A New Chapter of my Life Begins…

So this week marks the start of my first full-time job after finishing my undergraduate degree. I am working for the Xbox Kinect team at Microsoft and I am pretty excited about the role. Of course, this is a huge change in my life. I have picked up and moved myself from Toronto to Seattle and in the process, I have left behind most of my friends and family.

The transition is exciting and depressing at the same time. On the exciting front, I have an interesting job, a decent amount of income, I am independent and I live in a beautiful part of the United States. On the downside, I miss my family, friends, Toronto and Canada as a whole greatly. In fact, I still have pangs of regret that I moved so far away from home. Setting up my new life has been taking most of my time over the past week between multiple trips to Ikea, setting up internet, setting up a cell phone plan, buying household items, etc.

I never fully comprehended how much I took for granted in Toronto and how hard it can be to set one’s life up from scratch in an area that one does not know too well. To be honest, I have gained a lot more appreciation for the efforts my parents had to go through to move from Sri Lanka to Canada and essentially start from scratch (while having to raise two kids).

Hopefully, I will be able to settle into a normal routine over the next few weeks. My more immediate problems involve getting a credit card, assembling my furniture, getting a Washington State driver’s license, getting into the habit of cooking at home (very hard to be motivated to do this), and procuring a car. I forgot how much it sucked to not have a car on the east side of Seattle, especially closer to Microsoft. Thankfully, it is not terrible at the moment because I am a 15 minute walk away from work and live right beside two bus routes that go to major grocery and shopping centers. But I definitely will be aiming to get a car as soon as possible.

Australia First Week

I have now spent almost a week in Australia. As the start of my post-university travels, I am pretty excited to be here and to visit all of my family here. So far the trip has been enjoyable. The natural landscape here is amazing and honestly it is beautiful. So far I have spent some time in Sydney with relatives. I have also driven to Melbourne to meet more relatives there and see the beautiful Great Ocean Drive. Great Ocean Drive is a winding highway that follows the coast and I even saw a wild koala while driving along it! I did a quick drive through of Canberra, but unfortunately, by the time we arrived there, everything in the city was closed (as expected of a purely government city) and I did not get to visit the attractions. I definitely wish that I allocated more than 3 weeks to visiting Australia, but I cannot change my flight back to Canada because I have another flight to Europe a few days afterwards.

There are a few things that I noted that I think all visitors should take note of while they are here:

1. Cars are right-hand drive

This is the opposite of North America and most of Europe. As a result, driving cars is kind of weird since you have to constantly remember that you need to keep on the opposite side of the road than usual.

2. Winter in Australia is from June to August

This again is the opposite of North America and Europe due to the fact that Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere. A lot of my relatives who visited Australia also forgot this fact and was met with an unwelcome surprise of colder weather. This is not like winter in North America, it is still pretty warm and there is no snow in most places. Sydney right now is hovering around the mid tens and sometimes goes up to the 20 degrees Celsius  However, it gets pretty windy and the wind can be pretty cold.

3. Most older houses in Sydney (and probably elsewhere) have no central heating and poor insulation

This combined with the winter weather can really suck if you visit. Since older houses in Sydney don’t have central heating and poor insulation, it can sometimes be colder inside the house than outside the house. Heavy quilts are used by most of my relatives here to deal with the cold. Plan to wear stuff like long sleeve shirts, multiple layers or hoodies to deal with the cold temperatures inside. This is also something to be wary of when you use places like AirBnB to rent out houses for vacations in Australia. Houses in colder areas like Melbourne have much better insulation and have central heating so it is not that bad in those areas.

4. Things are more expensive here

Fuel and food are both more expensive in Australia than places like Canada or USA (I am not sure about Europe). As a result of fuel being more expensive, other items will also tend to be more expensive than North America. So you should plan your budget for things to cost more than North America.

5. Highways are not as large North America

Most Australia highways are two lane roads with one lane dedicated for one direction and the other lane dedicated for the other direction. This is especially true once you leave the cities. The government is slowly improving the busier links between cities, but since there are not that many cars going between cities, they are only improving a few highways. Also as a result, food and fuel stops can be separate by far distances even on the more densely populated southern part of the eastern coast of Australia.

