degree to which something incredibly simpler than our brain is starting to be able to do things that we do in surprisingly strong ways. It's taking away from the complexity of what we really are.” Chess represented a unique capacity of the human brain. And to program machines to take over that capacity seemed dehumanizing and demeaning too, in some respects.
It is fascinating that the real race between Man and Machine in chess began as a student research project in the early eighties. When Feng-Hsiung Hsu arrived in the USA from Taiwan in 1982 with a Bachelors degree in Electrical engineering, the only thing he was certain of was his conviction that a machine that could compute faster would be a great advantage in playing chess. His Masters in Carnegie Mellon focused on integrated circuits - those mysterious connections that pulse electric signals through the labyrinthine circuitry of the chip ( getting smaller each day) to perform hundreds and millions of computations. It is the design of the chip and its intricate circuits that power a computer. Moore’s law - the famous prediction that computing power will increase every two years - is all about how many transistors ( channels of communication and computation) can be packed in a tiny microchip. There is a physical limit, but in the eighties, the field was open, and Moore’s law was still active. Hsiu worked with three different teams and projects before IBM adopted him in the nineties to work on Deep Blue. In 1988, a few years before Hsiu joined IBM, “Deep thought”, the machine that Hsiu had helped build earlier had lost to Kasparov, the reigning world champion. Hsiu learned a number of things from that loss. The foremost being that the number of strategic moves a computer had to evaluate was still not equal to the task. Human’s instinctively knew what to play, and what to avoid, but a machine has no such self-conscious knowledge. The specific algorithm designed for chess was called the “Evaluation function”, and its job was to apply brute force to each move. What it means is taking each move as a discreet unit and evaluating all possible options from that point onwards. The machine cannot reject any move based on “experience”. Its incredible efficiency lay in slogging through the million sets of evaluations needed to assess the impact of a single move on the chessboard. Its strength was its relentlessness and tirelessness. When IBM announced the Deep blue challenge, Hsiu knew what needed to be done. He must find a way to pack more computations on a single chip, and the software ( evaluation function) must be fed with sufficient training data. Both of which needed money, effort, and coordination, and IBM was willing to put up the stakes necessary.
In the annals of Chess history, Kasparov is considered the greatest chess player. For twenty years, from 1985 when he started playing the game professionally to 2005 - when he retired from the arena, Kasparov was virtually undefeated. At the age of twenty-two, he beat Karpov ( another Russian) to become the youngest world champion, a position he held for two decades. He was not merely the greatest strategist the game has ever known, but Kasparov’s ability to outthink the opponent by several moves, sudden bursts of unconventional play, and a calculated arrogance that unnerved his opponents. He was a recluse, self-centered, introverted and almost disdainful of everyone else. Like Mohammad Ali in Boxing, Kasparov believed that there was no other in the world who can be his equal. If winning a game of chess is the true measure of intelligence in a machine, then beating Kasparov will be the crown jewel of any such effort. IBM was willing to invest in that challenge. It was a calculated move by IBM. If it paid off, then, once again, IBM would be applauded for ushering in the new wave of Information technology. If it fails, there was nothing to lose. After all, Kasparov was expected to win. In the May 1997 edition of Newsweek, Steven Levy, the renowned journalist, and chronicler of technology persuaded the magazine’s editors to run a cover page featuring Kasparov vs Machine match. Reluctantly, the editors agreed to publish the legendary cover line “The Brain’s last stand” with a picture of a serious-looking Kasparov peering at the reader. Fortunately, there were no celebrity deaths, or political upheavals that week. Therefore the May edition was well received by the reading public, and an active appetite generated for the tournament to follow.
In 1996, when Kasparov played the first version of Deep blue in Philadelphia, he beat the machine easily with a final score of 4-2. The IBM team huddled for the next thirteen months fixing the algorithm, feeding the machine with more refined datasets, and bolstering the computational powered. By May of 1997, Deep blue was a different beast altogether, and a hundred times more powerful and tuned to play chess. In the rematch of 1997, Kasparov would play six games, with all the rules of the game in place, including the time controls. Based on the machine’s advice, a computer scientist from IBM, Stuart Campbell, would move the piece on the chessboard. Kasparov won the first game quite easily in forty-five moves using the Kings Indian attack - a classic chess opening normally employed by champions. Going into game two, Kasparov was on a roll and confident. On the 36th move, Kasparov left his queen exposed for his opponent to take. It was part of the Smyslov variation strategy, and most other players would have taken the queen and played to the script. But Deep blue came up with a very unusual and subtle move that caught Kasparov off guard. It left the queen alone and moved the pawn. In that single move, IBM’s Deep Blue had demonstrated an ability outthink and plan beyond the most accomplished strategist of the game. In an interview after the game( and years later too), Kasparov would isolate that 36th move as his moment of realization and awakening. After that move, Kasparov began to become conscious of his game plan, and little agitated too. Within fifteen more moves, Kasparov conceded the game and give Deep Blue its first victory in the tournament. Kasparov later cried foul and demanded that IBM show him detailed logs of the moves. IBM produced snippets of the logs, but never showed the world the whole piece. Many years after the fire of the controversy cooled down, IBM revealed that in the second game Deep Blue’s 36th move of the game was actually algorithmically flawed, totally unintended, and never part of the strategy. An inadvertent computer error cost Kasparov his cool, and the game itself.
