Sunday, November 6, 2011

September Has Ended?

I think it's about time I had a blog blog, so I'm going to donate a substantial portion of the next 1000 words or so to blogging blogging.

Last month was a good month in many ways. First, the project I'd been working on for four long months reached an abrupt, if still satisfactory conclusion. Yes, this is the very same platform migration of colossal, Earth-shaking proportions that I've spent a large chunk of my non-work time (I can't even bring myself to put in 'socialize' in there) describing in painstaking detail to everyone who's had a brush with me in the recent past. (You're gladder than I am that it's done, I'm sure.)

It was, from beginning to end, an utterly pointless exercise; ironically, its utter pointlessness may well prove to be its saving grace, because it really was a textbook manual on inanity. The sort whose existence managers will vehemently deny till they're dead standing, but the sort they'll pore over at night till their eyes pop out and their wives begin plotting murder. Well, 100 words ago, I said it was a 'satisfactory' project, and it was. To me. Any immodesty incidental, but all that bad management meant I got myself one hell of an engineering problem to tackle, and nobody to help me out with it. There's nothing geekoid programmers love more than a good, old fashioned silo - just the memory of the sweet, slightly musty smell of nobody-elseness is enough to make me smile.

The Real Engineering Projekt  brought home a few uncomfortable truths though:
1) All my pretensions towards having a great work-life balance were just that, because the moment I was hit with a problem that needed me to work overtime, I went ahead and worked overtime, bloggingreadingsocializingsleeping be darned.  I'm not proud, and especially because I am proud.
2) I might as well live with approval addiction because I didn't really get reimbursed for all the midnight whale oil I burnt. Just a pat on the back, a 'Good Job' and I was happy as a stray dog at midnight.

That's that about work and any attempts to portray extreme joy as bottomless despair. The second big thing that happened last month was: I was at Oasis! Oasis - I don't really have to do this because I have a readership of one, and I'm a BITSian, but delusions make the world go round - is BITS Pilani's annual cultural festival.

I had, as my dearest friends don't hesitate to remind me from time to time, back when I was a BITSian sworn on all the ancient pagan Gods that no force in heaven and hell could make me go back to the godforsaken place again. Yet there I was, all set to hop on to a plane the moment Rakul spoke the magic words ('Lone! Pilani?'). In my defence, going back as an alumnus was cathartic. (I can walk the SWD corridor without peeing my pants now, yay!)

The Oasis trip was very... I really need to clamp down on my fingers here, because there's a huge chronicle in the works right now, and I don't want to take anything away from that. Ah, yes, I promised one last year too, didn't I? Blame those dirty, thin-moustached, Vajra stalking pickpockets for that not happening! It was in that mobile phone that I'd built up a huge collection of notes, secure in the knowledge that with all my memories jotted down, I could flesh out a proper narrative any time. Pensieve-esque, eh? You, pickpocket! At least have the decency to return my notes, will you? Keep the phone, keep the phone. What? The address? You can text it to me, you nitwi.. er, sir!

Then there was the Metallica concert. Now that MegaDave is all chummy with Little Lars, it's no longer quite so sacrilegious, eh? Not that I would have missed it for anything. There's nothing quite like 30,000 like-minded people packed into one place. The bonhomie (and I've never used that word in a sentence before) was palpable, the odd spaced-out drunk notwithstanding. Rain, terrible organization, backpacked people losing their backpacks while I, I, the First Backpacker himself was not carrying one, the fat band manager trying to babytalk metalheads into doing some military drill, it all combined to make the perfect hodgepodge for a perfect Sunday evening out.

Last, I somehow got talked into being part of an in-house film that'll be shown at campus recruitments. It wasn't so terrible as I thought, because I didn't spend 427 minutes doing 800 retakes of me sitting down in a sofa. I'd like to think it was my awesome camera presence that made that happen, but that little voice of reason in my right ear tells me that it was probably because the film makers just couldn't be bothered. But, hey, bad things did happen - for example, I.. I... had make up put on.

So, dear BITSian juniors, if during your placements you happen to see me blathering in a sugary sweet, thoroughly fake (a la 'It's Magic') video, know this for truth: I did it under pain of death!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Roleplaying and CCTVs

One of those times when you’re feeling lonely and insignificant, when you’re feeling like a rotting bit of seaweed in the cosmic ocean, a pointless collection of molecules pointlessly wondering about doing pointless things, when you’re stuck in somebody’s idea of a spoof of a F.R.I.E.N.D.S rerun, drifting, drifting into the half-sleep of humdrum everydayness, you know what you should be doing?

Waving at CCTV cameras of course.

Getting over post-teen, pre-midlife existential crises was never this easy. Whoever thought the simple act of staring into the vacant, vaguely hostile gaze of a CCTV camera would be so much fun? I’m sure you’ve done it, even if not, ahem, due to such weighty considerations as mine. I don’t really wave at them though; I’m far too classy for that, and it does not quite fit any role playing fantasy involving me being chased down by helicopters throwing burning barrels at me trying to slow my GhostRider-esque trailblazing through the city.

It’s such immense fun looking sneaky when you know there’s an eye in a shiny, white box looking over your shoulder. You have to check your watch for no reason. You have to look around surreptitiously for no reason, and you absolutely have to turn around to give the camera a grim, I-Know-You’re-There look.

I never wave though.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Well, I have no intention of turning this blog into a poor man’s The Speaking Tree, but there’s something that’s a bit bothersome and there’s nothing like putting bothersome things down to paper to get them off your chest.

(Also, I’ve been reliably assured that with my classy and tasteful blue theme, this blog won't be mistaken for the Speaking Tree even if I am to paste portions from the Upanishads. In Sanskrit.)

What’s bothering me, and there’s no way of saying this without sounding a touch pretentious, is the whole idea of purpose. I know every philosopher God downwards has sought the Answer, but my question is a little tangential to the Big One: Is it even right to seek a purpose for everything we do?

Alright, alright, hold on to your hats, I’ll clarify that a bit. (After going on and on about Straw Men, I’m sure I’ll be crushed under one toppled by a passing gust of wind if I even think of setting up one.) Yes, there is a purpose to everything we do, if we seek it, even to Facebooking all day, or searching for gold coins in dungheaps, but whenever someone starts consciously thinking of purpose, that’s not what he is thinking of. He’s thinking of that single purpose, an overarching theme that underpins the whole of his existence from birth to death, and forces every action to align to it or be cut out. (That single purpose should be focussed too, it can't just be 'live life' or 'get through the next year or so')

Is that right though, to seek such a thing? Rightness is hard to debate, and this question of purposeful existence seems only to be a spinoff of the classic CS argument of ‘Should my life be spent traversing the tree breadth-first? Or depth-first?’ That, I’ve touched upon more than once in my blogical arguments, so I won’t debate the idea of rightness here.

I’ll just limit myself to this: if you want to enjoy what-you-think-are-enjoyable things, then you have to get rid of the idea of a perfectly purposeful life. There’s one, or the other, but not both. There is no balance either; at least, there is no balance that a rational man would seek. Consider this.