6. People are incredibly friendly here

People here are incredibly friendly, even in cities. They smile and nod at you as you walk by, and are always willing to help you out with directions. Don’t be shy to ask a local for directions to something. They may even have tips on what to do once you get to your destination or things to avoid!

7. Hungry Jacks = Burger King

Don’t go to Hungry Jacks if you are expecting a unique Australia style of burger. It’s just a rebranded Burger King.

8. Be careful of wild life on motor ways

If you are driving on an expressway/highway/freeway/motorway, then be careful of any wildlife. Koalas and kangaroos tend to stray onto highways in rural areas on occasion and it can be a messy result. Be careful of kangaroos which stray onto highways more frequently at nighttime. If you are driving at nighttime on a highway, you probably should use high beams when there are no other vehicles on the road. Kangaroos can destroy your radiator if your car hits the animal and as a result, you will probably be unable to drive the vehicle further. A lot of SUVs and trucks have bars that are designed to protect the radiator against kangaroos.

9. Eating kangaroos is actually a thing

It is not a joke and it is legal to consume kangaroo meat. I am not sure about how hunting works for them, but apparently their population is fairly abundant in the country so the government allows people to eat kangaroos.

Thoughts about Toronto’s Hwy 401 Traffic Problem

It’s an understatement that Toronto has some insane traffic. I got my latest taste of it this Sunday when I was stuck in traffic on the 401 highway while trying to get from Toronto back to Waterloo after visiting my parents. It amazes me that traffic is bad enough that it is terrible on a Sunday. Below, I go through several observations about why I think traffic is bad and offer a few pointers on how to fix it. I know this problem is far more complex than what I have listed below and involves a wide variety of factors including weather, demographics, psychology  economics, etc. I have simplified and abstracted away a bunch of things in this post so it does not turn into a novel.

8 Lanes each way don’t help

Any time I pick up relatives, who are visiting, from the airport and we merge onto the 401, they always comment on how absolutely massive size of the 401. They are right. It is 8 lanes wide in one direction, which means a total of 16 lanes both ways. That is a huge amount of lanes and I have yet to see it in any other city I have visited, except for Chicago. Despite the many lanes, traffic still slows to a crawl even on weekends. Mississauga, to the west of Toronto, is undertaking construction to go from 4 lanes in one direction to 8 lanes for their stretch of the 401. They are doing this in an attempt to battle congestion. If the rest of the 401 in the Greater Toronto Area is any indication, this is not going to help.

Some parts have a backwards design that needs fixing

By backwards design, I am mainly looking at locations like the eastbound stretch of the 401 starting from the 404 off-ramp to the Kennedy Road. If you get off the 404, onto the 401 and merge all the way into the left-most lane (about 3 lanes over), then about 2 exits later at the Kennedy road exit, your left lane is now the right-most lane. This occurs when you stick to the lane and never change lanes. Basically over the course of 2 exits, the two right lanes have peeled off and exited. At the same time, new lanes on the left hand side are opened up. This is a huge problem. Now, over the span of approximately 3 kilometres, the traffic needs to shift two lanes to the left just to stay on the 401. You know what happens when everyone tries to frantically switch lanes? Chaos, cars braking and traffic jams. It amazes me that no one has even thought of attempting to remedy this situation. It would go a long way to alleviating congestion because eastbound on the 401 at Kennedy Road is always guaranteed to be moving at a crawl whenever there is medium to heavy traffic.

Not Fast Enough Public Transit

The main reason that many people drive in Toronto during rush hour is due to the fact that it is still faster to drive to a location than take public transit there, even if you have to drive through rush hour traffic. Case in point? When I used to do co-op in Toronto, I travelled from my parent’s home in Scarborough to around Dufferin Road and Eglinton Ave. If I took public transit, this commute took about 1.5 hours of time. If I drove in rush hour to the same location, it took 45 minutes. So, public transit is about 2x slower than driving in rush hour transit despite the fact that half of my public transit time is spent on the subway. The fact that public transit is significantly slower than driving means that Toronto’s public transit is simply not fast enough to entice people to ditch their cars and take the bus/train to work. I am confused as to why there are no such things as express trains or buses from the suburbs to downtown or to other suburban centres. Such express routes, especially trains, which don’t have to deal with the same levels of traffic, would make commutes shorter and entice people to ditch their cars.