The next three games were drawn, and the outcome of the last game - the sixth would be the decider. Kasparov opened the game with the Caro-Kann defense which would require a sacrifice of the knights by an opponent without any immediate gains. Kasparov reasoned that a machine wouldn’t play that move because it did not lead to any strategic advantages; but to his surprise, Deep blue did make the Knight’s sacrifice as required and willing to wait for a subsequent opening. What Kasparov didn’t know at the time he played was that very morning of the last game IBM programmers had fed the Caro-Kann variations into the deep blue. The machine was prepared for the bait. Kasparov resigned in more twenty moves, and Deep Blue had scored an improbable victory over the champion, and the human mind, so to speak.
In writing this article, I have condensed large tracts of material to make it more accessible to a general reader. The triumph of deep blue in 1997 ushered in a new age of confidence in the world of Information technology. Within a few years, Google would be born, and along with Apple and Microsoft, would transform the social landscape of how data can be processed and used. Kasparov himself practiced and refined his skills against computer-simulated games, but in the end, the very machine that supported his practice humbled his pride. Of course, there was a huge human team behind Deep blue’s success, that trained the machine not merely to be superiorly efficient in computation but a little cunning and deceptive too. For instance, they programmed Deep Blue to slow down on crucial moves, and prolong the act of making the move, to induce a sense of indecision and uncertainty. And on other times, when the opponent makes a crucial move, the machine would react spontaneously. As a machine, a human would expect consistent responses from it, but by deliberately varying the response times, the designers were attempting to wage psychological warfare with the opponent. And that’s the scary part of AI. Somewhere along the line, we painfully realize that machines don’t possess any intelligence or knowledge. It is we who give it direction and “intention”. The other factor that must be borne in mind is that Chess is all about comparing the value of a move in relation to the coins on the board. The rules of the game can be symbolized in mathematical terms and assigning appropriate weights to each move. A robust algorithm can be built that can minutely compute, factor and compares results and patterns from its repository to produce the next move. If a given move builds confidence in the algorithm and increases the chances of a win, it is deemed a numerical victory, otherwise not. Highly trained Human brains - such as Kasparov or Anand’s - are capable of holding and visualizing the outcomes of their moves at least five to ten steps ahead. How the brain does it is still a mystery, and computers are nowhere close to emulating the nimbleness and subtlety of the brain in arriving at such a visualization. But computers make up in computational speed and tireless efficiency what it lacks in the human ability to visualize. Deep Blue is the perfect manifestation of such a machine.
After Deep Blue’s stunning victory, when the euphoria settled down, the important question arose on what really was the achievement here. Did we concede that Machines can be intelligent in a way Humans are, not just in playing chess, but in all other aspects as well? Or was Deep Blue’s victory merely an exaggerated attempt at mastering a specified skill which we seem to effortlessly exhibit with some practice? Is artificial intelligence the right phrase at all to describe what Deep blue had achieved? Or were we simply carried away by what we got the machine to achieve. Broader questions on what it means to be intelligent, or understanding the language in all its nuances, or create intellectual abstractions, or create art - still seemed beyond the ken of AI. The Deep Blue story belongs to the last decade of the twentieth century. The twenty-first century has radically improved upon the capabilities of Deep Blue, and with each passing day, we seem to take over more and more of specialized computational tasks from Human hands. However, we are still very far away from creating a mechanical prototype equivalent to the complexity, intricacy, and elasticity of the human brain. In 2011, IBM unleashed Watson, another significant advancement over Deep Blue, This time around, the machine was equipped to understand human language and respond to clues.
I will write about the Watson story in an upcoming installment.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Jottings - Slice of life - 319 ( a tumultuous political week in India - Abrogation of article 370 - Modi's masterstroke, and the sad story of the appointment of the interim president of the INC)

Jottings - Slice of life - 319 ( a tumultuous political week in India - Abrogation of article 370 - Modi's masterstroke, and the sad story of the appointment of the interim president of the INC)
It has been a momentous week in Indian politics. The Modi government, fulfilling one of its primal election promises, have acted decisively within months of being reelected. The beautiful valley of Kasmir is once again the theater of a massive political experiment. A state has now become a Union territory. Without much dialogue or consultation with the opposition party, and within few opening hours of deliberation in the legislative assembly, the ruling party - the BJP, on the 5th of August 2019 introduced a bill abrogating the special status accorded to the beautiful valley and making a part of India albeit with reduced status. The provisions under Article 370 -promulgated under the most fortuituous conditions in those crucial early years of India Independence - is no more valid, and with it goes seventy years if vacillation on whether Kasmir is indeed part of India or not. It was a masterstroke of political maneuvering by the BJP, that left the national and international community aghast at the swiftness of the decision, and not surprisingly, a little worried about consequences and repercussions of such an act on the people of the valley, and more so, on the spirit and essence of democracy itself. The other embarrassing development towards the end of the week was the spineless appointment of Sonia Gandhi, once again, as the interim president of the Congress party. Unable to elect or find anyone else from the party cadre to assume the mantle. While it is common knowledge that there are many in the Congress party, whose intellectual and political acumen far surpasses that of the Gandhi family, It is a matter of shame, that this sycophantic party cannot look beyond the accidental lineage of the Gandhi name to lead them. In the next few paragraphs, I pen my thoughts on both these events.
