Thursday, January 30, 2014

All Is Lost by J C Chandor

I am not sure what to write about this film.  I'll begin by saying that I am happy to live in a world in which such films are produced.

As the quote goes, great art is when everything unessential has been chipped away. When what remains is the pure essence of what is to be conveyed. In a film, it means not a superfluous sight, sound or word. Only that which serves the art. As in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) Not even the name of the protagonist is needed.

I am not sure how the idea of this film came about, and what must have convinced Robert Redford, at 77, to take this role. But he did, and his depiction is nothing short of outstanding. Showing restraint, grace, hope, defiance, grit as well as resignation and despair, all in silence and without at any moment overdoing it - this is method acting at its finest. This is one of the greatest performances of our times.

See this film, and if possible, in silence and without distraction. It is a journey which might have a message, but the message is, in the final analysis, unimportant. What, I believe, is important is the reflection on resilience, science and mortality that this film might provoke.

It is natural to compare this film with another recent highly acclaimed film about survival. That too is almost silent. I am of course referring to Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013). Both films can be said to be about solitude and resilience. Gravity too is an outstanding film, but I consider it more a superlative spectacle about space.

This film, on the other hand, is a film about humanity.

This is only the second feature by director J C Chandor. I look forward to his third film, due to release this year: A Most Violent Year (2014).

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Protocol Error

H-M and H-F were top-of-the-line robots from SurvivalFittest Industries.  H-M, from the M line, was engineered to do the heavy work and to defend against predators.  H-F, from the F line, was designed to give attention to detail, and to make sure the habitat was comfortable.

The two robots were required to communicate with each other without much overhead.  The communication protocol (called InterMingle) had gone through a gradual evolution.  It was version 4.334 now, in the year 2276 AD.  This protocol was very efficient and enabled both H-M and H-F to understand each other quickly and clearly.  Sometimes the protocol could reliably predict future messages and the robots could undertake predictive execution of what needed to be done.

SF Industries were very proud of what they had produced.

In 2277 AD, after a great many of H-M and H-F robots had been put into operation, it was discovered that in some instances H-F was restricted in certain acts that H-M was free to undertake.  When the factory designers were interviewed, they mentioned that in their design, H-F and H-M both had their areas of strength.  They said that careful evolution of the line had specialized H-F for safe tasks.  It was not designed to operate in conditions which had chemical effluents, possibilities of electrocution and extreme temperatures.

These findings were unacceptable to the Robotic Equality Commission.  It was decided to allocate enormous resources to all the regions in which H-F and H-F were supposed to operate.  Those regions were to be made safe for H-F as well.  Re-engineering H-F instead was considered too complex an undertaking.

This safety exercise took many years, but still all areas could not be certified as safe for H-F.  Never mind, most areas were.  The commission was mostly satisfied.

H-F could now be expected to operate in almost all conditions that H-M earlier did.

And obviously, the protocol InterMingle also evolved.  It went through a rapid cycle of revisions.    Now it was at version 12.3.

In this version, however, there was an enormous overhead to the communication.  Less messages were substantive, and more messages were about control and negotiation.  Predictive execution was non-existent.  There was much repetition and re-transmission for messages to go through the channels.  Frequently, messages were unacknowledged and the robots displayed a kind of competitiveness, even hostility.

Nobody knew what had gone wrong.  It was felt that perhaps H-F was still not at an equal footing.  On the other hand, H-M was increasingly suspected to be creating unsafe situations for H-F.  More and more resources were poured into enforcement of H-M's activities and to make sure H-F was safe not just from the elements, but from H-M's machinations as well.

The protocol, now a mess, was not comprehensible to any single researcher.  Teams of scientists were now allocated to work on making sure the protocol was mostly bug-free.

It was consuming enormous resources at SF just to keep the protocol functional.

A new researcher at SF came up with, it then seemed, a brilliant idea.  He decided that the robots would negotiate their own protocol whenever they came together.  Instead of operating from a fixed protocol, the robots would engage in bargaining and come to a mutually acceptable set of messages and interactions.

The InterMingle protocol was abolished.  The existing robots continued to work with their protocol stack, but they could no longer communicate with the newer line.

Because of this new computational load on the new line, the new line robots started running out of their charge.  They needed to be charged every half hour now.  The old robots, some of them still running InterMingle 4.334, were able to run for days without requiring a recharge.  And inexplicably, many robots, of all lines, were getting stuck in protocol processing instead of executing the acts.  They required a manual reboot to again get going.  Many robots were found to be unfit for general activity and were isolated in a military complex.

SF Industries went bankrupt in 2311.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Five Easy Pieces by Bob Rafelson

Jack Nicholson, in his early years, appeared in many films as a drifter, a drop-out, a man who could not accept the rules or the suffocation of his environment.  The fact that he speaks in such a measured voice, pronouncing each word like claret poured into a crystal glass, makes us feel that there is a seething cauldron just beneath the surface.  And when he explodes, it is truly marvelous to witness.

In The Shining, contrast his interview at the hotel at the beginning of the film, and then his breakdown toward the end:

In Five Easy Pieces, we find ourselves witnessing a vignette from the life of a bitter, alienated man.  The film was widely acclaimed, and is open to many interpretations.  There is even a Christian interpretation here.

His character in this film doesn't love anybody, and it is doubtful whether he loves himself.  He cannot stand anyone making any demands on him.  And love is demanding, so he rejects love.  First within himself, then in those who profess love for him.

