Friday, January 30, 2009

Gran Torino by Clint Eastwood

After watching Gran Torino, it is interesting to reflect that the appeal of this ostensibly multicultural awareness-raising film paradoxically lies in its celebration of its American-ist (and not just American) protagonist. He, who is more or less a God, whose acceptance and rejection matter to people around him.

We like Walt Kowalski because he is a fully formed character, with quirks and flaws. And in this film, only he has an ego, a self. Just as in a war film, only an American soldier has a soul, others just have bodies.

In Gran Torino, while others are driven by forces beyond their control, Walt Kowalski makes choices. This pursuit of creating one's own destiny is quintessentially American. I submit that Walt Kowalksi is an embodiment of wish-fulfillment of most Americans. That it is their passionate identification with Walt Kowalski - the greater man amongst men, the lone wolf surrounded by pack animals, the giver of aid, the resolver of conflicts - which has made this film a success at the box office.

I have friends who laugh at Westerns as infantile films. They don't realize that the Western is a cinema of archetypes. That when it depicts the protagonist making life and death decisions and not being beholden to anyone, when it shows the various shades of masculinity and femininity and situations which are easy to comprehend, it appeals to something primeval in us (especially since an urban life denies us clear contrasts and connections with nature and other humans).

The joy of watching a Western is to slip back into a world where we are masters of our own destiny, where simple emotions like courage, faith, skill, honesty and obligation blend with the earth's elements and animals to create a mood of a myth, a moral tale, a tale of angels, gods, immoral devils, virgins and "fallen" women.

Clint Eastwood might have started acting in urban tales since his Dirty Harry days, but he has remained a Western hero, a male archetype. Alone, without commitments, answerable only to himself, rejecting authority in man and God, adept at using tools and weapons, egoistic and rude, having an inexplicable pride in his existence, un-apologetic, ... The other men in his films are either immoral, or not men enough.

Gran Torino is no exception. Here the recipients of his grace are Asian immigrants. He doesn't need them, they need him. He can protect himself, but they need his help to protect themselves.

Eastwood's directorial efforts have a signature: the celebration of the physical and the mundane. The food, the tobacco, the car and the house, the beer and the bar, the body, the shave, and the worn shirt. He almost lovingly shows himself enjoying his den and his possessions. Unconnected with the plot, he describes his life to us. We find it pleasurable because his lifestyle is within our reach, even if his mythic stature may not be. When we see an echo of our common vices and habits in him, we see at least a part of ourselves in his self. He is us, a much better version of us, but he is us.

The car, the Gran Torino, is a fatherly gift to a deserving son. In no uncertain terms, he passes on not just his possessions but also his sublime and well-intentioned misogyny to his adopted son. He teaches him to cuss, to spit, to make the move, to work with his hands.

Make no mistake, this film is a Western in a suburban setting. Clint Eastwood remains unapologetic, and unforgiven for his delightful and proud tales.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Care of the Aged

Today, Punjab has enacted the "Punjab Maintenance of Parents and Senior Citizens Act". It forces the family members to support their elderly relatives. The goodwill that such an enforcement will bring can only be imagined.

The text of the act is available here, in the usual legal-speak.

Here is a Q&A for the perplexed:

Q: Do elders need care and support?
A: Yes.

Q: Should they get care and support?
A: Who is being asked? If you are the government, then Yes (but you won't provide it yourself, in a naked display of hypocrisy). If you are a "bad" family member, then No (but you will provide it, forced by the law). If you are a "good" family member, then Yes (and most probably, the women in your family will do it).

Q: What can the old do?
A: If living with the family, they should behave and not create problems. If living off the state, they should be glad and play cards.

Q: Can they get care and support for money?
A: Not in India, where care of the body is seen as a repulsive task (the body is mal mutra). Attrition rate is very high for home nurses.

Q: Do they have the money, even if they can get it?
A: Not in the third world. Most of the elderly have meager savings, and inflation-bashed pensions.

Q: Who needs to take on the "burden"?
A: According to the law: The heirs of their property. What do you think?

Q: What if they do not have any property?
A: By law: Their offspring still have to provide for them. They can sulk, but they have to do it.

Q: What if they do not have any offspring, nor any property, nor any money?
A: They should die.

Q: Can they get medical insurance in their old age?
A: No, not in India. They should die.

Q: Can't they call the hospital in case of a medical problem?
A: No. Hospitals in India respond, if at all, to emergency calls. The definition of emergency in a poor country is: impending death.

Q: Isn't it all too depressing?
A: You haven't seen nothing yet! Read this (this is about supporting the poor children, but you can apply similar ideas to the present situation).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dissecting a Joke (weekly feature)

Here is the joke of the week:
A newspaperman was interviewing Mulla Nasrudin on his 105th birthday. He noticed that the Mulla was wearing a rabbit's foot on his key chain. "You don't mean to tell me," said the newspaperman, "that a man of your experience still believes in that old and childish superstition? " "CERTAINLY NOT," said Nasrudin, "BUT MY WIFE TELLS ME IT IS SUPPOSED TO BRING YOU LUCK WHETHER YOU BELIEVE IN IT OR NOT."

So why is the joke funny? Because most of us know that it is the act of belief itself, and not the object of belief, that is the important factor in catalyzing an event. The object of faith is usually untrue (otherwise it wouldn't require faith in it), but the act of faith provides a feeling which is important.

Affective beings that we are, we are forever fighting against our dark sides. The vast amount of self-help literature, the umpteen guides for "positive" thinking, the plethora of therapeutic techniques almost always aim at strengthening our "good" sides against our perverse or damaging tendencies.

Positive energy or good vibes definitely help us in feeling better and in becoming more efficient. Most religious or spiritual communities bank on this to market their dubious metaphysics. It is very hard for a normal human to separate the grain from the chaff - to separate the positive effects of a calming technique from its metaphysics. And it is dangerous to even attempt this investigation, for what if in the process, one discovers that one is just blindly believing and loses all the benefits that accrue from that belief system? What if one loses the "motivation" of doing a meditation without a supportive belief system, e.g. one which promises heaven or a favorable next birth?

A belief system may make one humane, vegetarian, non-violent, charitable, generous, faithful, devout, honest, "god-fearing" and so on. Is a "good belief" better than cynicism? Is it reasonable to expect a normal human being to give up both believing and cynicism?

These are important questions, at the heart of the current debates between atheism and the various religious systems. Atheists rightly point out that belief, and its passionate defense, can lead to hatred and unspeakable violence. But in day-to-day living, isn't belief and its positive energy a good thing?

The joke is quite insightful and funny if you think about it. It is not just about belief, but also about relationships.

Mulla believes his wife, but not the effects of the rabbit-foot. Maybe his acceptance of his wife's views (which he knows are false, because he says: "CERTAINLY NOT" when asked about them) have led to his long-standing marriage, eh? One can criticize him for being a hypocrite, for doing something without believing in it. But isn't that the bedrock of most human relationships? To do something even if one doesn't like it or believe in it? Can a relationship survive if one is completely true to oneself?

An example of a man who was generally quite true to his principles was M K Gandhi, and his relationships were singularly disastrous. People close to him (his friends, colleagues, his immediate family) suffered a lot for his (at times stubborn) insistence on being true to himself.

But what is being "true to onseself" anyway? I think, in the real world, it is being true to one's own beliefs, rather than those of others (including one's loved ones). In the light of this definition, Gandhi was being true (or trying to be true) to his own (at times foolish) beliefs, to the detriment of others around him. He was not an enquirer or a seeker, he was a practitioner.

Mulla, in the joke above, is treading a middle path of doing what others ask, but not believing in what they say. What if he were to create an issue out of wearing the rabbit-foot? Who would benefit from that debate? His wife? This is where one must, again, ask: is it reasonable to expect a normal human being to give up his/her beliefs based on a reasoned argument.

As far as I understand, it doesn't work like that. Beliefs are shed through one's intention to seek the truth and live by it. If Mulla's wife doesn't have that intention, then Mulla's arguments and reasoning will only further agitate her.