Lets briefly condense more than seventy years of history for context. When the British left India in 1947, they left behind not just two geographical entities - India and Pakistan, but more than 500 principalities, ruled by kings and premiers, across the nation. Between 1947 - 1948, under the able leadership of Sardar Vallabhai Patel and the brilliant V P Menon, most regions, after many delicate and subtle persuasions, acceded to the Indian Union. But a few principalities were reluctant. For example, the princely state of Hyderabad and Travancore, whose kings and dewans had notions of leading an independent existence, and didn't feel the need to join India or Pakistan. It was the genius of V P Menon and Patel (aided by some good fortune at appropriate times) that they were able to convince and push the tide of settlement amicably. Lord Mountbatten played his part as the last Governer general by interceding on Indian's government's behalf, and especially as a friend of Nehru, to emphasize the necessity of joining the union. Be that as it may, by 1948, almost all the states had joined the Indian Union unconditionally, except Jammu and Kashmir. That beautiful valley nestled at the intersection of India and Pakistan had a Muslim population that far exceeded the Hindus. The Maharaja, who ruled the state - Raja Hari Singh - was a Hindu, part of the Rajput Dogra family. Also one must forget, the Kasmir is a strategic vantage point for international diplomacy as well. Russia and Afghanistan were close to it, and trade ways could be controlled by access to Kashmir. More important than all of this was Jawaharlal Nehru's deep affinity to Kasmir. Bring a Kashmiri Pandit himself, he was keen that this priceless land should be part of India, though he was equally clear, that such affiliation should take into proper consideration that aspirations of the majority Muslim population. Given this multifaceted and complex context, the accession of Kashmir was held in balance. The polarization of Kasmir began much before India's independence. Since the 1920s there was growing dissatisfaction among the Muslims that they were not equally represented in Kashmir's administration. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, a school teacher, and great orator rose within the ranks of the Muslim population, formed the National conference, and attracted a vast number of Muslims towards a common cause of equal representation and rights. The national conference also aligned itself with the Indian National Congress. Abdullah was imprisoned for sedition many times, and during the crucial period during the talks of accession, Abdullah was in prison, and his release was one of the demands by India. It was clear that Hari Singh and his prime minister Ramchandra Kak wanted complete independence, and Abdullah preferred to be part of India, whose Prime minister - Nehru was more inclusive of all faiths than Raja Hari Singh. After months of intense discussions back and forth, enforced by Mountbatten, Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru's personal visits to the valley to sway the tide, Kasmirwas not yet ready to align itself to either India or for that matter to Pakistan. And then in October, the mysterious raids from across the Pakistani border began in full swing. What started off a few desultory skirmishes soon transformed into fullscale looting, raping and communal disruption. Pakistan denied any ties to these groups of raiders, but it was undeniable that Pakistan provided invisible support for these marauders to destabilize the valley. Raja Hari Singh, considering the gravity of the deteriorating law and order in his state, and with nowhere to turn appealed to India for cover. Indian responded with might and stalled further intrusions, but by the beginning of 1948, no decisive end was in sight. India made the mistake of taking the matter of Kashmir to the United Nations. A move that would forever change the complexion of the matter from a national to an international one. It is also equally unfortunate that having taken the matter to an international forum, India couldn't represent its case better. Sir Zafrullah Khan from Pakistan, a superb orator, and a lawyer stole the show and was convincing in his argument that the situation in Kasmir was caused by the pangs of divided India, and given the religious demographics of the territory, it cannot be part of India. With Kashmir still undecided, and the representative of Kashmirs wanting autonomy with limited provisions of the constitution of India applicable to it, Article 370 with provisions 35 were promulgated by presidential order in 1950, the same day the Indian constitution was forged - 26th of January. Article 370 was meant to be a temporary provision until the allegiance of the valley could be decided once for all. Nearly fifty amendments have been made since 1956, and now in 2019, the article stands repealed.
The above history is a quick survey of the tumultuous nature of Kashmiri's history over several decades, and if anything can be culled out of it, it is the fact that it is time that India's relationship with Kashmir be settled once and for all. The BJP is right in that no amount of dialogue can dispense the uncertainty in the valley. The congress party has played the cat on the wall for years with no avail. When article 370 was promulgated in 1950, a different set of circumstances existed. The Indian republic itself was new, and time was needed to decide the wishes of Kashmiri people. The beautiful valley, the apple of India's eye, has for long been reddened by blood. Seventy years later, with India still holding onto the tenuous position of a guardian country with no real powers to change anything, and the modern generation demanding change, certainty, and a firmer dispensation - there is definitely a case for drastic action. And there is no easy way to do this but to act swiftly and decisively. Modi 's approach to such key issues may seem authoritarian to many, but sometimes in the long term interests of the country, a degree of firmness, obstinacy, and calculated brashness are required. Like Abraham Lincoln's ingenious decision to fight the civil war ( against his wishes), only to preserve the United States as one entity and not give into the demands of the south to secede, Modi's decision to claim Kashmir overnight is a bold and courageous decision in the light of history. If not anything else, it sends a very strong message to our neighbors that India cannot be trifled with. Now that the deed is done, and Kashmir is now a Union territory, it remains to be seen, how soon and efficiently can the BJP government stabilize the state and bring it into the mainstream. If the BJP doesn't do a good job of assuaging the fears of the stunned state and put in place a plan for progressive governance, then history will mark this decision as a calamity. We will know how it goes in a few months.