Not Enough Alternates to the 401

There are practically no alternate routes to the 401 that will take you across Toronto in an east-west direction. There is the QEW and the Gardiner Expressway, but they go through the downtown core and are more jammed than the 401. There is also the 407 ETR, which is not as congested and runs more north of the city. There is only one problem with the 407 ETR: it’s a toll road. The toll rates aren’t even close to reasonable. I have taken many toll routes through the USA and almost all of the rates there have been reasonable, but the 407′s rates are not reasonable at all. Of course that means that not as many people use it and everyone piles onto the 401, which means the 401 has traffic jams. Would making the 407 free help? Maybe. Recently, it seems like even the 407 is getting heavy traffic. The traffic is not heavy enough to cause major slowdowns, but it seems that even if we make it free, it will do little to address the problems of the 401.

A Strong Car Culture

Despite Toronto having a reasonable transit system (even if it is not as fast as I want it to be), I think Toronto still has a very strong car culture. Almost every family I know has at least one vehicle. About a third of my relatives and friends have two or more vehicles sitting on their driveways. If people can afford it, they will buy a car and drive that to places instead of taking the bus. The reason? Most of Toronto’s residents live in the suburbs and things are spaced pretty far apart. Which means it is a pain to get anywhere on public transit unless you live near or on a major road that has frequent bus service. Subway coverage is not as extensive as other cities like London, UK, which means that most of the time, you take the bus to your destination. On most routes, buses take about 15-20 mins to arrive. So naturally, people prefer to drive than take public transit because it is much easier and saves time. Getting people out of this car culture is probably the only way to significantly reduce the congestion of the 401 and other roads in Toronto. The problem? This is a very hard and uphill battle to fight. It is not something that can be overcome in a few months of a year, one would have to do this over several years.

So what’s the solution here? I think it needs to be a combination of faster public transit (including express trains), more alternative routes (like a toll-free 407), and re-doing parts of the 401 so that traffic does not need to shift lanes in order to stay on the 401. These need to be done in parallel with pushing out the strong car culture of Toronto and getting residents to embrace public transit more.

The state of the Tamil film industry

I’m going to write down a few thoughts about the current state of the Tamil film industry. I am going to be commenting on a bunch of themes, but primarily I will be commenting on some of the things that have changed and what has stayed the same. I will be grouping my ideas into two categories: the good and the bad.

What needs improvement

Let’s start off with the stuff that needs improvement. This is done first because I think there is a big issue that is facing Tamil film today:

Gender inequality is a big, big concern

Now, I know this occurs in not just this industry, but in film industries the world over. However, I sincerely want the Tamil film industry to improve hence I am making this commentary with regards to this specific industry. The different roles that actors and actresses play vary starkly when you look at gender. Many of the roles that are played by men are the roles of heroes and villains. These characters are the main driving force of the story. In fact, most stories are shown from their perspectives. The heroines in a movie? Almost all the time, they are relegated to three roles: the damsel in distress, the love interest, or some sort of sexual object in a dance number. Note, that sometimes, a heroine will take on more than one role over the course of a film. But let’s take a look at these roles for a moment shall we? None of these roles serve a particularly important role in the film except for the damsel in distress. The dance number role could easily be removed from the film. The love interest role can be useful to a film, but in most Tamil films that I have seen, it’s kind of like a third wheel that has been bolted onto a bicycle: it serves a purpose, but its absence won’t be missed. Then there is the fact that strong-willed or independent heroines are kind of rare in Tamil films. When I try to think of exceptions to this trend, I can only come up with two. First, there is Bhavani in Bhavani IPS where we see the actress Sneha play a police officer in the lead role of an action film. The second exception is in a film I saw a while back where the main villain was a female crime lord. Other than that, the roles of the heroines are almost always relegated to damsel in distress or love interest. The heroine isn’t out there kicking ass and taking names. She isn’t the one who saves the day. Usually, she is some meek or shy person who is only interested in loving the hero and is perfectly content with sitting on the sidelines for most of the film. If that doesn’t happen, then she is treated as somebody that can be kidnapped by the villain and must be rescued by the hero.  This infuriates me to no end. Of course, Tamil film isn’t the only industry that is guilty of this. Hollywood does this to a large extent as well, but the difference is that in Hollywood, there is a much higher percentage of films that feature strong female roles. These types of strong female roles are severely lacking in Tamil films. Where are my Tamil equivalents to Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games, Ripley from Aliens, The Bride from Kill Bill, Sarah Connor from Terminator, and Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter?