Most of our relationships are affective and emotional, and they will be destroyed if we question the passionate beliefs and assumptions lying at their foundations. A well-adjusted human (one who accepts and follows the conventions and beliefs of his community) will have better relationships than a seeker, who will offend, repulse and hurt people around him. Even if the seeker doesn't interfere with others' lives, his act of disbelief will be considered a provocation.

And it is simplistic to say that beliefs and communities exist only in primitive societies and the third world. When I was holding a senior position in a multi-national corporation, some of us went for a company outing. The event-manager/team-building-expert at that outing asked us all to divide ourselves into two groups: team players and lone rangers. I was, quite appropriately, the only person in the "lone ranger" group. Being a team-player in a corporate setting is to, first and foremost, accept the various belief systems (the company's vision statement, faith in the various leaders and their utterances, etc.). Cooperation can only happen if there is a common ground of vision, the path, and the goals. People might pay lip-service to being authentic and skeptical in a corporate setting, but being human, they are fearful of dissent and rejection.

Not a few disliked me for not publicly affirming my team spirit.

The responsibility of hurt due to a belief being attacked certainly lies with the one who is hurt. But a vast proportion of the human drama is about hurt, and the management of this hurt. To disavow the management of others' feelings is to be an outcast.

To do something collectively, one has to play along with others' beliefs.

Some, like the Mulla, are able to do it, surive as part of a family and live to be 105.

Those who are uncompromising, fight too many battles.

Whose life is more "meaningful"?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Voice of the Many

Internet is increasingly an interactive platform. In the past, one could only visit or read a page on the web. Today one can comment on an article, give a thumbs-up to a page by linking to it (and increasing its page rank), "digg" it, make others "stumble upon" it, forward a precis of it to others, etc.

Internet is becoming a collaborative communication medium.

Web 2.0, as this phenomenon is being called, is bringing democracy to the digital world. But just like democracy, it has its shortcomings. What appeals to many is increasingly considered more important than what is correct.

Search for something on Google, and you will receive thousands (or even millions) of results. Nobody will go through all of them. The rank of a webpage determines its usage. The better the rank, the more it will be read, and the more it is read and linked to, the better its rank.

To explain: The top results are of webpages that the largest number of people have found worthy. This is the basis of Google's "page rank" algorithm, variants of which are used by almost all major search engines today. Obviously, algorithmic page-ranking eliminates a human expert or librarian (who could be biased, true), in favor of a clapping multitude.

Wikipedia is only slightly better. Try any topic on Wikipedia, and you will see a page that has gone through an evolutionary editing process. In this process, the "fittest" facts or opinions survive. And what is the mark of fitness on Wikipedia? The number of its supporters, and the number of editors which agree with a certain position. For highly controversial subjects (for which there is a crowd on both sides), one does find both sides of the argument. But for obscure subjects (e.g. a page on a spiritual swami), which have only a few detractors and a lot of followers, it is a losing battle for the detractor to add some unpopular facts to its Wikipedia page. A zealous prejudiced crowd will quickly edit it out.

The fitness of content on the internet is the number of people who value it.

All the social bookmark sites (Digg, Delicious, Reddit), the social video sites (Youtube, Dailymotion), the recommendation systems (Netflix, Google feed reader), follow numbers and automated algorithms, without consideration of the quality of the content. It is the quantity (of its followers) which matters the most.

Films get "fresh" or "rotten" ratings on Rotten Tomatoes based on how many reviewers liked it.

It is a good thing, all said and done, that people's voices are being counted and listened to. But unless the opinions are informed, voices can be just voices of prejudice and unfair bias. Blogs are many, but most are uninformed opinion-pieces. Blog comments are exploding in numbers, but most are heated reactions instead of quality responses.

Sometimes, the "wisdom of the crowds" may balance out contrary viewpoints and lead to a balanced outcome. However, when information availability is unbalanced (because one side or opinion has too many people pushing it and defending it), and the participants are steeped in conditioning, then what is the way forward?

Democracy is better than all other political processes (it has fewer flaws than them), it still has its shortcomings. I think it is important for people to become literate in ideas, not just in language or information, and become better participants in an increasingly democratic world. Both online and offline.

Democracy can become better only when its participants become more informed, rational and humane. And democracy propels an individual to convince others, to share his ideas, to refine one's expression and ideas, since it is the voice of the many which matters. It is natural to value communication and consensus in a democracy.

So, fellow human being, participate, and participate well, and make others better and more active participants in this world!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Technology, Content, Style

There are (at least) three facets of human communication: the tool, the content, and the style.

The tools of communication are literacy, communication technology (the internet, the written medium), multimedia (the visual arts, audio and music, cartoons, etc.).

The content is what we want to communicate: the fact, the idea, the opinion, the argument, ...

The style is its presentation: rigor and precision, language as art, graphic design, and so on.

The tool-makers, the content-participants, and the stylists all need to ruminate on where they are, and what they are doing, in the era where the IT revolution is coming of age.

A large percentage of the best minds of today are engaged in refining the first facet - the technology itself. Because technology (especially IT) is a lucrative career stream, many of us spend an inordinate part of our lives in its service.

On the other hand, to write well (or to create expressive art) and present it in an attractive way requires years of training. Some have a natural talent for it, but most of us express our ideas as we think them. We don't work too hard to refine our expression. We are literate, we can appreciate great writing, but to cultivate one's own expression and presentation is seen as an activity best suited for professional writers. Many of us who are good stylists, however, dismiss the new tools as fads.

As the internet explodes in participative expression, millions of people have taken to blogging, to commenting on others' articles, to communicate in forums and mailing lists. Participation is increasing, but not as much as is needed.

There are thousands of toolkits, web frameworks and platforms available to launch a new website or a portal, most of which are being used by businesses to create still more technical tools, services and communication technologies. Businesses are interested in markets and monetization. It is upto the individuals to direct technology for humane uses.

Today, technology can be easily harnessed to create a content-rich, community-driven website. There are hundreds of wiki and online forum platforms available today. I think it is time for the IT technologists to take a step back and wonder if they are engaged in the service of venture capitalists, or of humanity.

Why is it that the best minds of our generation are not engaged in directing the use of technology, instead of being involved in just refining it more and more? Especially in a poor, developing country like India, even a modicum of technological injection can have vast benefits.

I was talking to some people engaged in e-governance initiatives, and according to them, we have a very long way to go in using even easily available technology for the benefit of the masses. They mentioned that the status of e-governance in India is that of less than 1% completion.

Refining existing technology (e.g. creating an application for shopping comparison on the iphone) is only going to increase the divide between the digital haves and have-nots. On the other hand, applying existing technology can have enormously beneficial effects in a poor country.

Creating a website or a web application is ridiculously inexpensive these days, and by a little bit of tweaking, a great deal of functionality and content can be provided to those who are currently being left out of the internet revolution.

It is time for scientists and engineers to think beyond the advancement of technology, and to engage themselves (even in part) in furthering its use for those who would differentially benefit from it the most.

If portals, forums, databases and wikis are created for issues that concern humanity at large, both technology and style can take a back seat (since they are, so to say, elite pursuits) and a great number of human beings can engage in sharing information and content.

To Technologists: Don't just refine the tools, make people literate in those tools, help people use those tools, and use them yourself. Let not tools become ends in themselves. Don't just be member of a Mac users forum. Also be a member of (as an example) groups discussing climate change, groups discussing the future of religion, and so on.

To the Participants: Don't worry about style. Content is more important than style. However, today literacy is not just linguistic, but also a usable knowledge of communication tools. Educate yourselves in using basic internet functionality. Learn to participate on the internet, and don't just remain readers.

To the Stylists: You are the elite. Use technology effectively, present your ideas and share them with people from around the world. Don't think you are too old to learn new tools. The world is waiting for you to step up and use the keyboard, not just your pen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An appeal to free a writer

To all readers of my blog, this is an appeal.

This is in context of the imprisonment of a writer, Mr Harry Nicolaides, for violating Thailand's "Lese Majeste" laws. He was sentenced last night. More information is here. Briefly, he wrote a book in which an oblique and brief reference to a royal character has been considered as portraying the Crown Prince of Thailand in bad light.

