Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top Ten Films of 2008

The following are my top-rated films of 2008 (in no particular order). Do note that many films which otherwise have premiered in the West are not yet available in India, and many films are here which were actually released in 2007.

Also, I do not watch all the "good" films but only a select few based on word of mouth or if recommended by the critics I respect.
  1. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico)
  2. Man on Wire (James Marsh, UK)
  3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
  4. Into the Wild (Sean Penn, USA)
  5. American Gangster (Ridley Scott, USA)
  6. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA)
  7. Happy Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK)
  8. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, USA)
  9. Revanche (Götz Spielmann, Austria)
  10. WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, USA)
The one film whose DVD release I am currently eagerly awaiting is Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Freedom and Democracy in Action

Today an amendment to the IT act has been passed in the Indian Parliament which makes it a crime to transmit (i.e. email, download) "obscene" material electronically. It also gives wide powers to the government to eavesdrop on private communication.

Another nail in the coffin?

Notable is the manner in which the bill has been passed:

(News courtesy The Times of India)

Amid din, LS passes 8 bills in 17 minutes without debate
(24 Dec 2008, 0640 hrs IST, TNN)

NEW DELHI: For the last two days, as the much-extended special session of parliament called for the Manmohan Singh government's July 22 trust vote drew to a close, a flurry of bills - four on Monday and a staggering eight in 17 minutes on Tuesday - were passed even as the Lok Sabha was frequently in disorder.

On Tuesday afternoon, when BJP MPs stormed the well rejecting the government's statement on minority affairs minister A R Antulay's demand that the shooting of ATS chief Hemant Karkare should be probed, the chair quickly took up pending legislation which had swelled to nine from the five listed at the start of the day.

With just one session of the current Lok Sabha to go in February-March, this week's proceedings marked yet another low for parliament.

The Times of India has consistently reported on the absence of debates and the decline in sittings. In its report on October 21 this year, TOI had pointed out that parliament had met only 32 days this year and the expectation that it should meet for a minimum of 100 days was not going to be met by a long margin. Looking at past years, the Lok Sabha met for as many as 151 days in 1956, and just 98 and 109 days in 1976 and 1985, respectively. In 1999, it had met for 51 days.

The procedure adopted on Tuesday was quite irregular as MPs complained that additional bills, pushed in as the supplementary list of business, were not circulated, while legislation was not discussed at all. In fact, amid the tremendous din in the House, it was barely possible to track which bill had been passed expect by keeping an eye on the minister rising in response to the chair.

Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, who had conducted proceedings since the morning, was absent when the House met at 2pm and, as was the case on Monday, deputy Speaker Charanjit Atwal simply ignored the tumult and went ahead with the legislative business. As it became apparent that the government was moving bill after bill, enraged Left MPs rushed to the chair in protest.

Left MPs N N Krishnadas and Sunil Khan gesticulated at the chair demanding that the proceedings be halted until they were hauled back by CPM deputy leader Mohammed Salim. The Left MPs then stood in a group and tore copies of the bills in their possession and flung them around in order to underline the mockery of parliamentary practice. All along, BJP MPs kept up a steady chorus of anti-Antulay slogans.

The bills rushed through the Lok Sabha on Tuesday were on the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act, Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority Amendment Bill, Compensatory Afforestation Act, Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) UT Order (Amendment), South Asian University Bill, Code of Criminal Procedure Amendment Bill and Collection of Statistics Bill.

Later, BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said a ninth bill, High Court and Supreme Court Judges Salaries and Conditions of Service Bill, could not be taken up as law minister H R Bhardwaj was not in the House. However, ministry officials said a junior minister had been deputed but the bill was not taken up by the chair. What shocked MPs was the sheer opportunistic manner in which four bills were brought onto the list of business at the last minute.

On Monday, for a full 26 minutes, as the BJP MPs were yelling their lungs out in the well, telecom minister A Raja moved the Information Technology Amendment Bill clause by painful clause. A little earlier, railway minister Lalu Prasad moved the Appropriations Bill for his ministry. Other legislation to be passed included the Gram Nyayalaya Bill and the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases in Animals Bill.

By any standard, passing 12 bills in two days is a mammoth task even if the House had decided to sit late into the night. Even the most innocuous of bills attracts a dozen-odd speakers and often a couple of hours of discussion can be expected. On Tuesday, ministers who had spent the morning in their offices in the Lok Sabha being briefed by officials had nothing more to do than move bills in the House.

Parliament has met irregularly during the current Lok Sabha, often due to political blockades and sometimes, as in the case of the just-concluded session, to avoid the possibility of a no-trust vote being moved by the opposition. And while the sittings have declined, the practice of passing bills when the House is in disorder has almost become a norm - a precedent that many MPs feel bodes ill for the health of parliament.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The "Trappings" of Civilization

Do you suppress yawns and farts in close quarters with others?

A yawn is suppressed because it is impolite to show that one is sleepy when others are not. Sleepiness is the anti-thesis of taking an active interest in the present, and to express disinterest is justifiably considered rude. To not appear rude, most people routinely do a clenched-teeth yawn rather than an open mouth one. No one who is reasonably perceptive is fooled, however. There is an increased flow of blood in the facial region during the yawn, and the eyes become redder. The muscle contractions around the jaw and the lips are unmistakable. People get the message, some may appreciate the "sensitivity" of the yawner for his trying to hide it, others may be slightly pissed that he is sleepy in their company. Such is life.

A fart (is this an instance of Onomotopoeia?) is a more complex phenomenon, to put it mildly. A fart is unfairly considered a sign of indigestion and disease (A misconception. Perfectly normal bodies routinely pass wind, even when not suffering from indigestion.), the sound of a fart is reminiscent of shitting (which is distasteful to most people), and the fart may be smelly, which, especially in close quarters, is quite distressing and distasteful for almost everybody.