Next, let’s examine the disparity between the career lengths of Tamil actors and actresses. The career lengths of Tamil actresses are MUCH shorter than Tamil actors. How is it that Rajinikanth or Kamal Hassan have multi-decade careers in acting but many actresses don’t? The main answer here is marriage. Once an actress gets married and has children, it is game over for them in the industry. They are expected to end their careers in order to focus on family and children. The actors? Nah they are good. Even if they get married and have a family, they are still free to continue their career. The actresses never get this chance. A good example of this is Jyothika who stopped acting once she got married, but her husband Surya still appears in films. Very few of these actresses ever come back once their kids are old enough that they can resume work. The only exception that really stands out in my mind is Sridevi.

Another thing that also needs much more improvement is the progression of the romance subplots that occur in movies. In many films, the romance goes something generally along the lines of the following. The guy sees a beautiful girl somewhere and falls in love with her at first sight. She does not reciprocate or is unaware of his feelings. The guy then becomes a creeper and follows her to various places, maybe even standing outside her house. Usually, the girl develops mutual feelings if she sees the guy doing something nice like helping some neighbourhood kids. The important thing is that she sees a few acts of kindness, not the guy persistently being nice. She falls in love based on a narrow sample set of kind acts. On the other hand, if the girl does not reciprocate when the guy confesses his feelings, the guy seems to think that this is a license to keep stalking, bothering and sometimes harassing her until she likes him. The baffling thing is that script writers think that this is what it takes to win the girl: if you harass and stalk her enough, she will fall in love with you. Personally, I am fine with most of the general structure of the romance subplot except for the stalking, constant badgering and harassment until she falls in love with you parts. This is not the type of thing you want to legitimize in films especially when there are reports stating that this often happens in real life to women in India. Romance structures need to be improved to a point where there is much more respect towards the heroine.

Then, there is the other stereotypes that most heroines need to fall into. The main ones I am talking about are: light skin and high pitch voices. Apparently, if you don’t have either of these qualities, you are not cut out to be an actress. Of course, I acknowledge that everyone wants to see a beautiful actress on screen. I do too. But I have seen tons of beautiful Indian women who don’t have light skin and who don’t have high pitch voices that look attractive enough to be actresses. Related to the above is the disparity of requirements for looks between actors and actresses. My sister summed this one up pretty well when she asked my mom the following question: “Why are Tamil actresses always so pretty, but Tamil actors are always so damn average looking?” She raises a good point. Young, new, aspiring Tamil actresses are expected to be: well proportioned, light skin and a good looking face. Heck most of the time, all you need to be is thin and light-skinned to land a job as an actress! Now let’s look at many young actors: any skin colour counts, any body shape counts, and as long as you don’t have any scars or deformities, any face will do. This disparity is quite something isn’t it?

What has improved

If after the above rant, you are still with me, let’s take a look at the improvements in the industry. There are many things that have improved  from the late 90s until now (2013).

More Diversity in Plots, Settings, Genres

Plots, genres and settings have diversified greatly. It used to be that most, if not basically all, Tamil movies would take place in India (particularly the state of Tamil Nadu) and follow a basic story structure: there is a hero who squares off against some villain. The hero always has a love interest and there are two plots: how the hero defeats the villain, and the romance between the hero and the heroine. Often, the two plots are either interwoven with one another such that one influences the other, or they run in parallel with minimum impact from one plot to the other. Of course, you throw in some fight scenes and dance numbers into the film as well. Now, I am not saying that all films were like this, but most had this structure. Recently though, I have noticed that films are getting a lot more diverse in their settings, plots and even genres. Let’s start off with setting. Over the past few years, I have started seeing an increased amount of films that are set in places like New York (and some other parts of the USA) and Europe (particularly London, UK). These films have some or all of the characters as Indians living abroad. This is such a wonderful thing to see. It allows films to show people back in India how Indians abroad are living and it gives Indians abroad some connection to the films. I’ve also noticed fantasy settings as well such as Aayirathil Oruvan, which takes place in an expedition in a more exotic, mysterious part of India. There is also Raavanan, which takes place deep in the jungles of a national park in India.