The right to freedom of expression is an important right. If you agree, please support Mr Nicolaides by emailing (or better, by sending a letter via post) your country's Thai embassy asking for his release. It will take you some time, but will create an additional instance of pressure on the Thai government. There are already some efforts underfoot, and there are indications that he might be pardoned, but don't let others' efforts desist you from acting individually. By doing your bit, you can ensure that he gets out faster.

For India, the addresses are:

Postal: Royal Thai Embassy, 56-N, Nyaya Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi-110021

For the United States, the addresses are:

Postal: 1024 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., Suite 401 Washington, D.C. 20007

For other countries, please visit

A sample letter follows (this is the letter that I sent to them). Please feel free to use my letter verbatim, and to direct people interested in freedom of expression around the world to this page.

The Ambassador
The Royal Thai Embassy

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing this letter to express my distress at a recent unfortunate event in Thailand.

Harry Nicolaides, a writer, has been jailed for 3 years for violating the "lese majeste" law of Thailand. He has pleaded guilty for his offense, and has already been in jail since August 31, 2008.

I appreciate that the law of the land must be upheld without considering the nationality or the status of the guilty, but sometimes the laws are not the best vehicles or expressions of people's wishes.

Mr Nicolaides has suffered for his mistake, and further punishment will not serve any purpose but to bring notoriety to Thailand.

This law, and its enforcement in the present instance, has brought disrepute to the Thai land as a country which does not value freedom but one which is regressive. A modern nation is expected to uphold the right to freedom of expression of a human being. A government which represses the voices of its people will only create an environment of fear, fear for those who govern as well as those who are governed.

I appeal to you to pardon Mr Nicolaides and to reconsider this law in the context of human rights, or risk the whole world considering Thailand as a country whose laws are archaic and whose government is autocratic. You also risk a loss in tourism, one of the biggest source of Thailand's revenue.

As an individual protest, I will not visit Thailand till Mr Nicolaides is pardoned, and will discourage anyone I know who is planning to visit your country as a tourist.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dissecting a Joke (weekly feature)

Many readers complain that my blog is too serious. It's time to amend that!

From today onwards, every Tuesday (as far as possible), I will present a joke, and then kill it with analysis. As someone has said, a joke is like a frog. One can dissect it, but it will die in the process. Hence, the joke will be presented first, and then the analysis and through it, hopefully, an illustration of an idea or some aspect of the human condition. Feel free to ignore the analysis!

The Joke of the Day:
The bus was crowded when the little old lady got on, and Mulla Nasrudin stood up. She pushed the Mulla back gently and said, "No, thanks." Nasrudin tried to rise again and she pushed him back a second time. Finally, Nasrudin said to her, "PLEASE LET ME GET UP, LADY, I AM TWO BLOCKS PAST MY STOP NOW."


The Analysis:

We can get so caught up in doing good to others that the feeling it provides to us becomes more important than the act of help itself. Altruism makes us feel good (for various reasons) and when that feeling good becomes our primary aim (as it is for the vast majority of social workers and do-gooders), then it is time to introspect.

The conventional notion of virtue has a selfish component in it. One does good, in order to be good, and the belief in karma makes one a little more secure about one's own future (now that one has an accounts receivable entry in the books of the Lord). It would be curious to consider the doctrine of karma in the light of evolutionary psychology, which considers altruism a game-theoretic (albeit not a consciously calculated) move to further the survival aspects of one's genes. If I help others, then I believe I too would be helped in my time of need. This belief is frequently confirmed in life since altruism builds a reputation of goodness.

Dawkins clarifies two facets of altruism in The Selfish Gene:
An entity, such as a baboon, is said to altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity's welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behavior, has exactly the opposite effect. 'Welfare' is defined as 'chances of survival', even if the effects on actual life and death prospects is so small as to seem negligible.

... It is important to realize that the above definitions of altruism and selfishness are behavioral, not subjective. I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives. I am not going to argue about whether people who behave altruistically are 'really' doing it for secret or subconscious selfish motives. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't, and maybe we can never know, but in any case that is not what this book is about. My definition is concerned only with whether the effect of an act is to lower or raise the survival prospects of the presumed altruist and the survival prospects of the presumed beneficiary.

... It often turns out on closer inspection that acts of apparent altruism are really selfishness in disguise. ... I do not mean that the underlying motives are secretly selfish. But that the real effects of the act on survival prospects are the reverse of what we originally thought.
People might think that they don't care about reputation, and that their altruism is their "inner voice" and nothing else. Evolutionary psychology dissects this inner voice as well, and tells us that this voice is not of metaphysical origin, but is merely a pattern in our brain, and the result of millions of years of evolution and of our social conditioning.

In the modern world, institutions are making acts of real altruism mostly superfluous. Don't help others with money when they need it, there are banks. Don't tend to others in their illness, there are hospitals. Don't entertain others in their boredom, there is the television. Don't offer words of help to someone in depression, there is the "suicide hotline". These institutions are both the cause and effect (in a spiraling fashion) of altruism becoming impractical. Apart from the ubiquity of institutions, there are just too many people who need help (of all kinds). Altruism and empathy will drain one out in such a scenario (Compassion fatigue is a well known term in certain circles).

When altruism is unnecessary in the presence of institutions, and one is idle and disconsolate, how to feel good and secure? Hence, certain people set out to be altruistic, even though that is not essential to their biological survival prospects. And some actively seek people (e.g. in the third world) who need help. That provides them with the so-called meaning that they think they lack in life.

In the joke above, Mulla was apparently trying to be altruistic (as observed by the old lady). And the old lady was being very kind in refusing the altruistic act (that refusal also being an altruistic act on its own merits, since it was presumably going to raise Mulla's comfort and absolve him of doing something for her). The joke is that while Mulla was not being altruistic at all (the selfish clod), the old lady's altruism was so misdirected so as to actually discomfort the Mulla.

In the third world, since the institutions are so inefficient, altruists do find much to do. And there is nothing wrong in it, except that sometimes they take the heat off the institutions responsible, they take the accountability off those people whose job it is to attend to that situation. To altruists in such scenarios, I will suggest: keep up the good work, but also put pressure on the institutions to shape up, help the institutions to get better. The latter is also an altruistic act, but a much more significant one. On the other hand, by giving up on institutions, one perpetuates the need for altruistic people to come forward and help.

Altruists: Help create institutions, and make yourselves obsolete.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Films and Emotions

Why does one love a particular film? Is it because it is well-made, or because it is very creative, or is it because it appeals to some instinct or emotion? I posit that it is almost exclusively the latter. We love certain films because they move us.

Film-watching is an immersive experience. The audio-visual flood, the big hall, the darkness, the "vibes of others" all help to transport oneself to another reality. This transportation is primarily affective. Mainstream films use "formulas" - well known techniques - to manipulate the audience. Avant-garde films also use techniques, but they are creative: the techniques are new ones. This manipulation is admissible because the audience submits to being a willing participant in the phenomenon when the ticket is bought.

People go to horror movies to be scared. They go to romantic films to feel love. They watch war movies to feel threatened and exalted. They go to detective films to be surprised. They watch dramas to see people in various stages of un-armed conflict. And so on and so forth.

A cerebral and sensual pleasure, as opposed to an affective or emotional payoff, is the future of art, especially of films. As humanity evolves, it will evolve to the detriment of emotions and instincts. Emotions will lose their sway on the human mind. Human evolution throughout its history, has been led by the growth of its neo-cortex.

As media explodes in accessibility, and the audience grows in maturity, three things are happening:
  1. Formulas are no longer working as they used to. Emotional manipulation through a certain technique can only be successful so many times. Films have to be more and more creative, to move their audiences.

  2. Films, especially in the art circles at present, are no longer focused on moving the hearts or to create an emotional payoff. Art films are becoming more and more sincere. They are presenting exceptionally realistic scenarios, exquisitely rendered and realized, and present a slice of the human condition based on an understanding of deeper human impulses. A great film director has to understand a great deal of human nature as well. He/She cannot merely think in moral adages and can no longer have romantic views of humanity.

