Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Beggar

Once upon a time, there was a young beggar who lived with his father, an elderly beggar. The elderly beggar no longer used to beg, however. He depended upon alms which came his way without any effort on his part.

The young beggar, however, needed a lot of things and did not look decrepit enough that people gave him alms of their own accord. The young beggar felt bound by the care that his father needed, and decided one day to part ways and go to the city where all the beggars were provided for by the king.

On the morning that he was to leave his father, his father held him close and told him cryptically: "Do not look towards the east as you continue towards the west."

The young beggar did not understand it fully, but started on his journey.

What the young beggar really wished for was to drink a wine that he had heard about from the people who came to give alms to his father. This wine was supposed to heal all aches and pains.

In the city of beggars he met another beggar, a woman, who had come from the west. The woman beggar was as much a beggar as he was, but she told him that she knew what he wanted and could give it to him. And surprisingly, that she needed the rye bread that he held in his hand. The bread had been gifted by his father.

She had heard from her clan that rye bread healed all aches and pains.

The two beggars exchanged their possessions. The beggar from the east gave her his bread, and the beggar from the west gave him her wine. Both felt free of their aches and pains and loved each other for the precious gift that they had received.

However, within a few hours, their aches and pains returned. The woman beggar wanted the man to stay with her and learn how to make that bread and that wine. However, the man was disillusioned that the bread as well as the wine only acted as palliatives and did not cure the disease which led to those frequent aches.

He took leave of the woman beggar as well, and started again on his journey.

However, he kept looking back towards the east, remembering those few hours free from aches. He no longer remembered what his father had told him.

In the afternoon, he got so tired from walking that he no longer believed there was any point in carrying on towards the west. He thought the temporary abatement was all that he could hope for, and that some other beggar in the city might have a pint of that wine.

Hence, he turned back towards the east.

He met many travelers (beggars, all of them) on the way, some on their way towards the east, some still trudging on towards the west, some dead on the path. He told everyone to turn back and go to the city of beggars, and tried to convince them that a beggar could not hope for anything more than the company of another beggar and to be provided for by the king.

When he again arrived in the city of the beggars, he suddenly saw someone filling a small bottle of wine with her blood, and another one cutting flesh from his thigh and rubbing it in the gray soil to make it look like the rye bread.

He started crying and weeping, and again turned towards the west.

However, by this time, the sun had set and utter darkness prevailed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On Self-Esteem

From the Actual Freedom mailing list:


I do not know how much longer you will be communicating on this board, Richard, so I wish to grasp the opportunity while there still seems to be one to converse with you about an issue or two that's been bugging me as of late.

I am beginning to realize who and what God is for me personally. It seems that society, humanity, and its various and particular individuals have dominance and authority and power over me. I desire to please these people, gain their graces, get their approval. I feel so good-and-high when I accomplish that (a yummy carrot). I live in constant, living fear of falling from their graces, or not being good enough (a painful stick).

These people have power over my sense of self-worth, my pride (why do I I need to have a sense of self-worth in the first place?), they have power over my sense of shame and embarassment.

My sense of security and insecurity is in their hands. I have given them the power. I don't know when I did because it seems as if they have always had it ... since my earliest memories.

Feelings of duty, responsibility, obligation, loyalty, shame, pride, superiority, inferiority, security, insecurity, lust, beauty, anger, fear, tenderness, family, friendship, community, love, union, terror, terror, and more terror ... can be traced to the relationship I have with my fellow human beings.

I also suffer from the pining and longing for amd missing those beautiful feelings that are the result of relationship.

I want to end, for good and totally and completely, this relationship. This relationship with my fellow human beings is not and has never been a healthy one. (why this pervading need/instinct to maintain at all costs this relationship?)

My relationship with my fellow humans is the cause of so much strife, and conflict, and disharmony.

(I have to go now for powerful feelings of duty, repsonsibility, and obligation are welling up inside me ... driving my every move).


As the operative-word in all the above is 'self-worth' (and self-worth as derived from others' opinion at that) perhaps a personal anecdote may be of assistance. (If nothing else it will provide some light relief/entertainment).

Many years ago, back when I was a normal bloke and making my living as a practising artist, a minor art gallery in a major city approached me with a proposition to stage a one-man exhibition of my idiosyncratic ceramic work - with the selection to be entirely of my own choice - complete with metropolis-wide advertising, an opening night with the usual razzamatazz (wine and cheese, etc.), invitations to various art-critics, quite liberal terms of commission, and a guaranteed-to-be-exclusive three-week run.

I was a big frog in a small provincial pond, at the time, and this was an opportunity to be a small frog in a large urban pond - to put one foot on the bottom rung of a potential ladder of national success - so the rather generous offer with its opportune entrée into the inner-city art establishment was readily accepted and a firm date was set for three months hence.

Without any thought at all it was obvious to me the exhibition would comprise entirely of fresh pieces - even though there was already more than enough high quality items at hand (which the art gallery had in mind) - as that way a cohesive body of work, with a yet to be discovered theme, would bring about the integrity necessary to carry the day.