I do consider that a smelly fart is a sign of constipation or of an impending visit to the toilet. I consider a healthy fart to be one which is drawn-out (duration-wise) and which doesn't smell at all.

Having been conditioned that a fart is "bad", that farting in public is bad manners, and that a smelly fart is an assault on others' senses, almost everybody tries to suppress it in the company of other people (except perhaps with one's very close family members).

The suppression is of two kinds: total suppression (where a fart is inhibited and the gas travels back into the guts), and surreptitious expulsion. A total suppression is considered unhealthy if it becomes a habit (which it is with most people). Surreptitious expulsion presents two problems: doing it silently and doing it without bending.

A silent fart (called a foosie in Punjabi, is there a word for it in English?) can be nevertheless smelly, but the criminal can feel relaxed if there are two other people in his company. Just one other person makes it impossible to lie.

But if there are at least two others, then the guessing game can start. If you are ever involved in such an incident, and if you are not the polluter, then you can play Dupin and try to suss out the guilty one in this way: The guilty one will usually try to appear overly normal just before the smell comes to the level of everybody's nostrils, and he will usually scowl and make a face as if he is not the one. The innocent will usually not be the first one who overtly reacts to the smell.

It is best not to accuse someone even if you think your detective abilities have born fruit. If you have guessed right, you risk humiliating the other person. If you guessed wrong, you risk a self-righteous chiding (What? Me, Fart? You must be out of your mind!)

Most of us do want to spare others, if we can. To their credit, people employ all kinds of tricks if they see a fart coming. They can make a hurried excuse to leave the room (e.g. look at your mobile phone and inexplicably say "excuse me" and go out) and relieve themselves. A fart's expulsion window is generally 5-10 seconds, after which one can only repent at leisure. (The second chance comes after several minutes, so if the window has passed while you were busy excusing yourself, stay out for a while.)

Another complication is to judge when to return after the deed is done. I advise at least one minute. You hurry at your own peril, as the noxious gases may still be swirling around you. I remember a curious incident during my college days. A few of us were generally chatting in one of our tiny hostel rooms. Suddenly, X went out into the hallway and started knocking at the door of another room, and called out for someone (mobiles were not available then!). When he returned (after less than a minute, for sure), unfortunately we could all smell the reason why he had gone out. He was red-faced at being caught after trying to be so resourceful.

If you are confident that the fart is not going to be smelly, and if you are lazy, you can try expelling it silently without going out. This is extremely tricky. Not only will your neck muscles become noticeably tense, you will be holding your breath and will not be able to speak. If you are sitting and if your ass cheeks are pendulous, you will have to (somehow) make room for the expulsion. An easy way to do it is to drop something on the ground and then bend over. If you are standing, it is more difficult. You must finely control the propulsion energy. Too little, and you will have to do it again. Too much, and you risk a whimper or, God forbid, a sudden blast.

Not farting in public is a sign of courtesy, but if the only alternative is to hold it in, I think one should just say "Excuse me", step back (or out) and let it out.

As for belching, I once read a "Dating tip for Guys" that went something like this: After having a dinner with your date, excuse yourself for (ostensibly) making a phone call or to wash your hands. This gives her a chance to belch in your absence, which she will not do out of embarrassment if you are present.


In Punjabi we have a folk saying:

Nichh, Padd tey Dakaar
Tinney Deh daa Shingaar

(Belching, Farting and a Sneeze
All three adorn the body, please!)

(Image courtesy AmericanScientist.org)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Disagreement and Emotions

Let us first examine an unemotional disagreement, and a possible way to resolve it: X disagrees with something that I say. We both present our cases, come to stage where the facts are cleared up, and the opinions identified as such. If the opinions conflict, and the matter under dispute does not require a further course of action (e.g. a disagreement about the tastefulness of a past meal), one can agree to disagree. After all, they are just opinions. Disagreement about facts should be cleared up, as far as possible (depending on the importance of the debate).

If there is a further course of action to be undertaken (e.g. if the disagreement is about a vacation plan), the action can be planned with some of those opinions being disregarded, and others adjusted to some extent, with mutual agreement. If there is no agreement about which (or whose) opinions are to be given lesser validity, usually the person who has more of a stake in the decision, has more of time, energy, money to contribute, and who takes responsibility for its consequences, decides. The decision can also be made easier by considering, electing or nominating a person as authoritative, or in the worst case, by the random toss of a coin.


Let us now examine an emotional disagreement. A disagreement is emotional where emotions of the parties involved are contrasting. I am not going to talk about a situation where I intentionally provoke someone into a highly charged state and then revel in the conflict. That is not disagreement, but sadism.

X is feeling bad for some reason, whereas I am feeling fine. If that reason has nothing to do with my behavior or any act of mine, I (like most people) find it easy to talk to X without feeling bad myself. I can rationally explain the situation, list out various alternatives with their pros and cons, and in general care for him without upsetting myself. I can then leave X to come out of his bad mood. Or if I am a "normal" person, i can empathize with him without getting into too much of a sorry state myself.

The last case, when X is emotionally hurt because of an act of mine, is the interesting one.

Let's say that I do (or say) something, which is not intentionally harmful to X, but harms him nevertheless (physically, financially, emotionally, etc.). An example of inadvertent physical harm is dropping a glass of water on his clothes. An example of inadvertent financial harm is if I hit someone's parked car when reversing my car. X can get emotionally upset about such unemotional acts.

An example of inadvertent emotional harm is me reading a book when he wants to go somewhere together, and him thereby feeling lonely or undervalued.

Inadvertent physical or financial harm (even though involving bad feelings) is easily resolved, if X realizes that the harm was inadvertent and if I agree to compensate him. It is the inadvertent emotional harm which is the hardest to resolve.

Let's say I am related to X. I.e. X knows me, values my association, cares about me, etc. (and vice-versa). This close association is usually required for one's feelings to be hurt.

In this case, the following sequence is the typical start of a fight amongst adults.