What is the fate of such a man?  What is the fate of many such men who are thoughtful, have an evolved mind, but are restless and cannot seem to find a way to exert themselves towards some kind of fulfillment?

Such men are talented, but because they are too proud, they reject authority of any kind.  Even the shackle of time and practice which would make them good at something.  They drift, from one relationship to the other, one job to the other, one town to the other, and perhaps that is the natural life for them.  It might be somewhat agonizing, but so would be a life where they feel imprisoned and stale.  And one can only imagine the agony that they cause to those who cross their path in life: friends, lovers, family, ...  For instance, it is heartbreaking to imagine the state of mind of his lover (she can't be called his beloved, at least not without explanation) at the end of the film.  It is one of the darkest film endings, especially because though we disagree with the choices he makes, we also understand why he does so.

His character says at one point: "I leave things before they go bad."  There are moments in the film where we can see that he is not a sociopath.  He does have a heart, but he is at war with it.  Because at some level, perhaps he realizes the ephemeral nature of its pleasures.

"There is no permanent happiness, so why bother?" seems to be his credo.

Friday, January 24, 2014

On Non-Attachment, part 6

Part 5.

A strong belief in an idea or a principle makes us undergo suffering to uphold it.  Without that strength (or attachment) to it, we would not be willing to inconvenience ourselves.  Cognitive beliefs and ideas are rarely triggers for change.  It is when something takes root in our being that its strength has the potential to change the environment.

Look at any of the great personalities from human history.  From Socrates to Nelson Mandela, all sacrificed something of themselves so that the idea that they stood for did not get defeated.  They were exceptional individuals and were consumed by the passion of their beliefs.  They were willing to suffer for the sake of what they thought was right.  Had the goal of their life been "avoidance of suffering", they would have lived mediocre lives, grumbling about injustices but not having the motivation to do something about it.

In day-to-day life, the impetus for action lies in our hearts and minds.  If one is just doing one's job or some mundane act, not much motivation is needed.  But to embark upon a long project, journey, effort-for-change, a battle to uphold a way of life, attachment and passion are essential.

To be willing to suffer for something is a mark of attachment.  Understanding this, should "avoidance of suffering" or "non-attachment" be the goal of one's life?  Or should suffering be seen as the price of achieving anything worthwhile and should one therefore develop the fortitude for handling adversity while progressing toward one's goal?

It is a well-known aphorism/quotation: "If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything."  The focus is still on oneself, what about the wider ramifications of non-attachment?

Let us rephrase the statement: If you are moved by nothing, nothing shall be moved by you.

Attachment is the very name of emotional involvement in something or someone.

Without that involvement, one can only be concerned, not caring.  Only thoughtful, not passionate.  Only reflective, not motivated.  Only observant, not touched.

It is life lived at a distance, immune from sorrow as well as from ecstasy.

But no one can completely isolate oneself from life.  As long as one is alive, the waves of life will continue to splash against the shore of one's heart and mind.  One can go into a cave and live in darkness, but that's hardly living.

Attachment is what life is.  Non-attachment is death.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Fast

It was a strange quandary for the king, the father of the beautiful princess Husn.

Three of his knights, Agyaan, Aham and Aveer, were on a fast unto death, wanting to prove their love for Husn.

Agyaan wasn't very bright, but was willing to die for the love that he proclaimed for her.  Aham was no less.  Though he wasn't handsome, he insisted that he was the only man worthy of being Husn's husband.  Aveer was known to be a coward, and his going on the fast had surprised many, but he also maintained that he was just the man for Husn.

Husn wanted someone who wasn't lacking in anything.  Someone who was bright, handsome and brave.

The days and nights were going by and all three knights were getting weaker and weaker.  The kingdom's physician gave only a day more before one of the knights would die of self-starvation.

The king had come to his wits' end.  In desperation, he left the decision to Husn.

Husn was supremely perplexed.  She had asked every wise person that she knew but none had any advice for her but to accept one of Agyaan, Aham or Aveer and to let the other two die.

Husn was a sensitive woman and she didn't want anyone to die for her.

The night went on, and the whole kingdom was sleepless.

The next morning, she came to the town square, where the three knights were fasting.  She was veiled and only by seeing her chariot could people guess that it was the princess herself.

She announced that she would be taking off her veil at noon.  And whoever among the three knights was the first to come to her in her chariot and take her hand, she would marry him.

The three knights wearily sat on the ground, ready to run with whatever little energy they had to get at the princess.

At noon the princess unveiled herself.  As her veil fell on the ground, a shriek of horror echoed through the entire town.  She had mutilated her face with a chemical during the night, and was hideous to look at.

None of the knights moved an inch.

In a few hours, as the townspeople went their way and the now-ugly princess went to the palace, the three knights ended their fast.

On Non-Attachment, part 5

Part 4.

Attachment to objects obviously leads to suffering, but is also one of the simplest joys in this world.  We take care of what we consider ours.  To own an object is to start a relationship with it.

One's relationship to an owned home is quite different from a hotel or a rented place.  One wants to beautify it, to customize it, to develop memories about it, to have it known to oneself in all its details.

In the last parable, Jimmy developed a relationship of deep affection with his bicycle.  When he lost it, he was inconsolable.  His pain is easy to understand.  But his long-term response, to ward off hurt by not getting attached to anything, was not unlike what a scripture would advise.  And by not getting attached to anything, he also couldn't make himself care for anything.  A vagabond's life, without any responsibility or attachment, was his choice.