  3. In the mainstream, however, fantastical (e.g. the superhero genre, the science fiction genre, the "gizmo" genre) and tragic films are becoming more and more successful. It is becoming increasingly impossible to present an escapist, feel-good tale in the human realm. We are too astute to naively believe that an all-too human protagonist can save himself, or that a divine power will intervene to save us.

    People who nostalgically remember the emotional simplicity of the films of the past (e.g. of Bollywood in the 60s and 70s) fail to realize that a simplistic film released today will almost certainly flop. With maturity, our ability to be immersed in a fake scenario diminishes. We can no longer believe fairy tales. The tale has to be presented with much more attention to the causal relationships. Audiences are no longer willing to suspend disbelief to the same degree as they used to.
Does a film fail if it does not move oneself? Yes, if it seeks to move; and if the audience seeks to be moved.

Is it escapist to want to be moved by a film? I think that in a certain sense, it is. Intense affective experiences take us away from our daily life, even though they fail to change us in any fundamental way. After seeing the very moving film Grave of the Fireflies, one of my friends remarked that he had had a life-changing experience. I seriously doubt his statement. And if he had indeed been transformed, then it is much more likely that the film provided the grain of sand that tipped the scales, that it was the culminating moment of a long period of introspection or growth.

Emotions are a fundamental part of humanity. Without affective energy, people may complain of not "feeling alive" - perhaps not realizing that that "aliveness" is that of the inner self. I consider depression (i.e. lack of affective energy) to be the normal state of a human being in the modern world. The chasm between films (or any work of art, for that matter) which increasingly fail to provide an affective kick to us (because of our state of non-naivete), and our higher and higher levels of depression, may continue to increase.

On a lighter note, want a breathless exposition of existentialism?
Louise: How did you get here?

Johnny: Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.

(From the film Naked by Mike Leigh, 1993)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Education, Humanity, Knowledge

This long article is my annotated commentary of David Orr's essay "What Education is For". The article covers issues of technology, the future of humanity, the role of education, and the contrast between information and values. The paragraphs from the original article will be prefixed with the ">" character (as in email annotations), my commentary is prefixed with the "#" character.

I will start this annotation with a quotation by Aldous Huxley:

"Ends are ape-chosen; only the means are man's."

> If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rainforest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. We will lose 40 to 100 species, and no one knows whether the number is 40 or 100. Today the human population will increase by 250,000. And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere and 15 million tons of carbon. Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.

> The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.

# The key word in the first paragraph is "mismanagement". The above-listed ongoing destruction of the planet's ecology is quite factual. But what are the fundamental causes of this destruction? If we misdiagnose the problem, our remedy will be ineffective.

> It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.

# Education and training does nothing to our instincts. Highly educated people are driven by the same instincts as their less privileged cousins. Education and knowledge is peripheral to the functioning of our instinctual brains. In most parts of the world, education is imparting of useful skills and a way to propagate human knowledge. In essence, it is a transmission of information and and a training to use certain tools.

> Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow last winter when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans were the best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education? In Wiesel's words: "It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience."

# This is where the article starts to veer in the wrong direction. Theorizing, questioning, consciousness, conceptualization, abstraction, efficiency are the means. Values, answers, ideology, humanism, conscience focus on our ends. To question the means because we follow wrong ends is like blaming the hammer for hurting our finger. Technology is not the same as a world-view, even though it is fashionable to assert that it is. Technology is driven forward by mostly greed, and the forms of technology being actively developed say a lot about our priorities, but it is still an inanimate force. It is the hammer, the priority of striking the nail still lies with us.

> The same could be said of the way our education has prepared us to think about the natural world. It is a matter of no small consequence that the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read, or, like the Amish, do not make a fetish of reading.

# The absence of a book is not the absence of curiosity. The absence of a gun is not the absence of aggression. The absence of a certain tool is not the absence of the propensity which would propel a man to misuse it, or rather, use it for fulfilling his/her inborn drives.

> My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom.

# This is a straw-man argument. Nobody claims that education is a guarantee of wisdom. Education, however, is what will enable a human to have the mental tools necessary to gain wisdom, to discriminate, to dissect and question, to research and find, to question a paradigm and to share one's knowledge with others, and so on. Education is the providing of hopefully factual information and training, and it equips a human being to seek wisdom. To have "value-based education" is to distort its function by giving it an agenda. To be sure, most education is already laden with the agenda of creating a conformist human being, but to challenge the values in present education (and to replace them with more humane or sustainable values) is a far cry from challenging the very act of providing values through education.

# Those days are long gone where teachers acted as moral authorities. Morality has failed to curb human instincts. Injunctions (e.g. in the Mennonite community) can provide a veneer of peace. But real peace is when injunctions are unnecessary. Morality has been tried, and found wanting. This is the 21st century. It is time to look elsewhere.

> More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival - the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.

# This is an exhortation for cultivating decency and values in our education. But shouldn't one ask: what is the source of human indecency and lack of "values"? What is the source of human greed and aggression that education seeks to reform? Education at present amplifies those tendencies by providing tools to manipulate the environment. Sugar-coating those tendencies through the inculcation of decency and "conscience" has not worked, is not working, will not work. That is actually the "same kind of education". When push comes to shove, normal, decent human beings turn into beasts. And one doesn't have to look far for examples. To create a different earth, to create a different man, it is time to look elsewhere, at the socio-biological roots of human behavior. It is time to look inwards, at our propensity for violence and possession.

> What went wrong with contemporary culture and with education? There is some insight in literature: Christopher Marlowe's Faust, who trades his soul for knowledge and power; Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, who refuses to take responsibility for his creation; Herman Melville's Captain Ahab, who says "All my means are sane, my motive and object mad." In these characters we encounter the essence of the modern drive to dominate nature.

# I will pass over Faust. As for the technologist Dr Frankenstein, is it really science and technology which is responsible for greed and irresponsibility? Or was it a fundamental (but peripheral to his training) aspect of the Doctor's nature? And as for Captain Ahab, the writer hits the nail on the head. So, how shall we reform the ends of man, and not his means (which he will twist anyway to suit his ends).

> Historically, Francis Bacon's proposed union between knowledge and power foreshadows the contemporary alliance between government, business, and knowledge that has wrought so much mischief. Galileo's separation of the intellect foreshadows the dominance of the analytical mind over that part given to creativity, humor, and wholeness. And in Descartes' epistemology, one finds the roots of the radical separation of self and object. Together these three laid the foundations for modern education, foundations now enshrined in myths we have come to accept without question.

# Regarding Francis Bacon, I profess not to know his full thesis. Knowledge is indeed power. The powerful will use technology to become even more powerful (as is evident in the use of media today). The powerful will fund selective research because it will provide better means for them to hold their power. But once again, the writer mistakes the aggression and greed in man (which a knowledge of means can amplify) with the knowledge of means themselves. What is the root cause? What is the root cause of the "will to power"? One must ask, repeatedly!

# Regarding Galileo, the intellect as well as the heart are in service of the master: one's ends. If anything, the heart (i.e. the affective limbic system) is the more primitive and animal. But while the intellect has the power to subject itself to scrutiny, the heart is more trusting and can be swayed easily by emotion and rhetoric. It is not difficult to see which of these tools is the gateway to evolution.

# Regarding Descartes, the self is already separated from the world. Are there no wars and rapes and suicides in primitive tribes, without Descartes having laid the foundation for them through his dualistic theories?

> Let me suggest six.

> First, there is the myth that ignorance is a solvable problem.

# This is a colossal misunderstanding of modern science. Knowledge is cumulative and asymptotic, and there is no such thing as complete knowledge. As we know more, more vistas are opened to us. That is not an increase in ignorance, but an increase in knowledge: our knowledge of the world, as well as our knowledge of our ignorance.

> Ignorance is not a solvable problem, but rather an inescapable part of the human condition. The advance of knowledge always carries with it the advance of some form of ignorance. In 1930, after Thomas Midgely Jr. discovered CFCs, what had previously been a piece of trivial ignorance became a critical, life-threatening gap in the human understanding of the biosphere. No one thought to ask "what does this substance do to what?" until the early 1970s, and by 1990 CFCs had created a general thinning of the ozone layer worldwide. With the discovery of CFCs knowledge increased; but like the circumference of an expanding circle, ignorance grew as well.