X: Why did you do that? I am hurt.
I: I didn't mean to hurt you.
X: But you did hurt me. Aren't you sorry?
I: What for?
X: You don't care about my feelings. (A close association between human beings implicitly assumes that people care about each others' feelings.)

Now what happens? What do YOU do in the above situation?


In such cases, X quickly assumes that I intended the emotional harm. X feeling bad rapidly results in me feeling bad because:

1. I feel controlled and unable to protect my autonomy.
2. I feel castigated for my intentions when I did not have those intentions.
3. I feel emotionally distanced and disapproved of.
4. I feel powerless to control the present situation.

To get back to feeling good, the easiest way is for me to convince X that he should not feel bad about me. I can employ various compensatory tricks to do it, e.g. apologize, give X a gift, try to humor him, try to deflect his mind, etc.

The core insight is to realize that I am now working to resolve the situation not because X is feeling bad, but because I am feeling bad and I want to get back to feeling good. However, since my emotional state is demonstrably dependent upon X's, therefore I don't feel comfortable till he is again feeling good. So, instead of working on myself, I start working on him.

The hardest is for me to accept responsibility for my feeling bad and to

1. Stop feeling controlled.
2. Stop feeling castigated.
3. Stop feeling distanced.
4. Stop needing X's approval (and of others in general).
5. Stop feeling responsible for X's feelings.

And in the final analysis,

6. Stop fearing X's disassociation from me.

The above are really not possible without me giving up "me". "I" am my approval, "I" am my emotions, "I" am my relationships and emotional responsibilities, "I" am my fears.

The above changes in oneself (or rather, the above intentions of self-immolation) require so much hard work, self-investigation and rebellion against the established norms of humanity that frequently people choose death over them. They require, as someone rightly said, nerves of steel.

When I give up on the above Herculean tasks, and start getting X's emotions back in shape, the game is back in familiar territory. X knows that his bad feelings have gotten to me.

If I just request or ask X to stop feeling bad, and I do not indulge in the game of humoring his feelings, X will almost never agree to that. X can start feeling worse and worse till I finally give in, or till X breaks down. X correctly perceives the above admonition to not feel bad as a form of control ("Yeah, so you can rest easy?"), just as I correctly perceive X's feeling bad as a form of control ("Why are you giving me hell?").

Once the controlling game begins, and the power play is in full swing, the fight becomes uglier and uglier, till one of us can take it no more. Some of us also indulge in tactics like sullen retreat, "die another day", resignation to one's "fate", etc. All these are easier than working on oneself.


Emotional blackmail need not exist only in extreme cases. Emotional manipulation is something that a human being (right from childhood) indulges in everyday.

I haven't read this book, but can say with confidence that Fear, Obligation and Guilt are not tactics that only bad people use against good people. We all use them. These are greater factors in our daily living than any of us will ever care to admit.

Certain famous spiritual teachers on nonspiritual.net

From the Frequently_Asked_Questions:
The word nonspiritual refers to the stance of this website, and is not an epithet for the teachers and groups criticized here. Many of these teachers and groups are thoroughly and genuinely spiritual. The intent behind this website is to promulgate a non-spiritual outlook to life and the universe, and to criticize the various spiritual teachers, teachings and groups on mainly two issues:
  • The failure to live up to their own ideals.
  • The unscientific and contradictory nature of their claims.
The list:
Soon coming:
  • Swami Vivekananda
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Dalai Lama

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Microcosmos by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou

Filmed in a world where a raindrop is an event, and a blade of grass a long road, Microcosmos is a ravishing glimpse of tiny life forms as they are born, as they work, as they mate, as they travel, and as they die.

I remember many, many sequences from this film, but three of them can be called grand:

1. The myth of Sisyphus as unconsciously played out by a beetle.

2. The operatic embrace of two snails. One almost feels as if one is invading their privacy.

3. The birth of a bee.

One wonders at nature, in which such wonders exist. And one wonders at human beings, who make such films possible.

And one realizes that the dichotomy is false. Humanity is part of this universe, part of nature, not a contrast from it. Its brain, its films, its computers, its amazing inventions are as natural a phenomenon as the hexagonal cell of a honey bee.

Harm and Malice

The practice of Actualism is to minimize, and finally remove, malice and sorrow in oneself, so that one may live happily and harmlessly. There is usually little argument on the happiness aspect, but there can be a lot of confusion about being harmless. I will try in this essay to express my understanding of what it means to be harmless and how one can avoid getting hopelessly mired in achieving an impossible ideal.

Harm is a very vague term which carries a negative judgment with it. To clarify its meaning, let us see how it is used in English.

According to the dictionary, harm is "the act of damaging something or someone" or "the occurrence of a change for the worse".

The first definition contains the word "damaging". The natural question is, damaging to whom, and ascertained by who? Anything one does (even breathing) affects the world. The affected objects can be broadly categorized as (a) inanimate matter, and (b) living things. Inanimate matter gets rearranged (e.g. petrol turns into fumes), and livings things may be injured, or die. In the case of living things, an objective definition of damage is a reduction in their lifespan. In the case of inanimate matter, "damaging" can only mean a reduction in its value to a set of living beings, usually humans.

The second definition, "the occurrence of a change for the worse" is a comparative judgment which compares two states of affairs and decides, according to a set of criteria, that the later state falls lower according to those criteria.

In the light of the above elucidation, let us try and make sense of certain common uses of the word "harm".

- We harm the earth by using up oil and wood too quickly.
(i.e. the kinds of material transformations involved in burning oil and cutting trees are not healthy for many species, especially humans.)

- You harm a cow when you eat beef.
(i.e. a cow's lifespan is cut short when it is killed for food.)