Your overarching purpose in life is to become the best JavaScript programmer in the world. Everything you do must take you towards that end goal, or you won’t do it at all, or feel utterly miserable doing it. You’re talking to your best friend and you suddenly realize that that isn’t making you a great JavaScript programmer, and you stop taking calls at all, because if talking to your best friend is pointless, then so is talking to everyone else. You don’t read the newspaper because it doesn’t make you a great JavaScript programmer. You don’t watch movies because they don’t make you a great JavaScript programmer. You don’t brush your teeth twice daily because that doesn’t help you become a great JavaScript programmer. (Or maybe you do because good personal hygiene can only impact your work prospects positively, and moving up the career ladder can only help you become a better JavaScript programmer.)

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this if you’re happy cutting out the ‘fun’ out of your life to pursue what you think you must, single-mindedly. But, if you think the parts you cut out are still ‘fun’, then everything else isn’t so much ‘fun’ anymore. See what I’m getting at? If you start looking at everything and wondering ‘What’s the point?’ when you really do see the point, and the point is that you enjoy doing it, but regretfully, ‘enjoyment’ isn’t on the list of bulletpoints that qualify as ‘purposeful’, you’re walking a dangerous road. One that has no streetlights and is dark as a coal mine, with more banana peels, venomous vipers and landmines than stones and rocks.

Things become even more interesting when you define your purpose as merely looking purposeful. Or, to narrow down further, you define your purpose as always appearing to do discussable things. I find the whole idea fascinating because, believe me, half the people I meet think this way, at least on occasions, but more importantly because I seem to be picking up the knack. :|

On the face of it, doing only ‘discussable’ things seems a looser requirement than forcing yourself to do only things that’re going to make you the awesomest JavaScript programmer ever. On the other hand, when you start poking around the innards, you’ll see that most things you may do to become a great JavaScript programmer aren’t really discussable, at least not with most people. Reading 100 pages of one chapter of a textbook called ‘JavaScript in 21 Days’ certainly isn’t. Discussability is a vexing thing, you see:

You stop watching movies that you may enjoy but are sure that your discussability group won’t. That will probably just leave you with porn and popcorn.

You stop reading fiction that’s not a love story written by an IIT/IIM grad. Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer are all right for non-IIM grads though.

You start watching reality shows on TV.

You stop doing things like sleeping because really, is there anything more undiscussable than sleep?

If you’re doing something that you can’t discuss with enough people to satisfy your purposefulness meter, you’re not doing anything at all. This sort of mindset is more entrenched than you may think, because the idea of ‘counter-culture’ is not a true counterargument. If you’re into ‘heavy metal’ and ‘hard SF’, all you need is a discussability group that’s the same, and tra la! You’ve got your fix of purposefulness and you ain't even mainstream.

Blogging, when I think about it with a modicum of objectivity, is just a hacky way of appearing purposeful. Even if there isn’t a man alive who cares what you’re discussing, you can still spew it out into the Internet’s endless maws and pretend that what you’re writing about, which is often simply what you did last night, is actually perfectly discussable.

I hold a dead man to blame for bringing on this bout of unfunny ruminations. Robert Jordan, you may have spent all your life writing 12000 pages of high fantasy, but you’ve no right, no right at all to suck a poor man minding his own business into this quagmire. Ah well, if you haven’t heard of the Wheel of Time, it’s a 13 book monstrosity of an epic fantasy series that I’ve been reading lately. It’s enjoyable, it really is, but if you can find me a roomful of people that will have at least one other person who’s read it, or at least heard of it, I’ll sell you my soul.

I hate thinking of the ‘point’ of reading fiction I enjoy reading; but because I’m stubborn as a blind mule, not finding an answer isn’t going to make me stop. And there’s always this blog post to shame me into admitting that I’m setting up Straw Men to counter other Straw Men that I set up to delude myself.

Right, before I get back to reading, just one last thing. I know I said it’s hard to strike a balance between pleasure-seeking and single-minded purposefulness, but you can always move the goalposts. Redefine what’s pleasurable, but that’s hard I think. Or redefine what things make what you do purposeful. Wee bit easier, how about trying to convince yourself that watching Resident Evil: Afterlife is making you a better JavaScript programmer?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How Not To Make A Point

Here’s the article I originally tried to critique without falling over, blubbering, in an apoplexy of rage. In the process though, I quickly realized that I, as a fair exponent of Making-A-Point™ without a double barrelled shotgun to back me up, I, who have honed my craft in the minefield of intellectualism called BITS Pilani (snigger away then, I won’t mind) have plenty to say. So much that it wouldn’t be right, or possible, to write this whole post as a rebuttal to just one article.

This post is about the fine art of debating.

What follows is a not very definitive list of the ways in which you should not be debating - a collection of what a pompous few would call ‘fallacies’. Wait, that’s not quite right, because you still could, er.. (Here’s where the voice of my post drops to a hoarse whisper.)

If you, sir, are sufficiently cunning, or know your opponents like a psychic does his audience, these techniques, techniques which have been handpicked from the darkest of manuals and only alluded to as such, if ever, by debaters of old, will help you topple the most unassailable of arguments. I, as Keeper of Common Fallacies, merely lay down what I’ve seen, what you do with it is entirely up to you. To it then!

The Straw Man
Almost all spurious arguments are variations of the straw man. It’s best to illustrate with an example, an application by one of the finest practitioners of this fallacy: Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club.

Fan: Arsene, please spend some cash.
Arsene: Do you want me to spend 100 million pounds on average players and plunge us all into debt?
Fan: No, of course not.
Arsene: (QED.) See, that’s why I won’t spend any cash.

Right, it’s occurred to me that people who’re not into football won’t make any sense of that example, but here’s what it means. When you set up a straw man, you’re changing the argument in some way, to make it easier to counter because you don’t want to, for whatever reason, counter the original argument. Here’s what the fan should actually have said (that’s most likely what he implied in any case):

Fan: Arsene, please spend just the cash we’ve got from sales, and maybe not even all of it, and not on average players, but players that you think are good, not necessarily ‘top quality’, but players who will address the problems we currently have, problems you acknowledged several times in the past that we do.

Arsene Wenger is setting up not one, not two, but possibly three straw men with that one ingenious question, because the fan does not want him to a) spend 100 million pounds, b) buy average players and c) plunge the club into debt.

That’s why the straw man is a powerful tool, because deliberately misstating your opponent’s argument so that you can counter it, and mark it as ‘resolved’ is easy. It’s easy because most people leave things unsaid in their argument, assuming that their opponents will be honest enough to accept and understand their position.

Arundhati Roy sets up a classic straw man and argues it through most of her article, because the movement against corruption that has gripped the nation has nothing to do with one man. Yes, Anna Hazare is an iconic figurehead everyone rallies around, but by bashing his associations, his appearance, his intellect and his personality she’s not doing any of these things:

  1. Proving that the Jan Lokpal Bill is flawed.
  2. Proving that the anti-corruption movement is flawed and/or insignificant.

If your counter-argument is that she’s not trying to prove those things, what is she trying to prove then? That Anna Hazare is not a flawless person, or that some of the members of Team Anna aren’t? I suspect that’s the case, and if by proving one of those things she thinks she’s saying something substantial about the Bill itself, she’s stepping into the territory of Ad Hominem.

Ad Hominem
Ad Hominem is not always a fallacy, but it almost always is. If you find yourself doing something like this, you’re doing an Ad Hominem.

‘What would you know about religion? You’re a liberal.’

Liberals don't have to not know anything about religion, see. Ad Hominem sneaks into debates because of one side’s belief that the other side’s arguments are flawed because of personal bias. It’s hard to argue that any argument does not have some kind of bias driving it; however, as long as the arguments made are logical, and refutable, they should be evaluated purely on their own merits, and Ad Hominem becomes a fallacy.