But the heart and its memories cannot be extinguished easily.  He could not shake off the love that he had felt.  Even though this was the love of an inanimate object, its nature is not very different from the love for a human being.  His heart still contained the sweet memory of his bicycle and what it had meant to him.  The key in his pocket at the end was a symbol that as long as one is alive, one cannot forget love, given or received.

This part of our humanity causes us tears, melancholy, grief, nostalgia, but if despite all these "bad" feelings, we still treasure a memory, then it must be giving us a kind of nourishment that is supremely important.

People who do not care for things cannot be expected to care for people.  Many say that to nurture a child's heart is to make it cherish and care for its books, toys and little things.

The next parable:

He believed, with all his heart, that all men were equal.  That they must be treated fairly by those in power.

He had a friend who believed this as well.  But the friend's belief was more lukewarm.  It was as if he liked the idea, but wasn't willing to put himself at risk for it.

One evening, as they were strolling down the market street, they saw a child being beaten by many men.  It was the son of the town mayor's house-cleaner.  He was being severely beaten by the mayor's guards.  People were shouting that though he had been accused of theft, that he should be allowed to speak in his defense.

He, the believer, could not hold himself back.  He elbowed his way into the center of the fight.  He tried to hold back the guards from hitting the boy, but they didn't listen.  To save the child, he threw himself on top of his bleeding body and became its shield.  The guards warned him to move away.  But he remained resolute, as if possessed by an inner fire.

The child's father begged the guards to leave.  As the heat of the moment passed, the guards dispersed, cursing the savior who had shielded the boy.

The next day, a crowd gathered in front of the savior's home.  They wanted to overthrow the despotic mayor.  They were carrying torches and shouting that they had had enough, and wanted the savior to be their new mayor.

The savior's friend was in that crowd too.  His face was all red today, and his voice the loudest.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

On Non-Attachment, part 4

Part 3.

Bhagwad Gita contains the famous verse (2:47):

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन। मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि ॥

It is usually translated as:
You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.
I have briefly commented on this verse earlier, in the sixth essay on the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha.

Many people consider this verse as an advice to not be attached to the fruits of one's actions.  After having done one's duty, one should leave the rest to ... fate perhaps?

There are quite a few problems with this interpretation.  One, it is not clear when the action is over and when it is the "rest of it" phase.  Most projects in life require ongoing effort, and to let go of one's passion at a late stage is no recipe for success.

Two, efforts are passionate because favorable results are strongly desired.  The strength of the passionate efforts is in direct proportion to the strength of the desire for the results.  It is just illogical to expect that after making efforts, one can suddenly switch off the emotional momentum behind the project.

Three, as I illustrated in the parable in Part 3, the good or bad result of one's acts are opportunities for motivation, inspiration and learning.  Success leads to more energy and confidence that one is on the right track, and failure can be an indication that one needs to correct one's course.

Of course, despite doing everything right, one can still fail.  But a diminution of one's own role in the outcome, as advocated by the Gita ("Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities"), can only lead to a helpless whine "What can I do?  I did my best.  God must have other plans."

In the parable, Dryden had a lot of passion and energy for his first book.  Its success would have propelled him to be even more enthusiastic for his second one.  Its failure would have made him realize how to write better.  But as he unwisely tried to not be affected by success and failure, he ended up being emotionally paralyzed, unwilling to write his next book.

I present the next parable:


Jimmy's grandpa gifted him a new Schwinn bike on his tenth birthday.  Jimmy was very happy and became very fond of the beautiful bike.  It was deep red, with a shiny leather seat, and the chrome rims of the wheels glittered in the sunlight.  It was the envy of all his friends.

He was very possessive about it though, and didn't like anyone besides himself riding it.

He cared for his bike lovingly and patiently.  He oiled its gears, kept the air pressure in the tires just right, and made sure it was gleaming and shiny at all times.

One day, as he went inside a candy store, he left his red bike outside, unlocked.  He was only going in for a minute, and locking it seemed such a hassle.

When he came out, the bike was not there.  It had been stolen.

He cried all the way to his home.  Bitterly.

A few years later, he dropped out of school, and decided to live the life of a bum.  He vowed to never own anything that he couldn't bear losing.

Sixty three years later, when he, a homeless bum, died of cold weather on the street, his bum friends went through his tattered and smelly bag.  They couldn't find anything of use.  The most useless thing they found was a rather rusted key.  There was something written on it.  One of the bums had a magnifying glass and he tried to read what it was.  After spending close to an hour, he was finally able to read just four letters: S C _ W _ N.

As the social services people took away old Jimmy's body, the bums threw away the little key into the sewer.


(to be continued)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Significance of Legal Efficiency

An independent judiciary, the due process of Law, and the right to speedy trials and speedy resolution of disputes, are essential for social equality.

Why so?

In societies without an independent efficient legal machinery, oppression continues without redress.  In such societies, injustices are frequently usually met with silent resignation.  People oppress each other if they can.  It is implicitly established who can be oppressed and who cannot.  Those who are well-connected, have state sympathy, are wealthy, or have muscle power, can oppress others with impunity.

To gain favors from the powerful, one has to usually sell one's dignity.  In the film Ardh Satya (Govind Nihalani, 1983), the protagonist finds it incapable of humiliating himself in order to win his life back.  His life disintegrates soon after.

To have to sell one's dignity is what inequality amounts to, sooner or later.

I don't think the situation has changed significantly in the last thirty years.  India, even today, is a land where the expectation of justice is almost non-existent.