- America's foreign policy is harmful.
(i.e. the foreign policy decisions of USA lead to, or will lead to, an increaesd risk of armed conflict which will cut short the lifespans of many human beings)

- TV is harmful for children.
(i.e. watching television leads to a decrease in the health (physical or mental) of children)

- "First do no harm." (as told to doctors)
(i.e. do not lessen the survival prospects of a human being under your care)

- "Don't harm my car."
(i.e. do not lessen my car's mechanical and aesthetic utility)

- "Don't harm others."
(i.e. do not lessen others' well-being (which may be emotional, physical, financial, etc. as per the context))

Now, I will present my understanding:

1. As a human being, psychological suffering (Malice and Sorrow) is what I seek to end in myself.
1.1 Malice drives me to intend harm to others, and to thence harm them through overt acts.
1.2 Sorrow drives me to unpleasant mental states. In order to get out of those unpleasant states, I depend on material distractions and use other human beings.

2. It is impossible to survive as a human being completely harmlessly (as to the effects of one's actions)
2.1 Some living things will be harmed no matter what one does.
2.2 Some forms of matter will be transformed into inferior forms of matter, as per human standards of usage (regarding their energy content, their calorific value, their use to other humans, their aesthetic form, etc.)
2.3 The unachievable nature of this goal (total harmlessness) means to chase it is to invite frustration.

3. The minimizing of malice and sorrow is possible, and worthwhile.
3.1 It is possible by various techniques, e.g. awareness, introspection, understanding, etc.
3.11 It is not my intent here to debate whether a particular method is effective or not.
3.2 It is worthwhile because to live with malice and sorrow is unnecessarily harmful to oneself and to other life forms, especially one's fellow human beings.
3.21 And why, one might ask, is one primarily concerned about one's fellow human beings, and not, say about other mammals or vertebrates or plants? There are at least three reasons for that:
3.211 Humans are the most advanced, complex, and able life forms on earth. As such, they are more valuable than any other life form.
3.212 The minimization of malice towards one's fellow human beings also leads to the minimization of malice towards other forms of life (since malice and sorrow are states of mind which when active, affect all of one's acts). Hence, one does not act out of malice towards (say) a dog, a cow on the road, a bird, a snake, etc.
3.213 In the absence of sorrow, one's needs become simple and one does not use other life forms out of psychological reasons. (e.g. hunting or fishing for pleasure, cutting trees for unneeded furniture, traveling to ward off boredom, watching animals fight, buying a big car, eating more than one needs to, etc.).

4. I consider that my focus must be on the minimization of malice and sorrow, and not on being harmless.
4.1 Ascertaining harmlessness of an act requires, so to say, fieldwork. The absence of malice is a standard that I can set for myself, even in the absence of an encyclopedic knowledge of the world .
4.2 A lessening of harm which results from a vow (e.g. vegetarianism, talking feebly, etc.), and not due to a lowering of malice and sorrow, does not lead to happiness (since sorrow, loneliness, boredom, etc. still exist), though it may lead to increased well-being for others.
4.21 Frequently, such lifestyle changes make one self-righteous and introduce hatred (or a condescending attitude) for other human beings who do not follow the same lifestyle.
4.22 Such lifestyle changes are usually undertaken for exalting oneself.
4.3 A lessening of harm which results from a lifestyle change due to new information (fieldwork) is sensible and worthwhile.
4.31 There are many behavior patterns which are inadvertently harmful, and for which less harmful alternatives exist. For example, one may discover that defecation in the open is harmful and can cause disease, and that digging and using a hole for that purpose is healthier. As another example, one may discover that a predilection for rice depletes groundwater in one's region, and that it may lead to famine one day.
4.32 In such cases, a lifestyle change is an indication of openness. This openness is helped by an absence of sorrow, since sorrow and it cousin, boredom, lead to apathy and resistance to change.

5. The illusion of being a psychological "I" is sustained not by one's impact on the world, nor by the extent of harm one causes, but by the operation of one's instinctual passions which give rise to malice and sorrow.
5.1 The breaking of this illusion is the gateway to aware, intelligent living, which in the long term, is the only road to peace and a balanced, sustainable co-existence with other life forms.
5.2 This does not mean that one is free to harm others. Far from it. It means that one works at the foundations (one's instinctual passions) instead of merely addressing the symptoms. As one grows in intelligence and awareness, and as the illusion of "I" becomes weaker, one cannot but help being benign.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Revanche (Revenge) by Götz Spielmann

A masterfully told tale, with most shots so exquisitely composed that they are worth pausing at for minutes on end. Along with Silent Light, this is the best camera work I have seen in a while.

This is Austria's entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

From the review by Erik McClanahan:
Revanche is a complex film that asks us to change sympathies with several characters and question who is doing the right thing. There are no easy answers, but the questions are fascinating, realistic and engrossing.
From the capsule review by Mike D'Angelo:
In execution, however, it's a thing of sheer beauty, the kind of film in which the details of each individual scene -- composition, rhythm, performances, stray bits of business -- are all so perfectly judged that their cumulative force kind of sneaks up on you.

From the review by Robert Bell:
As far as depressing hyperrealist Austrian films go, Revanche is neither as nihilistic nor misanthropic as the works of Ulrich Seidl, nor as analytical and directly confrontational as something from the Haneke oeuvre. It demonstrates a pre-occupation with the darker side of humanity in its creation of a world filled with prostitution, brothels, drug usage and rampant violence but living within that world are well intentioned and compassionate—if completely damaged and ruined—people who seem to care about each other regardless of an inability to connect.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Technology, Change, Stress

Why are humans so highly stressed in modern occupations? After all, technology claims to make things easier. But the stress seems to be increasing everyday. Especially in the knowledge industries, the workplace is safer today than ever before, working conditions are usually comfortable, the jobs not physically demanding, ... So, why so much stress?

People who joined work in the Seventies or early Eighties blame the increasing ambitiousness of youngsters, their hedonistic lifestyles, their "me" attitude, and so on. They consider stress to be just another complaint of a whining generation. According to them, they also worked hard in their age, sometimes getting up before daybreak, they had 6-day work weeks, were paid a pittance as compared to the "spoiled brats" of today, and still today's youngsters have the temerity to complain about life? They wonder, not without a tinge of loathing.