Now, with ceramics there is normally a five-to-six week lead-in time (due to the process of making, carving, drying, first-firing, glazing, decorating, and second-firing) yet the days became weeks until, despite the frequent reminders and promptings of my then-wife, only three weeks remained before the big night.

And three weeks was the absolute minimum time-span; if the eighty-odd pieces were not formed today then the afore- mentioned hodgepodge stock-at-hand would have to be pressed into service.

Not that the art-gallery would mind, of course, but I would. For most of the morning I wedged, kneaded and balled the highest quality (the most-aged and ripened) clay from my extensive stocks of hand-dug and hand-mixed local clays; it was one of those quite marvellous days of lightly overcast skies and a gentle, misty rain; there was no wind at all, not even the slightest zephyr of a breeze; the quietly gleaming hand-made copper kettle was sitting, steaming gently atop the cheery pot-bellied stove in my studio; music from a nowadays-superseded four-track cartridge player was piping through all its strategically placed speakers; the dank, swampy aroma of the well-matured clay was filling the nostrils as it began to bounce elastically beneath my well-practiced kneading hands; and soon all was well, within my world, as any and all stress from time-pressure softly ebbed away.

Settling myself onto my home-made pottery wheel, and kicking it into action, I swiftly and easily formed a few small throwaway pieces so as to get my hand in.

Then, without any further ado, I reached for the first of the eighty- odd different-sized balls of finely-prepared clay; dropping it onto the still slowing-turning wheel-head I kicked up the momentum of the heavy wheel beneath my feet; moistening my hands in the bowls of warm, muddy water to either side I then centred the clay ball and began throwing the first of the many individual pieces which would eventually comprise the whole.

Being well-dug, well-prepared, well-aged, well-wedged and well- kneaded the clay, whilst supremely elastic, was taut and springy beneath the hands; there would be no slumping, no sagging, no bulging, just this easy pulling up to maximum height; just this graceful setting of bellied form; just this elegant rolling of lip just this effortless forming of the base; just this ready pass of the cutting thread detaching it from the wheel-head; just this gentle placing of it on the ready-to-hand shelf-tray nearby; just this regular reaching for the next ball; just this easy kicking keeping the momentum rolling.

Upon placing the third or fourth newly-formed piece alongside its predecessors, and whilst reaching for the next ball, it is evident the clouds are clearing a trifle; the sun is shining fitfully through a gap onto the translucent full-height screens immediately to the front; some chickens are clucking and scratching around in the ground just beyond them; ducks are quacking and nosing into the mud of the small pond nearby; off in the near-distance the pigs are snorting and snuffling for roots; one of the goats is bleating; a couple of the geese are honking; and ... and a by-now-familiar and oh-so-subtle shift is occurring in the brain-stem.

All-of-a-sudden there is a vast stillness - there is absolutely no movement of time - and in that perfect peace the piece of pottery is making itself.

The foot is kicking the massive wheel of its own accord; the hands are dipping themselves into the warm, muddy water; the eyes are eying the bellied form all on their own; the hands, one on the inside and the other on the outside just below the former, are gently coaxing the perfect shape without command (or is the perfect form gently coaxing the hands to its bidding); and the whole world - nay, the entire universe, itself - is a magical fairytale-like wonder- land where nothing, but nothing, ever ultimately goes wrong.


And then, with the sun sinking spectacularly in the west behind banked clouds, the one-hundredth pot has made itself (so much for the planned eighty-odd) and the one-man exhibition is in the bag ... guaranteed to be a fantastic success.


It is now three weeks later: all the pieces have been carved, dried, first-fired, glazed, decorated, second-fired, packed, transported, unpacked and selectively placed upon their pedestals in the major city art gallery.

It is opening night and the place is packed with peoples from many walks of life; all milling around, glasses in hand, seeing and being seen. Being the star of the show I am, accordingly, a trifle late in arriving (as is the fashion). With orange juice in hand I mix and mingle; a word or two here; a tilt of the head there; a small chat here; a wink and a grin there; a murmured response here; and all the while noticing those little red stickers appearing, first on this piece, then on that piece, more on those pieces, until almost every single piece is snapped-up.

It is shaping up to be a sell-out ... and all on opening night! The curator is tapping on his glass, calling for attention, and the speechifying begins; soon it is my turn to speak and every eye is turned toward me, every ear is listening to me, everybody's rapt attention is directed towards the ... well, towards the star of the show, of course.

But I am not the star of the show - the pieces made themselves, remember, back in that magical wonderland - and yet all of the accolades, all of the applause, all of the (yes) adulation, is centred solely upon me.

It was at that moment I understood something so profound it is permanently etched into the memory banks ... to wit: I did not and could not value their collective/individual opinions one iota, one jot, for they knew not of what they spoke.

And even if they were to be told, that the pieces magically made themselves, they would lavish praise for being so gifted/so blessed/so whatever.

Moreover, they did not, and would not ever, comprehend that the esteem they bestowed so lavishly slid straight off me like that proverbial water off a duck's back ... as, at that very moment, self-esteem and all its associated vanity and humility vanished out of my life forever, never to return, even unto this very day.