In the absence of an accessible and efficient legal system, one is forced to maintain a servile posture towards those in power.  Just observe the faces of common people when they meet a powerful bureaucrat or a mighty politician.  Their expressions and body language is that of "we the meek, blessed to be in thy shade."

Without the power to fight oppression, there is no equality.  In modern societies, that power is vested in judiciary and the police.  Without access to judiciary and the police, Indian citizens continue to live in a highly oppressed society.

When two powerful adversaries fight each other in India, they rarely do so in the courts.  It is tantrums like hunger strikes, bandhs, roadblocks, dharnas, or public spectacles like "effigy-burning" and the like which are more commonly seen.

Everybody agrees that justice-delivery doesn't work in India. As long as this state of affairs continues,  there will never be any kind of equality or empowerment in India.

Yes, one can go to a powerful person and plead in good humor, but that is the very definition of inequality.

On Non-Attachment, part 3

Part 2.

Emotional subtexts in our interactions with other human beings are essential ingredients of communication.  Especially in close relationships which require trust and altruism, feelings play an important part.  Without these feelings, we wouldn't know how the relationship is faring.

The human family is founded upon a fundamental promise.  That promise is cemented with feelings.  The promise is very simple: the long-term commitment and care for another even when it is not very "useful" to oneself.

Without this promise, and a periodic reassurance that this promise still holds, our relationships will either not exist or will be stressful, uncertain, and chaotic.

Also, while the outside world is an arena of competition, the family is a place for one to find validation and encouragement.  If the home is without affection and validation, it is very easy for people to lose their balance and become unhinged.

Too much abuse, and people give up on relationships.  Too long a period without affection, and people look elsewhere for validation.

Acts of caring and affectionate gestures are meaningless without the accompanying feeling that the recipient of the gesture, and what goes on within him/her, is somehow important for oneself.  That we care about the other person.  And that this care has an emotional basis.  There can be other bases for care, but only the existence of an emotional bond can lead to the assurance that one can count on this relationship even when times are tough.

Therefore, a caring gesture without a feeling behind it does not have the same effect as a gesture which is heart-felt.  We are feeling beings, and we thrive on affection and love.  We understand someone better when we understand their emotional landscape.  Without that understanding, we wonder about others' motivations.

Emotional bonds can break too, but their breakage comes with trauma.  An emotional bond is the best guarantee most of us have that our loved ones won't take advantage of us.

In Part 2, I presented the parable of the "functional kiss".  That kiss is meaningless because it is intended to produce an effect, and is not an impulse of affection or of love.  And since the feeling in the giver is lacking, the feeling evoked in the recipient will be extremely lukewarm, if it is there at all.

I present the next parable:


Dryden was very passionate about writing.  He wanted to write two books, a dream that he had since his childhood.  And he poured his heart and soul into writing the first one.  Since it was such a labor of love, he contacted every publisher of the land to get it published.

No publisher agreed.  The book was hard to understand.  Though all publishers agreed that it was a work of genius, none was willing to take a financial risk to publish it.

Dryden sold all his possessions and published the book at his own expense.

It didn't sell.  Not one copy.

Dryden didn't cry.  He was non-attached to whether the book sold or not.  He only wanted to publish it because that was all that he could do.  The rest was not up to him.

One day, he received a telegram that someone had indeed bought a copy of his book.  He was neither happy nor sad.  A few days later, another telegram came but he wasn't eager even to open and read it.

He did not write his next book.


(to be continued)

Friday, January 17, 2014

India's VIP culture

Anyone who spends some time in India realizes the existence of "VIP" (Very Important Person) culture.  Any public building or piece of infrastructure, be it airports, train stations, roads, toll booths, stadiums, auditoriums, courts, hospitals, colleges, has special provisions for these "VIP"s.

VIPs are almost always political leaders or high-ranking government or judicial officers.  Occasionally they can also be powerful journalists, well-connected "artists" or famous sports-persons.

Being a VIP gets one special treatment.  Therefore it is very important to make it obvious to others that one is a VIP.  To have to explain that one is a high-ranking officer might feel very embarrassing, so symbols have been evolved to show one's status.  Single-digit vehicle number plates, white ambassadors or imported SUVs, a beacon light on top of one's vehicle, armed guards, escorting vehicles, ...

Having lived in USA for a number of years, I cannot remember even once seeing a beacon on top of anything except emergency vehicles.  Neither have I ever seen, in the US, a "VIP" being escorted by pilot vehicles.  There are traffic jams in many urban regions in the US, and if everybody is delayed, so is a VIP, ostensibly.

Not so in India.  In India, VIP vehicles have a higher priority than anything else.  If one manages to get in their way, one runs the risks of getting run over, thrashed by the armed guards, or having one's vehicle damaged.

The reasoning that Indian VIPs need escorts and beacons to clear away traffic so that they can save time usually extends to running through red lights and breaking the speed limits with impunity.  No traffic policeman dares to challan/ticket these taxpayer-funded thugs.  Interestingly, these days single-digit vehicle license plates are auctioned by the state authorities.  If a private individual shows a "0001" on his car, it signals to everybody else that either this is a VIP, or someone who could afford to spend many lakhs of rupees to purchase this license plate.  In either case, not someone to be messed around with.

Time is of import not just to these politicians and administrators.  Business leaders, doctors or even a courier delivery person are all running against the clock.  And their delay might turn out to be very expensive to someone who is waiting for them.  A surgeon or a CEO gets to wait in the traffic, so why can't a politician?