Now coming to the second issue of this essay, the decision to bring Sonia Gandhi back as interim president is nothing short of shocking. The election of the new Congress president will happen when it happens with no time set, which means for the foreseeable future Sonia will hold the reigns. I worry for the Congress party because democracy needs a strong opposition. The INC, the 134-year-old institution is the closest we have with a semblance of opposition to the BJP Juggernaut. After the overwhelming defeat this may, one would have hoped that this ancient institution will resurrect itself with new blood in its veins. That is not to be. After two months of vacillating delays and deliberations within the working committee, the best they could come up with is to recall the 72 years old, ailing, and not a very popular leader to lead. I have nothing against Sonia Gandhi, but what I am against, and appalled about, is this groveling prostration at the feet of a family against all good counsel. I agree with Ramachandra Guha, one of my favorite historians, when he tweeted some time ago “The first Congress nurtured and built India; the second Congress degraded and may even destroy India.” It is unfortunate that the present Gandhi family has no one in the stature of a Nehru or Indira. Rajiv Gandhi himself was not up to the mark but after him, there is none. It is not as if there aren't worthy members in the congress party with decades of experience and intellectual sagacity who cannot step into the shoes. I can at the top of my head rattle out at least five names who could lead the party. But for some mysterious reason, the INC is wedded to the Gandhi family for its leadership. Until this impasse in thinking is broken, there is no salvation for this party.
Writing this essay was more of a personal attempt to consolidate my thoughts on the events of the week. I enjoyed writing it.
God bless...
yours in mortality,
Bala

Monday, August 12, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 318 ( Grace, passion, eloquence, and integrity - The legacy of Sushma Swaraj)

Jottings - Slice of life - 318 ( Grace, passion, eloquence, and integrity - The legacy of Sushma Swaraj)
Integrity is a misconstrued word in public life, especially in the political world. An elected representative of the people has to balance several different personas, only very few manage to keep their heads consistently above water and present an honest face, and not lose the basic thread of morality, honesty, decency and a firm anchoring in the convictions which got them to the position they are in. Because it needs extraordinary strength of character and courage to defy opposing tendencies that not many statesmen and women retire with the same grace they enter politics during the heady spring of their youth. There is a sense of inevitability about the fact that political lives are meant to get scarred, maligned, and misunderstood over the course of time, and that very few can come out at the other end unscathed with their respect and dignity intact.
Sushma Swaraj was an exception to this rule. In the annals of Indian politics, there have been exceptional female leaders who have served the country in different capacities - some in the glaring light of national pedestal, others quietly in the backrooms of the nation creating and building a greater India. But none epitomized the spirit of that elan vital ( as Bergson defined the spirit of life) more than that of Sushma Swaraj. From her early days as Supreme court lawyer to the socialistic leanings of the early seventies to witnessing the calamity of Emergency imposed in 1975 to her subsequent alignment with the BJP and meteoric rise within the ranks of the highly male-dominated party - what stands out about Sushma swaraj is her unvacillating commitment to her well thought vision of what India as ancient civilization should be and become in an emerging world order. No matter what political honors came her way, and no matter what the ideological thrust of the party she belonged to, Sushma held her own integrity amidst conflicting views, and lent her unique voice, intellectual and emotional resonance to the cause at hand.
Sushma Swaraj hails from Haryana, one of the most inequitable states in the country in terms of gender. It was her education that transformed the young girl into fiery idealist she later became. For all those who believe in cosmetic changes to bring about parity among the sexes in developing countries, Sushma's story is a stark example of how only responsible education can instill the necessary confidence and vitality to break free from social shackles. It was during her college days, that Sushma mastered the art of oratory. For three consecutive years, she unanimously won the state-sponsored competition in oratory. No one who has heard Sushma speak in parliament, public forums or cultural activities will deny there was magic in her oratory. The undiluted dialect, the tonal quality of pronunciation, the stream-like quality of her presentation, razor-sharp logic, and her ability to defuse a charged moment in the forum with spontaneous wit and humor - proved one of her greatest strengths in all the offices she held. She was never short of words, and what she spoke was always worth listening to. As a Sanskrit scholar, she was deeply attached and interested in revitalizing and popularizing the ancient language of India. When she was awarded the Global Award of Excellence in the name of Swami Chandrasekhara Saraswati, the great sage of Kanchi, Sushma graciously gave away her prize cheque to the south Indian association, During her acceptance speech, she said " It is not enough if citations are read in Sanskrit, but every computer engineer must speak Sanskrit, and every Sanskrit scholar should be a computer engineer" . This was her cosmopolitan vision for modern India - the best blend of the orient and the occident.