And so, Rick , as we come to the end of this quaint little wonder- land tale, just what value is self-esteem, eh?

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Mother by Roger Michell

A May-Darren, sorry, a May-December affair reveals the various shades and facets of the characters in this film. An interesting study in the human condition, this film is satisfying because it is realistic and does not have an explicit "message".

After the death of her physically dependent husband, May, a grandmother comes to London to spend some time with her two children: A stressed-ambivalent executive son Bobby, and an anguished-inadequate-narcissistic daughter Paula. And driven by loneliness and more, she starts an affair with Bobby's friend Darren, who is unfortunately also Paula's "lover".

The film is interesting because it illustrates that humans are altruistic only for selfish ends, even as they relate to their closest kin. Everybody in the film is self-consumed to a very large extent, and displays empathy only to want something in return.

Be it affection, understanding, money, sex, trust: in this film these are given so that one may get something in return. The characters are a study in self-delusion.

There are two extremely brave performances in the film, by Cathryn Bradshaw as Paula, and obviously by Anne Reid as May. May's character is not as transgressive as Erika's in La Pianiste (Michael Haneke, 2001), but nevertheless it may be extremely uncomfortable to watch for most people. But those who persist are amply rewarded by Anne Reid's full-of-candor acting and remarkable and subtle facial expressions.

The insistent demand for companionship, affection or physical intimacy is in its essence, undignified. When the facade of clothes and manners is cast away, as happens to a "civilized" man who has a one-night stand with May, it is not a pretty sight (and the horror is not because of his age, but because of something else).

The characters are gray, they are not bad people, but they can't help but hurt others. The most human of them all is Paula, and that is because she is the loneliest and the most angry at life.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

एक बज़्म

जहां न प्यार की दुखद खंजीर हो
जहाँ न हो हवस की, लालसा की तड़प
जहाँ न वादों की जंगाली ज़ंजीर हो

जहां सब का ख़याल हो
जहां किसी से दूरी नहीं, रंजिश नहीं
जहाँ किसी से न बवाल हो

उस जहाँ की ही तमन्ना थी

पर जनम से ही दर्द-ऐ-फासिल में था
और सदियों से था इक आंधी का ज़ोर
कि उस झील का दीदार मुझे हासिल न था

ढूँढता रहा सीने में झुलसती आग को लिए
हर पत्ता हर पत्थर पलट कर, जला कर देखा
कभी अपने में तो कभी बाहर, उसी के लिए

दर्द--फासिल: The pain of separation

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ten Films about Alienation

Alienation: Separatedness, feeling of hostility, apathy, ...
  1. The Seventh Continent (Michael Haneke, 1989)
    (A prosperous, urbane family thinks of an alternative life)

  2. Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
    (A girl finds no empathy in the world)

  3. L'emploi du temps (Laurent Cantet, 2001)
    (A man starts living a false life after being fired)

  4. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorcese, 1976)
    (To invent meaning in a meaningless existence)

  5. Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1962)
    (A priest confronts and reflects on his life, and his faith.)

  6. Animal Love (Ulrich Seidl, 1995)
    (The channeling of affection in a lonely world)

  7. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)
    (A sex escort describes her life)

  8. Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)
    (A woman has an unexplained reaction to "society")

  9. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)
    (A salesman starts to live a life)

  10. Croupier (Mike Hodges, 1998)
    (A writer lives a dissociated life as a casino employee)
Any more suggestions?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Music

In my article on sensory organs I had briefly mentioned that emotional, or heart-felt, responses are more easily triggered by music, than say, by a painting or a perfume.

Informally, musicians know certain sequences which hit the spot, certain modulations which in juxtaposition create a mood. In Indian Classical Music, Ragas (template compositions) are closely associated with Rasas (canonical affects, e.g. Courage, Longing, Euphoria). The word rasa is apt. It means "juice" or "essence". Is it possible to relate the musical rasas to the chemical rasas within the body?

A famous Dhrupad singer, that I had the privilege to once listen to in person, said that certain compositions when listened to in close proximity of the singer can lead to altered states of consciousness (he used the phrase "raising of the Kundalini"). I have no reason to doubt his assertion, because I have seen people get distinctly entranced, almost hypnotized, when listening to a live performance. There are certain artists for whom a singing performance is an emotionally draining experience.

I think a live performance is more atmospheric than a recorded performance. The other people in the audience amplify the "vibes" that one is feeling.

I am not an expert in human biochemistry but as far as I have ascertained, there are good reasons to believe that the various moods created by music are associated with various chemicals and hormonal secretions in the body. It is as if the aural sensation triggers a particular secretion.

Recently I had the opportunity to (again) listen to three songs which are aurally imitative of a slow secretion and of a slow but insistent plucking of a nerve. It is as if the the strings of a musical organ have their counter-parts in the heart. There is actually a phrase in the English language: "tugging at heart strings".

