Pitchforked by Fate

(Bridal Veil Falls, Utah | Nelson Barber Google Maps)

“Stand with your back to the cliff”, she sagely instructed all the while dabbling with the photo lenses of her newly acquired Canon EF70-200mm.

Mother Nature was at her resplendent best. While a brilliant proliferation of yellow and orange carpeted the valley, an expansive blue sky provided a breathtaking canopy.

All the dreaming, scheming and screaming that had preceded the planning and execution of this trip was beginning to pay rich dividends.

“Any flaws in my pose, my Princess?” Vic laughingly asked.

Walking close to him, Ash flattened down his upturned collar, leant close to him and whispered in his ear, “You have outlived all your poses”.

A ferocious kick aimed at his ribs sent Vic flying head long over the cliff. Ash calmly proceeded to take a couple of clear shots of his horror stricken face as he went plummeting down like a ragged doll.

(Word Count: 150)

This has been an edition of What Pegman Saw

For the complete list of entries, please click HERE

ROBOT 2.0


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A Hodge podge of Quantum Physics (with references to the forces of Gravity, Electro Magnetism, Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces), an introduction to the phenomenon of electrical coronal discharges that use the techniques of Kirlian photography, the true worth of the usually neglected science of ornithology all layered in with the crass and basic human emotion of greed coalesce together to form Shankar and Superstar Rajinikanth’s much awaited mega offering “2.0”.

In so far as the visual effects are concerned, 2.0 can give any Hollywood movie not just a run, but a very sprint for its money. However, in so far as the plot is concerned, the 140 odd minute spectacle is a clash of contradictions. Strong and susceptible in equal measure, the narrative grips but also meanders, enthuses but also enervates. But significantly, unlike a usual Thalaiva blockbuster does not hold you in thrall. The classic and unrivaled Rajini imprimatur is missing and such an absence is felt in dollops!

At the core and crux of 2.0 lies the proverbial tussle between the untrammeled rampage of technology and the battle to preserve the Planet’s eco system. Spurred on by the unceasing and ravenous appetite of 1.3 billion people, cellphone companies commence constructing a plethora of networks paying scant regard to the radiation courtesy the high frequency waves generated by the aural medium. Pakshi Raja (Akshay Kumar) is a famed ornithologist whose concern for the welfare of flying species extends beyond mere contributions to journals and lip service to technological hazards. Running from pillar to post, knocking on the doors of a myriad authorities, Pakshi Raja coaxes, cajoles and coerces the powers that be to bestow some sympathy on the birds. When all he gets for his efforts are brickbats, insults and a few blows to his body he decides to take things into his own hands and his roiling rage takes flight – literally. Transforming himself into a very embodiment of evil, the ornithologist steals cell phones from every user in the city of Chennai and harnessing its power rains havoc upon the inhabitants.

Enter Dr. Vasikaran (Rajinikanth). Heeding a call from the Government to rescue the public, Vasikaran resurrects his previously shelved robotic marvel and alter ego Chitti. Strictly obeying the three quintessential dictums of Issac Assimov’s laws of robotics, Chitti with the guidance of his creator, and another feminine humanoid, Nila (Amy Jackson) manages to contain the evil force that is Pakshi Raja. What otherwise seemed like a happy ending turns out to be the surreal lull before the ominous storm. When the dead and the buried are revived all hell breaks loose! Pakshi Raja makes a rampant and more vengeful appearance and this time it seems that there is no stopping him. Or is it?

Akshay Kumar as Pakshi Raja is stellar and executes his demonic role with sheer aplomb. A wrathful hell-raiser who is remorseless when it comes to intentions, he revels in his character leaving no stone unturned to make a mark in his Tamil debut. Standing toe to toe with Chitti, Akshay holds his own without even faltering once. The transition from the ornithologist Pakshi Raja to the evil wrecker in chief is exquisitely executed by one of the most bankable stars in current day Bollywood. If it is the intention of Akshay Kumar to make inroads into Kollywood, he has succeeded marvelously!

Amy Jackson has a meaty role to essay as the humanoid Nila and does justice to her role. The partner in crime of Chitti, she is torn by an irresistible attraction towards Chitti (human emotions are preprogrammed into her) and a call of duty.