I will point out various aspects of work in the modern world which are very different from the past, and which contribute to stress and burn-out. These aspects have nothing to do with ambition, hedonism, or attitude, but are natural consequences of technology.

I will not touch upon the global outsourcing phenomenon which puts stress on the body clock, due to the difference in time zones.

Firstly, due to industrialization, machines have taken over physical work in almost all spheres. More and more people are today therefore engaged in what can be called the "knowledge industries". In these industries, thinking about a problem and following a process are the main tasks of a worker. And moreover, the processes to be followed do not involve hard labor. They usually entail understanding a problem, gathering the data and the requirements, responding verbally, electronically, and by asking someone else to do a task. Examples are the software industry, the call centers, the publishing industry, banking, travel agencies, health care, etc.

This kind of work requires the exercise of one's brain to the almost total exclusion of other body parts. One might as well be plugged into wires on a bed, as in the film Matrix, and still be able to do one's job well. This obviously leads to a decline in health, and the increasing instances of obesity, diabetes, lowered immunity, backaches, etc. need no exaggeration. Some organizations claim they are more health-conscious (with ergonomic chairs, one or two exercise rooms, etc.), but these measures fail to address the problem, since they are compensatory in nature.

The effects (endorphin release, increased basal metabolism rate) that follow from a regular exercise (I don't mean a planned gym session, I mean exercise as in: exercising of a faculty) of one's body as a whole is an important contributor to human well-being. Working in a knowledge industry is therefore physically insalubrious, and has a depleting effect on one's health. Due to a lowered immunity, the body's (and mind's) stress tolerance goes down. Not only is modern man more stressed (as I illustrate below), modern occupations lower his stress thresholds.

Secondly, due to the work being primarily mental, workplaces have become dense. Not much equipment is required except a general purpose computer on one's desk, which can also work as a telephone. This density has led to the cubicle phenomenon where one is confined in a small space for most of one's day. This also means that thousands of people can work in a single building.

Since workplaces have become dense, the workers are more numerous, and their houses cannot all be near to the workplace. This has exacerbated the phenomenon which started with industrialization, namely, the increasing distance between one's home and one's place of work. As a factory worker, one could still hope for a stable place of residence for many years. The lifetime of a factory was much more than that of a knowledge-industry office or even a knowledge-industry corporation. As the workforce expands in a modern office, the office is quickly shifted to outside the city (where land is cheaper). Corporations quickly get acquired, go bust, etc. And yes, voluntary attrition (which I don't cover in this article), which follows from stress and ambition, plays its part as well.

This leads to two stresses: Commuting (and the associated costs and stresses of maintaining one's vehicle, of paying traffic fines, of experiencing road-rage and danger on the road), and Deciding where to purchase a home for the long term. Because of increased density at the workplace, urban areas have become crowded, and buying a home at a reasonable distance from an industrial center is out of the reach of most people, unless they agree to wage-slavery for the next twenty odd years.

Thirdly, technology feeds its own progress. Because of the increasing pace of technological change, there is this stress to continually upgrade one's skills. Education (in the sense of learning a new skill) becomes a lifelong activity, if one is to survive in one's career stream. This is stressful. After a certain age, the ability of humans to learn a new skill becomes hard due to neurological reasons (the learning capacity of the brain is most active during childhood, and decreases significantly as one ages).

If, instead of upgrading one's skills, one becomes a manager of knowledge-workers, the daily, unpredictable stresses of managing stressed subordinates are not any less. Any modern manager will vouch for this.

The fourth aspect, and one which will become increasingly important, is the stress of being creative all the time. The Industrial-era machines took over repetitive physical labor, the Information-era machines (computers) are taking over repetitive mental labor. The knowledge-industry is not just using computers as communication tools, but also as replacements for humans in tasks which can be specified formally, or algorithmically. Consider ATMs, Voice response systems, shopping comparison sites, theorem-proving systems, automatic movie-recommendation systems, diagnostic systems, teaching automation, etc.

The assembly-line work (e.g. in the automobile industry) that used to be decried as dehumanizing was monotonous to a very high degree. The knowledge-industry work is evolving towards a stage where the only work available to a human will be exclusively non-monotonous. One will have to be a "self-starter", "motivated", "willing to work in ambiguity", "work without supervision", etc. All the phrases that one finds in job postings as of today. Working without structure is not easy, far from it in fact. It is challenging, and fulfilling, sure, but not all human beings want their workplace to "challenge" them continuously. I think a lot of us also seek some level of predictability, certainty and confidence (that tomorrow will not be very different from today) at our workplace.

In highly automated times, what is left for a human being to do? Either service and maintain the computers (which means, instruct them and debug them, both of which are highly creative tasks), which is the IT industry. Or figure out and do something for which no clear algorithm exists (i.e. do something creative, again). This second form of creative work can be seen in scientific R&D, the teaching professions, the advertising industry, sales, marketing, art production (films, music, etc.).

Not all humans can be so highly creative. What is their future? Obsolescence? Early aging due to stress? Extinction?

(Some points in this article are the outcome of thoughts shared with Harkishan Singh Mehta)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Logic and Reality

It has become fashionable to assert that "Logic doesn't govern the real world" or "Humans behave illogically at times" or "Logic is not the be-all and end-all of everything."

Even treatises on logical fallacies make this claim. E.g., an article on Logic and Fallacies begins as follows:
It's worth mentioning a couple of things which logic is not.

First, logical reasoning is not an absolute law which governs the universe. Many times in the past, people have concluded that because something is logically impossible (given the science of the day), it must be impossible, period. It was also believed at one time that Euclidean geometry was a universal law; it is, after all, logically consistent. Again, we now know that the rules of Euclidean geometry are not universal.