I believe that behind all the excuses, the VIP culture is an exercise in status and power.

There have been many court judgments in India limiting the number of security guards or the use of beacons, but to little effect.  Judges themselves consider themselves to be VIPs and are loath to give up their guards and beacons.

In my opinion, coming across a VIP in India is a humiliating experience for the average citizen.  It makes us lose faith in whatever little equality the constitution of the country promises.  On the other hand, a non-VIP is not respected by the illiterati.  In the present context, if a political leader comes without guards, he is considered a minor player and doesn't get any regard.

I don't think the VIPs will give up their symbols, or what the symbols result in, on their own.  And the VIPs have guns and goons on their side.  The judges of the high courts might pronounce judgments but they consider themselves VIPs as well.

What is a likely solution?

On Non-Attachment, part 2

Part 1

One of the characteristics of "life" is goal-seeking behavior.  We consider an organism dead if it is non-moving.  Psychological or spiritual death can be similarly defined: the absence of inward activity.  We call a person depressed if he/she has nothing to look forward to.

Life cannot exist without goals.  Those goals may be intrinsic and innate and unconscious, or as is common in human beings, consciously planned and executed.

Life cannot exist without goals.  Can one pursue goals without an emotional investment?  No, how can one?  One is motivated either by pleasure or by fear.  If there is neither, then there is no motivation either.

Those, who think that they are pursuing a goal without attachment and would not be affected by the outcome, consider attachment very narrowly.  Let us examine a chain-gang prisoner who doesn't care whether the road he is building gets built or not.  It is quite understandable.  After all it is not his goal.  He is being forced to work as a punishment.  But his goal throughout his sentence is not whatever he is asked to accomplish, it is to avoid further hurt by the prison-guards.  If he refuses to work, he will be thrashed, or put into solitary confinement, or have his sentence extended, and so on.  He is extremely emotionally invested in not getting punished more than the bare minimum.  The work is his means, the goal is his own protection.

In Part 1, I presented a parable.  It is indeed true that a person without attachments is a saint.  Or in other words, only saints (who subsist on others' charity) can afford to be without visible attachments.  An individual having responsibilities has to be, tautologically, responsible for them.

We call someone a slacker if he has no responsibilities or desires other than his own meager survival.  And we call him a monk if, in addition to that, he professes a holy ambition.

Any responsibility, or any goal, requires effort.  The motivation for that effort is emotional in nature.  To have that emotional motivation chipped will diminish the effort as well.

Admittedly the guard went to the extreme and renounced the desire to even live, but that was to illustrate that the very process of living, thwarting disease and distress, accumulating food and comfort, is a process driven by pleasure and fear.  In other words, survival is driven by attachment.  An alive organism is invested in keeping itself alive.  Without effort, and effort requires motivation, there will be only death.  The degree of comfort and health one desires can obviously differ between individuals, and the degree of motivation and effortfulness can differ as well.

What cannot differ is the desire to stay alive.

The next parable:

The mother was a very religious woman.  She prayed every morning and evening, and went to the temple on every little occasion.

She was a mother.  She had a son who needed care and affection.  She cared for the son dutifully and to the best of her ability.  She kissed the son every day.  Twenty times on the right cheek, twenty times on the left one, and ten times on the forehead.  She had learnt that this amount of affectionate gesturing was what made the son feel comfortable and pacified.

Years passed and the son was now in his teens.  There was a girl at his school who had grown very fond of him.  One day, she gathered some courage, went to him after the school and holding his band, told that she liked him and wanted to be his girlfriend.

The son thought for a minute and asked her: "How many kisses would you need every day to feel loved?"

(to be continued)

On Non-Attachment, part 1

Many religions and spiritual traditions advise that attachment is misery, while non-attachment is the mark of a saint or of an evolved soul.

Attachment is the emotional investment in a person, idea, object or a goal.  Spiritual texts are therefore opposed to the emotional investment in a person (calling it "worldly love"), in an idea (calling these "mental constructs"), in an object (calling it "materialism"), and in a goal (calling it "desire").

Emotional investment in anything other than God is decried as a fall and a failure.  The God in new age texts is generally phrased as "Enlightenment" or Truth or Nirvana.

Krishnamurti famously said, "The search for Truth is the only true vocation of man."  He obviously did not mean the discovery of mass-energy equivalence, or whether the steady-state theories of the universe are true.  He meant Truth with a capital T, i.e., the seeking of union with God.  The word "God", in his opinion, has been so misused by religious professionals that it had lost all meaning.

Let us, in these series of essays, investigate on what exactly is right or wrong about attachment, and whether it is wisdom or folly to advise non-attachment.

In each of these essays, I will present a short parable to illustrate a theme of attachment or the spiritual-religious teachings about that theme.

Here goes the first parable:

The kingdom of Obsidian had existed for many thousands of years.  Over the last few centuries, it had become prosperous and the envy of many neighboring rulers.

He, the strongest guard in the royal army of Obsidian, had been guarding that gate for many years now.  The gate was the entrance to the kingdom's treasury.

One day, it so happened that a traveling monk from the Hindu Kush mountains arrived in the capital of Obsidian.  The monk carried nothing but a small bag, a wool blanket and a container of water.  The monk, as he was roaming around in the capital, noticed the stoic and resolute guard and went near him.

The guard bowed before the monk and asked for his blessings.  The monk put his palm on the top of the guard's head and said, "May you be free from what binds you."

