The Lunchbox

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A very nice little Indian movie; Netflix correctly predicted I'd like it. It's built on a romantic comedy premise, but the structure is mostly dramatic. Although there are some very funny bits. Got that? OK, let's proceed.

Saajan is a widower, old, lonely, a bureaucrat on the verge of retirement from his soul-deadening job processing insurance claims. Ila is a housewife with a young daughter and neglectful husband. One day she puts an extra effort into making hubby's lunch, an array of tasty courses, packed into a tiered tiffin.

Apparently this is a thing in India: a service (called a Dabbawala) delivers your lunch to your desk. But wires get crossed somehow: Saajan gets the tiffin meant for Ila's husband, and Ila's husband gets the tiffin from Saajan's provider. When lunch is over the service works in reverse, returning the tiffin to its origin.

The mixup persists over time, and Saajan and Ila start corresponding through notes placed in the tiffin. Perfunctory at first, but they soon start to exchanging personal details and confidences.

In addition, Saajan's impending retirement gets him a trainee, Shaikh. Shaikh is initially your worst racist stereotype of the unctious Indian. (But it's OK, because… well, I'm not sure why it's OK.) Saajan initially treats Shaikh with ill-concealed contempt. But there's more there than meets the eye, and their relationship develops interestingly as well.

Interesting: many of the actors shift between speaking Hindi and English within a scene. I guess this is also something Indians do? At least according to this WSJ blog post, that's the "conversational style of many urban Indians". As you might guess, the there's a controversy.

The Ringworld Throne

[Amazon Link]

Well, that was disappointing. Larry Niven and I have grown apart. It's hard to know who's more to blame. I'd like to think it's him.

The Ringworld Throne, written in 1996, is the third in the Ringworld series. Set after the events of number two, The Ringworld Engineers, it follows further adventures of Louis Wu, with his Kzin and Puppeteer co-explorers. In the previous book, the Ringworld was saved from running into its own star, but at what Wu thinks was a grievous loss of life. Hominids have also populated various ecological niches, evolving different appearances, intelligences, and survival strategies. (There's a Wikipedia page devoted to listing and describing them.) They engage in rishathra, hanky-panky between subspecies. And we follow some of them too.

Part of the problem: I'm pretty sure that I lost track of what exactly the plot was about while reading the book. Why are they doing this? What's the point? I had no idea. Could I maybe figure it out by backtracking and rereading? Probably. Maybe. Do I want to do that? No.

So I've removed the fourth Ringworld novel, Ringworld's Children from my to-be-read pile.

The Outer Limits of Reason

[Amazon Link]

A very readable and interesting book by Brooklyn College professor Noson Yanofsky. Although his page pegs him in the "Department of Computer and Information Science" there, the book shows that he's pretty good in physics, math, and logic too. Some of the chapters are based on lecture notes from a course he gives. The book's subtitle is: "What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us". You might suspect that what's upcoming is mystical handwaving, but no. Professor Yanofsky's musings are all pretty well grounded in real science, so good on him.

I don't remember why this went on my virtual to-be-read pile, but I had to wait until it came off the course reserve list at the Physics Library of the University Near Here. Someone else has a high opinion of it as well.

The book is a series of semi-independent topics, and each can be read by a bright teenager with a decent grounding in science and math. (I remember getting introduced to some of these ideas as a seventh-grader by the 1946 book, One Two Three … Infinity by George Gamow.) It is (therefore) somewhat of a hodgepodge, but a very entertaining one, romping through a host of counter-intuitive, paradoxical, mind-boggling areas. A random sampling: the two-slit interference experiment; the Monty Hall problem; the Travelling Salesman problem; the Halting problem; Gödel's Proof; Cantor's different types of infinity; Russel's Set Paradox.

And more, much more. I kept imagining that Yanofsky might be the type of guy who would punctuate each amazing revelation with a wide-eyed challenge to the reader: "Did I just blow your mind?"

Then on page 175, I see: "There are ideas and concepts here that are counterintuitive and will blow your mind!" Yeah, he probably is that type of guy.

I was slightly disappointed to not see any discussion of my late friend Ken Appel's proof of the Four-Color Theorem, which (at the time) was only achievable through a considerable number of computerized operations, unachievable by a human mind in finite time. Is that cheating?

Also absent (unless I missed it) is my standard sophomore dorm-room topic: what cosmic truths are beyond the reach of humans because we're simply not smart enough to see them? Dogs are pretty smart, but there's never been one that could solve even the simplest quadratic equation. What are the limits to our intelligence, and how could we tell if we were bumping up against them? Could we tell if we were bumping up against them? (Can a dog "get" the fact that mathematics is out of his intellectual ballpark?)