In 1999, as Information & broadcasting minister, she was instrumental in declaring the Movie production business as an industry, opening doors to borrow from the market on equal terms as other industries. It was great foresight on her part. Without that influx of money, the Indian film industry would have languished and wouldn't have kept up with the rising productions costs. In every ministerial position, Sushma held, she was able to dispassionately observe and bring in fresh insights to existing issues, and look at newer initiatives with an eye of a modernist. She wasn't bogged down by party manifestos. Though in spirit and soul she was never apart from the RSS ( an affiliation she developed at a young age) she was always able to achieve the separation of ideological commitments from national prerogatives and expediencies. That is what integrity is all about.
However, it was her last five years in office as the external affairs minister that will remain etched in the hearts of Indians forever. With the Prime minister keen on envisioning and implementing his own vision on how foreign policy should be shaped, Sushma Swaraj settled down to perform a more important, but extremely vital role of ensuring that the people of India, anywhere in the world, wouldn't feel orphaned under any circumstances. The MEA ( Ministry of External affairs) usually considered forbidden territory and not very public-friendly, opened up during her tenure. That this ministry could possess and exercise such moral and maternal power, that any Indian in distress could tweet to the Minister and get a positive response, that a high ranked government official living behind closed doors and armed security can be reached with few keystrokes - was a revelation that the world hadn't seen before. Sushma was sixty-two when Modi gave her the external affairs ministry. She was at that stage of her life when all political ambitions were appeased, and her innate humanitarianism ( which came naturally to her) and maternal instincts took center stage. While Modi was busy forging new pathways in international relationships, Sushma quietly upheld the dignity, purpose, and mission of the ministry. If all else is forgotten, history cannot afford to forget her unconditional support to a Pakistani family to bring their daughter Rohaan Siddiqui, a toddler, for Medical treatment into India. Nothing else mattered to Sushma, only the recovery and good health of the child. Her response to the tear-filled father's gratitude was " Rohaan - keep smiling". No amount of political diplomacy can match the quality of this simple gesture. From the troubled middle-eastern countries, innumerable Indians stuck in no man's land, or not paid adequately have appealed to Sushma directly without any interference from the bureaucracy, and received timely help. Men and women stranded in international airports without passports or identity have received phone calls from the External affairs minister, and within hours put back on a plane to India. Such caring interventions, deep humanity cannot be forced or indoctrinated. It has to be a part of one's genetic build. Sushma Swaraj had a twitter following of 8.69 million followers. A huge number for a person not in the show business. All those nine million people looked upon her as a living embodiment of India itself, a personification of the country in flesh and blood, and their place of safe refuge in times of need. For anyone holding public office, no praise can equal such unconditional love and respect from their citizens.
It was clear to all of us that Sushma was ailing for the last couple of years. Her visits to AIMS were becoming more frequent. Therefore, when she excused herself from the second term, it did not come as a surprise. She had done her work, and it was time to seek rest. Her death did take us by surprise, as death always does. Personally, I would have loved to see Sushma Swaraj as the President of India someday. Like Kalam, she possessed all those qualities that are valuable for that prestigious office. A few more years of mortality, it might have happened. The party would have nominated her, and she would have unanimously won the vote. But that is not to be. She now rests eternally with the country she so dearly loved and served.
In Shakespeares immortal lines
"When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes"
If not the heavens, the people of India cutting across religions, castes and political parties definitely rose in unison and blazed forth their grief in tears on the passing away of their beloved daughter, mother, and an extraordinary human being. A fitting farewell to one of India's greatest leaders of the independent era.
God bless...
yours in mortality,
Bala


Monday, July 15, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 312 ( The master bows to a fit successor - Novak wears the Wimbledon crown)

Jottings - Slice of life - 312 ( The master bows to a fit successor - Novak wears the Wimbledon crown)
Tennis is a lonely game at the highest echelons of the sport. All the intense match preparation, prodigious talent, enormous fan following, must be left behind in the locker rooms, or laid at the altar of the game, to stand alone - existentially alone - without any props whatsoever, to face the opponent on the other side and play the game as it unfolds every match. Precedents don’t matter, previous records are mere numbers on paper, what matters is this day, this match, this game, and well — this upcoming point in question. No matter how big a champion one is, or how much of history one brings to the court, the game has its own inimitable way of leveling the playing field. The game of tennis is not merely mastering a set of physical skills or techniques to perfection; but more of a psychological battle; preparation of the mind and the ability to get into the opponents’ mind as well. A mishit volley, or a long forehand, or a crucial double fault can trigger cataclysmic psychological changes in both players. A shot played from the center of the racket can boost confidence, and the one that loops of the frame can dampen the spirits. The repercussions of a few such strokes can affect the course of a game, sometimes the entire match. At the highest levels, especially between two great champions, there isn’t much to choose in the skills between them; they will match each other stroke to stroke, until the balance slowly begins shifting towards the player who shows more mental resilience, physical stamina, constant focus, and above all that ability to finish the match with that last crucial point, which always has to be won, and never given.