# We are now more aware than ever of the damage we do to our environment. And this awareness is due in no small part to the very tools of research that we have invented. It is a very hard problem to see the long-term consequences of a new technology. Instead of encouraging caution by way of peer-review, modeling, statistical analysis and research, the writer seems to be suggesting that an increase in knowledge should be suppressed because a use of that new knowledge can be disastrous.

# A better question to ask is: Is there a way for humans to not make catastrophic mistakes? To not try to make things better is obviously one way. But that is not going to happen. Take drugs for example. Drug research is not going to stop. Hence it is important not to decry drugs, but to focus on better understanding, better experimentation, better research on side-effects, better trials, longer trials, and so on.

> A second myth is that with enough knowledge and technology we can manage planet Earth.. "Managing the planet" has a nice a ring to it. It appeals to our fascination with digital readouts, computers, buttons and dials. But the complexity of Earth and its life systems can never be safely managed. The ecology of the top inch of topsoil is still largely unknown, as is its relationship to the larger systems of the biosphere.

# With more knowledge, we can manage it better. Once again, we cannot really go back to the hunter-gatherer way of life. We are already using technology in ways both good and bad. Like it or not, we are currently managing the planet. The better laws there are, the better technologies there are, the better our planet will be.

# It is wishful thinking that a few people can decide to lessen their ecological footprint and others will follow suit. We need to evolve collective means (read legislation and rules) of enforcing the highest understanding that we have. To give up the game is the give it up to the worst amongst us. It needs a great deal of dialogue, consensus and management to lessen the use of harmful technologies. Individual evolution, which is the only real solution, will take a long time. In the meanwhile, there is really no alternative but to work together and regulate and minimize our damage, and to punish the offenders. To say that the very idea of managing nature is bad doesn't lead us anywhere, because we are already doing it. Very few are going to stop doing it on their own. Most of us will have to be told to not do it, or risk punishment.

> What might be managed is us: human desires, economies, politics, and communities. But our attention is caught by those things that avoid the hard choices implied by politics, morality, ethics, and common sense. It makes far better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants.

# Indeed!

> A third myth is that knowledge is increasing and by implication human goodness.

# Knowledge is indeed increasing. Human goodness is, by all indications, not increasing.

> There is an information explosion going on, by which I mean a rapid increase of data, words, and paper. But this explosion should not be taken for an increase in knowledge and wisdom, which cannot so easily by measured. What can be said truthfully is that some knowledge is increasing while other kinds of knowledge are being lost. David Ehrenfeld has pointed out that biology departments no longer hire faculty in such areas as systematics, taxonomy, or ornithology. In other words, important knowledge is being lost because of the recent overemphasis on molecular biology and genetic engineering, which are more lucrative, but not more important, areas of inquiry. We still lack the the science of land health that Aldo Leopold called for half a century ago.

# Some much-needed areas where knowledge needs to increase are lagging behind other areas. But is that the same as saying that knowledge is not increasing? Knowledge even in those lagging areas is increasing, maybe at a slower pace (because of vested interests).

> It is not just knowledge in certain areas that we're losing, but vernacular knowledge as well, by which I mean the knowledge that people have of their places. In the words of Barry Lopez:

> "[I am] forced to the realization that something strange, if not dangerous, is afoot. Year by year the number of people with firsthand experience in the land dwindles. Rural populations continue to shift to the cities.... In the wake of this loss of personal and local knowledge, the knowledge from which a real geography is derived, the knowledge on which a country must ultimately stand, has come something hard to define but I think sinister and unsettling."

# What are the reasons behind urbanization? What are the reasons behind giving up of traditional livelihood solutions in place of wage-labor and a globalized workplace? Those are important reasons, and once again, they cannot be wished away by a value-based education. They have to be understood, and addressed. You cannot force a poor man to stay in a village, but you can vote for a policy which will lead to healthier and more prosperous villages.

> In the confusion of data with knowledge is a deeper mistake that learning will make us better people. But learning, as Loren Eiseley once said, is endless and "In itself it will never make us ethical [people]." Ultimately, it may be the knowledge of the good that is most threatened by all of our other advances. All things considered, it is possible that we are becoming more ignorant of the things we must know to live well and sustainably on the Earth.

# Did we ever know those things? Were there not tribal wars before the industrial revolution, or gang warfare before agriculture itself? Is aggression and greed not there in animals?

> A fourth myth of higher education is that we can adequately restore that which we have dismantled.

# I am not sure if anyone says that. I, for one, fully agree that we have made many foolish mistakes (e.g. using fossil fuels too quickly) and there is no hope of correcting them now. We can only take remedial measures.

> In the modern curriculum we have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad integrated sense of the unity of things. The consequences for their personhood and for the planet are large. For example, we routinely produce economists who lack the most rudimentary knowledge of ecology. This explains why our national accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, poisons in the air or water, and resource depletion from gross national product. We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat to GNP while forgetting to subtract the three bushels of topsoil lost in its production. As a result of incomplete education, we've fooled ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we are.

# The very aspects of new understanding the writer is praising (ecology, sustainability, resource depletion) is because new disciplines have come up due to an increase in human understanding. Without this increase, there would not have been the worldwide awareness of the damage that humans are causing to their environment, and the development of cleaner fuels, alternative technologies, and so on. Knowledge can only be provided in a fragmented way. The linkages between various disciplines have led to inter-disciplinary subjects (e.g. socio-biology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral finance, etc.). One can emphasize the interconnectedness of phenomena in specific instances, and point out linkages, but in general it is not possible to teach information holistically. Holism is an attitude, not a datum or a teaching methodology. As a method, it is simply impractical. How can one holistically teach a student the roots of a quadratic equation except by teaching him algebra?

> Fifth, there is a myth that the purpose of education is that of giving you the means for upward mobility and success. Thomas Merton once identified this as the "mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade." When asked to write about his own success, Merton responded by saying that "if it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naiveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same again." His advice to students was to "be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success."

# Though Merton's exhortation is witty, it is hyperbolic. I would word it as: Do not chase success in terms which are silly (upward mobility, riches, reputation), but do chase success in terms which are sensible. Chase and pursue further milestones in becoming happier, in becoming more aware and evolved, in becoming more knowledgeable, in becoming more kind and benign, in creating better living conditions for all, and so on.

> The plain fact is that the planet does not need more "successful" people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.

# The keywords are, of course, "as our culture has defined it".

> Finally, there is a myth that our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement: we alone are modern, technological, and developed.

# I don't want to say anything of our "culture" as that is an ill-defined word, and because we are still animals at heart. But as far as the state of human understanding is concerned, we are indeed better placed than ever before.

> This, of course, represents cultural arrogance of the worst sort, and a gross misreading of history and anthropology. Recently this view has taken the form that we won the cold war and that the triumph of capitalism over communism is complete. Communism failed because it produced too little at too high a cost. But capitalism has also failed because it produces too much, shares too little, also at too high a cost to our children and grandchildren. Communism failed as an ascetic morality. Capitalism failed because it destroys morality altogether. This is not the happy world that any number of feckless advertisers and politicians describe. We have built a world of sybaritic wealth for a few and Calcuttan poverty for a growing underclass. At its worst it is a world of crack on the streets, insensate violence, anomie, and the most desperate kind of poverty. The fact is that we live in a disintegrating culture. In the words of Ron Miller, editor of Holistic Review:

> "Our culture does not nourish that which is best or noblest in the human spirit. It does not cultivate vision, imagination, or aesthetic or spiritual sensitivity. It does not encourage gentleness, generosity, caring, or compassion. Increasingly in the late 20th Century, the economic-technocratic-statist worldview has become a monstrous destroyer of what is loving and life-affirming in the human soul."

# "Our culture", or any culture for that matter, has never nourished that, not now, not ever. All societies have been barbaric, all saints have had their dark side, all spirituality has had a deluded basis and its set of superstitions, all tribes have had their tribalism, all loves have had their aches and sorrows, ...


> Measured against the agenda of human survival, how might we rethink education? Let me suggest six principles.