We are also starting to see much more diversification in plots and genres. There are new genres being explored. For example, there is Enthiran which involves an Android as one of the villains and is a great foray into the science fiction genre. There is Naan-Ee (where the hero is reincarnated as a house fly) and Aayirathil Oruvan (a very Indiana Jones style film), both of which are fantasy films. Then there are the plots. They are becoming much more diverse and have started diverging more often from the plot structure I highlighted earlier. I remember watching a couple of films where the heroine was absent completely and I remember a few films where they did not have any dance numbers. The names of these films don’t come to mind at the moment, but I recall that they came out in the last 5 years or so.

Better Visuals

The Tamil film industry has been a bit slow on the uptake of HD in my opinion. Without a doubt, they have been shooting in higher resolutions than HD already and have been using digital for a while now, but HD has not trickled down to consumers. Almost all films are still released exclusively on DVD. However, there are signs that change is coming. There are a bunch of films, both new and re-releases of old films, that are being released on Blu-ray so that audiences can watch them in full HD. There is still a ways to go until all films get Bluray releases, but at least they are making an attempt to get there. The other improvement that is the most noticeable in the visuals department is the huge improvement in the technical quality and frequency of computer generated imagery in Tamil films. I used to cringe slightly whenever I saw the greatest and latest Tamil film use visual effects that Hollywood thought was new maybe 10 years ago. But today, it seems that the visual effects industry has matured greatly and the computer generated imagery in modern Tamil movies is almost on par with Hollywood. There is still a noticeable gap between Tamil films and Hollywood, but the gap is much smaller today than it was 10 years ago. Some examples of the great work produced by the Tamil visual effects industry are Enthiran and Naan-E, both films who rely heavily on computer generated images that are almost on par with what Hollywood has to offer.

Diversified Sound

The songs used in Tamil films have always had a number of genres, but recently I have noticed that there are more genres being used. Electronica sounds are becoming a lot more prominent and as a big fan of electronica, I am ecstatic about this. It’s great to see music composers start playing with even more genres. Even the underscoring that occurs in scenes to highlight emotions has diversified in terms of sound. It used to be that if there is a sad scene or one that is heavy in emotions, the underscoring relied heavily on some sad, distant voice to create the atmosphere. Today, I see films using more diverse instruments to create that atmosphere without relying on that distant voice

Conclusion

I think overall, the Tamil film industry has improved greatly over the last 10 years or so. Yes, some major issues exist, but I think recent films (last 3 years or so) indicate that these issues are becoming overcome (albeit slowly). I am hopeful and I look forward to seeing how the industry changes over the next 10 years.

The Places I Want to See

By the end of April, I will be graduating from university after having spent 5 years at the University of Waterloo learning the dark secrets of software engineering. I have a few months (basically until mid-late August) of free time before I start my full time position at Microsoft. This is probably the best chance I have in life to get some travelling done and see the world before I am bogged down by work commitments, life commitments, etc. So the following is a list of places I want to see and rationales for why I want to see them:

Sri Lanka

My native land! It’s been 10 years since I have last visited there. I still have a lot of relatives in Sri Lanka who have not seen me since I was 12. I am definitely eager to see them again. Also, the country is absolutely beautiful. I got a few chances to see the beauty of the country in my last two visits there, but I want to have at least one trip where I can spend some time visiting the beautiful beaches, mountains and forests that are present in this island nation.

Maldives

When I was little, I spent about 1-2 years here because my parents worked for a local hotel in Male. I don’t remember much about my life there. I remember the home we had there, but that’s about it. I do have photos of my sister and I swimming in the turquoise water and running along the white sandy beaches. I want to go and see this country that I spent a period of my life in. It also helps that my dad wants to go and visit it again. He has some fond memories of working there.

Australia

I have a ton of relatives in Australia. In fact, I have a bunch of nieces and nephews that don’t even know I exist because I have never visited them before, and they have never visited me in Canada before. Also, considering the fact that the rest of my immediate family has gone to Australia and I am the only remaining person in my family who has yet to set foot in that country, it is high time that I go there for a visit. Not to mention the fact that Australia has a crazy amount of biodiversity and beautiful landscapes that I am dying to see.