But as may be expected, the heartbeat of the movie is Rajini a.k.a Chitti. Back with a thunderous bang, Chitti regales, resonates and reverberates with an ease that is effortless and with a style that is inimitable. The hideous and portentous laughter of Chitti Version 2.0 takes off from where it was last heard in Enthiran. Only this time instead of being directed at its creator, the mocking is exclusively reserved for Pakshi Raja. The Superstar of Indian cinema seamlessly slots into his niche and delivers a jaw dropping act that is delightful and delectable. However, it is not just Dickens’ Oliver  Twist who asks for more. One can be forgiven in assuming that the predilection of one of India’s premier Directors has been more towards Graphical effects than on his Great protagonist. This was an opportunity for Shankar to harness the blistering potential of Rajini and hurl his style and substance at his adoring legion of impossible and incorrigible fans. There is no semblance of doubt that at least in this regard, he missed the proverbial bus. At times the fact that true genius manifests itself in simplicity can be sorely and inadvertently missed.

Some of the dialogues are absolute sizzlers and no one other than Rajini could have done justice to them. The devilish intent and the disdainful show of respect for his opponent by Chitti 2.0 has glorious shades of “Moondru Mudichu” and “Moondru Mugam”  Chitti is a paradoxical concoction of innate sophistication and ingrained irascibility. More than anything else, he is Superstar Rajinikanth; he is Thalaivar; he is the emperor of style in Indian cinema. An emperor whose vicissitudes and prowess could have been lent a much wider lenience by Shankar than what he has resorted to in this instance.

While the background score has the usual flair and flamboyance of A.R.Rahman, Shankar has done a great job of going extraordinarily easy on songs with expansive sets. The cinematography is captivating and the dialogues a mix of the matter of fact and the macabre.

In a nutshell: 2.0 – RAJINI!

The Dalliance With Death

(Photo Credit: Nick Allen)

The choking that racked Michalis for an agonizing while was now not that insufferable. His mottled face had already turned a menacing blue. A blue that signaled a beginning of the end. A blue which while it began taking shape was unwelcome, but was now a redeemer.

“The Mafia will be your dalliance with death” Elena had warned his dearest friend.

Now they were killing him by funneling his mouth using one of the “snout babies” that had lubricated their very engines.

As very vestige of life drained away, Michalis’s last thought was, “at least they used my favourite snouty”

(Word Count: 100)

This story was written as part of the FRIDAY FICTIONEERS challenge, more about which may be found HERE

 For the complete list of entries, please click HERE

The credit for the breathtaking photograph goes to Nick Allen

The separation of Immanuel Kant

(Photo Credit: Yarnspinnerr)

To state that they were poles apart would qualify as one great understatement. While her life was a chaotic whirl of unrelenting activity, he elected to remain ensconced in a world whose only inhabitants were books. Her strenuous exertions in kick boxing were countered by his leisurely reading of a critique by Immanuel Kant, with a bottle of ice cold beer egging on his philosophical bent.

It seemed to him as though she could never remain still for a minute. At times he wondered whether she herself was not a spiraling vortex whose whorl he had allowed himself to be willingly taken in.

 Hence when she came up with an unexpected request to join her on a Kayak one sunny Friday morning, he agreed with a great element of surprise but with no sense of apprehension.

“Water”, she whispered. “so still yet so deadly. So inviting yet so deep. We can no longer be together.”

Her words rippled through him as the yellow paddle dropped from his hands.

(WORD COUNT: 168)

This story has been written as part of the FLASH FICTION FOR ASPIRING WRITERS – FFfAW Challenge #193, more details about which may be found HERE

For reading similar entries submitted in response to the FFfAW Challenge #193 please click HERE

Thank You Yarnspinerr for the photograph!

The Guinness Bombshell

SPF 11-04-18 CE AYR 5

(Photo Credit: C.E. Ayr)

Every argument of theirs used to end with him throwing up his hands in exaggeration and exclaiming, “It’s as if you are trying to prove that the Loch Ness is in your backyard!” In fact, terming her flights of fancy to be so preposterous, he had begun calling her “Nessie”.

However, it was his “Nessie” with whom he envisaged a beautiful future; the Nessie about whom he dreamed incessantly and impossibly. A smile never failed to appear each time he thought about the first time they had met. He had borne the full brunt of her displeasure and barely contained wrath as she systematically proceeded to demolish (as a consultant) an esoteric tax structure which he proposed (as her firm’s client). Continuing interactions and incendiary deliberations led to the blossoming of love and the baptism as “Nessie”. Until that fateful Friday.

Sipping her favourite Guinness beer, she casually dropped the bombshell. An enticing professional offer was luring her away from Asia and there would be no future of togetherness.

Shocked beyond imagination, he abruptly got up and teetered away from her. As he walked aimlessly, he glimpsed a worn out cover of a publication which read “WOMAN ‘PROVES’ NESSIE EXISTS.”

(Word Count: 200)

Written as part of Sunday Photo Fiction. Write a story of around 200 words based on the photo prompt given (above). Hosted by Susan Spaulding. For more details, visit HERE.

To read more of the stories based on this week’s prompt, visit HERE

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies In a Silicon Valley Start-up – John Carreyrou

While it is one thing to be touted as the ‘next Steve Jobs’, it is an entirely different thing to be so taken in by such lavish praise so as to cocoon oneself in an aura of pride, vanity and over-confidence. This is exactly what happened with Elizabeth Holmes. A daring, enterprising and ambitious Stanford drop out, this twenty-two-year-old self-made entrepreneur, billionaire (albeit not a lasting one) and the founder of “Theranos”, a much vaunted and hailed about private health technology corporation.

The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos is one of deceit, camouflage and subversion. It is also a tale of hubris. John Carreyrou, brilliantly chronicles this story in his book, “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies In a Silicon Valley Start-up”. Incidentally it was Carreyrou who blew the murky lid of Theranos to reveal an inside racked by subterfuge, nepotism and fraud. In this attempt, he was aided by a group of brave but harassed whistle blowers, who, in the course of trying to shine light on the dark deeds of their employer, were hounded and hassled by egregious lawyers and ill-tempered executives. When finally, Theranos turned out to be nothing less than a modern day Thanos, both in aspiration and dealings, its founder’s net wealth had eroded from a jaw dropping $4.5 billion dollars to a more reflective and appropriate number of zero.

The award winning Carreyrou startles his readers by exposing the dangerous methods resorted to by Elizabeth Holmes and her cronies in a desperate bid showcase Theranos as the next generation health care miracle. Claiming to revolutionize the process of testing blood – claiming a paranoia towards needles as an overarching driver – Holmes boasted that the practice of venipuncture (the act of intravenously drawing blood) would soon be replaced by the most innocuous method of pinpricking. Thus would end, what Holmes termed a ‘gruesome medieval torture’ As an added advantage these tests could be conducted at homes of patients, in wellness centres and walk-in clinics. And as Carreyrou illustrates brilliantly, many seasoned businessmen and veteran investors got cot completely taken in by this incredulous claim. Wallgreens and Safeway signed million dollar contracts with Theranos for procuring the blood sampling machines and the Board of Directors of Theranos was a glittering assemblage of America’s most sought after. Some of the eye popping names who offered themselves to be seated on the Board of Holmes’ company were Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Don Lucas. Marquee investors such as Carlos Icahn, Robert Kraft and Betsy De Vos plunked in $900 million while an eighty-four-year-old Rupert Murdoch contributed his fair share of millions as well.

But as Carreyrou chillingly demonstrates, the technology that was much feted, fanned out and felicitated, was at its core and crux – a dud. While the underlying technology was neither developed nor prepared to perform all the tasks that were proudly being claimed by Holmes, the very premises housing the machines were shady. Theranos in fact used equipment manufactured by other reputed companies such as Siemens (hiding the machines when the health inspectors came calling) and continued drawing blood intravenously to grade tests using routine commercially available equipment.

As sincere and apprehensive employees began raising their doubts and questioned the company’s practices, Theranos became a revolving door of flushed out employees and hastily assembled recruits. In the words of a fired employee, Theranos’ devices were likened to an ‘eighth-grade science project’. The blood samples were stored at incorrect temperatures leading to patients getting faulty results and making unwarranted trips to emergency rooms while cancelling painstakingly planned holidays. Complaints to Theranos fell on deaf ears. When the iceberg along with its insidious tip was finally revealed, nearly a million tests conducted in California and Arizona had to be voided or corrected.

Dressed invariably in black turtlenecks – a consequence of a compulsive obsession towards her idol Steve Jobs – Elizabeth Holmes is described by Carreyrou as a consumed woman who would stop at nothing to get her way. Woe betide anyone getting in her way either. Anyone having the guts to oppose her ended up becoming collateral damage, initially fired from Theranos before being subjected to intense harassment and torment from a battery of the firm’s lawyers. To make herself formidable in a bastion that was the preserve of prideful and haughty men, the founder of Theranos even altered her voice speaking in a forced baritone. “The Theranos device was the most important thing humanity has ever built.” Professed Holmes from various pulpits leaving her listeners mesmerized.