The guard felt a strange twitch in the back of his neck.  His eyes glazed over.  No longer considering himself an Obsidian citizen, he threw away his suffocating uniform.  Stark naked, he stopped breathing and dropped dead in a few minutes.

It took about three years from that day for the capital city to be ravaged by its jealous enemies.  Hundreds of thousands were massacred.  The kingdom of Obsidian perished soon after.

It is said that those who survived the calamity demolished their temples and turned into immoral heathens.

to be continued

Friday, January 10, 2014

Expectations in the Connected Age

Not much research has been done on this, but this is a subject ripe for the times.

When most people have a phone and an internet device always on them, what kind of increased expectations does this introduce?

Here are some examples:

If a family member calls and you are not able to pick up the phone, you are expected to call back as soon as possible.  Otherwise they will feel alarmed that something has happened to you and might call you again and again.

If there is a work-related email, you have to check it.  Otherwise you might miss something important that others are in the know about.

If there is a personal email, you have to check it.  Maybe there is a person who is trying to reach you on the phone but isn't able to.

Since many people are using Facebook instead of email these days, you should check Facebook messages every so often in case somebody is trying to reach out to you.  Or if someone is trying to tell you something about tomorrow's plans etc.

If you don't respond to an SMS, this might signal to the other person that you don't want to respond.  After all, responding to an SMS takes just a second.  It is impossible that the SMS hasn't reached them.

If you call someone and even if you just wanted to chit chat, always leave a voice mail saying that you just wanted to say hello.  Otherwise they will wonder what's up and feel alarmed.

If someone sends you a friend request, and you don't accept it, the real-life friendship is pretty much over.  It is counted as an insult.

If, on a weekend, you are driving or are in a theater or are otherwise in a situation where you cannot access your smartphone, people might assume that you are acting too busy and they might feel insulted if you don't answer your phone or reply to their SMS immediately.

If someone calls you, you are unable to pick up the phone, and you call them back in a few minutes and they don't pick up the phone, you might want to assume that they are butt-hurt.  After all, they just called you.  Where did they go suddenly?

If someone sends you an email and you respond to it after a few days, people will feel you are a good fellow but one who is just too busy.  If you don't respond at all, well then, you are a disorganized or worse, inconsiderate, fellow.


I think being constantly connected is a great boon, but it also introduces peculiar kinds of stresses.

I once thought of a patent-able idea that one could set a "status indicator" which would apply to all of communication channels: phone, email, messenger, etc.  It would signal back to the caller that the recipient is "in a meeting" or "unavailable till 4pm" or some such.

NOT communicating/responding is also a form of communication.  When it is assumed that you always are connected (which is not an unreasonable assumption these days), then not responding immediately signals disinterest or competing priorities.  Is that good or bad for relationships?  It does more harm than good, for sure.  Expectations need to be reasonable, but that is easier said than done.

The stress is on both sides.  The device-holder, if deprived of the device, might feel that he/she is missing out on a lot of interesting/important things which other people are privy to. It is rarely true, but taking away someone's connectivity feels like they have been blindfolded.  There have been many reported incidents where there have been riots when at a particularly anticipated moment, the cable TV connection was not working or if the internet connectivity was fast enough.

Smartphones are an altogether new sense organ.  Better keep them charged!

Otherwise, who knows what life-altering communication one might miss!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Notes on Looking Good, part 5

Part 4.

In this concluding part, I want to go over the "masculinity" or "femininity" in one's appearance.

I find that fashion and trends, over the last few decades, have somehow veered toward androgyny.  Female models don't have curves, and male models don't have hair.  Long hair on women is becoming less and less common, and more and more males are becoming "metro-sexual" (indulging in manicures/pedicures/facials/bleaching/waxing).

There are reasons for both trends.  The virus of feminism has made women believe that acting like women is to be inferior.  The desk jobs, lack of exercise, an increasingly politically correct and censored climate, and a paucity of ways to be one's own master and to find one's own way has made men psychologically effeminate.

Some scientific studies point to an alarming trend of decreasing testosterone and increase in estrogen levels in the population as a whole, due to a proliferation of estrogenic chemicals in our food and body care products.

It would seem obvious to a psychologist that what attracts a man to a woman is her womanliness, and what attracts a woman to a man is his manliness.  So, leaving aside the chemical onslaught of estrogen, why are, for instance, men willing to shave their chest hair?  I can understand a man who has too much hair trimming it down, but what's the explanation for the shaving or waxing of a man's body?

I am not sure, but I have a few hypotheses.  First, in the absence of real expressions of one's masculinity, "sculpting" one's body has become a fad.  A muscle-bound body is increasingly considered a key component in a man's attractiveness.  It didn't use to be so.  Film heroes and models before 1950 were not muscle bound, certainly not to the extent we see today.  It used to be common only for bodybuilders.  Today, body-building is a sine qua non for celebrities.

Secondly, the infiltration of mass media in every home has meant that people are more and more influenced by what they see in celebrities.  A celebrity, having had a personal trainer, wants to show off his muscles and shaves/waxes his body.  That is what becomes the new currency of attractiveness.

Thirdly, pampering one's body like a woman, and keeping one's body hair-free is expensive.  It shows status.  It probably started with only the rich shaving themselves everyday, while the working class didn't have the time or the money and always carried a bit of stubble or a mustache.

And lastly, I believe urban/feminist women find metro-sexuality more comfortable and acceptable than a rugged masculinity.  It is less threatening, and shows that the man is "hip", "urbane", "fashionable" and is one who "takes care of himself".  Also, it shows that the man has a level of affluence that he can afford to be this way.  A rugged man might find himself being considered unfashionable and "cheap" in a nightclub.  Since men in cities want to be approved and chosen by women, they will do whatever they think is going to win them points.