Roger Federer had two match points on his serve in the fifth set. On a better day, against a lesser player, Federer would have closed out the game and the match. But Djokovic belongs to a different league altogether. The lanky, tall, athletic, flamboyant, emotional and passionate young man from Serbia is as complete a tennis player as Federer is - both mentally and physically. He knew that if Federer could be pushed the distance, an opening will emerge, and when that happens Novak could close the match. That opening arrived in the tie break of the fifth set( a new rule at Wimbledon reluctantly breaking its rigid tradition to ensure that players play to win and not endlessly trade tired shots with one another) and Novak seized the opportunity and pushed the pedal. When a Federer forehand went high and long, the marathon match that lasted four hours and fifty-seven minutes came to end. There was exhaustion, and all that the champions could do was to whisper “well played” into each other's ears. Djokovic took a moment to realize how intense the match was, and how sweet his victory. He bent low on the favorite center court, plucked a few strands of grass and chewed it with relish. Like the sacramental bread that promises divine communion and resurrection of the body in Christ, that blade of grass that he so reverentially chewed represents Novak’s unity and gratitude to the surface that has served him five Wimbledon titles, equalling once again the great Bjorn Borg’s record and brings him into the league of very few champions in tennis history to lift the coveted five times.
The two champions were gracious in their praises of each other. There is no defeat or shame for Federer in this final. He played his best tennis, as he always does, making us forget that we were watching a man nearly thirty-eight years old, and without any visible signs of wear and tear. The intensity, the will to win, the trademark stoic calmness was still there, but on this day, Novak did a little better than him. That’s all. One wonders, how many more years will we be honored to watch Federer play the game at this level. Each time he loses, the end seems to inch a little closer. On the other hand, Novak has few more years left before he turns thirty-eight, and if today's match was any indication, it will not be long before he surpasses all known records to become the greatest champion the game has known.
It was great to see Kate Middleton handing over the trophies to Novak and Federer. She is indeed grace personified. For a long time, I have admired Katharine, the Duchess of Kent, who would so effortlessly play the role of patron and representative of the Royal family. I still vividly remember that 1992 Wimbledon ladies final, when Jana Novotna cried on the Duchess' shoulders, and her highness held her in her arms until Jana was pacified. And there was another when she insisted on walking down the carpet with her leg in a cast to give away the trophies. Such was her grace, and love for the event. Kate Middleton, as the Duchess of Cambridge, has taken over that role beautifully. Clad in an elegantly embroidered blue skirt, she infused the proceedings with the fragrance of tradition. Wimbledon’s charm lies in these rituals of royalty.
Over the last two weeks, I have written eight pieces on the Wimbledon championships and tennis in general. I enjoyed writing each one of them. Unlike my regular writing which follows some amount of research and deliberation, all these essays were spontaneous. My love of tennis was sown in me a long time ago. I thank my father, who took my brother and me to the cosmopolitan club in Coimbatore to watch the live telecast of the Wimbledon finals, sometime in the seventies. I don't remember much of what I saw, or who the players were. But what has remained with me is the color of lush green surface and solemnity of the occasion.
All these pieces are dedicated to my father, who, had he been alive, would have enjoyed them, and probably silently smiled a little reminiscing how naive, hesitant, and ignorant I was about the game in my childhood, and since then how much I have learned to appreciate this great sport, and also write about it fluently . Like many other things, this education and transformation couldn’t have happened without him.
Thanks, Appa.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 311 ( A Romanian princess is crowned at Wimbledon)

Jottings - Slice of life - 311 ( A Romanian princess is crowned at Wimbledon)
On 18th July 1976, in the Montreal Olympics, a young Romanian, Nadia Comaneci, aged fourteen had just finished her routine on the uneven bars for twenty-three seconds, only to find the scoreboard reflecting seven 1.0’s, the lowest score possible in gymnastics. There was confusion, some amount of pandemonium in the stadium, and the referees looked at each other in disbelief. The young girl was flawless in her execution of the difficult routine, and the score on the Omega powered screen didn’t seem to make sense. A few minutes later, one of the judges stood up, amidst the impatient humming and dissonance in the crowd, and announced that Nadia had achieved a perfect 10, a score considered impossible in the sport of gymnastics and that the scoreboard was equipped to display a maximum of 9 and not more than that. So when a score of ten was posted by the judges, the screen could only display “1.0”. There was a huge sigh of relief and exultation that reverberated throughout the stadium, and young Nadia couldn’t believe what she heard. She had done the impossible in the most prestigious athletic event in the world. She had scored a perfect ten.
