Friday, April 04, 2014

The Three Generals

There was going to be war.  The king had to choose a commander from his three generals to lead his army.

The first general was the queen's sister's son.  He had grown with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, had never spent a day outside the palace, and only engaged in training only with carefully selected pansy soldiers.  His idea to inspire the army was to whimper about how much his family had "given" to the nation by ruling it for so long.  He was somewhat handsome though, and women liked him for the adult baby that he was.  The ministers liked him because they felt they could influence him.  Many in the city were of the opinion that to be effective, the commander needed to be a blue-blooded person who had leadership in his genes.  This general had never made a mistake, because he had never truly made a decision.  The army too was somewhat mystified by his charisma, as long as he kept his mouth shut.

The second general was a clever infantryman who had risen from the ranks to become a general over many decades of careful image-making, politicking and manipulation.  His role in a particular army assault against a rebel city within the country was suspect, but his culpability was never proved.  Many felt that the circumstantial evidence was strong against him, and he was known to exaggerate the achievements of his regiment.  His regiment was indeed quite happy with him, interestingly because they believed the suspicion about his culpability was true.  Many felt that only a somewhat ruthless manipulator could win this war.  He was known to be a skilled orator who could win over an audience with his witty barbs.  But it could be true that his oratory was a sham, and that the audience in his speeches was already smitten and identified with him.

The third general had been a bureaucrat.  He had protested for years for what he saw as the wasteful and corrupt way in which the army had been managed.  He was known to be quite self-righteous, with archaic ideas about using only spears and clay shields in battle.  He had chosen his seconds-in-command carefully, and did not tolerate dissent that well.  When he had transitioned to the army from his ministry, he was very idealistic and captured the imagination of the army-men.  But over the years, his charisma had dwindled, due both to an intense scrutiny of him, and to some ill-advised populist decisions that he taken while on a campaign.  Though he was reputed to be honest and forthright, he was fond of promising great victories quickly without struggle.  This made many thoughtful people doubt whether the army could win under him.

There was going to be war, and the time to choose was coming.  The cacophony of each general's supporters was growing by the day.

What the supporters never, ever would be able to guess, was that the enemy was within the city, within themselves.  That the generals could only bring about a large victory if each of them won small victories every day against the enemy within.  That the blackness that had engulfed the nation-city had emanated from the dark hearts of its own manipulative citizens.  That the blame for the enemy's infiltration lay with each of them.  Yes, the more powerful had their inner light completely extinguished.  But whenever someone weak was given power in that city, it did not take long for him to also succumb to darkness.  That the fight against darkness was never going to be complete but a battle which lay ahead till eternity.

That the generals would never be able to win the war if the soldiers were not willing to fight.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stream of Consciousness

For what if man was doomed.  The aliveness that is, is its own journey and destination.  So the nihilist believes.

To be free is to have no contradiction inside.  The discontent of civilization is its force within oneself which prevents total freedom.  Civilization is within.  Total freedom can exist only in death.

To be torn is simply the fact of being alive to others.

To collect seeds and see them blown away by the wind.  To see one's offspring devoured by a predator.  Who says birds don't suffer.

In the midst of all this incoherence and chaos, there is absolute stillness.  To center oneself and to be still while the storms, including in one's own mind, rage, is what man is capable of.  And this stillness can be felt in great joy as well as in great suffering.

The self might be a construct, a useful mechanism built by eons of strange twirls of evolution.  The essential suffering of the self is that of feeling that there are vistas of experience which it has not experienced.  To be aware of inexperience and simultaneously, of mortality, is the tragic sense.

"Life is to be lived" is not a meaningless statement, but aliveness can be lost in the cacophony of everyday life.  One of the authentic depictions of death is white noise.  Michael Haneke knew that when he showed the television playing "The Power of Love" and then to meaningless pixel-snow in Der Siebente Kontinent.

The feeling of direction can keep alive those who are trudging through inhospitable terrains.  But a vision of absurdity, of the futility of it all, can strike at times of elevation.  At lower elevations, everything is going somewhere.  At higher ones, there is no destination and no movement.  What shall you fix as the journey's end if you have gone around the world?

Chain gangs still exist in this world.  To respect the chains requires that one admits the larger goodness and worth of the roads, the homes, the fields, the children, the cycle of life.

"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed." (Terence McKenna)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

To say "just listen" is bad manners

To hear is one thing, to listen another. To hear is to understand the words, to listen is to understand the feeling behind the words.

To listen to someone is to be silent inside, and to not construct a story, or an ongoing commentary track. To first understand what is sought to be communicated, and then to understand where it comes from, and then, to respond.

It is important and part of politesse to not interrupt when someone is in the middle of a monologue. But an inward interruption - an imputation of motive, a disagreement before the monologue is finished, a revulsion born of labeling - though not rude, is as disastrous for understanding as an overt intrusion.