Second, logic is not a set of rules which govern human behavior. Humans may have logically conflicting goals. For example:

* John wishes to speak to whomever is in charge.
* The person in charge is Steve.
* Therefore John wishes to speak to Steve.

Unfortunately, John may have a conflicting goal of avoiding Steve, meaning that the reasoned answer may be inapplicable to real life.

This document only explains how to use logic; you must decide whether logic is the right tool for the job. There are other ways to communicate, discuss and debate.
If the above sounds reasonable, then read on.

The error the author of the article commits in limiting the domain of logic is so simple and egregious that it escapes most people.

Logic is not a theory which is applicable in some cases and is inapplicable in others. It is the very structure of thought and language. Wittgenstein's first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was seminal in clarifying the role of logic. Tractatus has many flaws, but its elucidation of the difference between logical propositions (which are self-evident or self-contradictory) and truth-value propositions (which are true or false depending upon the state of affairs in the world) was a milestone in the history of western thought.

In his words:
3.03 We cannot think anything unlogical, for otherwise we should have to think unlogically.

3.031 It used to be said that God could create everything, except what was contrary to the laws of logic. The truth is, we could not say of an "unlogical" world how it would look.

3.032 To present in language anything which "contradicts logic" is as impossible as in geometry to present by its co-ordinates a figure which contradicts the laws of space; or to give the co-ordinates of a point which does not exist.
With this understanding, it is easy to see where the author of the original article is going wrong.

His first example is wrong because he confuses the invalidity of a scientific theory with a fault of logic. There is just no such thing as a "logically impossible" state of affairs. There are only logical contradictions, which are false by their very structure, without recourse to state of affairs in the world.

Euclidean Geometry is a set of axioms which, when talked about (i.e. when logically played around with), lead to certain propositions (usually called theorems). Whether those propositions are true or not is not the responsibility of their logical form, that is the domain of experience. A triangle in two dimensional space whose three inner angles do not add up to 180 degrees is a logical impossibility, and this can be proven just by symbolic manipulation of the basic axioms of Euclid.

Whether Euclid's axioms are a "universal law" or not is not the domain of logic, that is the domain of physical sciences. Hence, it is inaccurate to say that "logical reasoning is not an absolute law that governs the universe." What can be said is that "at any time, propositions which follow from the axioms of a theory in geometry or in the physical sciences may not correspond to state of affairs in the world, and therefore may be false."

Simply stated, the proposition "the universe is Euclidian" or "the universe is Einsteinian" is not the same, not by a long shot, as saying "the universe is logical".


The second example is even simpler to address. It is a simple fallacy of introducing an additional factoid or premise, and then discrediting a conclusion based solely on the set of premises which exclude it.

The full set of premises in the second example is as follows:

* John wishes to speak to whomever is in charge.
* The person in charge is Steve.
* John wishes to not speak to Steve.

Conclusion: John has two wishes which cannot be fulfilled at the same time.

The conclusion is entirely logical (what else can it be?). The author introduces the fact of John's dislike of Steve later and then somehow comes to the astonishing conclusion that "the reasoned answer may be inapplicable to real life." That a human being has a conflict of interests is not somehow a limitation of logic. It is similar to saying that a car does not "behave logically" because its wheel is stuck in mud while its engine is trying to thrust it forward.


In modern logic, a proposition can be false in three ways:
  • The proposition is atomic (e.g. "India's PM is xyz") and does not correspond to the state of affairs.
  • The proposition is complex (e.g. "India's PM is xyz AND He is unmarried") and its truth value (as computed from logical signs and the truth values of its atomic propositions) is false.
  • The proposition is contradictory (e.g. "x AND NOT x")
You may think that you can formulate an argument in which you can prove a false proposition from true premises. Try it! I guarantee that you will fail.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Zen, Intentionality, Presumption

First, a Zen koan that I came across long ago (in my own words now, as I can't find it on the internet):
A man is rowing his boat on the river. An empty boat is floating nearby. The empty boat, driven by a rash current, suddenly hits his boat. The boatman changes the direction of his boat, and quietly moves on.

A man is rowing his boat on the river. Another boat, being rowed by a woman, is nearby. The second bat, driven by a rash gesture from the woman, suddenly hits his boat. The boatman becomes full of rage and in anger, shouts and screams at the woman.

This seems profound at a first reading. After all, if all acts which disturb one can be considered "acts of God" or "acts of Nature", then this stance can lead to peace in humanity. (As an aside, do check out the definition of "Act of God" in the New Devil's Dictionary.)

So, what is wrong with the koan? Modern psychology has a well-researched notion of Intentionality. Early in its life, a child develops the capability of understanding that others have intentions, and then of discerning what they are. In the light of our understanding of intentionality, we can clearly see that the boatman is angered not about the boats brushing each other, but at what he presumes is a malicious intention (or carelessness) of the intentional agent that he sees in the other boat.

I am not justifying the anger or the response of the boatman. Obviously, his reaction is silly and he could have addressed the situation better by talking calmly to the woman and asking her to be more careful or to row at a little distance from any boat.

What is curious is that while savagery determines a brutal response to any harm which comes to us via an intentional agent, spirituality (e.g. Zen) advocates a solipsistic response (or a non-response) where other minds don't exist, where it is all one consciousness (that is, ours). Some spiritual teachers (e.g. Jesus Christ or Mohandas Gandhi) even advocate turning the other cheek etc., in the belief that suffering for others will shame them (it may) or make the world better (it doesn't).

The reason why most people are savage or bitter in their reactions to non-optimal actions of intentional agents is, however, slightly complex. Our knowledge of other minds is sketchy at best. It is usually presumptuous. When we encounter a harmful incident, our intentionality-computation circuits start working. Many times, they give us wrong ideas about what the other person really wanted. If we are "good", we may conclude that the other person was callous or not heedful enough. If we are "cynical", we assume malice in the other and our natural aggression is provoked. In either case, we want to teach the other a lesson. The more malice we presume (or, as we would like to think, we "perceive") in the other, the more forcefully we want to reprimand or punish.