By any yardstick, the various clauses of the Jan Lokpal Bill are refutable. You can pick up whichever points you don’t like and come up with arguments to show why they won’t work. How is Arundhati Roy – at least she’s articulate in her faulty arguments, the government of India ended up looking like a 12 year old schoolyard bully – refuting anything by casting aspersions on Anna’s character? To be fair though, she does critique some aspects of the Bill itself, when she talks about how it would only create another unmanageable bureaucracy - that's when she makes most sense - but such points are lost in the clamour about Anna Hazare.

On the other hand, there are occasions when Ad Hominem is not fallacious. Take this snippet for example:

A: ‘I don’t think that hurts.’
B: ‘How would you know? You've never even had a fracture!’

Even in this case, Ad Hominem could still turn out to be fallacious, if person A turns out to be someone who’s well qualified to make such a statement; someone who’s never had a fracture, but who is a sports physiotherapist, for example.

Oftentimes, Ad Hominem is brought out in Internet debates, shined to a sparkle, where opponents don’t know enough about each other to make any kind of statement based on the other’s personality/character, but still do, making any such a bad argument every day of the week. Conversations like this litter the Interwebs:

A:‘I think he is right in legalizing marijuana usage, because most studies show that it’s no more addictive or harmful than tobacco.’
B:‘What would you know, kid? You’re probably a twelve year living in your parents’ basement who thinks taking drugs is the coolest thing ever.’

Gems like this are what make trolling the Internet such an enjoyable experience. You could always call out such inanity calmly and clearly, instead of getting sucked into a flame war, but that does not guarantee that you will get anything out of it, because people can always choose to…

Cherry Pick!
I find that this is mostly a problem if you’re trying to have a debate over email, or Facebook comments, or Youtube comments (the horror!) or any medium at all that doesn’t let you do this:

‘Stop, stop. Wait. That’s not all that I said. Answer me this first.’

Right, when you publish a five thousand rebuttal, since you’re human and not a perfect automaton, you may expect that there’s at least one sentence in that thesis that is not absolutely logically sound. You may also expect that your cunning and devious opponents will ignore all of the 5,832 good points you make, and choose to lampoon the one bad point, because you cannot ask them to do this:

‘Stop, stop. Wait. That’s not all that I said. Answer me this first.’

All you can do is sit and fume, or wait till you meet your opponent in the flesh, so that you can punch him in the face. (Oh, wait that’s also a fallacious argument. You could try reasoning it out…)

A:‘There is strong empirical evidence underpinning all four known mechanisms of evolution – natural selection, genetic drift, biased mutation and gene flow. I think, with that knowledge you cannot deny that evolution is happening.’
B:‘Wait man, think? You think? You’re not sure then? If you’re not sure, how can common people be sure about this?’

There’s one exceptionally irritating form of cherry picking that deserves a special mention:
‘The sun rises in the east. What’re you shouting about, disprove that!’
‘It should be “The Sun rises in the East.”, fool.’

Why not that?
This is a hard one. It is again a form of a straw man, where you’re changing the argument to something more favourable to refutation, but this form is subtle because it applies the innate ‘betterness’ scales (This one’s better than that.) we all have to things that cannot be compared.

When AR asks you why Anna is fighting against corruption, instead of fighting ‘more pressing’ issues like farmer suicides and land acquisitions, you would be forgiven for wondering the same. But it’s a fallacious argument, again. It is, what I would call, an argument from laziness because it’s usually employed by people who don’t want to do anything to stop people who want to from doing something. I’m not saying AR is lazy, I’m sure she’s far from it, but that’s what I’ve seen.

A:‘Where are you going?’
B:‘I’m going for my weekly civic sense meet – we’re going to clean up the streets.’
A:‘Why don’t you first fix the corruption in your workplace man, before doing all that.’

There is always that other thing to do, and no one man, no matter how determined or powerful, can do all of them, and that’s where this argument comes from. It’s fallacious because by pointing to a different problem and asking why your opponent is not doing anything about that, you’re not rebutting his approach to solving the problem at hand. The fallacy is so obvious that I’m surprised sometimes that more people don’t call such bluffs.

Animal welfare activists are often rebuked this way:
A:‘But they’re just animals. Why don’t you do something about the terrible living conditions in Sub Saharan Africa instead, for human beings?’

To me, an analogy with the idea of vocation doesn’t seem too far off the mark. If you were to apply the ‘Why Not That?’ argument to the kinds of work people do, you’d be complaining about the fact that there are salesmen, sportsmen, film stars when everyone should be either a doctor or a social worker, because those are ‘better’ jobs in your eyes. (Catch the fallacy in my argument.)

Metaphors, analogies and thought experiments
Again, these are straw men, but I’ve been burnt so many times by these in my debates that I have to break out a new bullet point just for this lot. While analogies and thought experiments are useful tools for understanding, do not ever forget that they’re but imitations of the original, and so have limitations. If you get sucked into debating an analogy, instead of the original argument, you’ll surely get bitten by a point that would never have occurred in the original argument.

A:‘Politicians are like rabid dogs. They spread misinformation like disease, and must be put down. Would you hesitate to put down a rabid dog?’

But politicians are not rabid dogs, you see. (Right, I could have chosen a better example.)

I don’t disagree that there are many observations that still have a subjective quality to them, but not everything is subjective, you closet solipsist! You should not be doing this, even if your granddad is the President of the United States:

A:‘An exhaustive survey of half the Universe has concluded that smokers die younger than non smokers.’
B:‘What! Really? My granddad smoked twenty unfiltered cigars a day, and he lived to 120. Nonsense! It’s all a bloody conspiracy, I say.’

I hope, young readers, that you’ve learnt something today. My working memory is small, and my concentration span even smaller, so pray forgive me if I’ve missed out on any common fallacies you may have encountered in your short lives. I see so many of them, you see. Do add them to the comment sections so that I can replenish my ailing memory centres. Until next time, fare thee well, and use your knowledge wisely!

Don't Be A Cynic. Be A Sceptic.

I hope that it’s just my little bubble of social interaction that’s so skewed, because the thought that the whole world is agog over this article is just plain scary. It isn’t the thrust of the article that really bothers me, if I’m to be honest, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

So many people miss the forest for the trees that it sometimes pays to say out loud what should be obvious. Cynicism is not the same as intellectualism. Many smart people appear cynical to those who simply cannot fathom why they won’t let things be. Why can’t they roll with the status quo, why can’t they, just once, toe the official line? Not all smart people question their way into trouble, but all those who seek intellectual honesty do. That’s really what makes them smart, because what’s the point having a fat IQ on a piece of paper if you don’t ever seek better explanations for things that don’t make sense?

I cannot, in good faith, fault someone for asking questions, no matter how uncomfortable they may be, so for some time I tried to find a way to qualify aspects of cynicism as good. Then I realized that I didn’t have to because there was already a word around, a word that captures everything ‘good’ about cynicism, but leaves about the dogma. Scepticism.

Being a sceptic is about asking questions, it’s about getting up off your cosy armchair and opening the nearest window to look down on the street, because the watercolour painting of the street you have at your desk doesn’t satisfy anymore. But being a sceptic is also about accepting that sometimes, the watercolour painting has got it spot on, and you don’t have to go to the window again for a while.

Being a cynic, on the other hand, if I may just stretch this metaphor a teeny little bit further, is about rejecting the painting as false without ever looking down on the real thing, and sketching one of your own and proclaiming it better, again without looking down on the real thing. Cynicism is not the same as intellectualism, because it’s easy to hold a view counter to consensus but just as rooted in blind belief.

It’s hard for me to say this, but sometimes, the majority view of things isn’t so wrong as one may think. You aren’t always stupid if you agree with a lot of other people. Having said that, everyone who’s trying to break through the wall of haze propaganda has set up all around us, everyone who’s trying to find out for themselves what’s true, is already a step ahead of those who’re happy to go along with the herd. But you can do so much better than this article. Don’t stop here, you’ll only lose that little step you’ve gained and fall back into petty, bitter cynicism.

It isn’t the thrust of the article which bothers me though: I’ve resisted, so far, the temptation to throw a bit of me into the simmering cauldron of gibberish that is what the Internet has to say on the Lokpal Bill. I have a feeling I’ll give in soon, but not yet. What bothers me about the article is how badly it goes about making the points it makes, agreeable or not.

I don’t want it to look like I’m running away after throwing a handful of unsubstantiated criticisms (Terrible article! Bye.) into the mix, but I’ve realized that there’s a lot more I want to say on the topic of debating, and how to avoid/cunningly use fallacious arguments that’s not just limited to this article, and this post is already fairly long, so until another post then.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Back! Back! Back!

It’s been a while, good readers, and what can I say in my defence but that an old flame of mine decided to seduce me? And that relationships are hard work? Yeah, I didn’t even know I was a miniskirt guy till she went all miniskirty on me, did good old Work. And she’s one demanding mistress too. In fact, I’m writing this cowering in a dark corner of my toilet, nervously glancing at that little slat of light under the door ever so often to see if it’s getting blocked off by something. Like a miniskirted Work’s endless legs.

Right, now that I’ve scratched that particular itch for personalization (I don’t know, every time I go away for any amount of time, I seem to come back with a strong desire to make friends with Wall. Wall is so pretty you know? Skin so smooth, you could lose yourself in it. Mind so calm, you could…) Right, that’s enough of that, I reckon. Back to work.

At the risk of overdoing work puns, what better thing to talk about there be than work itself?

Some of my closest friends have tried, many times, to convince me that I possess great wisdom that far outstrips my age. I have, in all humility, tried to convince them in return that I’m normal, and it is they that have been blessed with way too much foolishness.

OK, that’s not quite right. What I have been called is a fretter because I fret and worry about things today that I shouldn’t be worrying about until age forty five. (Until I’m bald, obese and useless, and only then will I have to spend half my life running in one spot just so that I can squeeze an extra hundred days from the Bearded Man Above. Or so popular wisdom holds.) I fret, not openly (because I’m cool), but I do fret about what I eat, and how much I eat. I spend hours agonizing about the philosophical dichotomy between work and play, how it’s all an elaborate illusion, and why I have to believe in it anyway.

Long, long ago when I in my last semester of college, job in the bag, and staring at months and months of blissful decadence, I was not thinking about how best I would redeem my sorry existence by putting in long hours at work. I knew I loved programming far too much to slack off too much at work. The joy of solving a problem, and seeing my code generate a solution out of nothing, would hold far too much allure for me to ever let go just for an extra hour of Facebooking. What I did ponder over, then, was the question of how best to organize my ‘play’ time. I would have to do all these things in my ‘play’ time:

  1. Sleep a scientifically-shown-to-be-healthy eight hours every day.
  2. Write blog posts (like this) that will change the world. Often.
  3. Write short stories, get one published for a billion bucks, retire to that penthouse on Mars.
  4. Run through computer games like Binit’s granola bars.
  5. Read. Read newspapers, books, nutritional information snippets on Marie Gold biscuit packets.
  6. Keep up with friends, so that I won’t die alone, in the off chance that my impossibly brilliant B-plan doesn’t work out.
  7. Talk to girls, because the more (the people who find out about my true awesomeness) the merrier, and also because, you know, that’s why we’re here, innit?
  8. Research that phenomenon called social life that seems to have caught everyone’s fancy all of a sudden. Write a program to manage it for me.

I even thought about picking up a management degree on the side, just to manage all the things I'd have to do in my 'play' time. But I’m happy to report, sirs and ma’ams, that despite a wrong turn or two, I mostly stuck to the plan. I worked hard at not working, and even harder at playing. Until, Work stepped up and decided to play dirty. The rest is well, industry.

I’ve come up for air now, and the world outside smells mighty fine, so I intend to stay up. (By the way, anything interesting happen recently, folks? Must be same old, same old, right? Everyone’s corrupt, nobody’s doing anything, Barca want Cesc, Barca don’t take Cesc, India the top test team in the world, the USofA has a spotless debt rating, blah… Don’t bother, I was just checking.)

Monday, July 4, 2011

How Can He Type? (A Love Story)

A number of people have asked me how I’ve learnt to type so fast. Often, the question presents itself in the hushed, awed tones of the geeky: these are people who work with computers all the time and these are people for whom speed typing would count as a genuine skill. Also, however, normal people pose this question to me too sometimes, if only with the sort of casual curiosity you reserve for people who can wolf whistle, or people who can do 180 degree splits: an indifferent appreciation for a quirky talent. It gladdens me, though, that typing has become nearly as important as writing in many domains of work, and that the second category of people is shrinking by the day because of that. (My skillz are much more relevant now, yay!)

To return to the original question on how I learnt to type so fast, there’s no easy answer. There’s certainly no magic pill that’ll make your fingers more nimble overnight and there’s no golden serum you inject into your fingers to make them listen to you better. Take what you hear about typing crash courses with a pinch of salt, because it’s all hot air. Like most things in the world, proficiency in typing is all about practice, practice and then some more practice, but with a couple of caveats:

1) You need to learn touch typing, that is, the mad Jedi skill of typing without looking at the keyboard. As you can imagine that’ll double your speed as you aren’t going to waste half your time pausing to verify if you’re typing the right thing. How, you ask? I’ll get to that in a minute.

2) Proper technique is gold. I know people who type fast without the right technique, but I believe that’ll stifle you in the long run.

(On the bright side, I started off as useless as you. And no I was not born with the ability to touch type. There, that should have heartened you considerably.)

I’ll get to the technique part in a bit, but you guys are really asking the wrong questions here. Yes, all you need to do to become a fast typist is technique and practice, but the important question is: how do you actually practise? Practising typing by typing out a list of words twenty times a day is mind numbingly boring, and while it might work, you’re likely to die at 30, you’ll be so scarred by that experience. So how do you do it then? Gamify, of course.

Make learning to type a game: something that’s fun and challenging at the same time. That’s what I did, back during my PS-I (a sort of introduction to an internship I had back in college, after my second year of engineering). I used to think I was a pretty fast typist. I was a regular on DC++ trivia back, and I can safely say that that helped me a lot in improving my touch typing. See, here’s how trivia worked: there would be randomly selected questions coming up every 30 seconds or so, and there would be a bunch of people online at the same time trying to get in the answer first. It was all about speed, especially because questions repeated, and also because some questions were ridiculously easy (20+33=?).

In such an environment, touch typing was the only option. Looking at the keyboard while typing out an answer, pausing for half a second to check what was on screen before submitting it, simply did not work. Gamifying your typing experience forces you to touch type, apart from the fact that it’s actually fun. I don’t know how well DC++ trivia is doing these days, but if a lot of people are on it, join the club. It’s fun even without the whole typing angle.