Today, on the 13th of July 2019, another Romanian stunned the world, but this time the sport is tennis, and the stage is Wimbledon. Simona Halep, the 26-year-old, dismantled the indomitable, gritty, and supremely talented Serena Williams in less than one hour( 56 minutes to be precise) at the center court of Wimbledon - universally considered the cathedral of the sport - to take home the first Wimbledon title of her career. It was a nearly perfect display of grass court tennis. Simona could just do nothing wrong on court. From the time, she sent in her first forehand return of serve, to the last point clinching the match with a deep forehand return that didn’t come back, the young Romanian didn’t put a foot wrong or execute a strategy incorrectly. Her movement on court, her racket preparation and body alignment to meet the force of Serena’s serves and stroke play, the depth of her groundstrokes, her ability to find the right angles both sides of the court at will, and of course, her supreme athleticism that helped her get to the ball a fraction earlier than most players would (which has always been Simona’s greatest strength) proved too much for the much experienced and slightly weary Serena. It was very evident that Serena is still feeling her way back to play championship matches. The speed and agility in her movement and the quality of groundstrokes lacked the intensity and consistency that she usually brings to big matches. Her game was belabored, and the probing angles that Simona explored left Serena no chance of ever getting back even. Serena’s break for motherhood a few years ago, and her subsequent return, while commendable and courageous, has still not brought her to the physical and mental levels needed to fight it out at the highest level. The quality of her Serena’s game today would have probably got past many players in the circuit, but not the likes of Simona at the peak of her form and age. The lack of match preparation was glaringly visible. The elusive twenty-fourth career Grand slam title is still within fighting distance; but Serena will have to wait another day, perhaps two months later. The US Open may be the venue. Until then, she has her work cut out. But today was Simona’s day of glory, and nothing can take away the quality of her achievement.
Chris Evert, the great champion of yesteryears, commenting on the game shared an important insight into Simona’s transformation on Grass court. She said, unlike other surfaces, on grass one needs an instinct to make the right shots. The surface offers very minimal time to think. Therefore, a player has to put in an enormous number of hours of practice on these courts, to the point that moving on these courts and the timing on the shots, becomes an unconscious part of the playing self. Without this effort, it is impossible to enjoy the game on grass or win at the highest level. Arthur Koestler, in his brilliant 1969 book “The act of creation” points out how any creative act stems from the highly trained autonomous nervous system, nurtured over years of practice. When the time is ripe, the skills become instinctual which can then perform without the intervention of conscious thought, allowing the brain the space to operate at higher levels of abstractions. Simona’s years of practice has finally welded into an instinct for the game on grass courts, and in today's match, it reached its crescendo. In her post-match interview, Simona confessed that this was her best two sets in her career. Not many who watched her will disagree.
One of the greatest things about Wimbledon is its tradition, which is scrupulously followed, and never bent for any player or reason. The code white, the Duke handing out the trophy to the ladies, the customary chat with ball boys and girls, the walk of the champion to the royal box where the hallowed dignitaries of the English nation along with some of the all-time greats of the game sit, the cherries, the green emblem with crossed tennis rackets, the wonderful crowd who define the meaning of the phrase “pin drop silence”, the clinical efficiency of mowing the grass at three inches and not a fraction more, the clockwork precision of every match - and above all, the sheer history of the champions who have embellished the stage with their style and excellence bears down on each game, and on each player taking stage on center court. Simona’s mother lovingly admonished her when she was ten years old, that if Simona wished to continue playing tennis, she should one day play at the Wimbledon center court to the Royal box. Little would she have realized that one day her daughter would not merely play, but lift the title emphatically and in great style?
The Men are waiting for the day to dawn. Federer and Djokovic take the stage tomorrow.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala


Monday, July 8, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 309 ( Roger Federer - the fusion of an artist and a mystic)

Jottings - Slice of life - 309 ( Roger Federer - the fusion of an artist and a mystic)
If tennis is likened to Painting, then Roger Federer is its Rembrandt revered for his mastery of depth, light, and color on the canvas; If tennis is Music, then Federer is its Mozart who could draw out infinite mesmerizing melodies on a single theme ; if Tennis is dance, the Federer is its Nijinsky whose irresistible energy, timing and dedication blurred the boundaries between the dance and the dancer; if tennis is fiction, then he is the incarnation of Dickens who was emblematic of immaculate structure and grace in every sentence; and If Tennis is religion, Federer is the very soul of the game epitomizing all that is best in the sport.
It is hardly imaginable what Tennis would be after Federer. Would the game produce one more champion in the same mold as he? Chances are bleak. However, the question, as of now, is merely hypothetical because the master is still in full flow, and in absolute command of his powers and artistry. The first week at Wimbledon, the champion looked subdued, rarely challenged; yet, for those of us who have seen Federer for two decades, we can sense that genius still at work at full throttle. In the three matches this week, Federer has spent only four and a half hours on court, rarely stretched to produce something magical. He is firing in his first serves with great ease and incredible regularity, scraping the T's with effortless ease. The percentage of approach shots to the net, and the delicate touches there to flummox his opponents were in full display in each of the matches. There is an effortless elegance to Federer's movement in court, which often resembles a deer prancing in controlled exuberance. At thirty-six years, Ferder's athleticism is still intact and his ability to reach balls that would elude the reach of younger players in the circuit defies reason and age. His wonderful backhand has not been at its best, but as Boris Becker, the great German champion of yesteryears commented during the third round " with every game, Federer is working on bringing that backhand to its natural flourish. the mark of champions is that they realize that no day on the court is perfect, there is always something to be worked upon, and the beauty is: they do realize those areas quickly, work upon it and succeed in reversing the inconsistency without letting the opponent sensing the weakness..". That is a beautiful insight from a man, whose tennis on the grass courts is legendary and who understands the artistry of game at the highest level.