To listen requires passivity as well as effort. Passivity in that no imaginary narrative should form in the listener's mind. Effort in that one needs to be alert, watchful of the body, the expressions, the tonality, the vibes. To fully listen can therefore be exhausting.

To listen is obviously useful, when the other person wants to lighten their heart and talk about something that is bothering them. It is important to let the speaker continue without interruption and to let them complete. Especially if the conversation is about one's relationship with the speaker!

Sometimes, to make someone listen is to share one's pain. Just the fact that now another human being knows and understands what is going on inside oneself is a relief.

Mostly however, to make someone listen is to seek validation for one's feelings or one's point of view. It is to feel good about oneself or to rationalize an act or a plan that is irking oneself.

It is unfair, but all too common, for the speaker to ask for agreement in the middle of their monologue: "Do you agree?" or "Am I right?" Till now only to listen attentively was involved, now even agreement is being asked for. The only correct response to this is: "I am trying to understand your point of view." If the speaker persists with "But do you agree with me?, " then just as one considers some people as bad listeners, one must conclude that the speaker is a bad speaker. One can continue to emphasize agnosticism, till the speaker leaves infuriated or till they understand that agreement doesn't come cheap.

More often than not, an injunction or request to "just listen" is to take the other person's time, and feel good after having vented. It is a veiled way of saying: "You listen to me, but I don't want to listen to your comments or evaluation or judgment or suggestions about what I am talking about."

A communication is an interaction. If you are subjecting someone to "just listen" to your monologue full of problems, then you are also thereby obligated to "just listen" to their response to you. To ask the other to "just listen" and then to refuse to listen when it is one's turn is to take something of value and to give nothing in return.

When one expects the other to spend some effort to understand oneself or a problem, it behooves one to also then spend some effort at listening to their advice to fix the problem. And ideally, if the advice makes sense, to sincerely put it in effect. If you expect the other to be a good listener, then after they have listened, be a good listener yourself.

To say "just listen" is bad manners.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Three Safe Cities

In New York, people don't like to make eye contact with strangers.  There are supposedly, and perhaps not without justification, lots of "weirdos" around.  One can hear police sirens all over, and at all times of the day.  Marked police cars are never out of sight.  All this has some effect: violent crime is almost non-existent in the Big Apple.  There is plenty of graffiti and trash, though, and people regard each other with suspicion.

In Irvine CA, considered one of the safest cities in the US, criminal activity is limited to illegally being in the carpool lane.  There is no graffiti or trash anywhere in sight.  This is a posh, white-collar suburb of Orange County.  But janitors, construction workers and restaurant staff come to this city from less posh cities.  One wouldn't find anyone napping on a street or park bench though, and homeless people are quickly transported out of this town.  Despite the environment of safety, people are quite careful to not take unnecessary risks.  Conversing with someone not at one's own level of affluence is quite rare.

In Baker NV, near the Great Basin National Park, I once gave a ride to two kids in the back-seat of my car.  I was on a solitary road-trip.  I was as strange as they come in that little town, what with my with long hair and my obviously non-Caucasian looks.  The kids were not more than ten years old.  After the ride, they muttered politely, "Much obliged, Sir."  There wasn't a cop for miles and miles.  The road was mostly empty too.  But there was safety in the air, somehow.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Email, or The Medium is the Dialectic, part 2

Part 1.

Email was the predominant method of interpersonal text communication in the 1990s.  As cellphones and cellular services became more affordable, SMSes became de rigueur.  At present, non-standard branded messaging services (whatsapp, bbm, snapchat) are increasing in popularity.  Perhaps, a cynic may think, because they enable more smileys.  But also, in reality, because sending SMSes internationally costs money.

Email requires a few "steps" which the busy individual of today has little time for.  One has to remember the email address(es) of the recipient(s).  One has to figure out a "Subject" of an email, which might seem like a pain when it is just a one-line message that one wants to send.  I still remember emails from friends and family with a subject line of "General" or "Misc".  In corporate settings, when sending an email is efficient, one can type the entire message in the Subject line and conclude with "eom" (end of message, or, no need to scroll to read the message itself).

Email used to be great for responding to a long message.  The earlier text-based email clients made it easy to intersperse the earlier message with one's responses.  The original sentences and paragraphs were prefixed with the ">" symbol.  The new clients (Outlook, Gmail) unfortunately, append the original message with a vertical line which cannot be "broken", and do not make it easy to split it for contextual replies.  In these newer clients, one has to manually switch to the text mode or, which is becoming increasingly common, to color-code one's replies in a strange color (blue or red).

The recipient classification (To:, Cc: and Bcc:) was intuitive and made it clear who the primary co-respondents were.  It was also clear (by having a simple prefix in the Subject line) if the message was a new one, a reply or a forwarded one.  Important messages usually contained a capitalized "URGENT" or "IMPORTANT" in the subject line.

It was easy to write a long email, split into paragraphs.  Many modern devices and messaging platforms confuse the line-feed with a command to send the message.  In Facebook comments, for example, to introduce a new paragraph one has to press Shift-Enter rather than just Enter.  What that means is that those platforms expect one to usually send just one paragraph.

Email also made it easy to introduce hyperlinks without any hyperlink being a privileged link which produced a "thumbnail" or preview.  Most modern messaging systems (even Gmail) provide thumbnails of many documents or videos which are linked to in the email.  Whether this distracts from the message is anybody's guess.  Perhaps the platform designers understood that most messages are just forwards of a link to a song or to a video, hence showing a quick preview/thumb of it might have seemed a "convenience".

Attaching images or sounds to an email message was considered a great advance.  But now, most communication between adults is just the attachment ("Look at this video", "Listen to this song", "Here, this picture").  The message is now superfluous.  Who has time to compose a sentence anyway?  And what should the sentence contain?  The message is usually a forwarded video/image/audio, and the response is a grunt or a chuckle or a re-forwarding.  Perhaps this trend was recognized early by online social media architects.  They designed their interfaces to share, rather than communicate.  Most people have little originality.  Social media platforms cater to that (vast) demographic.

Email is also great for later referral and for research.  One can have folders and labels for particular topics or interests.  Not so for the modern platforms.  Facebook, for example, groups messages by the participants.  (There is no topic/subject anyway.  The person is the topic.)

The modern platforms are having a curious effect on email.  Mailing lists have gone out of fashion.  Hardly anybody writes long messages.  There are hardly any email discussions in which many people participate.

Why?  Apart from the obvious reason that most communication these days is for the "lulz".  We can also acknowledge the advantage of modern platforms in that it is easier to see that a whatsapp message has reached the recipient's device or that a FB msg or a bbm has been read by the recipient.

One reason is that platforms like Facebook or Google+ make it easy to reach everybody in one's social circle, without one having to choose the recipients.  Secondly, it is easier to gauge the popularity of an opinion or a response on a social medium ("likes", "re-tweets", "shares"), while on email it is less dramatic.  On social media, one's comments are part of one's online personality and it can potentially provide more of an ego-fix if others validate it.

Thirdly, it requires more mental bandwidth and focus to write an email, because it actually requires one to read the original message.  Most respondents on Facebook do not refer to the original link, they chime in with their own responses/opinions about the issue.  (As an example, an article about US Immigration might invite comments from people who have gone through the immigration process but have otherwise little interest in reading the article).

Fourthly, some social media platforms make it easy to edit one's message even after it has been sent.  One can even delete it if it is deemed unsatisfactory.  An email is more final.  Once it is sent, it is sent.  It has to be composed more carefully that it can stand the test of time.

Fifthly, I believe using email makes it somewhat incumbent on the respondent to be more structured in one's thought, to organize one's thoughts and then write.  Online social media platforms are like a photo magazine.  They contain jokes, cartoons, cute videos, baby photos, and they may also suddenly contain a serious article.  The flavor is that of superficiality.  On email, however, the preponderance of text engages the "thinking" brain more and therefore costs more "brain energy".

Lastly, email is less public.  So one can be more personal and heretical in one's thoughts.  And one might be expected to be.  If one is interacting with friends on email, one cannot hide behind the defense of it being a public place and "so let's just chit-chat".  On a social media platform, one can usually only write politically correct, or impersonal, thoughts.  Hence, it is less threatening to correspond with someone over social media.  It is like talking to someone with a hundred other people present.  Much less stressful, but also likely to be mostly meaningless.  To write an email to somebody is to say that one wants to correspond with that person and is willing to be engaged.  In this age of averting the gaze of other subway passengers, that might not be a comfortable proposition.

Email is ideal for scholarly discussion between peers, even better than verbal discussions.  One can carefully choose one's words, and build a reasoned, well-structured argument.  I believe it is also great for sharing one's own thoughts and feelings (rather than someone else's), especially those of a private nature (concerns about government surveillance notwithstanding).  And of course, it is still normative for institutions and advertisers to contact individuals through email.  Any other medium requires consent, while email is the the last bastion where unsolicited messages may arrive.

Email is less of a brand, and more of a service.  While corresponding on whatsapp or bbm might be more convenient, it also means that one's history of communication, and the feature-set of the service, among other things, is tied with the fortunes of the provider.

Email can also be "self-hosted", which might be important to people who care about individual privacy and want to steer clear of corporate possession of their data.

For most people email is just a long-winded way to send a short message, and for them the more convenient newer services might actually be better.  But the more the newer services become the default, the more this kind of communication will seem like the norm, and the less one can expect in terms of long emails even from those who would have done so earlier.

(to be continued)