Also, the social climate is increasingly becoming a celebration of femininity and a demonization of masculinity. To be seen as a traditional male is to invite a labeling of being a "MCP" or a misogynist or a patriarch or worse.  This is a more complex topic than can be covered in this essay, but in essence, "manliness" is under attack.

Notes on Looking Good, part 4

Part 3.

This part is about adornment, or fashion.

Fashion serves at least three purposes, and I will go over each one of them in turn.

The first is obviously to enhance one's physical attractiveness.  There have been tomes written on what clothing, pattern, color, style, works on which kind of body.  It would be presumptuous of me to try and summarize the theory of fashion in a couple of paragraphs.  Just the very fact that one is paying attention to what one is wearing goes a long way.  There are enough affordable options and manuals of style now available that any middle-class person can, over the course of a year or two, build a respectable wardrobe.

Fashion magazines mostly serve to sell advertisements and brands.  They do offer good advice, but only occasionally.  The photography in fashion magazines is professionally done, and in real life the clothes (as worn) rarely look that good.  I find that the best thing fashion magazines teach is what a good "fit" looks like.

Making sure the clothes fit well is the single most important consideration.  Most people these days buy ready-made clothes.  One should learn to identify and wear clothes which are comfortable but which use just enough fabric to go with the contours of the body.  Too loose clothing gives the impression of sloppiness and lack of energy.

Choosing the right color, texture, pattern, layers, wearing the right kind of shoes/belt/glasses/socks, are matters of training and experimentation.  The earlier one starts the process, the earlier one will conclude become proficient at dressing well.

Fashion does take a little effort, and if for philosophical reasons one considers any effort paid to one's appearance an exercise in shallowness, then it is imperative that one genuinely look within and see whether one appreciates well-dressed people or not.  If one does, then the philosophical objections might have to do with laziness or with feelings of inferiority.

I also believe that one should aim to dress in the top two percent of one's current demographic.  Anything beyond that and one will attract not admiration, but curiosity and amusement.  Of course, if one lives in Manhattan or Newport Beach, being even in the top 10% percent might not be that easy to achieve.  The point is to not dress too well but to dress really well.

For reasons that are not hard to fathom, looking good is more important for women than for men.  Women are taught about dressing well more extensively, and at an earlier age than men.  Women's range of fashion accessories (in terms of make-up and jewelry and suchlike) is also far wider than that of men.  And women, in general, also can be considered to have a somewhat finer sense of aesthetic.  In almost every society, therefore, women pay more attention to their looks, and look more "put together" than men.

Secondly, fashion serves the aim of "expressing" oneself.  Two equally well-dressed people can convey a distinct impression of their inner persona.  How much skin one is showing, what kind of colors one has chosen, how "formal" one looks, whether one is wearing something archaic ("hipsters"), whether one is looking somber or flashy, etc.  In manuals of style, it is recommended to choose a few modes of expression that jive with one's natural personality and not try to become too incongruous between one's inner self and how one is usually dressed.  A man who is of a disciplined nature might not find it natural to wear a flashy belt buckle.  A gentle and religious woman will find it hard to wear a dress which shows too much.

The third aim of fashion is to convey status.  It is quite easy to deduce one's status from the way one is adorned or dressed.  It can be quite expensive to dress as a wealthy person.  Even if one is able to buy replicas and whatnot, the wealthy classes have a quite elaborate scheme of what one wears at what occasion.  Keeping up with the Joneses is effort enough, but keeping up with the Rockefellers is obviously much, much harder.  Having a large, well-curated wardrobe which can suit multiple occasions is not for the faint of heart.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The "Depressing" Reality

Is life as it is a "depressing" reality?  Or can one celebrate how the world and the universe is?  Is there an objective answer to this?

I know many people who eschew realistic cinema, calling it "dark" and "not entertaining".  According to them, art is for entertainment, and not for provoking a thoughtful look at what is already a hard-to-handle reality.

There are cynics (and existentialists) who consider cheerfulness to be philosophically naive.  According to them, a straight look at life must reveal absurdity, pointlessness, a void of meaning, and so on.  There are others who consider philosophy itself to be a pursuit suited to dark hearts, and want to "live" instead of "ponder".

I think there were always philosophers and poets and jokers in this world.  Those who made people ponder, and those who made them laugh or cry.  Greek tragedies and Shakespeare's plays are as much a part of our heritage as Lewis Carroll or Wordsworth.

The more a person looks into the future, the more he has to struggle with notions of mortality, heritage, loss, separation, regret, doing the "right thing".  That is the burden of a great mind.

Believing comes easily to children, and if we consider children to be happier than adults (at least much less wrought with regret, guilt, unrequited loves, thoughts of suicide, etc.), then it stands to reason that believing and trusting are key aspects of a happy life.  Over the years, beliefs and trusts and faiths continue to get shattered.  Life is essentially disillusionment.  And so, as the day of life progresses, after an initial noon, it is all dusk and then eventual darkness.

Nobody wants to die.  But death is there, inescapable.  And I think how one wants, or does not want, to think about death is the key to this puzzle.

Cheerful people do not want to think about suffering, old age, disease and death.  They know it all exists, but why bother with it as long as it is far away, in space or time.  They revel in the here-and-now more than the "ruminators" and "philosophers" and "cynics", who can't help but look beyond the immediate revelry and sigh.