Speedtest for the solo gamer
What I did during my PS-I was hit this site. Why didn’t I stick to trivia once I’d realized it was doing wonders for my typing speed? Firstly, I was far, far away from BITS Pilani’s LAN, and secondly, I knew, fiercely competitive person that I was, that I would never sacrifice my speed for technique. This site is perfect for the solo gamer: you’re not taking on a hundred other people, the only person who’s challenging you is you, and I loved it.

I don’t know how quickly you’ll tire of this site (I suspect it’ll be a lot quicker than me), but it occupied me for the whole summer. When I started off there, I was doing about 55 Words Per Minute (WPM). While that’s fairly respectable, that’s about a fourth as fast as the fastest typist in the world. Forcing myself to at least try and follow the proper technique (read this for learning about the home row in QWERTY keyboards, and what's a 'proper' technique) dropped my speeds to under 50, but only for some time. By the end of the summer I was easily doing 70 WPM.

Just to cheer you up, here’s what I can do now. That’s more than double what I started off with. (Watch it on mute if you don't like tinny heavy metal. )

This site is the antithesis of speedtest, in many ways. You compete against other people, typos are not forgiven (you cannot proceed unless you correct your errors) and WPM is counted as CPM (Characters Per Minute) divided by 5, to account for variations in word lengths. (Speedtest counts words.) However, I recommend that you not visit this site while you’re still honing your touch typing technique, because it’s frustrating. Very, very much so. It is not pleasantly frustrating like how good games should be, but frustrating in a lethargy-inducing way, the way that'll make you swear on your great grand aunt's grave that you'll never ever touch a keyboard again. I'd suggest that you move on to competing on this site only when you’re reasonably comfortable with your technique and are looking to improve your overall speed.

Even after you’ve achieved a measure of comfort with the words on speedtest, you might still be flummoxed by Typeracer, because Typeracer doesn’t make you type word lists, it makes you type paragraphs. Paragraphs, with – brace yourself - proper punctuation, and - just to reiterate - it does not forgive typos. So, practising a little on Typeracer will improve your real world composition skills much more than a lot of time spent on speedtest.

For context, I started off on Typeracer a couple of years ago, and averaged about 70 WPM. Now I can consistently do about 105. Here’s a video I recorded for er.. motivational purposes. Be warned, I wasted a lot of time on this site, so you'll need a lot of practice to see that kind of improvement, but hey it was college. I’d even call it a productive use of my time.

I know I said I moved to typing with the right technique when I started using speedtest, but that’s not exactly right. It’s not easy to change the way you type overnight: I already had nearly correct technique for my left hand, but my right hand was all over the place, and I never used my pinkies. I think it took me a couple of years to start using my right pinky to type the ‘P’, and even now it flaps up and down like it wants nothing to do with all this typing business. Consciously try and return your fingers to the home row after hitting every key, and without looking, and your job is half done. After all, touch typing is the most intuitive way of typing: you reach for each key with the finger that’s closest to it (only if your starting position is on the home row of course. That’s why typing courses keep banging on and on about that point.) Don't worry if you simply cannot contort your fingers to reach certain keys. Skip them for later, but don't forget that what you're doing is wrong.

And remember, it’s all about gamifying. Any sort of game that puts a price on your ability to generate as many words as you can in a limited period of time, your typing skills come in handy. Here are a few such games I've played in the past, and thoroughly enjoyed.

Multieight is a favourite of mine. Its rules are simple: you make as many words as you can from a eight letter word, in one minute. The bigger the words you make, the more the points you score, obviously.

Boggle also works.

There’s also an app on Facebook called ‘The typing of the ghost’, which is inspired by an unbelievably fun PC game I’ll talk about in the next point. Check it out.

If you can, get your hands on ‘The typing of the Dead’. I think it’s the first and only game that can be classified as a ‘First Person Typer’. (You zap zombies with your keyboard. 'Nuff said.)

Before I sign off, I need just a moment to do one last thing: defend the need to improve your typing skills. Typing shouldn’t be a chore, it should be exactly like writing: a tool you use to get something else done, which in this case is composition. When you’re writing your exams, are you thinking about which finger to move, and in what kind of loopy way, to cross those Ts? No. Typing should be like that, and once you get the hang of it, far outstrips writing in usefulness (at least for composing text). I don’t think anyone writes faster than 60 WPM. It’s quite easy, with a little effort of course (oxymoron!), to hit 80 WPM while typing. I can’t stress enough how much the ability to type fast, and more importantly the ability to touch type - type without thinking - has improved my productivity. (Gah, corporate terms. I rooted around for a better one, but I’m already infected. I guess.) For example, churning out blog posts like this is not a day-long task anymore. (On the other hand, it’s difficult not to hit 20 pages every time I write anything, absolutely anything at all. :) )

Good luck.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tippity Tap Tap

Everyone knows that foot tapping is contagious. It’s obvious, right? We’ve seen so many popular culture depictions that follow this theme: There’s a lone guy. He’s sitting at a table. In a, er, cafeteria. There’s a spoon, there’s a tumbler and there’s a knack for a beat, all with our lone guy. Before you know it, there’s a full-scale impromptu cafeteria orchestra, with tabletops, people’s backs and grinding knives passing for instruments.

(No, you actually haven’t seen anything like that? There, that’s remedied, and with a highly er… topical example to boot. Forgive me.) OK, I have never seen it happen, but neither have I seen Gandhi, and I believe what I see on TV more than I believe what I see in real life. Real life is very tricksy you see, I saw my name in a cloud once. What sort of self-respecting reality would have that?

Anyway, my point is that when I saw this person on my company bus tapping her fingers discreetly to some unknown rhythm, noiselessly and safely muffled by the backpack nestling in her lap, obviously in response to my not so discreet head-nodding (a more socially acceptable form of the headbang) to some Trivium riff, I was not surprised. No, sir, not in the least bit was I surprised. Music makes the world go round, right? Music is the only language everyone speaks, and all that, I told myself.

But on a different day, and with a different person, something happened that was surprising - in a mind-boggling way, with emphasis on the ‘mind’ and ‘boggle’ bits. I had seen this person enjoying his music quietly, with only the hint of a finger-drum giving anything away. Meanwhile, a brilliant riff and/or a spectacular solo forcefully wedged a happy knife in my skull, and I was swept away into a mini bus-seat rendition of a blast beat using my hands and legs. My twitching hair swayed in sync with the solo of course. In time, I noticed that this guy was sneaking surreptitious glances at me, and not in the: ‘look at that guy, he’s acting so ridiculous’ way.

It was more of a professional envy. I could make it out from that glint in his eye. (Middle aged gentlemen rocking back and forth to some 60s dirge in obvious orgasmic delight was a clue too, but you know, it was that glint that gave it away.) Naturally, I didn’t take to the challenge kindly. How could that presumptuous fool take on heavy metal, and its unrivalled capacity for energization? I had to enlighten him – it would be a blight on my conscience otherwise – I simply had to correct the error of his ways. So, I began to toss my head from side to side even more vehemently, whilst my feet beat out a furious staccato on the floor. I only stopped, chest heaving, heart aflutter, when I found myself nearly blinded by one of the many knobs and edges that jutted in from the window. To my satisfaction though, a quick glance confirmed that the shine in the pretender’s eye was all but gone now, glazed over in dull defeat. Victory! A truly triumphant homecoming it was, when I got off five minutes later.

I’ll let you use your underworked imaginations to sift out the truths in that story, but writing about it brought to mind another, even more mindboggling incident that occurred sometime back, when my workplace was changed to Bagmane Tech Park.

Walkathons and Cheaters

For a while (until this happened), I used public transport to get to work. There was a minor problem with that arrangement: the Yahoo! office was exactly one kilometre from the bus stop where I got down, and I had to walk that distance everyday. To put that into context, in case all you fit-as-a-fiddle people out there consider that a piffling amount, people were ready to shell out as much as a hundred rupees just to get an auto driver to make that short trip. Or they were ready to stand around for up to half an hour, waiting for the in-campus shuttles to arrive, rather than attempt the impossible. While I wasn’t exactly drained by the walk, it was a bit monotonous doing the same concrete scenery everyday, and so I did what any sane person would do to suck the ennui out of routine: I gamified it.

I decided that I would walk as fast as I could, and the next day I would walk faster. I honed my technique (tip: use your adductors more than your calves), and began to shave minutes from my times, until I hit my physical peak with a 9 minute end-to-end run. That day, I walked into work, legs on fire, face red and sweaty and I had a hard time convincing people that I wasn’t returning from a workout in the gym.

I did this for over a month, and I soon got used to outpacing any pedestrians in sight during my walkathons. One day though, I met a stubborn rival. This man walked fast (apparently because he was late for a meeting but I’m not convinced) but not enough to challenge my supremacy. However, immediately after I crossed him, he quickly upped his pace to keep up, and when I got stuck behind a group of giggly snail-walking girls a little while later, he smoothly jumped on to the road to jog around the congregation, and overtake me.

Now that was blasphemy. My mind boggled from the implications of the man’s heinous act. It physically reeled. I don’t know if I mentioned this, but I had one simple rule for my walkathons: Never, ever run. Or even break into a half-jog. I could not break that. But this guy, who was a short, balding guy with thin arms and a paunch , slowed down after he established what he judged was a safe gap, and went back to his walking pace, which while blindingly fast, was no match for mine. Little by little, I ate up the intervening metres until I was right behind him, and that was when I played my masterstroke, and did this:

In case my artistic skills did not let the point get across, here’s what I did: Because ultimately both of us had to cross over to the right side of the road (and there was another rightward curve that was going to come up), I decided to use the diagonal and do it at the first curve of the road, so that I could sneakily establish a lead without seeming to do so (otherwise, the man would start jogging to catch up, I didn’t want that). I did so, and at the end of the operation, we were walking in lockstep, only, on opposite sides of the road. I had given myself a strategic advantage: during the next curve, the man would have to negotiate a longer distance than I.

The man however, did not wait for the curve at all. He dashed – yes, he really dashed - across the road, tracing a mazy, diagonal route, and reappeared a few feet in front of me, and continued walking. Naturally, I was flabbergasted by this man, and his blatant disregard for the simple honour of the walking game. How could he run? Again, though, I slowly cut into his lead. He became aware of this, and a quick glance behind confirmed that walking would simply not do it for him, and then he played his masterstroke. He pulled out his cell phone from his pocket. (I resigned myself to an honourable defeat.)

“Yes, sir, I’m coming.” and he sprinted away without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Small Talk

It occurred to me, while in the midst of a fascinating adventure in a foreign land - I won't go into the details, if you know about it, you know about it - that I'm really good at something. Something that's not one of the many talents that that desperately vain corner of my brain has catalogued for future reference. Small talk.

I hate the mundane, it's boring. Most things in life are mundane. Therein lies the paradox. But there's a way out, and it's called humour. Make boring things funny, and they just might become interesting. Small talk is inevitably boring relative to anything other than another flavour of small talk. To complete that hasty syllogism, I can make small talk interesting, and ergo, I'm great at small talk.

You've probably guessed where this is going. Take a deep breath and shriek a shriek of joy because you're right. It's about girls. I should be perfect for any dinner table, anywhere, anytime, with those mad skills I've got, right? I should be, except for one small problem. Five minutes into any conversation, I get this inexplicable urge, an itch that's not on the outside but the inside, an itch that seems to become progressively more irritating each time I scratch. The urge, the itch to geek out.

Here I am talking wittily on the charms of bus journeys when I feel the need to bring in some irrational metaphor about the Platonian cave into the conversation. The End. I should probably do something Pavlovian to train this out of me. Like plucking out a fingernail every time I do something like this. Yes, that should work.

Walking In With A Bang

It's hard being a thinker. Even when you're taking a break from hungering for an end to world hunger, fighting for world peace, straitjacketing narrow-mindedness or ripping out stupid people's voice boxes, you're still thinking deep, profound thoughts. For example, recently I've been obsessed with finding a philosophically satisfactory explanation for one vexing question:

What's that bag doing there?!

People who've seen me around know that I don't even step into a loo without a shoulder bag. Those who haven't, I'm sure you can exercise those rusty centres of your brain that handle imagination processing a little. Why, why, why, though? I used to think it had to do with that pleasant, maternal feeling you get from small objects clinging tenderly to your back. I agree that that explanation is reasonably good - it even fashionably tips its hat towards evolutionary psychology - but then I discovered better.

Wherever I go, I walk in with a bag. No, that's not quite right. One of my pseudonyms is 'N'. I'm not Abhinav, or even Lone because that's too verbose. (Four letters, oh my poor tongue!) I'm simply N. When N walks in with a bag, he doesn't walk in with a bag, he walks in with a bang. Get it? There you go, a perfectly good explanation for why I do what I do. (You can kill me now.)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Luck and Wonder

Seeing as how real life almost never throws up unexpected surprises, this one really was unexpected. A couple of months ago, on a whim, I decided to try and purchase a subscription to this magazine online. The billing page clearly mentioned that only credit cards would be accepted for payment, and I being of the noble ilk of financial pragmatists did not possess one. But I went ahead and entered my debit card’s details, fully expecting a big, red sign to pop up, politely asking me to stop wasting their carefully rationed time. And thereby ending my spot of whimsical summer pastime of course. Instead, to my utter horror, a pleasant green icon lit up the screen the moment I was done with the done button, informing me of the success of the transaction. My shock seeped away quickly, once my brain clicked into gear and I started on the fine print.

“They didn’t ask for my password/PIN, did they? Ha!”

“Your subscription will be activated once your credit card is verified, and the transaction completed.”

I promptly forgot all about my little dalliance. A couple of days later, I received an email telling me how sorry everyone at Kalmbach Publishing was that they had to cancel my subscription as my ‘credit card’ had failed verification. There was an attached offer to get myself an account with Kalmbach to track all my subscriptions (or it could have been about buying garden fresh pink roses for all I remember), but the sense of closure was so complete that I ignored it and promptly forgot about promptly forgetting all about my little dalliance.

... Until one fine rainy day in the heart of the Deccan, when I stepped out of the house on my way to work. There were two shiny tan envelopes lying there, unceremoniously dumped in Tommy’s half of the portico. If your heart just skipped an expectant beat, that’s just me playing with your mind, because the sight did nothing for mine then. My father had subscribed to every single finance magazine on the planet, and this was probably just one of them. Curiosity (there’s a reason they always wrap interesting stuff in the dullest of envelopes) made me open one of them, and then the other, quickly, because I was to find these inside.

I spent all of five minutes staring at wondrous pictures from the bottomless gallery of the cosmos, before my conscience caught up with me. (I know, I know. I tried the Chinese water torture on the pesky little thing. It didn’t work. It’s probably already barking mad.) I already knew that no money had been deducted from my account because I had checked already, parsimonious twerp that I am. So, it really was an issue of conscience, not enlightened self-interest. Shooting off that polite errata-kind-of-email (“Sir, there seems to have been a mistake...”) to the folks at Kalmbach was easy. I half hopefully wondered if the mail would go into someone’s junk folder and be not read at all, and if I’d get to keep the cake and eat it.

Actually, I still hope that happens, and I will continue to do so until Mr. Year decides to shuffle off into 2012. The many delightful hours I have spent with my two free copies of Astronomy magazine have reminded me that it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about astronomy. I don’t want to write about sky watching again (this post’s already dragged on, I don’t want to make it a novella), so I’ll make do with a little dash of the something that makes astronomy endlessly fascinating for me.

For me, the most wondrous description that I’ve ever read can, fittingly, be found in a Stephen Baxter novel. I don’t recall which one exactly, but I know it was one of the Manifold trilogy (all of which I encourage you to read). I could wax lyrical on what it is, but I’ll leave that bit to yourselves, pointing you instead to a factual Wikipedia entry on the topic. One of the characters, a sentient squid if I remember correctly, actually gets to see what you’ve just read about, and I’ve been jealous ever since. If only, if only, if only, if only, if only. It would be wondrous, awe-inspiring, humbling and crippling, all at the same time.

Ever since I discovered this site – if you’re interested in the breadcrumbs it was through the description of a Topcoder development contest backed by NASA – I’ve spent many hours just looking at it, and obviously many more monkeying around inside. Again, I won’t bother describing it – check it out for yourselves. The media player takes an inordinate amount of time to load but I promise you it’s worth the frustration.
In the May edition of Astronomy, there was an article on detailed simulations of asteroid strikes. A bunch of astrogeeks at Purdue have made this site, and the article had distilled down two of the simulations into a descriptive piece. Here’s a sample: If you were to be about 30 kilometres from the impact site of a 2.4 kilometre wide comet, you’d see a fireball about 60 times the size of the sun. For context, that’s about a third of the sky from the horizon to the zenith. You’d be hit by a wind of speed 1,900 km/h about 4 minutes later. For context, that’s about 6 times 1.5 times the speed of sound. You wouldn’t hear a thing as waves of silent destruction would strip the flesh from your bones.
That’s all for now. I enjoyed those wonder pieces so much though, that I’m sure you’ll find me returning to the theme again in the future. If you aren’t gobsmacked out of your pants, and if you aren’t feeling really, really tiny right now, then sorry, you’re way too self-centred to ever be an astrogeek. I mean that in the politest sense of course. :)

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Until not too long ago, it made perfect sense. I was secure in my knowledge of its utter stupidity – even entertaining half a debate was this close to insanity. It was so nonsensical it made perfect sense. I knew all those people who were railing against immigration in the U.S. were blinkered fools because, because... Where do I start? To me, the average stereotypical anti-immigration crusader was a blustering, red necked Great White (Fat) Male. (I’ll apologize for the blatant stereotyping later. Can’t you see I’m working on an apology already?) Just another European, with a fondness for guns and the rhotic R, if you compare the tiny sliver of time that America’s been America with all that time we’ve spent not being apes.

By way of researching this blog post I read this section on Wikipedia, and I was astounded to discover that pre-Columbian Americans predated European colonizers by 30 times as many years. There were more culturally diverse Native American groups wiped out by European diseases than political lobbies exist in the USA today. How can, just how can anyone have the gall to even consider turning away immigrants, talking about that shadow thing called American culture?

I read a forum post somewhere ( I looked for it, but I rarely ever bookmark things I’m going to read again, and Google failed me with its over-helpfulness) that almost exactly spelled out the view I held but had never seriously debated with anyone. The first ‘anti-immigration’ response that couldn’t be discarded as a rant simply asked this question:

‘How long do we have to wait, as a nation, before we get the right to define our own identity?’

A fascinating question, one that I failed to wish away with hand waving and bluster. While I don’t particularly care for patriotism as I believe that its unambiguous moral rightness is dangerous and almost inevitably mutates into jingoism, I recognize that people need, and have the right, to choose an identity for themselves. So, yes, American people need an American culture so that the notion of being American becomes something more than just empty words, something more tangible. (But do Americans have the right to censure people who don’t conform to their idea of American-ness?)

My riposte to that riposte though was simply: Already? It’s only been a fraction of a second that they’ve been, cosmically speaking. Should they be already freezing their cultural evolution? They had great intellectuals who drafted what’s perhaps the most forward thinking piece of legislation ever written, in the American constitution. But it’s not perfect and while it tries, admirably, it cannot fight off the creeping lure of religious parochialism. It should be allowed to evolve, and in the direction of greater tolerance.  Only new ideas foster evolution, and new cultures bring bagfuls of new ideas with them.

I’ve been banging on and on about America having existed only for a cosmic jiffy, but is that really right? Most free nations as we know them today have been around much less. India, as the slow, lumbering machine that’s always, but not quite, on the verge of grinding to a halt, has only been around for a measly 60 years. And we already seem to have our own idea of a ‘shadow’ Indian culture, an intangible web of intolerance that will find millions of defendants, but only a few who can tell you what it really is. Are we better? Not really. In fact we’d probably fare much, much worse if we were to become as much a hotspot for illegal immigrants as America.

What’s that I can take away from the assortment of thoughts I expelled from my system? That immigration is a more vexing issue than it appears at first glance, and that it's not just unthinking, gibbering morons who advocate stringent laws against it. It is important though that people don’t get sucked into narrow minded rhetoric disguised as American culture because, sadly, most of the self-professed warriors against the blight of immigration that have taken to haunting the Interwebs generally spout various varieties of the very same rhetoric. Being white, Christian and male is not what American culture is exclusively about.

There are many things that we, as a nation, could take away from the American search for identity, because I’m convinced this is a battle that has to be fought in our country, and in the not too distant future. I hope their war ends well, and I hope we take away the right things for our own.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Friend Mary Sue

I met someone new recently, and I made a brand new friend. Her name is Mary Sue. Mary Sue is not a person. Mary Sue is a form of literary criticism. Despite the best efforts of their creators, critical diatribes have (mostly) failed to achieve auto-sentience, and so Mary Sue narrowly missed out on personhood. Mary Sue is very, very unpopular. That’s strange because she’s just about perfect. But she is. She’s not just unpopular, she’s reviled. She’s so reviled she has a whole Wikipedia article discussing her flaws.

“A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader.”

But she’s a friend, and while I don’t particularly like all my friends, I like her. How can I not? How can I dislike someone who has a perfect body, perfect face, perfect hair, perfect <you get it>, wears perfect clothes, speaks perfect circa 300 BC Greek, knows twenty three forms of jujitsu and hundred and two languages, someone who beats Olympic swimming record times for a spot of exercise, likes to call herself Ophelia and is all of twenty three? I fear that some hitherto unknown cosmic mechanism to hoover out monumental stupidity will switch on and pop me into a handful of spacetime nothings if I don’t.