Singapore and Malaysia

Singapore is probably one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. It is very modern, diverse and clean. Honestly, I would not mind moving there and living there for the rest of my life. It is probably the best place I have ever visited. I have never set foot in Malaysia, but I have heard that the country is beautiful and the people are incredibly friendly.

India

Despite the fact that I am of South Asian descent, I have never set foot in India. I don’t have very many relatives there so my parents never had that good of a reason to go visit the country. Despite the recent negative press about India, I would love to go there. This is the country that gave birth to multiple religions, and is the home of over 20 distinct languages and hundreds of dialects. When you have this much diversity packed into one country, it is hard not to be interested in visiting it. There is also a large amount of landscape diversity in this country. There are jungles, tropical forests, mountains and deserts. A visit here would also let me explore some beautiful Buddhist temples as well. Buddhism is probably the most appealing and interesting religion that I have ever encountered, and going to Buddhist temples in India would definitely help me study this religion some more. India is also a country of extremes. There is a rising middle-class in the country, but many parts of the country are still impoverished and lacking infrastructure. I want to see for myself how India and Indian society is coping and attempting to fix this problem.

Japan

As a big anime fan, it goes without saying that I would love to visit Japan. But, I would not go just for the anime. I have not been to that many countries where English is not the primary language. In fact, I think Sri Lanka is the only country I have been to where English is not the primary speaking language. Also, Japan would be the first country that has a homogeneous population that I would have ever visited. It would be interesting to explore the culture and interact with the people of a country where being a person of South Asian descent is incredibly rare. Without a doubt there would be a language barrier, but I think that would make the trip even more interesting because I would have to put in a lot of effort into the interactions with the local population and I believe that would be incredibly satisfying. Also, Japan’s Shinto religion is quite interesting with a diverse mythology. There is also the fact that like many countries in the region, Japan has some beautiful landscapes and scenery that I would love to check out.

South Korea

I am somewhat familiar with South Korean pop culture, especially considering the fact that I have a bunch of k-pop songs in my music collection. Also, I have watched a number of K-Dramas so I am somewhat familiar with customs there. But watching it on TV is one thing and actually experiencing it in person is another thing. But K-pop and their culture is not the only thing that I want to explore in South Korea. This is a country that is still technically at war with North Korea, and I want to talk to people there to see how they feel about it. Also, a visit to the DMZ is also in order. Finally, I think what is most interesting about South Korea is that this is a country that went from a poor society to a highly industrialized, high-tech, wealthy society in a matter of decades. It would be interesting to see how such a rapid increase in wealth is impacting the people of South Korea. For many youth, they have only ever known middle-class, developed life. However, their grandparents can still remember the Korean War and the times when South Korea was a poor country. I have read a bit about the subject, but again, reading it is one thing but actually experiencing it is another.

Kenya

The news really does not paint Africa in a positive light. Poverty, civil wars, famine, disease, death, etc. If the media is to be believed, living in Africa is a terrible experience. Now I don’t doubt that that is true for some places, especially in regions like Congo. But, through the many Africans that I have met in my lifetime, I can safely say that people from Africa are friendly, hospitable and great to hang out with, which means the continent must also be the same. I have heard good things about visiting Kenya so it is the first country in Africa that I want to visit. I want to see how Africa is doing (even if it is an incredibly narrow and limited view that I will be getting) and interact with the people there. Who knows, maybe once I visit Kenya, I will come back to see other countries on the continent.

Latin America

Latin America is an interesting mix of people and culture. From what I have seen of pictures, a lot of South America is a mix of the old and the new. It is a mix of colonialism heritage and Native American heritage  What better place would there be to see multiple perspectives on history than Latin America? Also, not to mention the fact that the region is home to some of the most astounding places that this planet has to offer such as the Amazon rain forest  the mountains of Peru, Machu Pichu, etc. I picked Latin America in general because I have no idea what country to specifically visit, they all offer something unique. Heck, if I do visit there, I might just hop around to a new country or city every couple of days to ensure that I can see a good chunk of the content.