But it also might be that life seems dark to those who are discontented or who have encountered failure or subjugation, and their unhappiness propels them to introversion and philosophy.  And the rich and the successful view life as a gift and as a garden of delights.

Many philosophers point to the immense existence of suffering in this world and ask how one can celebrate and be entertained while all this death and destruction is going on.  Inexperienced philosophers also point to the "injustices" in human civilization and feel depressed about it all. (The expectation of justice is the expectation that the weak will win because of a "law".  Is this expectation more pronounced in the weak, perchance?  Because it is a wish for themselves to be out of suffering and unhappiness?)

But in my view, it all starts with suffering in one's heart.  A philosopher starts from the sadness and incoherence in his/her own heart and therefore the suffering and "injustice" around him/her bother him so much more.  In that sense, Buddha was a great philosopher.  He suffered, was anxious about the existence of suffering, struggled hard, and thought he had finally found an end to all this darkness.  It doesn't matter that his solution was ultimately an illusion.  But he was driven by his own suffering and the suffering of the humanity around him.

Many scientists now agree that a depressive personality might be innate and of a chemical cause, and only chemical intervention will save the day.  We can't just blame modern living.  The modern life is both more comfortable and more stressful than the life lived by our ancestors.  And by all accounts, a tragic view of life has been ongoing (side by side with a romantic one) for thousands of years.

So, how one is feeling inside determines how one views the world.  Not a big surprise, but it explains why cheerful people might want to avoid Michael Haneke's and Ulrich Siedl's films.

They just don't want to spoil their mood.

Notes on Looking Good, part 3

Part 2.

In part 1, I discussed how genes, fitness, lifestyle and affluence all have a bearing on one's appearance.  In part 2 I ruminated over the psychology of wanting to look good.

In this part, I want to talk about expressions and grace.  Much of how one carries oneself is a part of one's upbringing, as well as the people and situations one comes across.

That said, one's mood and personality are also reflected to a great extent in one's gestures and mannerisms.  To some extent at least, one's mood and personality is a matter of choice.  Even if it turns out that one has less choice in the matter than one believed, it doesn't hurt to try!

In a manual of grooming (I forget the exact name of the book), it was mentioned that a lady should appear beautiful even when upset.  That she should appear more sad than angry.  That sadness will invite affection, while anger will invite approbation.  Wise words indeed!  Hostility in another person (towards oneself, especially!) is never attractive.  On the other hand, even little children love smiling faces.

The face is what we are mostly remembered by.  Face is through which we express our mood the most.  And the face justly receives the most attention in human interaction.  Hence, facial mannerisms are perhaps the most important in the consideration of one's beauty.

How one smirks or smiles (whether it shows sarcasm or delight), what kind of a serious face one has (whether it shows boredom, indifference or concern), how one raises and lowers one's eyebrows, how much one opens one's mouth while talking/eating/laughing, how one tilts one's head, how one yawns or sneezes, how one speaks or listens, ...

While these might be considered habits, there is perhaps a deeper aspect of one's face through which an attitude of depression or cheerfulness might convey itself.  The "aliveness" of a face or the "twinkle" in one's eyes or the "warmth" of one's gaze is very hard to fake.  Some faces convey serenity, some convey restlessness.  Some faces seem trustworthy, some seem sociopathic.  Some convey a softness of spirit, some a readiness to be cynical.

In conversations, it is easy to observe the restlessness of someone's facial muscles when they want to get their word in, and are no longer listening to what is being said.

Do these facial modes of expression make one look good or bad?  I think we can all agree that a short temper, or a bitter person, or a jaded/cynical person, is less inviting and attractive than a forgiving, sweet and a childlike/innocent person.  And we all judge faces and their expressions to see what that personality contains.  To that extent, it helps to have a cheerful disposition and to think optimistically and liberally.

Stress can tighten the facial muscles and make one look "high-strung".  Over time, stress can age a face and make it look tense or haggard.  A bit of quietness or meditation, in the morning and before going to bed, can calm the nerves and relax the facial muscles.  It is perhaps a better and more inexpensive way to keep one's face young than to purchase an expensive age-defying serum!

Beyond the face, the bodily postures and acts can be judged to be attractive or not.  The way one uses one's limbs, sits, walks, lies down, eats, are all factors in one's evaluation as a beautiful or as an ugly person.  Models are taught how to walk on the aisle, air hostesses are trained how they move about and serve, waiters at expensive restaurants are generally graceful and unobtrusive.  Some are trained, some are hired because they are already graceful.

Is bodily movement a cultivable beauty?  It is certainly cultivable in the early years, but beyond the age of thirty, one is generally set in one's ways.  Teenage is the ideal time to learn how to act gracefully.  And children and teens learn the most from seeing how adults act. Standing tall or sitting straight or laughing softly are "skills" that will make one more attractive throughout one's life.

It is never too late, though.  I was in my twenties when I learnt (almost accidentally, by watching another man) that I should gently shield my mouth with a palm while eating and speaking at the same time.  I hadn't seen anybody else do it till then.  So I do believe that one can always learn to become better.  Sneezing or yawning or burping only after turning away from other people is not hard to cultivate at any age.

There is a risk though.  Some of these habits might be considered elitist and uppity.  Crassness and breaking "taboos" is the very stuff adolescence is made of.  And a graceful adolescent might be seen as pretentious and acting "holier than thou".  But then, one has to choose which judgments one takes to heart.

(to be continued)