The three songs are:
  1. If I could be where you are (Enya, Amarantine, 2005)
  2. Tu Bin Bataye (Madhushree, Rang de Basanti Soundtrack, 2006)
  3. My Heart Will Go On (Celine Dion, Titanic Soundtrack, 1997)
Another anguished, tugging instrumental composition is The Forgotten (Part II) by the guitarist Joe Satriani (as part of his album Flying in a Blue Dream).

In these songs, pay attention to the tugging that happens at brief intervals. The tugging is most often achieved when the sound is continuous without breaks, and lifts upwards in frequency, as if a gland is being slowly pressed and a secretion achieved. I think there can be effective research on the chemical, psychic and affective appeal of music and singing. For example, why exactly is a "sad" melody sad?

To quote P B Shelley, "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts." But one need not understand the language in a song to recognize that it is a sad song.

Rock music's emotional appeal is of another kind, which is unsentimental and which gravitates more towards invigoration. An example is an old favorite, which though talking of infatuation, is an an energetic piece of music. Highly masucline music, e.g. bass guitars and metal music (cf the German heavy metal band Rammstein) I find associated with the secretion of epinephrine. Try listening to the "songs" Mutter or Reise Reise and if you are a normal-enough person, and even though the songs are in German, you will feel a surge of this chemical and will feel distinctly aggressive.

I find Western Classical Music more cerebral than emotional. But I am admittedly limited in my exposure to the various composers. I tend towards listening to contemplative melodies. The Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven is a sad melody but it is more somber than sad. The compositions Spiegel im Spiegel and Fur Alina by Arvo Part are distinctly somber and contemplative. El Greco by Vangelis carries a whole spectrum of moods but the central mood is contemplative solitude.

It is not that music can only be enjoyed affectively. I enjoy music immensely, but rarely does it provoke an affective response. I appreciate it more as an expression of human skill and creativity, of a singer's range and control, and of the virtuosity of the composer/singer to create a mood (even though I recognize the mood which is sought to be created, it does not engulf me).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Securing Webmail Access

As more and more services go online, it is becoming increasingly important to prevent unauthorized access to one's data. Email is today the primary communication medium for the educated elite, and the vast majority amongst them use free webmail as their primary email service.

Since the storage capacity of webmail providers is increasing (Gmail is at 7GB and counting), there is a tendency to store almost everything (photos, documents, scans, software) in one's email account as attachments. Moreover, online merchants, financial institutions, utility companies, send a "lost password" message to your email account. If somebody has access to your email, he/she has access to a lot of stuff. Hence, it is no exaggeration to say that access to your email account must never be compromised.

Webmail generally functions as follow:
  1. Login to a portal using a username and password.
  2. If you have forgotten your password, recover it.
  3. Access email and related services.
  4. Logout completely (rare), or stay logged on and do other things.
  5. Some webmail providers also offer free POP3 or IMAP services. You can thereby use a desktop email client (such as Outlook or Thunderbird) to store your messages locally.
  6. If you have lost/deleted some particular email, ask the sender again, etc.
Each of the above can be considered a multi-vector vulnerability in its own right. Here's why:
  1. The login transaction must be via the HTTPS protocol (otherwise your username and password can be grabbed by others, especially if you are on a shared network such as WiFi), via a trusted certificate authority (otherwise HTTPS has no meaning), on a trojan-free and virus-free computer (otherwise you are already compromised at the very start), not having any keyloggers or other recorders (otherwise your login and other information is being recorded and sent somewhere), and the login page must not be a phishing site (otherwise, well, you're done for).

    Some web browsers also store the username/password that you use for login to a website in their "password database". This password database usually has no master password and therefore is completely insecure.

  2. Password recovery is usually insecure. There are many methods of recovering a lost password:

    1. "Security Question". This is insecure. It is very easy to have knowledge of somebody's date of birth and city of birth. A family member can easily guess one's "mother's maiden name" and "name of first pet". A schoolmate can easily guess one's "favorite teacher in school". If the service offers you to create your own security question, I recommend that you should create a question such as "What is your favorite string" and answer it with a grammatical but nonsensical long phrase (e.g. "mouse screeched to a red"). It should not be hard to remember this string. You should only recover your password on a secure computer, and in private (that is because the answer to the security question is not starred, as in a password field).

    2. "Secondary Email account". This method is only as secure as the secondary email account. Frequently, people have an easily-guessed password (or one with a weak security question) on one email system, and use that email account as a secondary email account on a trusted or valuable email system. While recovering a password, some systems (e.g. Gmail) also give a hint about the domain of the secondary email account so one doesn't have to guess too hard.

    3. Gmail has just come out with "Password recovery via SMS". I consider it one of the silliest and most insecure of methods to recover a password. Let's say you are in a meeting with your boss, and your boss leaves the room for a while and leaves his cellphone on the table. Need I say more? Never use this Gmail "feature".

    4. Interaction with the provider's service reps. In my opinion, this cannot be relied upon for free email accounts.

  3. Access to email is usually via HTTP, but since email can contain highly sensitive data (such as new account information, bank statements), I recommend that you exclusively use HTTPS for your webmail access. Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail all provide an option (either on the login page or in the settings menu) to switch all traffic to use HTTPS. The emails you access (and the attachments that you download) are also stored in your web browser's and cache and "offline data" folders, so, remember to delete all offline data from the web browser when you are done.

    If you think your cached data and saved password database is secure on your computer, think again. Your computer can be easily compromised if infected by a trojan or a virus. It can be easily compromised if someone has physical access to it (no administrator passwords can save you). It can be easily compromised if you leave your office desk without enabling a screen-saver. And finally, there are various ways of accessing your hard disk over a shared network.

  4. If you do not logout, your web browser retains a cookie for your sessions. If someone accesses your computer while the cookie is active, or transfers the cookie via some means, he/she can access your email, but usually cannot change your password. If you use instant messengers, or other desktop applications (e.g. Picasa) (which applications share the password with the webmail provider), they also save passwords in some form. It is extremely easy to get a password if it has been saved but starred in, for example, a Yahoo messenger login window. (And let me not even start on the Yahoo messenger's message archive which is insecurely stored in C:\Program Files).

  5. Desktop email clients do not ask for a password when they start, they show all your email to whoever starts the program, they store your messages in clear-text on a folder on the hard disk, and they usually store the passwords for SMTP/POP3/IMAP access in their configuration files.

  6. Backup for one's primary email is something that I consider mandatory. If you don't do it, start doing it now. What is the cost of losing all your email, and of losing access to your email account? Is there a risk of losing access to your online merchant accounts? There are many ways to backup your email, and for Gmail one can simply run a POP3 client on a Windows/Unix system or on another webmail provider (e.g. GMX) to download all email every week or so.
What are my recommendations for securing access to your webmail account?
  1. Use strong passwords (also see (3)).
  2. Do not use a desktop application to access your email (unless you know about, and can use, encrypted filesystems). It is not safe to rely upon the pst folder encryption that MS Outlook provides, as you will often save attachments here and there.
  3. Use the desktop application Password Safe to store your online passwords, which, for important portals and merchants, should be unique. Make sure the master password is a long sentence and use the master password only on a secure computer. In password safe, generate passwords randomly and save the last 5 passwords.
  4. Create two webmail accounts on different providers (e.g. one on Yahoo and another on Gmail) with different passwords, and use them as secondary accounts for each other. Do not use a security question on either site, or enable any other way of recovering your password. Login to the lesser-used email account once in a while to keep it active.
  5. Do not login to your webmail account from a non-trusted computer. Cyber cafes are a strict no-no. There is just no way you can ensure that your transmission is secure on a non-trusted computer. If you have to access your webmail while not having access to a trusted computer, follow these instructions, and change your password as soon as you have access to a trusted system.
  6. Use a reputed anti-virus system along with an adjunct (MSRT and Avast's free antivirus do the job for me).
  7. If you can, use GNU/Linux or the Mac (as they suffer less from viruses and trojans).
  8. Create a master password for your web browser's password database, or disable saving of passwords across the board.
  9. Do not save your webmail passwords in desktop applications such as Yahoo Messenger, Picasa, etc.
  10. Schedule a weekly/fortnightly/monthly backup of your primary webmail account.
  11. Do not share your webmail password with anyone.
  12. Once you are done with using webmail, log out completely so that the cookie is no longer valid
  13. If you store some documents for yourself as attachments in your webmail account, encrypt them using 7zip in the 7z archive format with a password (or with trucrypt) before attaching.
These precautions are by no means exhaustive, and people with very sensitive information should not be using free webmail in the first place.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Aphorisms on Gender

(This article was triggered by reading this superficial rant)

Human beings are sexual. The sexual union of a male gamete and a female gamete leads to the birth of a new human being.

Human beings are mammals. After impregnation, the female species carries the offspring within her body for nine months, and begins lactating after delivery. For the first few years of a human infant, the primary care is usually provided by the mother.

Human beings are social. A human infant has to learn a lot of survival skills after birth, and hence, a long period of socialization, education and gathering of skills is required. This period requires the collaboration of a provider (male) and a nurturer (female).

Human beings use complex ways to thrive, and use advanced politics, financial systems and property rights. Hence, biological fitness counts little in how powerful a human being is in a society. A weak female may be very powerful due to inheritance, and a dumb male may be very powerful due to his caste and clan.

Human beings have a well-developed neo-cortex, and can compare their state with other human beings, and anticipate the future and remember the past in a way, and with a density and complexity, which other species cannot.

Just as all other species, human beings use aggression and strength (directly or indirectly) against members of their species, and against other species, to further their genetic survival and propagation.

Now, Feminism.

Feminism comes on the horizon when a perceptive enough human observes the gender inequality in human societies.

Feminism is the drive towards equal rights and protections for women. Women, being the females in a mammalian species, have certain roles driven by biology. Biology also drives institutional and social structures which strive to strike a balance between women's (and men's) happiness and their biological roles.

In mammals (and thereby in humans), one male and a hundred females is biologically a more productive community than one female and a hundred males. Males also specialize in combat and in procurement and defense of property. In general, males are considered more valuable in a traditional human community.

The centralization of power in the male(s) is termed as patriarchy. Feminism is a strike against patriarchy.

Biological and combat goals are becoming less important as human civilization progresses. Memetic goals, and ideas, are becoming more powerful and important than genetic or physical ones.

In a setting where biological and combat goals are secondary, it is considered unfair that the power structure be based on biology and physical strength. This is the basis of feminism.

Feminism has a chance therefore only in those societies where biological and combat goals are indeed secondary. One can thrust feminism down the throats of people in a primitive Indian village (through reservations and affirmative action), but without the eradication of situations in which a male is biologically at an advantage, such efforts are bound to fail.

Now, sexual perception.

Sexual intercourse is a pleasurable activity by (evolutionary) design. It is the gateway to propagation. No matter if urban humans have sex predominantly for recreation rather than procreation, the pleasure of sex is by design due to its preeminent importance in reproduction. Those human beings who do not find sex pleasurable are more prone to go extinct than others who do.

Biologically, men are bound to look at women as short-term sexual "objects". Biologically women are bound to look at men as long-term "providers". It is debatable which perception is more self-centered. Both are, in their own way.

A man who seeks a long-term female partner is as far from being an alpha male as a woman who seeks a short-term male partner is far from an alpha female. A woman is victorious (in the socio-biological realm) if she manages to land an alpha male (one who seeks nothing but sex) as a long term provider. A man is victorious (in the socio-biological realm) if he manages to land an alpha female (one pressing for commitment) as a short-term sexual partner. (Mills and Boon novellas cater to the former fantasy, pornography caters to the latter fantasy).

This tension, divergence of goals, and self-centeredness can only end if biological goals are superseded or eradicated as a guiding force in human relationships.

But will sex, which is a biologically designed pleasure with a specific biological end, remain pleasurable in that case? This is a subtle question, and I surmise that orgasmic release will become less of a goal in sexual intercourse than a playful sensuousness which involves the whole of one's body.

Also, heterosexuality and homosexuality will probably become less clearly defined, and humans will have a spectrum of preferred partners from both sexes. And that is only to be expected as biological goals become fainter and fainter, and recreation becomes the primary goal of sex.

If that sounds like science-fiction, may I direct you to this news-item.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

On Trust

Trust, according to the dictionary, is the belief in the honesty and reliability of others.

A belief, in this context, is an expectation of future behavior from another human being.

Honesty is the absence of deception.

Reliability is a quality, the possessor of which acts as per an implicit or explicit contract, or as per precedent.

Let us consider a few scenarios of trust:
  • A trusts B to repay the loan in one month.
  • A trusts B to keep some private information about A to himself.
  • A trusts B to pick up C from school.
  • A trusts B to not have sex with any another person other than A.
  • A trusts B to take care of a CDROM that A has lent to B.
It is obvious that trust is a form of expectation from another entity. Superficially, trust can be about feelings (in which case the feelings get hurt if the trust is broken), or trust can be about the fulfillment of a material contract (in which case there is material harm if the trust is broken).

Let us consider material contracts first:

In business dealings, trustworthiness is generally not a factor, and after due diligence, formal contracts are signed. In business, one trusts at one's own peril. If the contract is breached, one can appeal to various institutional authorities, and one can get insurance or hedge one's bets, etc.

In personal affairs, however, to have a signed contract for everything is impractical and cumbersome. Moreover, people expect that you will trust them. If someone borrows a CDROM from me, and I ask him to sign a legal IOU, that will seem rather rude to him. If on the other hand, he goes over to a Blockbuster video store, and borrows a DVD, he will have no hesitation in signing a contract or a credit agreement. Why is that so? The dealing with a video store is "impersonal" whereas with a friend it is "personal". To expect consideration in "personal" relationships is very widespread and a breach of this ethic is considered inhuman.

Hence, personal contracts are usually informal and based on reputation and familiarity. If someone breaks the (informal) contract too many times (the threshold of tolerance varies from loser to loser), then it is justified to not enter into further contracts with him. Sometimes, a witness or an intermediary offers his "word" that the contract will not be broken, and that damages will be his responsibility.

Now on to contracts of feelings. Contracts of feelings are biological in their origins. Expectations of fidelity in marriage are feelings which are hard-wired, but they have a sound evolutionary basis as a survival and propagation strategy. Expectations of affection from one's parents or spouse are based on our nurturing instincts, and have material safety as their aim. We are feeling beings at our core, and though those feelings are biological in nature, we justify them with a lot of words.

When a contract is broken, whether it be material or affective, there is a feeling of loss. The feeling of loss is much more if the contract is affective, because in that one feels one's very "being" to be hurt. Moreover, in affective contracts, there is little that one can do to redress a breach. In material contracts, one can approach the law enforcement authorities. But to ask the police to intervene because one's spouse is not affectionate enough is not a very common occurrence. In such cases, the aggrieved can resort to funny tactics, which are probably not that funny to the recipient of those tactics.

In traditional or primitive societies, the community usually intervenes to address breaches of material as well as affective contracts. In modern societies, the community is evaporating and individuals are becoming more important. In a modern society, therefore, whenever there is a breach of affective contract, either individuals work it out between themselves, read self-help books, try to "evolve" themselves, or go to a counselor. If these fail, or are unavailable, there can be a lot of suppressed rage and stress.

It is also noteworthy that traditionally strong affective contracts are themselves becoming obsolete in modern societies. Folks in modern western societies no longer expect their daughters-in-law to tend to them when they are sick, and even in India, live-in relationships are becoming more common, kids are refusing to listen to every dictate of their parents, teachers can no longer command respect just by the virtue of their being in a position of authority, and so on. Traditionalists decry this "moral decay", but it is inevitable.

I measure the growth of an individual or of a society by the frequency of its affective agitations. An affective agitation is sometimes the only means available in a primitive society, or to an individual in such a society, but that then proves the point.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Freedom in the market place

Three judgments which are a pleasure to read for anyone interested in the history of human rights:

1. Boumediene v. Bush, US Supreme Court, The Right to Habeas Corpus (June 2008) (Section III, page 16 onwards presents the larger picture)

2. Naz Foundation v. the Govt of NCT of Delhi, Whether homosexuality is a criminal offense (July 2009)

3. Joginder Kumar v. State of UP, The Justification for Arrest distinct from the Power to Arrest (April 1994)

The Unsayable in Words (part I)

Many people, when they enter a discussion on spirituality and spiritual Enlightenment, sooner or later say something like:
  • "It cannot be described in words."
  • "He who knows doesn't speak of it."
  • "You can only experience it, you cannot communicate it."
Now to disagree with it is one thing, to produce evidence that the Enlightened through the ages have described their state and/or expressed that they are Enlightened is another. This post falls in that "another" category.
  1. Siddharth Gautam (circa 500 BC)

    "As long as my knowledge and vision of things as they actually unfold was not perfectly clear, each of the four truths in each of its three aspects - twelve turns in all - I could not claim to have realized the incomparable supreme enlightenment in this universe with its gods, its destroyers and its creators; in this generation with its recluses and its Brahmins, its spirits and its humans. But when my knowledge and vision of things as they actually unfold became perfectly clear - four truths, each with three aspects, making twelve turns in all - then I did claim to have realized the incomparable supreme enlightenment in this universe with its powers, its destroyers and creators; in this generation with its recluses and Brahmins, its spirits and its humans. Then knowledge and insight arose in me: nothing any longer holds me here; this is the last birth; there will be no more becoming." (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta)

    "There is that sphere where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither the infinitude of space, nor the infinitude of consciousness (...) neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis; neither passing away nor arising: without stance, without foundation, without support. This, just this, is the end of dukkha." (Udana 8.1, Total Unbinding).

  2. Jesus Christ (circa 1 BC)

    "And where I go you know, and the way you know.' Thomas said to Him, 'Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?' Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.'" - John 14:4-6

  3. Adi Sankaracharya (circa 800 AD)

    "Dwelling in this body as a mere temporary halting-place, he meets the things of sense just as they come, like a child subject to another's will; thus lives the knower of the Self, who shows no outward sign, nor is attached to external things. Whether clothed in space alone, or wearing other vestures, or clothed in skins, or in a vesture of thought; like one in trance, or like a child, or like a shade, he walks the earth."

    "Binding and getting rid of bondage have to be spoken of because of. the existence, and yet the unreality, of enveloping by unwisdom. But there is no enveloping of the Eternal; it is not enveloped because nothing besides the Eternal exists to envelop it.

    "The binding and the getting rid of bondage are both mirages; the deluded attribute the work of thought to the thing itself; just as they attribute the cloud-born cutting off of vision to the sun; for the unchanging is secondless consciousness, free from every clinging stain.

    "The belief that bondage of the Real, is, and the belief that it has ceased, are both mere things of thought; not of the everlasting Real.

    "Therefore these two, glamor-built, bondage and the getting rid of bonds, exist not in the Real; the partless, changeless, peaceful; the unassailable, stainless; for what building-up could there be in the secondless, supreme reality, any more than in clear space?

    "There is no limiting, nor letting go, no binding nor gaining of success; there is neither the seeker of Freedom, nor the free; this, verily, is the ultimate truth."

    "For this world no longer is, whether past, present, or to come, after awakening to the supreme reality, in the real Self, the Eternal, from all wavering free. The snake seen in the rope exists not, nor even a drop of water in the desert mirage, where the deer thirsts.

    "This duality is mere glamor, for the supreme reality is not twofold; thus the scripture says, and it is directly experienced in dreamlessness."

    (from Vivekchudamani)

  4. Mansur Al-Hallaj (circa 900 AD)

    "Anal Haq" ("I am the Truth").

    "There is nothing wrapped in my turban but God."

  5. Meister Eckhart (circa 1300 AD)

    "Nothing hinders the soul so much in attaining to the knowledge of God as time and place. Therefore, if the soul is to know God, it must know Him outside time and place, since God is neither in this or that, but One and above them. If the soul is to see God, it must look at nothing in time; for while the soul is occupied with time or place or any image of the kind, it cannot recognize God." (The Nearness of the Kingdom sermon)

    "God's being is my life, but if it is so, then what is God's must be mine and what is mine God's. God's is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less. They just live eternally with God, on a par with God, neither deeper nor higher. All their work is done by God and God's by them."

    "The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God's eye are one and the same--one in seeing, one in knowing, and one in loving."

    To be continued in the next part:

  6. Guru Nanak Dev (circa 1500 AD)

  7. Sri Ramakrishna (circa 1850 AD)

  8. Ramana Maharishi (circa 1900 AD)

  9. Jiddu Krishnamurti (20th century AD)

  10. Chandar Mohan Jain, aka Osho (20th century AD)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Deer and the Duck

Once a deer and a duck were good friends. The deer was fond of the duck, and the duck was fond of the deer.

The deer was fond of galloping in the open range, whereas the duck was content with her pond. The duck knew that the deer wanted to venture far, and frequently told the deer that it was free to go anytime, and that the duck would not give it a hard time.

The deer was fond of the duck and though it wanted to venture far, it also knew that without it the duck would soon be devoured by the vultures. The deer slept fitfully, with dreams of vistas beyond the hills. The duck, though dismayed to keep the deer restrained, was nevertheless pleased that the deer cared for it and was keeping it company. They had promised each other that no matter what happened, they would always meet in the evening and care for and protect each other.

One day the deer went very far and could come only late at night. The duck was filled with an inordinate rage that the deer had forsaken it. While the deer slept, the duck quacked and quacked till her distant friends the wolves came near the pond. The wolves dared not attack the deer on their own but they promised the duck, in their cunning, that they would teach the deer a lesson and make the deer pay for the duck's quacks of misery.

The next day, as the deer was just venturing from the pond, the duck gave a signal to the wolves and their friends, the bloodhounds. There was a great roar all around as the hounds and the wolves ran after the deer. As the deer galloped to safety in a cave, the hounds and the wolves, with saliva dripping from their jaws, set fire to the bushes near the cave. The deer went further and further inside the cave.

Deep inside the cave it found an inscription which simply said, in duck language: "Remember This." It was hungry and thirsty, and the heat from the fires nearby were sucking all air from inside the cave. It started eating the leaves and licking the damp walls of the cave, and fell unconscious as the heat became unbearable.

But it survived.

Many days and weeks and months passed as the wolves and hounds waited for the deer to come out. The duck, with its eyes still blood-red with anger, wanted to know from the wolves if they had killed the deer yet, and the wolves promised it that it was only a matter of time.

In the meanwhile, the deer, inside the cave, found an elixir of strength, a fountain of water so pure that it made the deer lustrous. Even in the dark of the night, the cave shimmered with a slight glow from the deer's body. The deer, not knowing the reality behind the attack, shed tears over what it thought to be the duck's plight, who was alone in its absence.

Many more days, weeks and months passed and the patience of the wolves and of the hounds ran out. They lost interest and assumed the deer was long dead.

As a new day broke over the horizon, the deer saw that there were no moving shadows near the gate of the cave. The wolves and the hounds had left. It came out of the cave, looked at the sky for a long time till its neck hurt, and then walked back to its home near the pond.

The duck saw the deer, became scared that the deer was coming for it, and started quacking again. Once again the wolves and the hounds came running. The deer, for a moment, could not understand what was happening. But then it suddenly realized. Now it realized what the duck had done, and that it was the duck who was behind the attacks.

But this time, the deer was not scared. With an indomitable strength, it stood calmly as the hounds growled and as the wolves bared their teeth and scratched their paws in the ground. The deer, suddenly, started soaring and galloping and wounding the hounds and the wolves with its antlers. It started attacking and killing the hounds and the wolves. Nobody knew what had made the deer so strong, and the duck trembled in fear when it saw that the deer had become immortal, that no blood flowed from its body even when it was wounded.

The battle was soon over, and the deer then turned towards the duck, and looked into its eyes for a long time. With a piercing gaze, it kept looking till the duck could take it no more and begged forgiveness. But the deer had spent so many months on its own now that it had forgotten the duck's language and could not understand what the duck said.

It simply repeated the only phrase of duck-language that it now knew: "Remember This."

The duck then gestured for the deer to come closer and sit down. The deer again looked at the sky, which was clear except a single whiff of a cloud directly above. But it heard a flutter of a great many wings. It galloped away with an effortless grace into the open range, leaving the duck behind, forever.

The duck became despondent and tried looking at the sky to see what the deer had seen, but its neck was too short to look up to see what was coming. But it did not have to wait for long. In a short while, the faint flutter of wings that the deer had heard became a thunderstorm. Thousands of vultures descended near the pond and started devouring the carcasses of the wolves and the hounds. The day became night as they clouded the sun.

Neither the deer nor the duck was seen again after that day.