Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Incident On The Bus

I still maintain that it was just another bus ride. Although, scratching around for excuses in light of the events that followed, I concluded that there was a first I could attach. It was the first ever time I had travelled on a bus. From Brigade Road. Alone. In a green Big 10. Not terribly convincing is it? Right then, it must be Fate and Her indigestion issues again.

It had been a fruitful Saturday morning. Not only did I get to meet some old school friends, but I got to watch a visually orgasmic ‘Tron: Legacy’ at the same time. Ah, the light cycles, the discs, the Grid, the pocket fighter jets and Quorra; I can ramble on for a bit like this, but obviously this is not the event. Only halfway through a lazy Saturday at the end of the cheapest 3D experience one can get in Bangalore, we asked ourselves –

‘Why not make a good day even better?’

So, we found ourselves sitting in a mildly alcoholic smelling corner of this restaurant called Three Quarters Chinese. Though the excellent food justified it ultimately, we found our own choice perplexing initially as we quickly discovered that none of us really liked Chinese food. How were we to make amends for our hastiness? Why, by making a unanimous decision on where to have dessert of course.

Mama Mia, it was. We noticed belatedly that it was a bit of a ‘healthy’ eating place – every ice cream counter was plastered with helpful signs like ‘96% Fat Free’ and ‘You can eat 20 scoops of this and still look like Kate Moss!’ However, we’d already settled down with our ice cream cups (After Eight for me) and more importantly, we’d had our attention drawn to a shiny new – unmanned – Foosball table in the corner. So, we spent a good hour showing off our skills at the table for the ladies. No, seriously. There were a bunch of girls laughing their tinkling peals of laughter standing by the side, but it might have been a case of laughing at us than with us. Sigh. Anyway, with our stomachs full to bursting point and our hearts glad, we went our separate ways. A short uneventful journey later, I found myself home and plopped in front of a TV watching ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’. The End.

Well, not quite. If that had been the case, you would be seeing a blog post a day on the flavour of toothpaste I use to brush my teeth. We did go our separate ways – Advaith and Aditya went off to catch an autorickshaw, and I went looking for Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood PC. Wait, was that the spark that ignited a raging wildfire? Was that the mote of dust that upset the delicate churnings of Chance’s gizzard? Maybe, but you can’t really fault me there, can you? It’s only Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, you know! I didn’t find it though.

There’s a point where Brigade Road sharply changes. Where the short stretch of supermetropolitanism with its fashionable women, emo kids, swanky cars and counterfeit watch sellers trying to hawk their wares speaking a charmingly affected English ends and the robotic routine of the real Bangalore with its indifferent crowds and colourful bustle begins. That’s where I got onto a bus. A Green Big10 that would take me to within a kilometre of my house.

I can’t really remember the exact instant when I noticed him. Obviously, I can’t then tell you when he boarded the bus. Perhaps he got on at the same place I did. Maybe he took a while to notice the suggestive look in my eye and make his way over to give one of his own. I’m not sure but when a middle aged Muslim gentleman with a healthy paunch drapes himself all over your shoulder, you cannot help but notice eventually.

First, I passed if off as the crowded bus syndrome. Let me clarify that distasteful concept a little. I had, some time before, observed remarkable similarities between an overflowing bus and a mosh pit. People change - dramatically - from their usual touchy selves where they maintain a foot wide bubble of personal space and shrink away violently at the merest hint of trespass to near about the exact opposite, when put on a crowded bus. Just like in a mosh pit, they push and shove for no reason and take no offence when someone bigger and better comes along and does the same thing to them. They paste a vaguely doped glassy look on their faces and deep into their eyes, just like in a mosh pit but without the hallucinogens, roll their sleeves up and make a straight line dash for that last empty seat. I should love that right? Being the unabashed metalhead that I am? Where’s the metal, man, where’s the metal? Without it, I don’t just want a foot of personal space, I want two. 

It quickly became apparent to me that this was more than that. There are lines of propriety, good people on a crowded bus, even for you, and this man was crossing them with gay abandon. I decided to fight back. Pretending to pick up something up from the floor, I bent down for an instant, and when I came back up I sat a little more slouched than before. Using every inch of muscle in my shoulders, and the bones too if that can be done, I squared my shoulders with a sharp jerk.

The idea, of course, was that with that act I would drive a painful wedge into the persistent paunch, and hopefully get rid of it for good. It didn’t work and in the middle of the bout of helpless frustration that ensued, I realized one thing. That man had the paunch. Historically speaking, I have spent roughly twice as much time being a chubby, paunchy fat kid than the emaciated coder-nerd of college. So, I should know a bit about perfectly reflective stomachs. Yes, there comes a point in any path to obesity when your paunch achieves the optimum level of restitution. It drapes over the waist just right: it achieves just the right amount of flexibility to not jiggle around embarrassingly in moments of activity, to not – on the other end of the spectrum – be so hard as to give off a mortifying impression that it belongs to a bodybuilder: it becomes the shield of all shields. Throw a punch at it, and it will roll it around mockingly and throw it right back at you with twice the force. Worse, it acquires the consistency of the stickiest glue, with disastrous results as you’ll see.

What did that mean in the context of my shoulder charge? One, that my shoulders hurt a fair bit from the effort, and two, that I was now wedged in a rigid Yoga guru posture with no hope of going back to a more comfortable slump. The paunch had oozed around my shoulders to occupy the recently vacated space. I decided to take a look up at my relentless persecutor.

I found myself looking into a heavily lined, ruddy face adorned on top with the orthodox Muslim’s cap. His cheeks were covered with thick, poisonous looking copper coloured hair. There was no moustache. It wasn’t a pleasant sight. The man looked down at me - this might be retrospection colouring my account - but I could have sworn I detected a note of glee in that face of bland evil. I looked away quickly before - the horrors - he might develop an inclination to start chatting. 

I spent the next ten minutes pointedly staring out of the window, in the process making the guy occupying the window seat uncomfortable. In a futile attempt to take my mind off thoughts that involved me being sold off as a camel dung cleaner to some rich Arab, I thought about the giant tub of After Eight ice cream that lay near my feet. I forcefully wondered how long it would last without melting and if my grandmother would like the minty taste. It was supposed to be fat free, right? Perhaps even my mother, who was on a diet, could enjoy a bit of it. Something broke my laboriously constructed chain of thought. He was saying something!

I pretended to not hear and ignored him until the insistent tone in his voice became too much to bear. When I looked up however, I still couldn’t hear a thing he was saying, because my brain temporarily shut down from the stench. Even the memory’s enough to make me gag. As an unenviable collection of nicotine (and whatever the hell else) stained teeth induced in me a strong urge to shut my eyes tightly, at the same time a powerful whiff of what smelt like stale dead fish rotting for a month mixed with fermented garbage juice seeping from a year old corpse, assailed my stunned nostrils.

‘What?’

‘Time?’ he said, pointing at my watch, and tapping his wrist for emphasis.

‘Five o’ clock.’ The expression didn’t change. ‘Paanch.’ I clarified with finality.

Incredibly, that snippet of conversation did bring me some respite. For about ten minutes, because then everything became a whole lot worse. The dude in the window seat decided to get off! My petrified brain failed for the second time in quick succession and instead of coming up with a brilliant on-the-spur plan to make a quick getaway, I limply moved over to the window seat. The man took the aisle seat. As my brain slowly recovered from the shock of proximity, I brought out all the tricks in my manual on ‘How to make it patently clear that you are not to be disturbed?’

I held my head in my hands and rocked back and forth as if in the throes of a painful headache. Chronic migraine, if he were to ask, but if I were to give that reply then obviously all was already lost. I narrowed my eyes to soporific slits, and stretched and yawned as best as I could in the cramped space without touching anything. I opened my cool touch screen phone and stared importantly at the wallpaper for a minute. I checked my watch repeatedly; I synchronized it with the phone stares to hopefully let everyone know that I was late for a meeting, and fretting about it.

Maybe it worked for a bit. It was, by definition, a stop gap solution and stop gap solutions cannot, beyond a point, well, stop gaps.

‘Where are you headed?’ he said slowly.

I knew my tinnitus act was getting a bit trite, but I decided to employ it one last time, and ignored him. The voice did not rise a jot, but the insistent tone returned and despite myself, I turned my head towards him slowly. The metaphor that popped into my head at that point was that of a condemned man’s walk to the electric chair. A laboured sort of slow, world-weary and inevitable as a baby’s bawl. Why, you with the poor short term memory, wonder. Did I mention the stench? I think I was as close as I could get without slipping into a dead faint.

‘Er, Silk Board.’

‘Where’s your house?’

‘Er, near Silk Board.’ My house was in fact a couple of kilometres from Silk Board, but I had decided that the time for evasiveness was past and the need of the hour was for some aggressive falsehoods.

‘Really?’ he asked with as much surprise his inflection-free voice could generate. ‘I live there too. Which road?’

I resisted the temptation to bash my skull against the grilled window and die in screaming agony. Why oh why did I have to pick Silk Board of all the places in south Bangalore? Banashankari. I could have said Banashankari and he would immediately have understood that I was using Silk Board as merely a transit point, and maybe the conversation would have shortened itself a tetchy little.

‘27th Main.’ I replied randomly.

‘Were you with your friends?’

‘Yes.’

‘Sunday’s a holiday for you?’

‘Yes’. What I really wanted to say was ‘Sunday isn’t a holiday for which space aliens?’ but I was restricted by my limited Hindi speaking skills.

‘So, are you in school or college?’

‘College.’

‘First year or second year?’

‘Fourth year.’ An involuntary snicker made its way into that statement.

He lapsed into an unpromising silence. I dared a glance at his profile: his unblinking serpentine eyes were busy boring a hole in the front seat. I sensed respite and allowed my thoughts to drift towards home and my dogs who would be eagerly awaiting my return. A leathery paw slithered quietly through the air and landed on my left thigh.

An involuntary shudder rippled through my body. You can’t really blame me for that, can you? I was flabbergasted. This time, my brain didn’t shut down in protest, it went into overdrive churning out explanations for this latest outrage. The first and the most obvious one concerned repressed homosexuality. Here was a man, who by all appearances was a faithful follower of a religion that hangs men for *liking* other men, with his hand on my thigh and squeezing it menacingly. The next thing he said immediately suggested another explanation.

‘We have a hotel in that area.’

‘OK.’

‘You should come tomorrow.’

‘Er...’

‘You said you were free right?’ in a monotone that lacked the slightest hint of a plea.

‘Not really. Tomorrow’s not a holiday for me. Besides, I have other plans.’

The second explanation, of course, was that this was some kind of scouting mission for human suicide bombers. I have, many times in my life in post-college Bangalore, been asked if I was a Muslim. Obviously, people who didn’t get metal fashion mistook my chin beard for religious symbolism. If I were to make the mistake of being seen anywhere near the hotel I would probably not be heard of again until someone in Palestine got splotches of me on his shirt, and that shirt accidentally ended up in a DNA laboratory cross-referenced with my blog.

‘Here, take my number. Call before you come.’

‘I don’t have a pen.’ I said lamely, fully aware that I could just as easily type out his number on my cell phone. Thankfully, the thought did not occur to him.

‘Give me your number then.’

‘Er, all right.’ I made no move to say or do anything. The groping hand continued its explorations and discovered my left hand, which was immediately locked into a loose grip.

‘Nice watch.’ He intoned neutrally, pointing at my shiny wrist watch. ‘How much did you pay for it?’

‘About 1000 bucks.’ I undervalued it about seven times, but still I wondered if I quoted too much, because the man immediately smiled a little. The stench impinged itself, unsubtly yet again, on my consciousness. He said nothing and looking out through the window I noticed that I was then only two traffic signals and three bus stops away from my destination. I resolved to get down a stop early.

As I’m writing this blog right now, obviously I’m safe, sound and undefiled, if slightly sheepish at my apparent sensationalism; but when the man (who’d claimed earlier that he lived near Silk Board) followed me to the door as I prepared to get off at the wrong stop, I feared the worst. A misplaced sense of confidence born out of four inches in height advantage and four months of gymming evaporated in an instant. I leapt off the still moving bus as soon as the doors opened and, mentally ascribing every condition on Earth that slows down a man’s pace to him – arthritis, allergies, old age, stupidity, I shot off at top speed towards the my bus stop, not once looking back. I don't think I took a breath for half a kilometre - I only relented after I got onto the second bus and confirmed that he wasn't on it by some devilish miracle and he wasn't running after it like a film hero trying to catch up. Whew.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

(B)east of the Web!

To answer your question, occasionally dear Facebook, Multieight’s what’s on my mind. I vividly recall a similar word shuffling game we used to play on the same site – there we had to make as many sensible words as we could from a single eight letter word, just as in Multieight; only we weren’t taking on other people while we were doing it. There would be a bunch of us playing the game together – first there would be me hunched over the keyboard hitting any key I could reach. There would be some people shouting out whatever words they could pick out, and there would be some other people shouting back that those words were already taken. And then there would be some surprised onlookers wondering what the fuss was all about.


That game was (and is) simply called ‘Eight Letters’ – obviously the creators of these games are not big fans of creative nomenclature – and as it wasn’t broken down into 10-round matches, each session would easily drag on for an hour or more. Plenty of feverish effort later, we would mess up Level 50 and end the game; we would be sad for a bit, console ourselves, pat each other on the back, and we would start all over again.

Fun times, but as I found out when the itch for the shuffle began to gnaw at me again recently, ‘Eight Letters’ is not really cut out for solo brain-recharge sessions. Multieight is though – each match lasts for 15 minutes, and I’ve observed that the effort required to beat other good players over the 10 one minute rounds will necessarily drive your sleep away. The perfect corporate freshen upper then? Well, not if you play five matches back to back.You'll then be too fresh to get back to work.

I’m three weeks and about fifty matches old now, and fairly good at the game, so the time is ripe to share some observations. (One note here though: if you still haven’t played the game, go play about twenty rounds, and then come back here!) Of course some of these things are not only self-evident, but also known to me from my ‘Eight Letters’ days. Like the fact that as soon as you type in a word, you have to, with minimum delay, type all of that word’s anagrams immediately. Easier said than done, but you can, as I did, start with four letter words. As soon as you see ‘tire’, you have to, almost reflexively, type in ‘rite’ and ‘tier’ afterwards. As you get better at this, you’ll even stop allocating brain cycles to this anagramming step. As soon as you see ‘tire’, you’ll start looking for other words, while your fingers drum out the known list of anagrams almost unconsciously. You can then move on to auto-anagramming five letter and even six letter words.

In Multieight, auto-anagramming has another positive side effect. As you type out a word, the letters that comprise it rise up graphically from wherever they are in the full eight letter sequence at that moment, and the remaining letters are moved forward to form an unbroken unit. After the word is submitted, the used letters are appended back as a single unit at the end of the unused letter sequence. What does all that mean? Every time you submit a valid word, you are shuffling your eight letter set! Shuffling always helps because you are giving yourself a better chance of netting bigger words, perhaps even the full eight letter word.

There’s another thing that you should learn to do reflexively, and that one’s probably easier than auto-anagramming. If there’s any eight letter set that has an S in it, you will have a bunch of words whose plurals can also be submitted. If you punch in ‘tire’ for example, and there’s an ‘s’ somewhere in the set, you should immediately enter ‘tires’ too. In fact, you should probably be working with 5 letter anagrams constructed from ‘tires’, but simply pluralizing any word that you can is a good first step. Similarly, if there’s a ‘d’ in the list, there’s a good chance that you can generate past tense forms of words pulled from the eight letter set. Taking the example of ‘tire’ again (don’t get ‘tired’ of it!), you can and ought to immediately punch in ‘tired’ as soon as you are done with ‘tire’. 

The game’s called Multieight for a reason - the eight letter words are bloody important! You’ll see this for yourself as you get better at the game, but if you miss out on getting at least one eight letter word, your chances of winning the match will be hit heavily. There is no general formula for identifying eight letter words – you do need healthy amounts of skill, luck, practice, or a combination of each – but some patterns become obvious over time. If you see the letters i-n-g in your word list, there’s a good chance you are looking at a eight letter word that ends in –ing. It is also quite likely that there are *multiple* -ing suffixed words that you can generate quickly. As –ing itself takes up three letters, if you can pick out such words they will be six, seven or even eight letters long, giving you easy points by the sackful.

But beware the lure of the eight letter word! Only after getting my hands burnt repeatedly have I realized that it’s not lucrative enough and often even counterproductive to stop generating small words and dedicating all my time to picking out the eight letter word. Like I said earlier, the smaller words shuffle the set too, and that *might*help you identify the eight letter word. If you are a fairly fast typist, and you have mastered some anagram sets, you can type out a sequence of four or five letter words that give you the same number of points as one eight letter word in the same time. Easier said than done though, as even now I find myself looking for the eight letter jackpot instead of typing out the auto-anagrammable word sets I see right in front of me.

That’s enough theorizing, here’s a six letter auto-anagrammable word that’s a big favourite of mine: you really should see my eyes light up like streetlights when I spot this one: MISTER. In about ten seconds I will have got Timers, Timer, Miters, Miter, Smiter Smite, Merits, Merit, Remits, Remit, Times, Time, Mites, Mite, Tires, Tire, Rites, Rite, Tiers, Tier, Tries, Site, Rimes, Rime, Mires, Mire, Miser, Trims, Trim, Emits and Emit. Obviously there are more, but I had told myself I would stop the second I paused to think, and here I am.

Incidentally, if you spot one of the nicks ‘LoneRanger’, ‘RegnaRenol’ and ‘Geriatric’ on Multieight, you can safely assume that that’s me (unless I’m doing terribly of course). Before you run away to get high on word shuffling, here’s a parting thought, an eight-letter word that seems to produce more juice the more you squeeze it: REVERSED. There seems to be no end to six, seven and eight letter words you can make from it: play on!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Divine Thoughts

Another post on philosophy is long overdue. (Is that a cringe I see?) There are a couple of things I want to flesh out my thoughts on, special pleading being one of them, but I've decided to dedicate this one to God. 

No, I did not see a surreal light fill my room, and convert overnight. Forgive my little guilty pleasure, because I put that in just to shock. I’m talking about the God of the philosophers, of course, a God that has been disparaged by innumerable religious figures over the ages as a mere abstraction and nothing more than a plaything for logic crunching philosophers. (That does sound about right.) The God of the philosophers has to, first and foremost, make sense. We should be able to realize Him through pure application of reason. One of the implications of that statement is that we should be able to prove the existence of God through a perfectly logical analysis. 

And so I bring up the first of three well known historical proofs for study: the teleological proof, or the argument from design. This proof was very popular in ancient times as it appeals strongly to intuition. It can be paraphrased as:

“It is evident that there is design (or structure or purpose) to the Universe. That mandates a designer, and that designer is God.”

It is very easy to back up this claim with analogies. Can you imagine a car forming itself? No, it has to be built by human hand. Can the intricate machinery of a watch assemble by chance? No, only a watchmaker can use his skill to guide the numerous parts into place. And so the argument gathers force until it eventually ends in the inevitable comparison with the impossibly complicated machine called the Universe. While support for this argument has dropped off in modern times, continued promotion of theories like Intelligent Design indicates that teleological thought is not quite dead.

But what’s wrong with the teleological argument itself? (On a sidenote, I’m not documenting all for and against arguments here. I’m just putting in whatever’s occurred to me so that I can stoke a debate and encourage readers to explore the concepts themselves.) The first thing, obvious to any student of science, is that apparent complexity, in the form of a perceived regular structure for example, can arise out of simplicity. There are innumerable examples in scientific literature, but here are a couple which spring immediately to mind: swarm intelligence and protein folding. Swarm intelligence is the production of complicated macro behaviour by a collection of simple ‘swarm’ agents. It looks like it’s tailor made to shoot teleology down, and it is.

I dislike the argument from design for another reason: it's usually a cop out. If you don’t want to try hard enough to find a consistent explanation for a natural phenomenon, you simply assert that it was designed. A modern version of the teleological argument cedes ground to Science a little, and accepts that the Universe may be governed by a set of ‘unintelligent’ laws, but maintains that those laws have been designed (perhaps to ensure that humans arise?) This is very close to the First Cause proof of God (which I'll talk about later), and so I’ll hold on to that thread for now. There are more difficulties. Even if you accept the premise of teleology and agree that a supernatural ‘designer’ exists, it does not prove that that designer is God. Or that that designer is one entity – it could be that there are a bunch of deities out there taking turns playing snakes and ladders with reality. It does not guarantee that the designer of the Universe possesses attributes traditionally associated with God , like omnipotence (our designer God simply needs to be powerful enough to force order on the part of the Universe we see), omniscience (teleology does not say anything on the designer God’s foreknowledge), or omnibenevolence (that’s perfect goodness, and there’s nothing on this either).

There, that’s enough of bashing that proof I think. In fact the only thing that the argument from design has going for it is its intuitiveness. Once the self-evident nature of the argument is brought into question, and in this day and age where science has taught us to routinely doubt our own intuition it will be, it simply does not hold any water. That leads me to the second proof of God I would like to table for discussion, one that’s far less easy to hold in contempt for me, because it is the one that conclusively shattered my rigid atheism. The cosmological argument would appeal to many a scientific reductionist because it neatly sidesteps the domain of science. I’ll paraphrase Thomas Aquinas’s formulation here:

“Every effect has a cause that is different from itself, for it does not make sense for an effect to produce itself. That cause may be held to be the effect of another cause; a simple extrapolation of this argument produces a chain of cause and effect pairs that must stop somewhere because an infinite sequence of these is meaningless. I’ll call that First Cause, the uncaused cause that can exist stably exist in isolation, God.”

I think you can see why it would appeal to the scientific reductionist (I think I’m more or less one). It dovetails into the unspoken modern science assumption, that drives research into the Theory of Everything and the like, that everything in the world should be explicable from a small set of fundamental laws. Who made the physical laws that govern the reductionist Universe of today? As you can see, this is not too different from the modern formulation of the teleological argument I talked about earlier. Some difficulties that are applicable to both become quickly apparent. 

Why should we stop at that particular rung in the cause-effect ladder? We could as well say that the Universe’s existence is the uncaused cause, the first cause. The Universe is, and no one created it. It seems unsatisfactory, but is this statement any weaker than the one you get by stepping up in the cause-effect chain? Secondly, does it even make sense to talk of an ‘uncaused cause’? (Who designed the designer?)

These are vexing questions, and I’ll take refuge in mysticism. The First Cause is the uncaused cause *in our domain of reasoning.* The First Cause is not an ultimate beginning, but it is as far as we can go in our understanding of the Universe. In some sense, *our* God is only a part of a broken bridge to a higher dimension, the final pylon which we cannot cross. Obviously, this is at odds with the supremely powerful and perfectly aware God that classical theology expects. Our mystical God still needs a Creator, but we pass the buck to the inhabitants of the higher reality, perhaps one where our God is only a humble citizen, protesting that we’ve reached the limits of our understanding.

I’ll move on to the third proof, the ontological proof. Both loved and scorned in equal measure over the ages, this argument is more formally logical than the other two. Maybe it’s the ponderous wording, or maybe intuition evolves over the ages, but I found St. Anselm’s original version (you can read it on Wikipedia here) painful to grasp. Hopefully I can simplify the idea through my summarization.

“We can intuitively understand the idea of ‘a thought than which a greater thought cannot be thought’. Not only can we understand the idea, we can conceive of the existence of such a thought: therefore such a perfect thought (instead of saying ‘a thought than which a greater thought cannot be thought’ each time, I’ll contract it to this) either exists only in the mind or in both the mind and reality. It cannot exist only in the mind, because then it would not be a perfect thought; for a greater thought would be one that would exist both in the mind and in reality. Since we accepted earlier that we can conceive of such a thought, the perfect thought must exist in both the mind and reality. The perfect thought is God.”

OK, I will hesitantly admit that it’s likely this argument can never be made unconvoluted. If the weaknesses in the argument are apparent in my paraphrasing, I urge you to read the original, it is far more tangled than this. For me the chief difficulty lies in the presumption that we can actually think of the perfect thought (I’m still using the earlier contraction). Can we? Even if we think we can, I’m unconvinced that there’s an impersonal standard that can be applied to each person’s idea of the perfect thought. Since the whole argument hinges on this assumption, the rest of it’s all a bit of an air-castle really. There are further difficulties. Perhaps you’ll wonder how any sort of logic can prove the reality of a thought. After all, it’s just a thought, right? Actually this argument is invalid once you accept the premise that you can think the perfect thought: the logic that follows is perfectly sound. The problem is still the premise of the perfect thought.

Another potential difficulty is the assertion that the thought that exists in both reality and the mind is *greater* than the thought that exists only in the mind. It does appear to make sense, but again it has a self-evidence that I’ve learnt to mistrust. OK, I don’t really want to get into a debate on the reliability of the reasoning machinery of the human brain, so I’ll let that one pass. Going back to the issue of the perfect thought, there’s another way, a far more damning way, of looking at the issue. The ontological proof makes existence a property of perfection, meaning that if we can think the perfect thought, it has to exist. This way of formulating what the proof is saying makes it lean even more heavily on the first assumption, and is quite close to a proof Descartes quoted.

“The idea of a perfect being is clear and distinct to me, as clear as numbers and shapes. How can the perfect being be perfect without existing?”

To me the ontological proof sounds suspiciously like, “I think God exists, so he does.”, which is of course nothing more than another argument from personal feeling. I need a debate, people.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

"Hey, I like my last name!"

I know I mentioned this in my earlier post, but I didn't get to talk about what I really wanted to talk about there. As usual, I went off on a tangent - the whole theology thing was supposed to be covered in two lines - and I was forced to break this out into a new post for the sake of readability.

What I'd wanted to talk about was the whole issue of a woman being forced to change her last name after marriage. 'Forced' may not be the right word to use because I'm not sure if this system is backed by law. Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly prevalent everywhere in the world, and saying there's no choice at all is a fair approximation.

In a world where the curse of patriarchy is slowly being weeded out, I'm hopeful this practice will soon take its rightful place in the rubbish heap, because it's plain silly. Just take a step back and review it for a second. Forget ritual, forget tradition, forget the comfort of doing something everyone else is doing. I think you'll see it for what it is. Inanity wrapped in prejudice wrapped in tradition.

Simply doing away with the system is unhelpful, because the concept of a family name itself is quite sound. I think it makes perfect sense to have a unique name to identify all members of a family. If the father's name won't do, how do you get yourself one? I see Occam smiling, because the answer borders on the obvious. Make a new one. Since we all love ritual, we can have a naming ceremony, similar to the one that happens when a baby's born, to choose a family name some time after marriage.

Philip K. Dick


Following a link from Sharkey’s blog roll, I came across this blog post. I think it’s impossible to be an author and not have some traces of your philosophy seeping into your characters. Once you accept this premise, you start seeing the author in everything the characters say. And if what the characters are saying is something you strongly disagree with, no matter how good the story or the presentation may be, you can’t go through with reading the book. This seems like a major hurdle to picking up areading habit, but for one thing: there are few things I reject off-hand, very few things that I feel don’t deserve even the slightest amount of ponder-time.

Theology is one such thing. By a nitpicker’s lexicon, theology is just the study of theistic thought. But like all definitions that try to accommodate every one of those darned hair-splitters, it’s almost never used in that sense. The theology I’m talking about assumes Scripture to be literally true, and then weaves a rich science around that assumption. Don’t think I’m being prejudiced by picking a bone exclusively with Christian theology: every religion’s theology is equally meaningless in my eyes - rendered inconsequential by its necessary narrow-mindedness.  Perhaps a good analogy would be a hypothetical manual on surviving UFO abductions – such a text does not dispute the veracity of an abduction claim, it takes it as axiom; and then goes on to compile a very scientific literature on ways to extricate yourself from one. Funny, you’d say, but harmless, right? Humourlessness, driven by an unshakeable conviction among its students that what they’re doing is changing the world, plagues theology, and that’s where the analogy breaks down.

What does theology have to do with novels? Philip K. Dick. A man who gathered little or no recognition in his lifetime is today considered one of the greats of SF. As an SF connoisseur myself, I felt it would be a shame if I didn’t pick up at least one of his books. And so I did, and I was repulsed. Dick’s stories are set in worlds where Christian theology is not just another theology – it’s the only one, and more irritatingly, a strong conviction is foisted on you, and I can’t help but trace it to the author, that it’s right. I guess I deserve a mild amount of credit, because despite the theological literalism that dripped from every page, I not only finished that novel, but having talked myself into giving Dick another chance, I picked up another one. I’m labouring through ‘The Divine Invasion’ right now. It has a stunning premise, and Dick is one hell of a story teller, but it’ll take more than that to overcome that chitinous layer of parochialism I can’t seem to scratch away.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fight Noise With Heavy Metal

You might not know this but I'm afraid of balloons. Deadly scared. The fear that any given balloon will burst at any given time is so overwhelming that I'm paralyzed into a cycle of recursive fretting -  sweating cold and chewing off my fingernails. It's probably an extension of the same hypersensitivity, but I simply cannot stand the sound of pressure cookers hissing either. As soon as the tell tale whine of an impending whistle hits my ears, I bolt to the furthest floor I can go, as fast I can.

Now with that introduction, and a little extrapolation, you can maybe imagine how much I've grown to dread Deepavali. Hold! Your task is not yet done. Take that visualization, multiply the agony thousandfold, and that's how poor old dogs feel during our favourite noise festival. My pet dog Betty is racked by a never-ending paroxysm of shivers throughout the two or three nights of celebration. There's a wild look in her eye and she barely recognizes us anymore. She tries to hide under sofas and beds, inside the refrigerator and inside my wardrobe but there's no escaping the torture. It's scary. I dispensed with the noisy firecrackers a long time ago ( I didn't need any persuading!) but there's only so much I can ask my neighbours to do. (You! Cut down on the bombs. Please.)

That's when I discovered something. Betty is completely at ease in my room even during the worst of the explosions. The reason? Heavy metal therapy. People who know of my balloon-phobia have often asked me how in the world I can be a fan of heavy metal. I think it has something to do with a low tolerance for sharp, concussive sounds versus a higher tolerance for loud, but uniform sounds. She's doesn't bat an eyelid, sleeping peacefully, in the middle of very loud grindcore blasting from the speakers a few feet away. Of course, the heavy metal cleanly masks the sounds of all the firecrackers going off in the background. Peace.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Face Testbook Cricket

One average office day very recently, I sat at a friend’s desk watching him follow live cricket scores online. He would open up a terminal screen, code for a bit, look perplexed about something perplexing to me (the code always looked fine), do a quick alt+tab, check the score on cricinfo, alt+tab back to the terminal screen and well, repeat the cycle all over again. If it had been a T20 match, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, but it was a test match (you all know which one), and we all know how test matches go. Probabilistically speaking, it is fairly unlikely that the score will change in any way (runs, wickets, the number of pigeons snoozing in the rafters) during the duration of one minute that separates successive score checks. But this fact never bothered this friend of mine – he took pleasure, I’d like to think, from the thrill of expectation. A sense of optimism that that lottery ticket will eventually come good for him– not entirely misplaced because the wicket eventually falls and the run is ultimately taken.

This whole ritual sparked off an entire row of lightbulbs in my head because it seemed – so darned – familiar. I wasn’t a fan of test cricket, so amnesia could not explain the déjà vu. Then it struck me.

Facebook.

Facebook’s just like test cricket. Before all you avowed test cricket haters jump on my back, I’ll make a solid case for my statement. How many of us ‘occasional’ Facebookers haven’t been tempted by the little red notification icon on the top left corner of the screen? Tempted to check if someone, somewhere (come on, there are 861 of you, one of you should be saying something to me?) had decided to post something on my wall. Or if I’ve just posted a smashing good status message, at least a handful of that 861 would have liked it, right? I refresh the page, alt+tab to stare vacantly at another screen for a bit, alt+tab back and (hopefully) take in the blissful sight of the little red icon. Ah, peace. For about a minute. A few other folks would have seen my status message by now, surely? No? That’s all right. I’ll be back in a minute.

Every web company out there with half an eye on social networking has spent a hell of a lot of time and money trying to understand how users spend so much time on one web page. What’s driving all that engagement time? I only say - fellow primates, you should just follow some test cricket.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Inevitable

Something occurred to me recently. There’s something inevitable about the evolution of my musical tastes. Something linear, something algorithmic, something destined. My mind drifts to the first time I listened to Linkin Park’s ‘Crawling’ – almost eight years ago – sitting in the exact same spot I am now. I switched on the cassette playing walkman, started the track and settled down for a peaceful session of bookreading, only to be interrupted by something alien. The E.T. kind of pleasant alien, not the Alien kind of alien. I immediately waddled over to my sister’s room and shouted out, ‘You’ve got to listen to this!’

‘OK,’ she said. ‘What is it?’

‘Listen to it. There’s something so ooooh about it!’ I added, with a delighted shiver of my spine for emphasis.

She did. The song started off with a few seconds of quiet churchpipes. My sister looked inquiringly at me. Then Chester Bennington happened. A full throated scream pierced the all-too-fake calm; my spine considered another shiver in response to the tinny residue leaking from the earphones.

‘So how was it?’

‘It was OK.’

My sister was of course being my sister: passively receptive to new things, and supremely non-committal to in the face of intense scrutiny. That’s a very useful life skill to cultivate but that’s not the point of this story. The song is. Rather, my reaction to the song is. If you knew today’s me and you had a decent time machine, you would have concluded that I always had metalcore in my blood. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself again. This is not where the story starts. Let me start at the real start.

English music. How did that happen? To be perfectly honest, after scratching around in the dustiest corners of my mental closet, I can’t recall anything before Backstreet Boys. Blue. Kylie Minogue. Robbie Williams. You get the idea. I probably wasn’t born before that. Am I being pretentious? I don’t think I am because English is the closest thing to a native tongue I have. I think in English. When I speak other languages, I often find myself translating from English (or transliterating – with hilarious results, especially when I work my magic with proverbs). I can appreciate a Hindi song; I may like the vocals, I may like the instruments, I may like the tune, but I will never find myself humming a riff to myself or singing a verse out loud. It simply cannot sink that deeply in.

Rock music. I know I mentioned Linkin Park, but unlike most rock fans my journey into this fascinating land does not start with Linkin Park. It starts with Nickelback. In fact I even remember the song that single handedly lifted me out of my comfortably unquestioning existence in the endless stream of pop music dished out by the local radio stations. ‘How You Remind Me’ made me spend hours wondering what exactly I liked about the song. It couldn’t have been Chad Kroeger’s harsh vocals. Yes, the chorus was reasonably catchy, but not exceptionally so. Right? Surely, surely, it could not have been the fuzzy growl of the electric guitars? How could anyone possibly like that? I soon found myself looking out for songs with that exact same instrumental sound. Radio failed me in about a week, so I moved on to haunting neighbourhood music stores. A unified ‘rock/pop’ section did not particularly simplify matters for me, but hey, I knew Nickelback.

So began the era of alternative rock. It’s occurred to me how right I was to use the term ‘evolution’ to capture the changing form of my musical tastes. Like biological evolution, everything changes – newer and weirder creations are constantly produced, and like biological evolution, the ancestors don’t always die out. Although I listen to such songs much less frequently these days, I still love alternative rock. I still find the likes of Seether, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Three Days Grace, Trapt and Staind just as good to listen to today. In fact, Nickelback’s just seen a revival on my playlists. Cheers for rock music, but my story doesn’t end there.

Metal. My metal journey started just as unambiguously as rock music’s with Megadeth’s ‘Countdown to Extinction’. When was this? I think this transition happened sometime in 2005 when my sister (again) with uncanny prescience gifted me a cassette of Megadeth’s iconic album. Now that I’ve listened to all of their albums twenty times over, I can safely say that there’s no better introduction to metal for a rock music fan than this album. It perfectly straddles the thin line between the vocals-driven but guitar-supported sound that alternative rock fans expect, with the guitar-driven but vocals-supported sound of metal. And how does it do that? A handful of songs on the record quickly quench the longtime rock fan’s thirst (and stop him from throwing away the cassette in the gutter), and a handful of others grow on him slowly – starting off as incidental ‘other’ songs on the album and moving on to become favourites.

And no, my journey does not end with Megadeth either. If musical interests are always partitioned from a fixed piece of land, then thrash metal would take away a large piece of property. And I’ve always wondered why. What could I possibly enjoy in listening to a goat’s bleat (yes, there’s no better way to describe Dave Mustaine’s singing) accompanied by painfully high pitched keening on distorted guitars? (I’m not really sure, but I have a few ideas. Let me finish the story of my evolution before I sew up all the loose threads though.) And then there are the chugs. There are a lot of chugs. Even metal fans are ambivalent about chugging – some of them think it’s metal’s equivalent of ‘cheap thrills’. Not for me. The atomic clock precision of the palm muted riffs that are characteristic of all thrash metal – I simply could not get enough of it.


By now, even rock/pop sections in music stores could not satisfy the strange new beast that my musical taste had become. (I defy you to find me a ‘metal’ section in a Planet M!) It was only to become weirder though; because that was about when I discovered unclean vocals. Or growling, to be more precise, because the term ‘unclean vocals’ is a generic radio-friendly term for something not very radio-friendly. I think Amon Amarth was the first melodeath band I listened to. Melodeath was probably a step down the evolutionary ladder in terms of the instruments: musically it was a lot more melodic than the metal I had grown used to. But all the shouting in thrash metal paled in comparison to the sheer, unbridled aggression of the throaty growls emanating from the hairy throat of a modern day Viking.

OK, so I discovered death metal, albeit a watered down ‘pop’ version of it, but death metal nonetheless. Should I stop now? Certainly not. There’s still unclean vocals part 2 left. What do you think of a 5 minute song where every single spoken syllable is enunciated with a lung bursting scream? Scary? Welcome to the world of metalcore. I actually listened to a number of metalcore bands at the same time (and liked almost none of them: they were again a step up the anti-melodicity graph), so it’s difficult to credit one song, or even one band, for sucking me into the genre. I’ll stick with two bands that had the earliest impact – Parkway Drive and Bring Me The Horizon. They’re by now means the sickest screamers out there, but I listened to them first and this is my story.

There are a few subplots involving a few other minor players – progressive metal is one; punk rock is another - but my story is more or less finished. Again, to reiterate what I said earlier about evolution, this is not a linear story – every song I listen to every day creates a new branch in the tree. I don’t even know which one’s the trunk anymore.

There’s still a denouement left though. I’ve talked about all these diverse threads of musical interests, the major branches in my evolutionary tree, but is there a single rule that binds them together? Is there an explanation for the fact that my tree has moved deeper away from the conventional notion of ‘melody’ with each passing moment? I think there is. It has all to do with what I expect of music. What do I want to feel when I listen to a song? Do I want to be soothed? Do I want it to be a minimally intrusive background to my work? Do I want to feel love? Do I want to feel anger? What I think I want in my music is, simply, energy. I want my music to lift me up when I’m down. I want my music to lift me up when I am up. I want my music to make me want to jump up and down in a delirium of frenzied excitement. I want my music to be like the sound of a gunshot in a library. There’s more energy to a song with an electric guitar than a song without it. There’s much more energy to a song with blazing fast solos and lightning quick rhythmic chugging than one without them. There’s a hell of a lot more energy to a song with endless lung bursting screams than a song without it.

Is that all though? Dance tracks have a lot of energy. I mean, people dance to them! I don’t really like dance music though. Why’s that? Perhaps I don’t want my melodies wrapped in melodies, so to speak. A melody is a melody independent of the instrument that delivers it. Why not make the medium harsh? It’s quite likely that this explanation is absolute hogwash, and it’s either peer pressure or random coincidence that’s made me choose one ‘harsh’ instrument over another. (I think of trumpets – I can’t stand them, but I can’t objectively claim that they’re less soothing to the ear than distorted electrics) It’s also likely that I’m a diabetic trying to stay away from the sweets. Whatever it is, there you have it – a chronologically ordered sequence of snapshots from my musical life so far.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Autumn Skies in Bangalore

It's been a while since I posted an astronomy update, but you can't really blame me. I'm stuck in Bangalore after all. Like all major cities, Bangalore suffers from severe light pollution, but I should be used to that now, having been here all my life. (Pilani, I'm afraid you've spoilt me.) It's the perennial cloud cover, however, that's truly unique, and truly irritating. Can't our friendly neighbourhood rain gods do clouds in the morning and crystal clear skies at night? Ah well, you can't have everything in life. Besides, things can't be all that depressing - I am writing this blog post after all.

Jupiter. Our beloved gas giant will probably be the only object you will see on an average Bangalore night this month, so I'll start off here. Jupiter's reaching almost Venus-esque levels of brilliance at the moment, and cloud cover or not, you cannot possibly miss it. There's no question of confusing it with Venus either. Just as the evening star follows the Sun down West, Jupiter rises majestically in the East. Don't mistake it for a distant streetlamp/UFO/low flying aeroplane!

Before I proceed further, however, there are a few points I need to clarify. What is my time period of observation? 8 PM - 9 PM. This information is important, because the sky will look completely different at, say, 3 in the morning. Don't worry about sticking rigidly to this timeline though. Thanks to light pollution, there's no point trying to locate objects close to the horizon, meaning that all targets must already be reasonably high in the sky at the time of observation. High in the sky = takes longer to set, so an hour here or an hour there shouldn't affect things drastically.

How long will this post be relevant? About a month or so, I reckon. If you're wondering why this is the case, think of the Earth's revolution around the sun. Think of it as occurring inside a giant enveloping celestial sphere in which all stars are embedded. The movement of the stars relative to the Earth's motion is trivial as they are so far away (relative to the Earth-Sun distance), so the celestial sphere can be assumed to be fixed in space. Obviously as the Earth moves through the celestial sphere, constellations high up in the night sky today start to set earlier and earlier, and 'hidden' day time constellations start to rise earlier. Also, one month in Bangalore terms translates to about five days worth of cloudless nights, so better get your autumn astronomy fix real quick!

Since I started off with Jupiter, the obvious choice for next-up is Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut is what can be called a Southern star; meaning that it lies closer to the South pole and never ventures too far away from the Southern horizon (in the Northern hemisphere, of course). In fact, I don't think it can even be seen from the skies of Pilani (which of course, lies about 20 degrees further to the North). It lies southward of Jupiter, to it's right, and can also be easily identified as there are no other bright stars in the vicinity (it's sometimes called the Lonely Star of Autumn.) Fomalhaut, to some extent displaces Canopus in the sky, as the two stars lie on opposite sides of the South Pole.

If Fomalhaut lies southward of Jupiter, northward lies the Square of Pegasus. The Square of Pegasus is often called the asterism of autumn. It's a flattering moniker as the Summer Triangle (I'll get to that in a minute) is still way more prominent. It isn't particularly easy to spot. Even with sparse cloud cover, I needed a couple of minutes of night vision strengthening to locate it, and even after that I could pick out only three of the four vertices of the square. It's not a perfect square but the arrangement of the stars is quite suggestive, and you should be able to 'guess' the position of the fourth star. Interestingly, the brightest star in the square - Alpheratz - actually belongs to the constellation Andromeda, rather than Pegasus.


The Summer Triangle is easy to spot. It covers a large swathe of the Northern sky, with Altair lying highest in the sky. Vega is probably the easiest of the lot to identify. As the second brightest star in the Northern celestial sphere (after Arcturus) and fourth brightest overall (after Sirius, Canopus and Arcturus), it shines brightly, a lone jewel in the North. (I seem to be referring to a disproportionate number of 'lone jewel' stars and the like, but that can't be helped. Autumn is disproportionately starved of bright stars.) Vega was actually the North Pole star about 12000 years ago, and will be so again another 11000 years in the future. It has been extensively studied by modern scientists as well because of the dusty proto-planetary disc that surrounds it. Altair is quite distinctive too, as it forms a visually close knit pair with the second magnitude star Tarazed. Vega's constellation is Lyra, and Altair's (and Tarazed's) is Aquila but other stars in these constellations are quite faint, so there's no point looking for distinctive 'shapes'. Cygnus the swan is different. Deneb, the third vertex of the Summer Triangle belongs to this constellation. One side of Deneb, you can spot a near-collinear sequence of five second magnitude stars that won't require too much imagination to be visualized as a flying bird.


In the Southern sky, tending towards the West, lie two of my favourite constellations. Sagittarius and Scorpio. Scorpio is probably easier to identify with the bright orange dot of Antares an easy marker. Westward of Antares, you should be able to identify a canopy of three fairly bright stars that make up the pincers of the scorpion (or the head of a cobra, as it's always seemed to me). Eastward of Antares, you should be able to pick up a long chain of stars that slowly climbs into the Southern sky and merges with Sagittarius (the sting of the scorpion). Sagittarius has the distinctive shape of a teapot: but if you are unfamiliar with the constellation, an unexpected orientation of the teapot may throw you off.



You can see the square of Pegasus in the first picture. The second shows the summer triangle. it has been rotated to ensure that it matches what you'll likely see in the sky. The third picture captures Sagittarius and its teapot shape. The fourth picks out Scorpio, but Sagittarius is there in the frame too. See if you can spot it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

On Being Petty

First, there is the good. It is as rare as it is beautiful, but it exists. The good is pure and clear, unclouded by the taint of weakness. It’s true that good people are often disliked – but I think this is no more than an orphaned dislike born out of inevitable feelings of inferiority. Most people however worship the good and revere good people. Whichever way you lean, it is never in doubt that you are leaning. Then there are the truly bad people, the rotten apples in a truck full of Australian imports, the ones crawling with malice, the rapists, the serial killers, the politicians, the sadists, the wife-beaters. The evil that marks each cannot be denied, yet it seems to me that amidst it all there is a paradoxical honesty. These are people who look bad, sound bad, speak bad, and are bad. Is there any way you can look at a racist slave trader, and feel something other than an unadulterated, honest disgust? (No, you don’t count, descendent of Elizabeth Bathory!)

Somewhere in the middle of the good-evil spectrum lie these folks. These are the sort of people who'll pretend to forget your name when the exact opposite may be closer to reality. These are the sort of people who’ll count each time you call them an idiot, file it away in an alphabetically ordered mental cabinet, and at an opportune moment - when you’ve run into some hard times, suffered a heart attack perhaps, dying in a car crash maybe, mauled by a polar bear in Madagascar perhaps - that’s when they’ll give it all back. It won't matter that the perceived slight is likely no more than a part of some drunken banter; they won’t care a whit as long as they get to feel happy calling you by your middle name, and then calling you an idiot.

These are the people who’ll remember that occasion when you accidentally stepped on their foot in a crowded bus. They’ll wait for another bus, another crowd, and deliberately stomp all over your shoes, all the while with a benevolent smile on the face. The carefully combed hair of the respectable citizen, the myopic glasses that speak of industry, the austere solemnity etched into every line, they'll be there, but don't be fooled! Thankfully, such people have been few and far between in my life. Although, (there’s a caveat, there always is), they seem to have taken up some of the best vantage points. No names of course, that would be just like them. These people are not insecure enough to properly turn towards a life of waste and malice. Nor are they instantly dislikeable go-getters. They are definitely not the altruistic sort either. In fact they are too colourless in their lives, too insignificant, to ever be more an unlikely concoction of molecules, cosmically speaking. Perhaps this is what drives their little world of Karmic retribution. 

These are the sort of people who’ll jump queues only where it won’t really matter. Not at movie theatres, not at concert gates, not at bank counters but at hostel canteens. It beggars belief how such superficial acts can hold any sort of significance, but then again self-confidence is a mysterious thing. These are the people who won’t look to massage their egos with some hard work, a promotion and a new car; instead they’ll get their kicks from being the last ones to hold out on dinner plans. This Saturday? What frightful bad luck. They’ll have work, they’ll have meetings, they’ll have deadlines, they’ll have girlfriends to please, when in reality, they’ll be cowering in some dark, dingy corner of a forgotten attic, plotting their next unnoticed triumph. These are the petty people.

The thing about these folks is, by virtue of most of their plots and intrigues being petty, it takes a while to even notice them. And then you’ll hate them. Terrorists you can fight, arsonists you can jail, but the petty people, there isn’t a thing you can do about them. Any riposte you think of will be just as petty as the original thrust, and you’ll have to make do with chanting your principles under your breath. Sigh, there’s another unresolved problem I’ll have to try and sleep off.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Critical Convergence

At some unknown time in the distant past, the foundation was laid for critical convergence in movies. By the time I got my first dose of big screen escapism, the insubstantial idea of the ‘ideal’ film was well entrenched enough to be walking away with very substantial Oscars each time. Just chew on this for a moment: what would the critically perfect film look like? It would have very few characters for starters- offering plenty of scope for ‘character development’. There would be lots of conversation and minimal action. There would almost certainly be a traumatic experience of some sort underlying the protagonist’s role. It would have a narrative pace that would tick over slower than a blue whale’s heart, and it would almost certainly have been made on a shoestring budget. Humour would be rare, absent or accidental; any speculative or fantastical elements would just be absent. This movie would hit critical convergence with ease.

Would I watch such a film? I could describe several improbable circumstances which conceivably might force me to, but the short answer is no. In fact my ideal movie would pick the opposite of most of the ‘design’ choices made in the earlier description. But that’s not what I want to discuss here, because films today have achieved critical convergence to the extent that almost no prominent genre-limited critics exist today. Instead I want to talk about the same phenomenon, still only in the nascent stage but moving fast enough to make me fret, in the field of computer games.

Everyone knows Role Playing Games are the in thing today. It’s likely that even your average non-gamer has seen an online ad for at least one MMORPG flashing promiscuously in the sidebar, and in  a completely unrelated website. But a lesser known fact is that critics love RPGs too. Like before, let me start off with a question: what would the critically perfect computer game look like? It would be an RPG yes, and possibly an action RPG, but not necessarily. Its gameplay would be non linear and it would have more side missions than anyone could care to count. It would have an absurdly complicated plot, and some sort of a dialogue based mechanism to manipulate it. Everything in the game world would be ‘explorable’. There would probably be an immense amount of character customization available.

Again, would I play such a game? Probably yes. In any case, the answer’s not an immediate no, because my design choices match the critically perfect ones in a couple of cases. No game is made worse by increasing the explorability of the in-game world, for instance. What’s worrying, however, is that no one seems to like the old fashioned game with the set-in-stone one path storyline anymore. For me, a significant portion of the ‘kick’ associated with gaming comes from simply progressing through a game. Non-linear gameplay often clouds the sensation of progress, leaving me dissatisfied even after hours and hours of play. Also, I do enjoy a bit of character customization, but why does every game need to have truckloads of it? I would love to play an action RPG that has awesomely depicted environments, but little or no character customization (weapon upgrades, skill upgrades, level upgrades, you get what I’m talking about). And then there are the dialogues – I wonder if I’ll ever get used to them? Right now I hate them like the Nazis. I really don’t care about altering the plot a tetchy bit by spending half my time watching my characters talk to each other.

Computer game criticism hasn’t hit critical convergence yet, but history suggests that it’s only a matter of time before it does. Is there anything at all that can offer, if not a cure, an alternative to this process? The answer’s an easy one: genre-limited reviews. Music today has become so diverse that the process of criticism is almost exclusively genre-limited. Although it makes it harder for you to find the right reviewer (rather than the right review), it works. I know that the review of a metal band on a metal review site will be fair, because there’s no prejudice against an entire genre there. It isn’t like people automatically judge metal music out of 7 because the popular opinion is that it’s not nice to listen to. I just hope that a genre based criticism culture grows quickly in the computer gaming scene. If it doesn’t, and it goes the way of cinema, I’ll be left with only one alternative. Pick the genre, and choose randomly from all that fit.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Hope

There was once a time when everyone who fought against slavery was thought a crank.

There was once a time when everyone who fought for women's rights was thought a crank.

Today, most animal rights activists are looked at as cranks.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Obama Bashing

Every morning at work, the first fifteen minutes of fighting dreariness are spent on Google Reader. A small fraction of that time is spent on feeds from Snopes (if you haven’t heard of Snopes, I urge you to check it out); and a significant portion of that small fraction is spent on reading an article that debunks yet another Obama hoax. 

With even a superficial analysis, one can identify features common to all these hoaxes. An example is a persistent insinuation that somehow Barack Obama is less American than the rest. (He’s born in Hawaii? What sensible American is born in Hawaii? Wait, his father is Kenyan? Is there anything more to be said?) There are a couple of points I find incongruous at best (and repulsive at worst) about this view. First, how is being of German, Dutch, Irish or even English descent ‘better’ than being of Mexican, Kenyan or Indian descent? Before anyone answers, I have to hastily interrupt, pointing out the rhetorical nature of the question, and mumble something about the R-word. Here’s Snopes link 1 illustrating my point. Comprehensively debunked as this email hoax might be, the Snopes folks might now be looking at taking a breather from the usual business about alien abductions and levitating monkeys and concentrating on Barack Obama full time. 

Then, there’s the Islamophobia. Every Republican worth his salt has cried himself hoarse about BHO’s middle name and its implications. (The use of the distracting acronym BHO – which for me always expands to Browser Helper Object and nothing more– appears to be a thinly veiled ploy to draw attention to this point.) Barack Obama and friends have, of course, cried themselves hoarse pointing to the mountains of physical evidence that plainly contradicted that belief, to no significant effect. Tinfoil hat status quo, one would think. But then happened the Ground Zero Mosque incident (follow the link for details, like how it’s not exactly a mosque, and how it’s not exactly at Ground Zero), where Obama committed the most unforgiveable sin of them all: he stood up for the secular right of people to follow a faith of their choice. (He later half took back his statement, saying it was only said in a general sense, and not in reference to anything.) With little to cheer for the American population, I’m sure that the Muslim jibe, nothing more than a faint drone up till now, will quickly rise to a cacophonous roar. 

One disclaimer before I proceed with my rant: I’m no Muslim apologist. I’ve been known to be heavily contemptuous towards conservatism, and there isn’t a religion with more conservatism than Islam. Wait, let me qualify that. There isn’t another religion where conservatism has as much clout as Islam, for all religions have their share of retrospectophiles. Yet, through our petty stereotypes we successfully obscure our liberal values and give in to the temptation of narrow mindedness, and effectively become them. Protect the ‘moderates’, let them live a harmless life in the service of their God. Fight the conservatism, yes, but not through conservatism, it only fuels it. A very valid dilemma may rear its head at this point: if I fight conservatism through tolerance, won’t that only empower the not-so-moderate conservatives out there? Yes, certainly, and here’s where I think we should let go of a bit of our pacifism. Just wishing him gone won’t make the Big Bad Bogeyman go away after all. (Sidenote: A whimsical thought interrupts my ruminations. If there’s one thing that’s true about a religious conservative, it’s that he’s never going to agree with another religion’s conservative. So let them fight. Liberalism is founded in egalitarianism, and can afford to watch as the conservatives destroy each other. Right? Not really. At the end of it all, you’ll have one angry murderous beast ready to fight to the death for its ‘ideals’ on one side, and a bunch of saintly pacifists on the other side. I don’t like the odds.)

Another theme common to Obama bashing is woven around the accusation that he’s something of a chronic liar. Speaking of politicians and honesty in the same breath is dangerously close to causing an instantaneous spacetime singularity, but in this case, I feel the criticism is strongly coloured by blind propaganda. Here are links 2 and 3 for perusal. All I can say is: we have enough lies going around already, we don’t want lies about lies to muddle things further.

I know I said earlier that I won’t bring up the R-word, but how can any discussion of Obama bashing do without it? It’s undeniable that there’s a strong undercurrent of racism underlying most of these Obama hoaxes. (Here’s a random hoax that plays with the stereotype without actually having much to do with the topic.) What do black people know about the Great White American ethos? Somehow, conservatives have talked themselves (hypnotized, psychedelic drugged themselves) into believing that tolerance for difference is just political correctness. As a consequence, you get the odd joke about political correctness destroying the world from the precious few conservatives with a sense of humour there are. Dear Retrospectophiles/Great White Males – we’re not being politically correct when we ask you to treat poor African children with dignity, and if you think otherwise, sigh, we haven’t progressed that much since slavery.

Then there are statements so ridiculous that even listing them here would be embarrassing. I vaguely recall some conservative propaganda about Barack Obama’s ‘Yes, We Can’ badges and the lighting on his speeches hypnotizing people into voting for him. For more like these, refer to this.

Barack Obama probably took over the reins of the country at the worst possible time. A shattered economy, pointless wars on multiple fronts, and a country where half the population believe that calling slavery an abomination is political correctness, can anyone fix that overnight? Ironically, if I were to criticize Barack Obama for something, it would be his overly ‘centrist’ approach to everything. Don’t mollycoddle the neocons too much, you won’t get anything done, they’re called conservative for a reason! Let’s not forget how historic his election really is, even if the USA already has. Perhaps we won’t really appreciate the fact until we’re three hundred years into the future. Give the man a chance. There are only so many pieces a teacup can break into before no amount of glue will put it back. Give the man a chance, I say.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Approval Junkie and I - Closure

The Epilogue
The very first time I type the 'approval junkie' quote after writing a long ramble about it, I break my speed record. Here's to approval junkies, and Parkway Drive's Carrion playing in the background. Peace.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Approval Junkie and I

Prelude: The Site
At some point during my third year of college, I discovered this site. You can see for yourself: its concept is as brilliant (and perhaps unique), as it is simple. Who would have thought something as mundane as learning to type could be made so interesting? That is one aspect of it. The other aspect, the one I found much less surprising, was the fact that there were so many people out there who actually wanted to learn to type. I had, at the very dawn of my Typeracer adventure, already constructed the necessary arguments to analyze, and justify, this phenomenon. People who happened to observe me engaged in this particular activity were immediately subjected to defensive diatribes on the pressing relevance of computer skills in this day and age. It’s completely true, of course, that everyone needs to know how to type, and how to type quick. It may even be of more practical significance than learning to write. However, no one said I’d have to do it this obsessively. It’s completely unnecessary to improve my typing speed from a 95th percentile to a 98th percentile, sitting on the site three hours a day for a month. Such a pursuit is frivolous, unless...

Sidenote to the Prelude: The Game
Games always sell, because they satisfy two very fundamental human desires: to get one up over your neighbour, and to not get hurt when beaten (physically that is, I really can’t say anything about mental fragility).

Chapter One: The Quote
There’s another thing that’s great about Typeracer. It makes you type quotes, and not just any quotes at that. Quotes that make you cringe, quotes that make you laugh, quotes that make hillbillies turn in their graves, but definitely not quotes picked up from a lawyer’s manual. And there was this quote that resonated so deeply with me, that I brooded over it long after the race was done. The quote is hyperlinked, so you can read for yourself, but let me paraphrase it anyway:

We do what we do, because we’re all approval junkies.

Even with a superficial analysis, I’m sure most of us can come up with any number of instances to back this claim. Most conformism (think anything from keeping your hair short to not wearing black to eating burgers only at Mcdonald’s) is, by default, approval addiction. The classic case of the neighbours, conformism at its despicable best, is well documented by J.K. Rowling with her portrayal of the Dursleys. (Every day a fresh incident pops up that proves that such portrayal is far from hyperbole, but each time I manage to get shocked.) 

What is interesting is that many acts of seeming rebelliousness are nothing but targeted forms of conformism, and therefore, approval addiction. Heavy metal sub-culture is an excellent case in point. The overwhelming need to appear like a metalhead, and seek the approval of other ‘cool’ people, is just as strong as it is rare. I pick the example of heavy metal, not to deride it, but because it’s something close to my heart. Any strong, niche, fan culture can serve just as well. Like Geekland, and its population of the stereotyped computer geeks. This is one stereotype no self-respecting ‘victim’ ever tries to break free of. All geeks are approval junkies: it’s just that we don’t seek the approval of the average Joe.

Some more introspection, some more generalization, and I realized I was fast running out of things that could unambiguously be classified as not approval addiction. Take for instance, the phenomenon of ambition. I cannot deny that there exist people who truly wish to make a difference to the world. (Sidenote: I haven’t seen any, but that’s no counter-argument. I haven’t seen Mahatma Gandhi either.) Most people however, work hard and move up the organizational hierarchy, not because they care about the organization, but because they can buy that luxury sedan that will finally win their neighbours' approval. 

It was only the other day that something happened at work; an incident that simply strengthened my conviction that I was already firmly in the grip of this addiction. First, some background: At work, I have a mentor, who helps me get up to speed with the way the company works, and I have a manager who I report to. One fine morning, my manager came up to me, and told me that my mentor had a high opinion of me, and that he hoped I would live up to that. It so happened that I’d already developed a strong sense of admiration for my mentor and his technical skills, and it also so happened that I was at that point suffering from a bout of lethargy. Needless to say, any laziness promptly vanished, at about the point I realized I had someone’s approval to seek.

Is it all bad though? It is a fear of disapproval, something that almost always accompanies a desire for approval, that often drives quality in my work. I read a blog post multiple times before I post it, tweaking this and that, because I know there are people out there who’ll read it and judge me on its merit. Code that I submit for review will inevitably be better than code I write for myself. Having said all that, it seems to me that a life driven solely by a pursuit of approval, is a life not lived at all. Things that define who you are: your appearance, your mannerisms, your habits, should never be dictated by others’ judgment. Otherwise, it will be a quick descent into the bottomless pit of insecurity.

There’s one issue that falls on the borderline, something with which I can play the Devil’s Advocate with ease, and that’s the issue of being nice. Diplomacy. Tact. Politeness, or whatever you want to call it. Not too long ago, it was obvious to me that tact is necessary for civilization to work. You cannot have a bunch of people living together, interacting every minute, being rude to each other all the time. It simply does not work that way. Looking at it through the clouded lens of an approval junkie, it’s apparent that most people are not nice because they care about a smoothly progressing civilization. They’re simply afraid of disapproval. 
  
"Because we're just monkeys wrapped in suits, begging for the approval of others."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sheep Dogs Can't Jump

Commander Shepard, the captain, the soldier, the noble warrior, the saviour of the human race. Commander Shepard, the bane of evil in the galaxy, the mighty Spectre. Is there any way at all that you can halt the march of so colossal a figure?

Put him in a closed pit, one with walls no more than a foot high, and let him be.

You can make the pit as big, as small, as round, or as square as you want. Actually, you can even give him as many weapons as you wish, and make them as powerful as you possibly can. RPGs, bazookas, sniper rifles that do twenty rounds a second and don’t ever overheat, omnigel that rains from the sky, everything’s legit, as long as you can stuff it all in the pit along with him.

Just put him in a closed pit, one with walls no more than a foot high, and let him be.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Truth

Roses are red.
Aha, but you can find yellow, white and even green roses if you look hard enough.

The sky is blue.
Not on Mars, it isn’t.

Men are skirt chasers.
I foresee evolution trying its hand at making us hermaphroditic.

George Bush is stupid.
There is a non-zero chance that a microscopic alien ship will lobotomize part of his brain, and accidentally improve brain function.

The Earth rotates from West to East.
It is not inconceivable that a collision with a large asteroid knocks the Earth so far off kilter that its direction of rotation is reversed.

The Earth revolves around the Sun.
It might be captured by another star during the merger with Andromeda galaxy.

The Universe is.
It will either collapse into nothingness in a Big Crunch, or expand away to such uniformity that it would be akin to nothingness.

Arsene Wenger will not sign anyone.
Arsene Wenger will not sign anyone.

The Fountain of Age

It was one of those inconsequential debates that make up the bulk of conversations you have at home. Naturally, it started with the moustache.

At one point in the discussion, I proclaimed loudly that moustaches made people look old. (I can’t quite claim a lack of bias here: I loathe bushy things sprouting from the lip). My mother loved them, and by way of a retort, pointed out that the lack of hair makes a person look even older. This comment was a well-aimed barb at yours truly, but it did make me wonder. What is it that makes a person look older than his years? Here are a few thoughts.

1 Mous T. Ache (Read: Musty Ache)
Lip fuzz has been the favoured form of facial adornment for generations of Indians. This is baffling, because it is apparent that moustaches throw up several functional obstacles. The impediment to erm, romantic activity is obvious. I have also observed that if a certain level of bushiness is achieved, it will result in a perpetual itchiness in the nose that is impossible to get rid of. Sufferers often try to remedy the symptoms through nasal excavation. The impact of this vocation on social life has been well documented, painfully. A more tactful solution would involve flicking relentlessly at the bridge of the nose. It’s quite all right if you look like a pompous fool swatting imaginary flies, as long as you look strong and manly right? 

People with moustaches tend to spend an inordinate amount of time tending to them. As pruning too much (shaving accidents) and pruning too little (you don’t want to look like this) are both equally unacceptable, such solicitousness is maybe excusable; but the brand new professional in me is obliged to bring up the word ‘productivity’ just to make a point. (There, that felt good.)

Besides, (excuse me, I’m stubbornly persistent) moustaches make people look old. Ten year olds can’t grow moustaches right? Only real men can, and by default, real men are older than ten year old kids.

That seems to me to be a Q.E.D. worthy list of cons, but you only need one pro to send them all back to jail. Virility. The moustache maketh the man. The fuzzier the hair on your lip, the more children you will produce, and the world will be a better place. Blessed be the man who conceived of this remarkable concept; I can only assume he had blisters on his upper lip and could never get a clean shave. Well, ideas are like viruses wrapped in Velcro. They are infectious and they stick. 

Interestingly, the length of a man’s hair was once a sign of virility. Today, all that a brave comet will get are jibes about homosexuality and the effeminate mind. More on this in the next section, but the moral here is: Believe in the power of change.

Agification Potential: 5-6 Years

2 <This head(ing) lost all its hair>
There was once a time when haircuts were not only deemed unnecessary, but frivolous. Have you even seen a Jesus Christ film where Jesus had a crew cut? Long hair was, of course, associated with good old virility back then, and we all know how big a draw that is. That no longer works today, and I’ll try a different tack.

It is an utter (Fascist) fabrication that long hair requires more maintenance time! 

OK, I might concede that long hair that’s not quite Dave Mustaine long might, but then it really isn’t long enough, so that’s that. How many panes of glass exist that aren’t thoroughly abused by short haired men for a comb-in-the-back-pocket touch up? How many toilets have been forced to shut down because they budgeted out mirrors and fostered suicidal tendencies in deprived young people? How many apparel labels have gone bankrupt because they thought removing back pockets was cool? If you have waist length or even shoulder length hair, gravity is your comb, and since gravity is always around, productivity quickly follows. As a perk, there won’t be any more getting embarrassed by one way glass.

That rant might appear significant, given that my argument links hairlessness with perceived age, but I have to admit it’s tangential at best. Long hair does not work, and not just as an anti-aging agent. In fact, I’d wager that most people would take baldness and a penalty of five years over the social stigma of long hair any day. On a sidenote, if I’ve suggested in any way that long hair might be used to hide baldness, put that thought out of your head, before it ferments your brain and turns it into slush. Comb-overs died in the eighties, I’m afraid.

So yes, the amount of hair on your head is inversely proportional to your perceived age, as long as it ain’t too long. Historically speaking, people have always viewed hair loss as an inevitable symptom of aging. It is absolutely pointless to bring up arguments about how life is stressful today, and that stress causes baldness, or how random road accidents that cause bumps on the head require a shaved head. Twenty something and have no hair? Get ready for uncledom. 

Agification Potential: upto 10 years depending on the extent of hairlessness.

3 Corpulence: Persistence :: Turbulence: Existence
Before I launch into some observations, a couple of caveats are in order. First, (I have to put this one on the table), there is the potentially anomalous phenomenon of the baby face. Those amongst the clan of the obese who are lucky enough to be blessed so, are likened to chubby, cherubic babies, and you can’t really go further down the age spectrum than that. A couple of pointers for the corpulent who want to go this way: try absolutely everything to get flawless facial skin. Ignore snide comments about being sissy. Get rid of every single strand of hair from your face; get a laser/ultraviolet/<buzzword here>operation done if necessary. When memory fails, just remember: Babies don’t have facial hair! A thinning thatch might actually come in handy here; you should also get the Superman-style lock of hair on the forehead if possible. If desperate, you might even consider getting all your teeth removed. If things don’t quite work out even after this, there’s a reason why I think this phenomenon is mysterious.

However, with due respect to long caveats, it is extremely likely that if you are fat, people automatically upgrade your age. Why? Perhaps because weight gain is generally a marker for the end of childhood. If you are no longer piling on inches vertically, what’s the body to do with the obscene amounts of food you are ingesting? This mindset may be out of place in the television/computer era that is today, what with obesity in children hitting the roof, breaking through to the next floor and looking for the next roof, but I suspect such perception is not quite voluntary.

Agification Potential: upto 10 years, depending on the level of corpulence.


There are many, many other factors that contribute to perceived age but these are clearly the ones that affect the greatest number of people the most. A yet-to-crack male voice at thirty, or wrinkling at twelve, or producing salt-and-pepper hair at twenty, might be just as good at agifying, but are infinitely more exotic. Besides, this post is quickly rambling on into obscurity, so I’ll part with one thought:

If you are bald and/or fat and/or have a splendid handlebar moustache, there is only thing you can do. Forget everything I've said, and just be Cool.