I am currently reading a reasonably interesting book titled "Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high". In Chapter 6, "Master my stories", the authors say:
As it turns out, there is an intermediate step between what others do and how we feel. That's why, when faced with the same circumstances, ten people may have ten different emotional responses...

What is this intermediate step? Just after we observe what others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. That is, we add meaning to the action we observed. To the simple behavior we add motive. "Why were they doing that?" We also add judgment - "Is that good or bad?" And then, based on these thoughts or stories, our body responds with an emotion.

The authors provide a methodical way for unraveling our story-driven responses:
Notice your behavior. (Am I in some form of silence or violence?)

Get in touch with your feelings. (What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?)

Analyze your stories. (What story is creating these emotions?)

Get back to the facts. (What evidence do I have to support this story?)

This is similar to the actualism method for becoming free from one's conditioning. But while the authors of the book are interested in making us act out more effective and less stressful responses and to feel the right emotions (instead of the wrong ones), the actualism method aims at the total annihilation of the affective faculty.

(Image courtesy www.elenaringo.com)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On Inner Conflict

Conflict is an opposition between two or more entities.

Inner Conflict is the state of conflict in the mind. The entities here are thoughts, beliefs, feelings and emotions.

Recently, some of us were examining a particular incident of inner conflict. A friend recounted a lavish wedding party that he had just been to, and where he felt conflicting emotions of guilt, novelty, awe, embarrassment, etc. He, being aware of the ecological challenges facing the earth, and the stark economic disparities in the world, could not bring himself to fully enjoy the spectacle and the feast.

As we dissected the emotions involved, I was able to enunciate something which I thought would be worth publishing on my blog. It is a simple statement.

In essence: Facts do not create a conflict. Feelings about facts do.

To further expand: Facts do not contradict each other. Opinions about facts do, beliefs about facts do, feelings which are evoked by the cognition of those facts do.

Let's say a person knowledgeable about ecology and economy visits a lavish party in a five star hotel in a poor country. The facts are:
  • The professionalism on display, the great spectacle and the sensory enjoyments available.
  • The high ecological and economic costs of the affair.
Cognition of the first produces good feelings, because of the sensory enjoyment (unless of course one doesn't like that kind of thing) and appreciation of the skill of the chefs, the artists etc. Cogitation about the second produces bad feelings, due to various reasons.

The feelings are in opposition. The facts can exist together without any problem, the contrast of feelings, on the other hand, produces confusion and conflict.

Another example:

I want to fire a subordinate in my team due to poor performance. The facts are:
  • He will lose his job and probably have some hardship.
  • My team will gain in average productivity and I will be able to hire a new person.
The first fact produces bad feelings in me (due to empathy) and the second fact produces good feelings in me (due to my commitment to the success of my team). This conflict of feelings makes me uncomfortable when I am to communicate the decision to him.

Once an inner conflict starts happening, one usually follows one of the following paths:
  • Ignore one of the feelings (usually the bad ones). Push them aside, suppress them, etc.
  • Don't attend to the feelings at all and do what is to be done (usually the socially or professionally expected behavior). I.e. pretend to enjoy the party and stoically fire the employee.
  • Engage in denial of the fact producing the bad feeling. E.g. in the second case, the thinking might go like this: "What hardship? He will find a job soon enough, and anyway we are giving him a month's pay as severance."
I will not comment upon what a rational person is to do in tricky situations. E.g. in the party, whether the ecologically aware man should (at the risk of not being invited to further parties) point out the waste etc. to the host. Or whether the firing manager should try to improve the productivity of the employee in question.

One thing is clear however: reason and rationality are crippled by good as well as bad feelings. And an inner conflict is even more of a handicap than a simple feeling-state. Once out of their grip, an action can be thought about which will make the situation better.

Most of us, however, spend so much effort towards feeling better about a situation that actual efforts to change the state of affairs are conspicuous by their absence. What is required is to inquire into why certain feelings are associated with certain facts. This investigation will uncover our hidden agendas, our instinctual behavior patterns, our conditioning, beliefs and fervent wishes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Freedom of Expression in India, Theory and Practice

I am currently researching Freedom of Expression in India. I hope to ultimately cover:
  • The legal framework
  • The incidents in which this freedom was challenged and restricted
I do not, at this time, plan to cover the sociocultural reasons for the restriction of this freedom in India. Frequently, people or parties take matters into their own hands and illegally throttle an author or a work of art.

The article is currently published (and will be updated in-situ) at Google Docs.

I plan to evolve this article over a few months. Till now I have gathered some information on film censorship, books, and censorship of the internet. I am yet to begin on press censorship and on the censorship of theater, painting and sculpture.

If you know of any resources, have any information about a censored work, please let me know via email or via a comment on this blog. Thanks in advance!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Two Criminals

Exhibit A: Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian, a known associate of al-Qaeda, and the ringleader of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks. Atta was at the controls of American Airlines Flight 11 which was the first plane to strike the World Trade Center.

Exhibit B: Philippe Petit, a French high-wire artist, who gained fame for his illegal walk between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974.

He is featured in the eloquent and moving documentary, Man on Wire. See it!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

John le Carré

John le Carré is the pseudonym of the British spy novelist David Cornwell. Detective and spy fiction has always fascinated me. By identifying with the detective, one can revel in the pleasure of unraveling a mystery through the exercise of one's rational faculties, and the sense of intellectual superiority provided by this identification can be quite heady.

The detective is generally presented as a man (or woman) of extraordinary mental and logical faculties. There is usually a contrast between the detective's coolness versus the floundering and ineptitude of his man Friday and the police. The detective is normally very interested in science and philosophy as well.

The earliest detective stories that I have enjoyed were by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's detective stories revolve around the Frenchman C Auguste Dupin. The Dupin stories are remarkable for their economy of fieldwork (when he rarely ventures out, his observations and actions are almost surgical, marvelously short and precise). Especially in the story The Purloined Letter, he solves the entire mystery by his reflection on the mental depth of his adversary. His physical interventions are quite perfunctory.

If Edgar Allan Poe can be considered the originator of detective fiction, John le Carré is without a doubt one of the modern masters of the spy story. His novels are quite cerebral and are not mere entertainers. His protagonists are world-weary, know too well their own flaws and of those around them, have a sense of tragic resignation and are not ambitious or proud. While in college, I thoroughly enjoyed his Karla Trilogy featuring the British spymaster George Smiley.

His book The Spy Who Came in From the Cold prompted Graham Greene to praise it as the best spy story he had ever read. It is a short read, and haunted me for days when I first read it.

In Le Carré's early novels, one could still identify with the central character, because despite his flaws, he was presented as a man who no longer believed in things but still retained a modicum of human dignity.

I was, therefore, quite surprised when I recently watched a film based on his novel "The Tailor of Panama". As a film, it is mediocre. But it is remarkable for at least one thing.

Audience identification is a well-known phenomenon in literature and film. The audience invests its sympathies in a certain character (usually the male hero). No matter if the hero loses in the end. That is the stuff tragedy is made of and it provides a sweet sorrow where we become thoughtful and cry at the injustice in the world.

However, in this film, we are the unwitting participants in a strange narrative where at the end, it is revealed that the protagonist is not at all deserving of our sympathies. Throughout the film we are quite happily enjoying his craftiness and charm (especially since the character is played by Pierce Brosnan). We regard him as a variation on James Bond, as flawed but interesting. In the final minutes of the film, the full extent of his perversity becomes clear.

The audience is left reeling at the sudden shift.

(A similar ploy is used, almost as a gimmick, in Pulp Fiction, the famous film by Tarantino, where a famous actor, playing an important role, is killed half-way through the film without much ado or explanation.)

Many people claim that the film (The Tailor of Panama) is more of a farce, whereas the book is tragic. I leave you to make your comparisons.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Knee-Jerk Response

The Knee Jerk Response:
... From the tendency of the knee to jerk involuntarily when hit sharply, properly called the patellar reflex. That was recorded by Sir Michael Foster in his Text-book of physiology, 1877:

"Striking the tendon below the patella gives rise to a sudden extension of the leg, known as the knee-jerk." ...
I received a text message the other day:
An Olympic shooter wins Gold (only a game) & Govt gives him 3Cr + awards. Another shooter dies, fighting with terrorists (saving our country and our lives) & Govt pays his family 5 Lacs. Truly Great India?? (Plz forward to all Indians, that it somehow reaches the President, P'M (sic), C'Ms (sic), IAS, IPS and all (sic).
It is easy to rationally respond to this. The award to Abhinav Bindra was for his singular achievement of having won an individual Olympic gold medal. He was driven by his inner motivation and perseverance. It was not a contractual obligation for him to train hard and win. That he did had the expected effect of making Indians proud, and he was showered with praise and awards for this national moment of pride.

On the other hand, the commandos and soldiers who die in the line of duty have chosen a profession which is risky, which carries the danger of being killed or maimed. For most of their lives, they live in preparation. Once in a while, they have to engage and intervene in extremely violent situations. The risk is not something they take on out of choice. They have no option but to do it. Desertion of a soldier during battle is a crime punishable by death in almost all countries, to this day. What needs to be discussed is whether their wages and the social security provided to their families in case of their injury or death is reasonable for country like India.


The second instance (amongst many) of knee-jerk reactions to the recent tragedy in Bombay is the following blog entry: Most Loathsome People in India: 2008.

I would have ignored it as another ignorant rant on the blogosphere, but the blog post is sympathetically covered in one of the most popular blogs from India, the award-winning Atanu Dey on India's Development.

The content of the above blog entry is congruent with its title-word "loathsome". The words seethe with malice and hatred. Disagreement is one thing, asking people to (even euphemistically) "insert burning charcoals down Barkha Dutt's throat" is another. It is symptomatic of a violent intolerance, the very reason why incidents like the Bombay riots happen in the first place. Terrorists carry out the bombings in real life, whereas these bloggers "sentence" journalists to death or to "solitary confinement" or to have "loose all the stray dogs in Bangalore inside his house."


The third instance is an online petition. It is almost natural in calamitous times to put restrictions on media freedom. I am no fan of Indian media, and I disagree with their methods and their sensationalism to the extent that I do not have a television connection at home. But to ask for a law overseeing news coverage in a free country is again symptomatic of pre-modern viewpoints which don't value freedom but value control. Safety in the long run cannot exist without freedom of expression. The live coverage of a police operation is obviously counterproductive to its success (if it is available to the criminals), and media needs to be kept away from the scene of a violent operation, just as it is wise for police to use scrambled radio communication to restrict eavesdropping.

But to ask for a law prohibiting media to cover an event to which they have rightful access, and to restrict them from the coverage of what somebody considers "inflammatory propaganda" is asking for state censorship. If Indian media is muzzled as suggested by the petition, BBC or CNN can always relay the footage. The only option in that case is to restrict foreign TV channels as well.

During the Blue Star operation in 1984, TV and radio were cut off in the state of Punjab, but international news agencies covered the operation via satellite.

What is more sensible is to restrict media entry into a sensitive zone, and that too on grounds which are constitutionally valid, and not restrict what is broadcast to the public at large. Another technical solution is to jam satellite and cellular reception in a sensitive region, subject to constitutional validity, where criminals are using communication tools.


We decry the ineptitude of our leaders and the lack of planning and foresight. But our responses too betray the fact that we are a society of knee-jerk responders, who cannot see the effects of our ideas, suggestions, mindset and actions. Even the enactment of laws and social programmes in India is done in a cavalier manner, without much public debate and planning.

One is tempted to say that India is not yet evolved enough to be committed to the principles of democracy, it is democratic only in name.