> First, all education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. That just happens to be dead wrong. The same is true throughout all of the curriculum.

# Wonderful suggestions, and this is actually becoming a reality.

> A second principle comes from the Greek concept of paideia. The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one's person. Subject matter is simply the tool. Much as one would use a hammer and chisel to carve a block of marble, one uses ideas and knowledge to forge one's own personhood. For the most part we labor under a confusion of ends and means, thinking that the goal of education is to stuff all kinds of facts, techniques, methods, and information into the student's mind, regardless of how and with what effect it will be used. The Greeks knew better.

# The ends can only be suggested and inspired by example and illustration. The disease of wrong ends is deeper than can be cured by education. It requires personal effort. As long as teachers are animals, the students can be no better. (the writer covers this below)

> Third, I would like to propose that knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world. The results of a great deal of contemporary research bear resemblance to those foreshadowed by Mary Shelley: monsters of technology and its byproducts for which no one takes responsibility or is even expected to take responsibility. Whose responsibility is Love Canal? Chernobyl? Ozone depletion? The Valdez oil spill? Each of these tragedies were possible because of knowledge created for which no one was ultimately responsible. This may finally come to be seen for what I think it is: a problem of scale. Knowledge of how to do vast and risky things has far outrun our ability to use it responsibly. Some of it cannot be used responsibly, which is to say safely and to consistently good purposes.

# This is also becoming more and more a reality in today's world. Organizations and nations are being held to task for the harm that they cause around the world. As laws become more stringent, and their enforcement becomes more effective and easy, and footprint-calculation technologies come into being, we will hopefully see a better earth.

> Fourth, we cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities. I grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, which was largely destroyed by corporate decisions to "disinvest" in the economy of the region. In this case MBAs, educated in the tools of leveraged buyouts, tax breaks, and capital mobility have done what no invading army could do: they destroyed an American city with total impunity on behalf of something called the "bottom line." But the bottom line for society includes other costs, those of unemployment, crime, higher divorce rates, alcoholism, child abuse, lost savings, and wrecked lives. In this instance what was taught in the business schools and economics departments did not include the value of good communities or the human costs of a narrow destructive economic rationality that valued efficiency and economic abstractions above people and community.

# Most of the time, the effects are known but disregarded because of human greed. And how to address greed? Not morals, not delusions, not injunctions (all of which may work as stopgap arrangements), but: by working on oneself to be free, and telling others that that is the only way.

> My fifth principle follows and is drawn from William Blake. It has to do with the importance of "minute particulars" and the power of examples over words. Students hear about global responsibility while being educated in institutions that often invest their financial weight in the most irresponsible things. The lessons being taught are those of hypocrisy and ultimately despair. Students learn, without anyone ever saying it, that they are helpless to overcome the frightening gap between ideals and reality. What is desperately needed are faculty and administrators who provide role models of integrity, care, thoughtfulness, and institutions that are capable of embodying ideals wholly and completely in all of their operations.

# Indeed.

> Finally, I would like to propose that the way learning occurs is as important as the content of particular courses. Process is important for learning. Courses taught as lecture courses tend to induce passivity. Indoor classes create the illusion that learning only occurs inside four walls isolated from what students call without apparent irony the "real world." Dissecting frogs in biology classes teaches lessons about nature that no one would verbally profess. Campus architecture is crystallized pedagogy that often reinforces passivity, monologue, domination, and artificiality. My point is simply that students are being taught in various and subtle ways beyond the content of courses.

# I am all for interactive learning. However, I take the suggestion of outdoor classrooms with a pinch of salt. Projection and multimedia systems cannot easily be used outdoors. And there is more focus (and less distraction) in a room. As for dissecting frogs in biology classes, I think one has to outgrow one's revulsion if one is to ever become a surgeon or even a veterinarian. Even planting a flower does violence to the soil. Some violence is inevitable in certain processes. To teach computers one must use electrical power. To teach film-making one must use a projector whose bulb wears out. And similarly, to teach anatomy, one must use frogs and even human carcasses.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Curious Experiment, and some Observations

The Experiment: Joshua Bell's performance of intricate classical music on a Stradivarius violin being ignored at a busy train station in Washington D.C.

The Observations:
  1. Western classical music is, like non-representational painting (such as by Kandinsky), "high art". To properly appreciate high art requires training. More so when the artifact is not well known (e.g. a piece by Bach).

  2. A normal adult's brain is occupied with thoughts, and the thoughts about a particular subject carry on for a longer while than in a child. A child is more interested in what catches its fancy because it is not mentally occupied. Its thinking is less developed. In technical terms, it appreciates the sounds sensually, not cognitively or affectively.

  3. Western classical music requires patience in order to understand its structure, rhythm and theme. Rush hour at a suburban metro station is the last place where one can expect patience.

  4. Small children cannot appreciate Bach, but they can appreciate the playing of a violin, because it looks like a playful, fun activity, and because the sounds generated are out-of-the-ordinary.

  5. To appreciate the world requires a freeing of mental bandwidth, a slow-down in one's thoughts and an absence of stress. These require cultivation in an urban setting, where the natural inclination of human beings is to suffer a cognitive burden.

Monday, January 12, 2009

In Memoriam W.H.H. (Alfred Tennyson)

In Memoriam A.H.H. is a long poem by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, completed in 1849. It is a requiem for the poet's Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in Vienna in 1833, but it is also much more. Written over a period of 17 years, it can be seen as reflective of Victorian society at the time, and the poem discusses many of the issues that were beginning to be questioned. It is the work in which Tennyson reaches his highest musical peaks and his poetic experience comes full circle. It is regarded as one of the greatest poems of the 19th century. (from the Wikipedia article)

It is a great poem contrasting the natural world of violence and seeming senselessness, with the spiritual ideal of a world with meaning. The poem preceded Charles Darwin's discoveries, and it makes one somber and thrilled to observe that the central quest of humanity, for meaning and understanding, proceeds in apparently random, but unmistakably progressive, ways.

The poem is written in four-line A-B-B-A stanzas, and reading it aloud creates a mood of introspection and reflection about the deep mysteries of life. The poem in its entirety is available here.

There are many justifiably famous parts of the poem, including:
So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry. (Canto 54)

and, in seemingly posing a question to the unknown (at that time) Darwin

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life. (Canto 55)

I quote here two of my favorite Cantos from this poem:

Canto 50:
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack'd with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.

Canto 120:

I trust I have not wasted breath:
I think we are not wholly brain,
Magnetic mockeries; not in vain,
Like Paul with beasts, I fought with Death;

Not only cunning casts in clay:
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men,
At least to me? I would not stay.

Let him, the wiser man who springs
Hereafter, up from childhood shape
His action like the greater ape,
But I was born to other things.

Pertinent here is an excerpt from The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins:

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out
the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space
ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to
assess the level of our civilization, is: 'Have they discovered
evolution yet?' Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever
knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth
finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin. To he
fair, others had had inklings of the truth, but it was Darwin who
first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist.
Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the
curious child whose question heads this chapter. We no longer have
to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there
a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the
last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it
thus: 'The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer
that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better
off if we ignore them completely.'

More Films, Seen Recently

  • The Fall (Tarsem, 2006): "This movie's stupid. And it's "visually astonishing" only in the tiresome, superficial way that perfume ads are "visually astonishing."" (MDA) ... ""The Fall" is a genuine labor of love — and a real bore." (NL, NYT)

  • Elegy (Isabel Coixet, 2008): A standout performance by Ben Kingsley enabled me to enjoy the film immensely. It is said that Roth's novel is more scathing of the protagonist's misogyny. I look forward to watching The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003), though critics panned it, and Disgrace (Steve Jacobs, 2008), based on the novel by Coetzee.

  • It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946): Black and white characters. Black and white situations. The denouement is silly. I understand it could be heart-warming to many. Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952) is head and shoulders above this in portraying how a man finds meaning when his life and work don't offer any.

  • Not Without My Daughter (Brian Gilbert, 1991): Interesting (though overdone) take on tradition/religion/patriarchy in third-world countries. The film was not allowed to be shown in India for fear of alienating Iran.

  • Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005): Saladin is by far the strongest character in this film. Orlando Bloom is a pleasure to look at, but he can't really talk like a leader. I found it a deeper film (though it is still somewhat cliche-ridden) than Gladiator, which was better narrated but was ultimately superficial.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Films seen recently

  • In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008): Now this is a black comedy. Very witty, with an excellent cast.

  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967): Delightful, even if flawed socio-familial drama. Viewers have rightly wondered what the man saw in her, and ready after just 10 days?!

  • Gomorra (Matteo Garrone, 2008): Very oblique. In essence a take on a viciously criminal society at three different social levels.

  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008): Funny only because the puritanism that the film tries to make fun of exists in the audience as well. Interesting. I wondered if Juan had any male friends.

  • Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008): Great way to narrate the story, but Indian audiences will find it less than novel. Too ADD-ish for my tastes.

  • The Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara, 1979): The notorious video nasty. Dreary, watched in sped-up playback mode.

  • Sheitan (Kim Chapiron, 2006): Uh huh. Not disturbing.

  • Calvaire (Fabrice Du Welz, 2004): Interesting, and sometimes surreal, take on emotional and physical neediness. The ending is the best part.

  • The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, 2007): Rings false. Throughout.

  • Muriel's Wedding (P J Hogan, 1994): Neither is the slapstick first part funny, nor is the tragic second part poignant. A trifle, with pleasant songs.

  • [REC] (Jaume Balaguero, 2007): How do people find such things scary? Despite the cinema-verite style, it's obviously a calculated film. The Blair Witch Project is heads and shoulders above this trash.

Three monologues

Monologue One, by David Foster Wallace, in the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address.

David Foster Wallace (February 21, 1962 – September 12, 2008) was an American author of novels, essays and short-stories, and a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He was best known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which Time included in its All-Time 100 Greatest Novels list (covering the period 1923-2006). (from the wikipedia page)

He committed suicide on September 12, 2008 at the age of 46. I have, and enjoyed reading, his collection of essays: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. His flowing essay on David Lynch and Lost Highway alone is worth the price of the book. His center piece in this book, on the soul-sucking quality of a luxury Caribbean cruise, is one of the best critiques of hedonism in action that I have read anywhere.


Monologue Two, by Robert Flores, Jr. Read the monologue first, and then read this news report.

The monologue was typed by Robert and posted to the Arizona Star newspaper. I have transcribed it from the fax images. Any mistakes are those in the original fax.


Monologue Three, by the Indian actor/writer Balraj Sahni in 1972. Balraj Sahni died of cardiac arrest in 1973.

Balraj Sahni's address to JNU in 1972 is as topical today, 37 years later, as it was then.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Spirituality, Narcissism and Democracy

Do you sometimes wonder why India, despite having so much of religion and spirituality and faith, is so corrupt, so weak in accepting the principles of democracy, and wonder why there is a complete absence of civic sense in India?

There are obviously economic reasons for corruption, patronage and self-centeredness, but, in my opinion, there are also very deep psychological reasons for what we call the "Indian" attitude.

I will present these reasons aphoristically, with explanations wherever necessary.

  1. Narcissism is the consideration of only "I" as being real.

    In psychological terms, narcissism is the preoccupation with oneself, with all else being secondary or unimportant.

  2. Spirituality is a narcissistic pursuit.

    Narcissism is the essential element of spirituality and religion. In many religions, this is stated as "The world is transient and therefore unreal, only the Self (atman) is real," or "My essence is Divine. Only the Divine is real," or "I am Brahma (aham brahmasmi), the creator of the universe," or "Only God is True, all else is Maya. I am God."

    The final stage of religious and spiritual pursuits is the union, or oneness, with God.

  3. Morality is a social construct, an essential but failed aspect of religions, and is unimportant in spirituality.

    In spirituality, one is answerable to only oneself, as one's Self is the only thing accepted as real. For a novice in traditional religions, morality is prescribed as the first step to giving up one's base nature. Of course it doesn't work because religions don't understand the socio-biological reasons of man's violence.

    Spirituality is different. If considered deeply, morality is a mere means in spirituality, it is a way to be virtuous and advance on the way. Morality is a spurious feel-good solution for the lazy religious, a way for people to feel that they are being good though not being completely divine.

    Morality is not the essence of spirituality. In higher stages of spirituality, social morality (truth, justice, non-aggression) is considered unimportant, and individual, subjective notions of what is right and wrong ("what one's heart says") become paramount.

    See for example the following quotes by some spiritual teachers:

    "When you are fully aware of the cause, then the mind itself begins to discern the true manner of acting in the very moment of experience, and so morality becomes purely individual." (J Krishnamurti)

    "The point is that man freed from his fetters is morality personified. Such a man therefore does not need any moralistic injunctions in order to live righteously. Free a man from his bondage and thereafter everything else will take care of itself." (Nisargadatta)

    I will not say immoral because tantra is not concerned with morality or immorality. Tantra says it is irrelevant. This message is to help you to grow beyond purity and impurity, beyond division really, beyond dichotomy, duality. Tantra says, existence is non-dual, it is one, and all distinctions are man-created -- all distinctions, remember. Distinctions as such are man-created. Good-bad, pure-impure, moral-immoral, virtue-sin: all these concepts are man-created. They are attitudes of man; they are not real." (Osho)

    See also a previous post on this theme.

  4. Indian religions believe in karma and accept that religious practices can wipe out the effects of "sinful" acts.

    The primary aim of a religious man is his/her own salvation. The life on earth is a means to that end. Hence, a religious person does not need to be answerable to the laws of man, but only to the laws of God, which are of course interpreted as per one's convenience. He/she can indulge in charity, pilgrimages, religious rituals etc. and feel "good" again, that he is again in the good books of the Lord.

    To inflict misery on others is justified by oneself as their fate. It is also believed that suffering makes one noble. Hence, if others are suffering, their spiritual advancement should not (according to a religious man) be tampered with by trying to help them out. Even if one does help them (say like Mother Teresa), the help is to (a) serve God, (b) have them serve God.

  5. Democracy and civic sense requires that one accept that life on earth is important in itself, that living conditions matter, and that others are not just means to achieving my end, but are individuals in themselves.

    These requirements are antithetical to spiritual tenets. Democracy is a grave reminder that one's opinion counts only as much as that of others, and the world does not revolve around oneself (as one would like to believe according to a narcissistic world-view). Democracy is therefore less "spiritual" than an autocratic regime where one's fate is handed down to oneself.

    To take charge of one's tangible/physical life (and not leave it to God), and to consider others beings (and not just God) as having a say in one's world, both are deeply disturbing notions to a spiritual/religious man.

  6. The compromise (or the middle path) between valuing the divine realms and having power in the physical realm is corruption and horrific exploitation of others.

    When one perceives that one has power over others, and is in a position to make far-reaching decisions in others' lives, and if one is still essentially spiritual, one will abuse this power to further one's own salvation (and those of one's "near and dear ones"). One will even justify this exploitation as teaching the greedy masses to suffer nobly and get a superior birth in the next life.

  7. The destitute are so down and out that God is their only hope. They will subvert democracy and institutions in any way they are asked to, since they have (justifiably) no faith in them to begin with.

    The poor have no recourse but their religion, and the rich have no compunction in being the way they are because of their spiritual world-view.

Hence the absence of civic sense, absence of traffic sense, absence of accountability, absence of the obligation of fulfilling one's job description, absence of respect for man-made laws, absence of consideration for future generations, absence of politeness, abysmal poverty and disease, presence of 10 million saints and fakirs, cash-filled coffers of temples and gold-plated gurudwaras, super-rich swamis, newspapers and TV channels filled with spiritual words, astrologers having a field-day, the rise of gurus for the rich, ...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Big City and the Small Town

Some like the bustle of the big city, its night life, its distractions. Some (like me) find the small silent sleepy town much more agreeable. How about you?

I have (considered by most) a top-notch education. But I don't like living in crowded, noisy places. For me, quality of life is defined in very basic terms: clean air, sparse streets, tasty and nourishing food, clear skies, flowers, birds, trees and parks, little crime, honest shops, ways for children and elderly to mingle with the young (community spaces), etc.

(a scene of Chandigarh in the Monsoons)

I find all these aspects missing in the metropolitan life, at least in India. Cities like Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore are overcrowded, their infrastructure stretched to the breaking point. It is hard to even see the stars at night in Delhi or Bombay.

(a familiar sight in Delhi)

But then, a big city offers "exposure". The experiences are many and varied. The opportunities to engage and earn are plentiful. One can meet many interesting people, find like-minded friends, visit exhibitions and shows, and so on. Big cities are cultural hubs, whereas small towns are conventional, archaic and can be suffocating to some.

In short, while a small town is healthier, it is, like whole-wheat bread and cucumber, quite boring to most. There was even a research study which surveyed young people in India and asked them why they wanted to live in Bangalore or Bombay. The answer was, surprisingly, that these cities offered a rich night life, i.e. opportunities for relationships and more.

And in India, as compared to Europe, highly-skilled creative people don't easily find jobs in small towns. They have to move to metros or risk being jobless.

With the advent of the internet and proliferation of broadband in India, one can easily stay tuned with the world even in a small town. One can watch award-winning films at home, read the latest books on one's kindle device, find out what's happening in the far corners of the world, interact with people from all over, and still enjoy peace and seclusion. One can even work from home.

I have been trying to live this virtually-connected-small-town life for eighteen months now. I lived in Bangalore, and then in Noida. Now we live in Chandigarh, considered the most beautiful city in India.

But it does have its challenges. For one, one needs an incredible amount of self-motivation, awareness and richness of inner-life to survive an almost monastic existence. Secondly, if one is living with a spouse or partner, there has to be a very high degree of harmony between the two. There are days and weeks when my wife and me don't have any interaction except with each other.

Sometimes I think a lack of externally forced structure is not something most people want for prolonged periods. Yes, a weekend's vacationing or even a whole summer can be invigorating. But to live a semi-retired life for years and years is not for the easily bored. The sense of "worth" that a regular job, struggle in one's career, or even mindless occupation in the rigors of living provides seems to be essential for human beings.

For a poor country like ours, people give a higher priority to money and future security (that life in a big city can provide) than to a pleasant life here and now.

What do you think?

A few articles on this topic (culled from the search engines):

Friday, January 02, 2009

Irréversible by Gaspar Noé

Irreversible (Irréversible) by Gaspar Noé is one of the most well-known films in the New Extremism league. Along with Michael Haneke and Bruno Dumont, Noé aims at a cinematic expression of violence in which the viewer is forced to see the human condition in its raw brutality, without any hint of entertainment or operatic stylishness. Consider in contrast the violence in the so-called action films, where the spectacle of destruction is calculated to thrill and wow the audience.

All three of the above filmmakers are extremely gifted, and their films can be appreciated not just for the questions they raise, but also for pushing the frontiers of cinematic art. In a typical film, a director has only a couple of hours to try and make an indelible mark on the viewer. This calls for novel ways to present a story or a theme. But in films (as compared to books), the "auteur" has also a larger arsenal of tools (sound, editing, scene composition, special effects) at his disposal. Great cinema is therefore not just in which something profound is conveyed, but also in which the tools are used in unconventional, highly effective ways.

I consider a director to be gifted if he is able to invent a new language in cinema and say something profound with it. For this reason, I am not a big fan of Jean Luc Godard. I consider him gifted in breaking new ground, but as a film technician, not as an auteur.

Apart from the usual cinematic tools and techniques, I appreciate original and effective titles design. A feature film has two title sequences, one at the beginning and the other at the end. Many big-budget films spend a lot of money on their beginning and closing titles. For example, the James Bond films have traditionally been eagerly anticipated for the beginning titles and the music accompanying them. Many great directors use these sequences to complement the film's tone and message, as well as to (obviously) give credit.

For unconventional and extremely effective title design, consider the beginning titles in Le Pianiste and in Caché, both by Haneke. In the former, the piano music and a few other scenes are brutally cut short by minimalist, tiny, white lines of text on a black background. This suggests a contrast between the public life and the private, hidden world. It also hints at the film's intention to present a narrative in which many blanks will have to be filled in by the viewer.

In Caché, the end titles design is a master stroke. (In addition to the beginning titles, which convey the message that reality is being "portrayed" and it is not being merely presented.) In the middle of a prolonged shot of a seemingly innocuous exit of a public building, while the audience is busy piecing together the film's narrative, and has no clue that the film is anywhere near the end, the titles start rolling almost imperceptibly, and continue, as a nod to the continuation of life after the film. The viewers are left reeling at the shock that the director has left the film, made the more effective because the shock is delivered so calmly and methodically.

Irreversible is one of the most effective and artistic instances of titles design that I have come across. The beginning titles start with an ominous bass sound (which continues in a strange rhythm), and the words strangely move from top to bottom, with some letters reversed. As the viewers are trying to make sense of what is going on, the titles bend, as if the reel is being consumed by the projector. The disorientation and sense of dread this creates has to be experienced to be believed. It is as if one is entering the gates of hell. Soon these preliminary titles end, and after a shot of a naked old man sitting under a bright bulb, there is a flickering assault of large letters, accompanied by the sound of a hellish clock sounding the hour. The viewers cannot help but sit up straight and be prepared for something akin to a purgatory of time.

And at the end of the film, the painful and rapid strobe effect with a very white background... The last scene of the film proper is an idyllic Eden of happiness. The strobe and the sentence which follows it are a jarringly effective way of contrasting the "natural" Eden with the human nightmare. The strobe is something completely artificial, and that is why it is so effective. It is a human hell. The director has also mentioned that it is a symbol of the passing of time. But the discrete, painful way in which it is done (instead of showing, say, the continuous flow of a river, which is also a metaphor for time) lends a sense of tragedy, and the sentence at the end ("Time Destroys Everything"), when we almost can take it no more, is the regret which the protagonists will have to live with after the night(mare) is over for them.

What a tour-de-force!

As I remarked earlier in my review of Silent Light, Irreversible is much opposed in form and content to Reygadas' film. If it can be said for Silent Light that "Rarely has a film depicted religious experience with such power and clarity, bringing the audience uncannily, exaltingly close to a state of holiness," it can be said for Irreversible that "Rarely has a film depicted the hell of man with such brutality and unflinching realism, bringing the audience horrifically, tragically close to a state of nihilism."

Whereas in Silent Light, redemption is possible, and mistakes can be corrected, the very message of Irreversible is that there is no redemption, and that mistakes once made haunt us forever. Whereas in Silent Light, people and spaces are filled with light, in Irreversible it is as if there is no day, only night. If it is water and flowers and peace in Silent Light, it is urban decay, drugs and vehemence in Irreversible. Where Silent Light is about Love and Forgiveness, Irreversible is about Hate and Revenge. And finally, where the camera movement in Reygadas' film is meditative and surreal, the camera movement in Noé's hands is shaky and hyper-real.

Gaspar Noé has invested the film with many subtle, and some not so subtle, ironies and questions. I present the ones I could detect on a second viewing:

Orgasm should be a selfish pursuit (a regard for other's satisfaction is pathological) or should it?

A woman is a thing to be stolen and consumed, or is she?

A philosophy teacher is more evolved and in control of his aggression than a drugged misanthrope, or is he?

A downtown party of men and women is "acceptable", compared to a gay and fetish bar, or is it?

A husband is sensitive whereas a rapist is not, or is he?

Whereas criminals hurt and violate, normal people help others, or do they?

Only perverse men are intimidated by, and cannot dare to love, a beautiful woman, or are they?

Women invite the rapists by flaunting their attractiveness, and they revel in the power of their beauty, or do they?

Revenge and Punishment is meaningful, or is it?

Consequences are inevitable, or are they?


The film is also notable for some formidable technical achievements, e.g. the uncut and fluidly joined shots, the camera work (e.g. the rhythmic shake of the camera to convey the heart beat of Alex on the stretcher, the steadily increasing steadiness of the camera as we go back in time, the shots from above) and the sound design (According to Noé, he incorporated an almost inaudible 28-Hz beat in the first 30 minutes of the film to induce nausea and disorientation in the viewers).