Week number two at Wimbledon will stretch Federer. He is great enough to realize that the upcoming games will need him to perform at his peak. With each passing year, the average level of the game is increasing, and physical endurance required to play out top-class opponents can wear down the best of sportsmen. But then Federer knows that better than anyone else in the game. Before I conclude this short piece, a few words on the effect Federer has on the audience every time he walks into the court. There is an atmosphere of peace and meditativeness that descends on the audience, when the champion walks in head lowered, spotlessly dressed, a wry look on his face, and a subliminal calmness reflecting off his body and mind. His wife and coach quietly sit in their boxes with no visible display of emotions. A gentle clap is all we will get from them on a point won or lost. And Federer himself plays the game from a deep center within. Aryton Senna, the greatest racer once said about his driving: "...And suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension...". The same could be true for Federer. Sometimes, one gets the feeling he operates on a different dimension, inaccessible to the common man or his opponents. The steely reserve, the quick resilience, and a supernatural ability to produce the most intricate stroke from the toughest of positions leave us baffled. And that is the zone where sports meets mysticism, a hallowed ground where nothing matters but the moment in hand, and what we do with it. Watching Federer play can sometimes unconsciously take us to that place.
God bless...
yours in mortality,
Bala


Sunday, July 7, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 306 ( Cori Gauff - impressions)

Jottings - Slice of life - 306 ( Cori Gauff - impressions)
The greatest pleasure of watching tennis (or any game for that matter) over long periods of time is to be able to spot that precise point in a game when a blistering serve, a soft nudge, a forehand that comes of the middle of the racket with a resounding twang, or that look of unbridled confidence in the eyes of an emerging champion when a cross-court winner whistles past the opponent like a bullet, or that singular point in a game when the body, mind, and soul come together to achieve a synergy of form and strategy. On first of July 2019, at the center court of Wimbledon, such a moment arrived for the young fifteen-year-old American "Coco" Gauff( her father nicknamed her Coco) against the veteran champion Venus Williams. It came in the fourth game of the first set, when on serve, Coco effortless orchestrated a crosscourt forehand win, leaving Venus stranded. For most observers, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but for keen connoisseurs of the game that particulate exchange early on in the match would have stood out as a singular moment, a moment when young Coco asserted her enormous talent on the game’s biggest stage. There was a look in her eyes after that point, beautifully captured on camera, which lights up ever so briefly with immense satisfaction over the perfect execution of the shot. The mental focus, the position of the body, the trajectory of the ball over the net, the angle across the court, the clean follow through, and above all the dancer-like poise after the shot is completed said it all. It was clinical and magical at the same time. The tone for the rest the match was set then and there.
When Venus Williams won her first Grand slam, Coco gauff was not yet born. Twenty-four years later, when both of them meet, there is a change of guard. For Coco, in many ways, playing Venus was a dream come true. Born in Atlanta to parents having strong ties with sports and athletics, she could have picked up any sport she wanted; but tennis was her choice, and that is largely due to the fact that Coco grew up watching the William sisters play the game at the highest levels with a tenacity and grit that transformed the very nature of women’s tennis. Especially, Venus Williams, who in her younger days was one of the most athletic ladies on the circuit. Her movement on the court, her languid elegance, her uncanny ability to reach every ball and play that magical shot out of nowhere catapulted Venus to the position of world number one. Coco grew up venerating this champion. At the age of ten, under the studied guidance of her father, young Coco trained with top tennis coaches and soon began to exhibit prodigious talent. What stuck her mentors was her singular ambition to win, no matter what. Nothing less than excellence drove the young girl. By thirteen, Coco was playing the national circuit, and by fourteen international matches. Endorsements started pouring in. She had signed two big sporting contracts with agencies that managed the likes of Federer. And Coco was eyeing the grand slams.
After Jennifer Capriati, who played her first Wimbledon when she was fourteen, coco becomes the youngest player in the open era to win at Wimbledon. It is too early to predict if Coco will make a mark in this tournament and go all the way till the end, or fizzle out. But the first impressions of this girl seems to suggest that there is champion material in her game and outlook. She reminds me of young Steffi Graf - the same determination and athleticism. Nirmal Sekhar, one of my favorite sports writers of all time, loved to quote Frederick Nietzsche the German philosopher. Writing about Steffi Graf in August 2006, Sekhar noted: " All great champions have the ability to concentrate, some more than others. But Graf was one step above almost everybody else in her generation. There was an almost other-worldly intensity to her Concentration on the court. At the best of times, one could get an idea of Friedrich Nietzsche's ‘Pure will without the troubles of Intellect’’ when Graf played..” I see the same intensity in young Coco gaff eyes and body language. The huge audience of the center court did not bother her the least, and throughout her match with Venus, there was this otherworldly focus on her face that brooked no distractions from the task at hand.
Like other great champions, Coco has a complete game. Her serve is powerful and explores the edges of the box, both the backhand and the forehand strokes are strong, great body position, she has a deft touch when needed, and more importantly, she is unfazed by her opponents. She plays the game on its merit, and that according to me is the single most important factor in a true champion. Wimbledon always brings out the best in players, and I hope we will see more of Coco gauff in the next two weeks, and further.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala