Monday, October 26, 2009

Feedback Loops

22 years and 10 months into life, one has probably lived long enough to start noticing certain patterns emerging.

Ever noticed that there are several feedback loops running in life at various levels.Like when you're tense and wound up, you somehow cause your life to throw things at you that wind you up even more.

And that they don't cease to drop from the heavens or grow out of hell till you decide not be wound up anymore?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Baal vs Leviathan

I am now two hours into a journey that thankfully has not lived up to its promise of being god-awful. After having seen a movie and a half on mute on my neighbour's laptop (one of which I recognized as Batman and Robin), and skimmed through a few pages of my copy of Ashis Nandy's 'Alternative Sciences', I feel that the time is nigh to discuss what the last post denied us. I promise to not let the distractions of a rail journey steal from this profound question I seek to answer.

The question, or rather my answer to it, is something that I have philosophized about at length. My father who is in town (otherwise posted out of station) provided a new way to look at it, albeit unwittingly.

Allow me to introduce the title then. As the Canaanite legend goes, Baal (the Canaanite storm god) created the world after he won his battle with the sea monster Leviathan, that threatened to reduce everything back to primordial chaos. Leviathan also finds a mention several times in the Torah and the Bible, and has often been used to depict or describe anything that seeks to bring disorder into God's order. In essence, Leviathan is most likely a metaphor for disorder, while Baal symbolizes the human ability to overcome chaos and lead a settled, 'orderly' life.

The reason why the myth of Baal and Leviathan really came about was probably the Canaanites' desire to establish a social order and a civilization under very harsh conditions (refer to Karen Armstrong's History of God for details). They lived in the desert and any fluctuation from clearly outlined, ordered and demarcated roles in civil society would probably lead to the destruction of the civilization, which would find itself crumbling into the chaos of the desert. In a certain sense, the slight order created would be gobbled up Leviathan. To that effect the Baal vs Leviathan battle was an everyday struggle for survival. Order wasn't just desirable, it was essential.

Now that we have arguably a well ordered society, built on fixed principles, we have on paper achieved that order that our ancestors strove for. Where we haven't achieved it, we strive to be as ordered as possible. But there is also an anti-Utopian chunk of our populace which appreciates deviation from set patterns. Therefore, on the one side we have this obsession with symmetry and whatever it entails and on the other, we tend to appreciate defects in it. Fusion music, for instance.

Before I go on to how my father added new perspective to this age-old paradox, allow me ot describe him (and then myself). My father is an early riser. He is disciplined, has a bath early in the morning, likes his things placed where they should be, and feels a certain joy when things are done in an orderly fashion. I on the other hand, am a fairly late riser and to say that I'm rather stochastic (perhaps even chaotic to a certain extent) in my method of conducting things would not be far from the truth. Safe to say that he's quite the Baal and I, albeit not to the civilization-destroying extent, am the living embodiment of Leviathan. Needless to say, here too Baal vs Leviathan is an everyday battle for survival. Beneath the everyday battle however, there is a strong ideological clash because I think that discipline in personal life is overrated. I don't deny that a basic, life-sustaining level of discipline is necessary. However, I feel that within the personal sphere, the stigma associated with 'being undisciplined' is far beyond what it should be. If the purpose of life is to be happy (which both my father and I are in agreement upon), then I feel that those of us who are anti-Utopian; or even dis-Utopian (call us 'Chomskians', broadly) are much better placed than our 'disciplined' counterparts.

Allow me to elucidate. The beauty of being disorderly is tautologically ingrained in the fact that one is no longer enamoured with the attainment of perfect order. Once this love for order and discipline is lost, we rarely get displeased by the prevalence of disorder. Contrast this with the disciplinarian's constant quest to have everything in a (if not 'its') stipulated place. The quest is not only constant, its also endless. And this brings me to my second argument. Being disorderly is what comes naturally to anyone. You didn't really know that books went into a shelf or that the plates went into a rack when you were born. You were taught those things as you grew up. As a Chomskian, you will not be displeased till someone tries to forcibly set you into crucibles of perfect order, but you can manage to ruin a disciplinarian's day simply by being yourself. If you don't believe me, next time try leaving the remote where it doesn't belong. In that sense, we're also better off at 'coping' with disorder (which is ever so natural). I put the word coping in quotes because disorder is something to cope with only for those who constantly seek to do away with it- the Baals.

Outside the personal sphere, I admit that it might be necessary to engage in a broadly defined social contract within a few well determined principles so that a bare minimum functioning order may be established. But this too, should not be taken to a limit that makes things water tight and uninterpretable.

My theory, in essence is that within your own skin, you decide how much of a Baal you want to be, without being driven by what you've been told. And don't tell my moral science teacher from the 5th grade.

  • Completed at 7:45 pm on 16th October 2009.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Creative Juices

I write this post travelling on what, prima facie, shows great promise of being a rather harrowing train journey in a cramped chair car compartment. I'm travelling to Kota for a family Diwali get together. The one thought that reiterates itself every half hour or so is that the average age of the gathering is well above mine. Having been given one's constraints, one hopes to optimize within the barriers by infusing copious amounts of juvenility (if that's even a word) into the high-average-age gathering. Then again, if one has known my family at close quarters for as long as I have, then one knows that while we may be disparate vis-a-vis our physical ages, we have the amazing ability to achieve a condition of concurrence as far as our mental ages are concerned (given the right conditions).

Talking of constraints then. Allow me to describe the scene around me. I have, time and again, apprised and updated my readers of my dimensions. As the train chugs out of the station, you would find my mother, sister and aunt on the right side of the aisle. My father is in the seat right in front, making small talk with his two neighbours. Me, you will find in the middle seat with a gentleman on the left whose dimensions far exceed mine, even by the most generous of estimates. On the right hand boundary of this ill-fitted sandwich is a lady whose bag (comfortably placed right in front of the seat) far exceeds my dimensions, even by the most generous estimate. Needless to say, the bag whilst luxuriously seated, is rather brazenly making unlawful intrusions into my leg space. Many a men have for long dreamed of a damsel accompanying them on a journey to a distant land, (if not for anything, for the sheer passage of hours) and found themselves seated next to a middle-aged pot. One tends to lose faith in the mechanisms of justice in the universe when the dream does come true, and yet, comes in the form of a short straw that is rather un-damsel-ly. In the sheer absence of a good swear word, 'Cramped' I believe was the word I chose a few lines ago. Let's stick to it; more for the sake of decency rather than brevity.

At this point, I must also graciously acknowledge two deaths that have occurred recently. The first, is the death of the incessant chattering of two children(aged between four and eight) that filled up the airspace behind my seat. That, I daresay, is a more than welcome relief. That incessant, incoherent squeaking had far worn out its welcome. The squeaking, however, recently reincarnated itself into the voice of a gentleman sitting behind me who wishes to make his conversation head to everyone in the bogey. So much for my short-lived relief. The second death, which occurred as soon as the train rolled out, was of something you find aplenty in India- unsolicited advice. Advice on how to sit, where to sit, how to 'adjust', how to cheat the laws of gravity and place luggage in a way that would allow the adviser to fit in that extra piece of redundant luggage on the rack, at the expense of the advisee's space. This was something that half my family rather gladly partook in (thankfully not the 'adjust'-ing bit).

Some food has now begun to do the rounds. Now that all of us find ourselves occupied with our own pedantic occupations (most of us reading, one of us writing), I notice two things. Actually, three. First (what I noted while I wrote the last sentence), is the enormous mess the food is going to create. The second, is how my hand has got used to writing amid the forced horizontal oscillations that a train journey entails. My handwriting is back at its atrocious best, after having made a beyond-illegible beginning. Third, and most importantly, I realize that I had to intended to write about something entirely different when I began this post. That will now have to wait.

I also begin to worry about my return three days hence, when I travel in a non-AC seater without a food tray on which I can put pen to paper. The railways are such a delight to one's creative juices.

  • Completed at 1632 hrs on 16th October, 2009.
  • Punchline of the moment: "A sorry does not make a dead man alive." (Words of wisdom from the loudmouth on the phone)
Await for the next post to emerge from this four hour journey!

(The author, while typing this, had already performed the return journey. While he found a food tray, it was too dirty to put paper on. Not to mention the incessant screaming and crying of practically every infant in North-West India who had invaded his compartment. Of course, the disturbance created at the end by a band of eunuchs was quite the delight.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I'm not really your quintessential movie critic, or a even a movie reviewer for that matter. In fact the only movie review you'd find on my blog is that of Slumdog Millionaire, that too, not a very positive one. However, recently I have seen some fairly interesting movies, some for the first time and others for the second, third, or even the eighteenth time. Movies that I have been wanting to write about.

So, first up, there's that oh-so-good movie everyone who reads my blog would have (or should have) seen by now- Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. I saw it about two weeks ago; first day second show, and have been wanting to write about it for several days. You know you've seen a good movie when it interests you enough to want to write about it, or for that matter carry out google or wiki searches on related issues. Needless to say, I quite loved the movie. An article I was reading in this Saturday's ToI Crest edition quite rightly calls the movie "a Jew's dream of World War II". For one, Brad Pitt has done quite a fabulous job as Lt. Aldo Raine, a southerner from Tennessee, who leads the band of Basterds. Every time I find myself mouthing that great dialogue from the movie, "You probably heard, we ain't in the prisoner takin' business...We in the Nazi killin' business. And cousin, business is a-boomin'.", I find myself thinking that Brad Pitt has been underrated as an actor. I've formerly been quite a fan of the character Rusty that he plays in the Ocean's series. My friend summarized the movie quite nicely at the end of it all- "Sab haraami hain!" (They're all bastards; or Basterds?). What was quite literally the icing on the cake was the fact that I actually won a free portion of double chocolate cake with ice cream at Ruby Tuesday because of my seat number in the hall. That, of course, was rather cruelly split amongst the four of us.

Up next, is a movie that I had seen long ago, and slept off in between because I found the first person cinematography quite hard to follow. A few years later when I saw The Blair Witch Project again (recently), I quite thoroughly enjoyed it. While the movie may not be very scary, it's precisely the first person cinematography that makes the movie an interesting watch. The climax itself is rather open ended, leaving you to decide for yourself whether the Blair Witch actually exists in the woods where the footage has actually been shot. Another interesting thing that the writers did, was to make the characters in the movie use their real-life names in the movie. So as the closing credits begin, you see as part of the cast, that the actors' names are actually the same in real life. That leaves you wondering whether the movie is really (as claimed at the start of the movie) what was left behind by the students who got lost in those woods. In the reading that I did to satisfy my curiosity about the legend of the Blair Witch, I found that the legend itself was a story promoted by the producers of the movie as a marketing strategy. All in all, I think it's quite a smart movie; one which is likely to draw very extreme reactions. I recommend a watch.

A week ago I also saw Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the story of a game show host in the 60s and 70s who leads a double life as a CIA assassin, and how he mixes up his reel life with his real, and uses the game shows as a cover for his activities. I don't know if the movie was released in Indian cinemas, but I only managed to see it now. I hadn't seen the opening credits, but I could notice that the movie had Stephen Soderbergh stamped all over it. The classic slickness of Ocean's movies was unmistakably there. Sure enough, his name showed up amongst the Executive Producers (even though George Clooney is the director). The movie has quite an interesting climax, one that I don't wish to spoil for those who haven't seen it. Those who haven't, go watch.

The next one's not a movie, but a British comedy series called Blackadder. The series stars Rowan Atkinson as the inscrutable Edmund Blackadder. This incidentally, was his gig before the Mr. Bean series, for which he might be more famous in India. The concept of the show is rather brilliant. In each of the four seasons (apart from the many special episodes), Edmund Blackadder is a witness to a certain period in British history. It starts with him being an obtuse prince in the 16th century, then goes on to Elizabethan times where he nearly marries Queen Elizabeth I, and on to the time of the French Revolution and finally ending in the trenches of World War I. The interesting thing to note is that as the seasons progress, Blackadder becomes more and more intelligent, but keeps sliding down the social ladder. I wonder if the writers intended this as a critique of British society. He starts as a dumb prince, and finishes as an extremely shrewd Captain in the British army. Fans of the TV show 'House' will be pleasantly surprised to find Hugh Laurie playing the dolt George, who appears along with Blackadder in various capacities through the seasons. The comedy itself is characteristically British, witty and dry. Rowan Atkinson is very different from his roles on Mr. Bean. This one is strictly for those who enjoy their comedy with a lot of salt and very little gravy.

Last then, and certainly not the least, is my favourite movie of all time- Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. I was extremely thrilled when I found a good VCD version of the movie. Having already seen the movie about fifteen times before I found the VCD, I have managed to go through it another three times. A fantastic satire on Indian society, and the brilliant Mahabharata scene that takes the movie to it's climax, it's a movie that will have you in splits till the very last scene when the strong message hits you in the face. This is one punch to the face you have to take.

Recently, I have been.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Ig-Nobels

So what do you do when you wake from your afternoon siesta to the scroll on the news channel reading "Manmohan Singh: I congratulate President Obama on his Nobel Prize"? You rub your eyes, resign to your Indian emotions (i.e say "hain?!") and wonder if there's a new category outside of deceased Alfred's will.

I then went on facebook, and I saw this status message- "Kanye West at Nobel ceremony: Mr. Obama, I'd let you speak, but Mayawati's the biggest jackass of all time". My friend at Columbia University tells me that there's a party on the streets, where there are free t-shirts on offer. Given that the Nobel has been reduced to this, our primary concern at this point of time is whether there is free food on offer as well.

Nonetheless, I was curious as to what reason on earth would the Nobel foundation would give for their choice. Being notorious for their rather arbitrary nomination process, such as the nomination of George. W. Bush last year, they had to come up with something good. Something better than "We wanted to give it to an American president and we couldn't give it to a man who said things like "They misunderestimated me" in public". The nice thing about the Nobel prizes is that they generate awareness. For a few years now, I have tried to keep myself informed about some of the Nobel prize winners (especially Physics) and their work. In this case, there wasn't really a need for that, since he's visible practically everywhere anyway.

However, I did go to the Nobel prize website to see how they reasoned it. These are the last 5 winners:

2008: Martti Ahtisaari for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts.

2007: International Panel for Climate Change and Al Gore for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.

2006: Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.

2005: IAEA and Mohamed El Baradei for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.

2004: Wangari Mathai for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

This is what this year's description says:

2009: Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.

Swedish for "rhetoric".

The health care plan might just go through now!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Bradley Cooper : Redux

Given the enthusiastic response (which I hope is mostly adulation from the fairer-sexed-readers) that I got to my joining the gym (aka The Bradley Cooper Project), I feel obliged to share with my readers, a quarterly report of progress on that front. Not so much a quarterly report as a 'I just bench pressed 20 kilos' report.

A friend and a co-blogger/gymmer recently said to me,

"The gym I go to has three types of frequent visitors, the first category is yours, the one trying to gain weight with frequently lifting up their shirts or examining their thin arms to see any trace of a muscle sprouting, the second is mine, trying to lose weight and trying to find traces of the muscle between all the fat, and the third is full of bradley coopers and mike tysons. I pray that we reach the third category's former part soon."

The gym I go to also has the same three types of frequent visitors. In fact, I feel that there's a certain universal causality to this frequent gym visiting. I am probably still in category one, hence way past my testosterone-ego induced promise of 45 days. But I'd like to think I'm making steady progress to category three and this is why :

  1. I bench pressed 20 kilos today.
  2. I'm seen wildly flailing my legs, hanging from the cross bar very rarely these days. This is usually after I have suffered from laziness or allied illnesses for over a week. Other days, my arms have enough strength to haul me over. Several times.
  3. I'm somewhere in between the seniors and juniors at the gym. There are a lot of people who've joined after me, hence in the position that I was in when I shared my first report, i.e. hanging from the cross-bar, flailing wildly. We shall term this the "Conservation of Momentum" phase.
  4. Those in the CoM phase can also lift much smaller weights than I can. I don't pass up an opportunity to look down upon and scoff at these hapless CoM-ers. All in my head, of course; I can still get fairly badly beaten up if I express this sentiment (owing largely not to my physique, but to my non-violent stance in life).
  5. Every now and then (like today), you would find a CoM-er (usually belonging to category one) stand in front of the mirror, make faces that he considers macho and aggressive (and others consider constipated, for the lack of a better word) and flex whatever trace of muscle he has built up after lifting his latest two kilos. The CoM-er I saw today did this after every set of exercises he struggled through. I'm quite glad I never made too much of myself in the CoM phase.
  6. Owing to oscillations of health, my weight has stayed pretty much the same. The banana shakes I'm made to drink make very little difference. They taste nice on most days, except those when my mother, for the sake of longevity, brings in slightly raw bananas. Raw bananas with milk stay that way- no mixing occurs. Needless to say how that tastes.
  7. I bench pressed 20 kilos today. Have I already said that? Yes? Well, you've missed the point of the post.

There are, however, certain worrying developments as well. For one, a lot of mirrors ensure that you can see the top of your head from certain angles. Let's just say we might have to rechristen this whole frequently-visiting-gym business as the "Vin Diesel Project". Enough said. There's only so much one can do at the hands of genetics.

That, then is the quarterly-20 kilo-bench-press report. I declare myself a work in progress. No one is allowed to criticize a work in progress.

Ladies, stay tuned.

Men, continue W.A.T.C.H O.U.T-ing.