Holmes’ ruthlessness was egged on and enforced by Theranos’ chief operating officer and president Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. At least two decades older than Holmes and romantically engaged with her (a fact which was conveniently hidden from the Board as well as the employees), he had made his mark in the dotcom bubble and seemed to act as her mentor. To employees, his menacing management style made him Holmes’s “enforcer.” Theranos’ scruples (or a brazen lack of them) would have been lost forever to the world but for a tip received in 2014 by Carreyrou Adam Clapper, a pathologist in Missouri who had assisted Carreyrou with an earlier story. Clapper had blogged skeptically on Theranos’ capability to run multiple tests on just a drop of blood. Hearing from fellow naysayers Clapper passed on their names to Carreyrou. Carreyrou got his break with Alan Beam, who had just left his job as lab director at Theranos.

Heeding Carreyrou’s assurances of anonymity (“Alan Beam” is a pseudonym), Beam spilled two profound and devastating fact beans. First, “Edisons”, the equipment manufactured by Theranos to test the blood samples were error prone and regularly failed quality control tests. Second, most blood test results reported by Theranos in patient trials did not come from the Edisons but were clandestinely obtained from standard blood testing devices. Beam was perturbed about the impact such false results could have upon both the diagnoses of doctors and the future of patients.

Theranos hired the ultra-aggressive and much feared lawyer David Boies, who did all he could to prevent the cat being let out of the bag. Undaunted Carreyrou’s persisted and his dogged determination paid off when in October 2015, his newspaper carried a damning front page story about the Edisons and the secret use of conventional testing. The backlash, outrage and fury that followed was unimaginable and although Holmes tried to allay the fears of her investors and the public at large by refuting, disputing and countering the findings made by Carreyrou in various public appearances, Theranos had begun counting its last remaining days. In an act of unforgettable desperation, at one meeting after the story broke, Balwani led hundreds of employees in a defiant chant: “Fuck you, Carreyrou! Fuck you, Carreyrou!”

On the 14th of March, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Theranos, Holmes, and Balwani with fraud. Holmes was required to relinquish control over the company and pay a $500,000 fine, and she was barred from holding any office in a public company for 10 years. Earlier the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency monitoring clinical labs, ran inspections, and as a result of its findings banned Theranos from all blood testing.

This blistering story by Carreyrou is a rousing testimony and a deserving tribute to the conscience of a few who ensured that they spoke out to save the lives and future of many. In the process, they suffered irreparable damage themselves. But still they ploughed, waded and marched forward not resting until all the damned lies were exposed and truth prevailed. This story also highlights the inexplicable ineptitude displayed by an illustrious Board of Directors completely in the thrall of one extraordinary saleswoman. For that was all Elizabeth Holmes was, a consummate sales woman with chicanery as her left hand and sleight as her right. A self-proclaimed Marie-Curie and a compulsive narcissist she might have at the outset nursed genuine motives as Carreryrou espouses. But somewhere on the way the motives gave way to mechanics the machineries driving which became alien to even Holmes herself.

The one lingering aspect of Carreyrou’s book is its flourishing finish. I reproduce the same here and leave the readers to digest it and form their own opinion:

“I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile of a sociopath, but her moral compass was badly askew. By all accounts, she had a vision that she genuinely believed in. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it.”

An Impulse Well Considered

(Photo Credit: Yinglan)

The Gods were in some frosty Saturday mood. When Mika and Venky reached their usual rendezvous, they found their favourite benches frosted over with a liberal covering of snow.

Delicately balancing their steaming hot Caramel Macchiatos and Blueberry Muffins, they traipsed over the soft ground leaving behind them trailing footsteps.

“Are you really going away?” Venky asked, a part of him already knowing the dreaded answer. “Is this not an impulsive decision? After all you are changing continents and not just countries.”

“Do you realise how ridiculous you sound” Mika responded with a frown.

A brief silence enveloped the duo as talking was substituted by forced slurping and chewing.

For a fleeting couple of seconds their eyes met.

“If only you could change your obstinate mind just stay put here, you little sparrow”, thought Venky to himself as a sudden burst of melancholy coursed through him.

“If only you could muster the courage to just ask me to not leave” ruminated Mika to herself.

“Heaven Freezes over” said Venky as the snowfall resumed.

(WORD COUNT: 173)

This story has been written as part of the FLASH FICTION FOR ASPIRING WRITERS – FFfAW Challenge #192, more details about which may be found HERE

For reading similar entries submitted in response to the FFfAW Challenge #192 please click HERE

Thank You Yinglan for the photograph!