Right, now that I have established my firm logical grounds for supporting the delectable Ms. Mary Sue, let me trot out all those hackneyed criticisms and stomp on them. Squash them like bedbugs, and if possible throw them back at the original critics. Make them squirm uncomfortably until they admit to being kind of Mary Sue-ish themselves, and immediately commit suicide on an overdose of principle.

Author self-insertion.
I thought it would be a good idea to get the criticisms I partially agree with out of the way first, so that I’m free to build up my unassailable arguments later. So, I sort of agree with this. Budding authors find it hard to dream up completely new characters, so they take the ones they already know and change a feature or two here, and a name or two there. Who do we know better than ourselves? Actually, scratch that. We barely know ourselves, and that is where the problem of wish fulfilment comes in. Ain’t I irresistible as a slab of chocolate? Look at me, I’m tall, handsome, I’m smart, hunky, I’m funny and I can sing Cannibal Corpse in my sleep. Darn, who put that mirror there? Ah, not a disaster, there was that story I was working on that’s nearly complete, except for the minor matter of er... a protagonist.

I don’t unconditionally go with the criticism however, because of two seemingly contradictory reasons. One: authors have only themselves, their minds to work with. Everything a writer brings out is necessarily a depraved fantasy born in his mind. The devil’s in the details, however, and the talent’s in the obfuscation. How well can you mix and match your characterizations? A good author will still use a character sketch of himself, but he’ll probably patch a sketch of a childhood rival on to it to sow some novelty. An even better author will probably have the ability to portray slices of himself, allowing him to create many convincing characters simply by altering the ‘honesty’ filter he uses to evaluate himself. So, I would argue that it’s not only not better to avoid self-insertion, it’s often wrong. Don’t make it obvious though.

The second reason: people misinterpret all the time. Do you see Palestinians and Israelis sitting together on a beach smoking pot and singing along to Pink Floyd? Do you see bible thumpers and homoseksuals hunting quail together? There, somebody misinterpreted something somewhere. The moment our discerning reader detects a minute sniff of partiality towards the story’s hero, a little hint of favouritism shown by the author, he’ll slam the book shut faster than you can say ‘Wait... !’, absolutely convinced that he’s now reading a touched up autobiography. 

On general fantasizing about something or the other
This is an extension of the ‘self-insertion’ criticism, and Mary Sue haters generally club the two points together and simply call them ‘wish-fulfilment’. (I picked up the politest of the lot. Wankery is a cruder but often clearer term.) Remember that little speech I gave when you asked me to describe Mary Sue? Wankery. Good old fantasizing. Again, it’s a really, really fine line. All fiction is fantasy, and an author has no source but his own mind. (There are of course revealed truths which float in from the ether, but I’ve politely decided to refrain from discussing religion, so.) 

Do I think anything should fall on the wrong side of the fine line? I’m not really sure - because the things that critics generally put in that basket are things I don’t really mind – ostentatiously exotic things, for example. Like my friend Mary Sue who can speak hundred and four languages. Did I mention she’s one heck of a CS player? People are not really irritated with the idea of Mary Sue in these cases: they don’t like it that despite their best efforts they’ve gone on to finish the book. It’s OK, folks. It happens to the best and the bravest. It happened to me. Fantasy is fine.
Goody Two-Shoes-ness
I know people don’t like perfect people, but in the real world it’s called pettiness and is definitely not a sign of refinement. On the other hand, it appears that when it concerns fictional ‘people’, it’s supposed to ooze sophistication. You absolutely cannot have ‘good’ characters of any flavour in fiction. Goodness is boring. Give me serial killers, rapists and conmen. I don’t care about that guy who’s so snow white he’s never even bribed a cop. Pah! Mary Sues! My immediate reaction to this was (and still is): What?

I don’t want to appear as black-and-white as the evil side, so I’ll bring out the different-people-like-different-things argument: Different people like different things! For every flawed, insecure person out there who wants to read about other flawed, insecure people so that he can feel good about himself, there is a flawed, insecure person who wants to read about perfect people so that he can experience in fiction what he can never achieve in real life. I’ve firmly entrenched myself in the second camp. (Even if I’m rather more perfect than normal humans, my perfectness encourages modesty and so I cannot claim it. Sigh, now I’ll have to strike through this whole confession.

What is so wrong about people reading about people they aspire to be like? Having read through many a thread on this topic, I’m convinced that if someone were to write up the story of Jesus Christ and post it to a critic who’s lived in a hole and not heard of the great man, he would get lambasted for not working on his character development, and the word Mary Sue would inevitably figure at some point. Everything’s relative and one man’s impossible perfection is another man’s triviality.

I’ll make a minor concession: Even I get put off by absolutely perfectly perfect perfectness. Everyone has a flaw, but it need not always be apparent. The devil is - it always is - in the details. If the author actively tries to impose the idea of his character’s perfectness on us either through omniscient narrative, or through every other character fawning all over our man (or woman), the reader has every right to switch off. The author’s inserted himself into the story again. But what if the perfection is inferred? The author merely narrates all the good things the guy has done, and you, good reader, start to resent his Goody Two-Shoes-ness. You need to get used to yourself. Good people exist. Deeds of great nobility are as readable as deeds of great evil, at least to a not insignificant number of people out there.

Author propaganda
If there’s one thing unequivocally criticisable about a classic Mary Sue, it’s this. Ironically, this is one point that’s almost never raised when Mary Sues are criticized. It’s either so widespread, or people don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. I hope it’s the first.

What do I mean though, by author propaganda? I dislike characters that only exist to transform into words the author’s narrow viewpoints and generally parochial mindset. Let me qualify that: I don’t dislike such characters by themselves, because I know that all sorts of people exist in the world and the author has every right to make a gun-toting drug lord his protagonist. I have no right to draw inferences on the author’s personal life based on merely one errant character, and it’s an even bigger crime to call this propaganda. But when you see a book with twenty five characters, characters from all over the world and various walks of life, and every single one of them agrees wholeheartedly with every single thing our hero has to say, I get put off. I can’t help but trace it back to the author. In Philip K. Dick’s works (his later works, to be fair), Christian theology is correct. It is axiom. It is always vindicated in the end against perfunctory doubts.

It's a Predictable/Boring Story...
Now this is one point that really bugs me. People rail against Mary Sues because they think Mary Sues destroy stories. If there’s a Mary Sue there’s a sense that all confrontations are redundant because she'll win them all anyway, and that’s no fun. 

My immediate reaction when I first read something like this was to draw an analogy to the story of life itself. Life starts with birth and life ends with death. There’s never any variation there, the story is always about the journey. Are all lives boring then? Not everyone wants stories that have unpredictable endings. I don’t know how my own life is going to turn out – there’s enough chaos there for me, I want at least my fiction to show some stability. I know real life has no true good and evil, and it’s difficult to point fingers and not become aware of your hypocrisy at the same time. But I crave the guarantee that Good is going to win out over Evil in the end, and it’s only fiction that can offer it. Yes, it is not realism. Of course, it isn’t! It’s all about one man and his depraved fantasies, remember? Some people want endings they can’t guess. Some people don’t.
Harry Potter’s been called a Mary Sue. (It was on a manga fan forum, but in my defence the arguments were reasonably erudite.) Why? Because everything always seems to work out for him just in time, it’s so boring. (Let’s drop the fact that his parents were murdered while he was still a baby. That must have been fun, knowing that he’d have no parental pressure for the rest of his life.) I find the argument cyclic, and I’ll respond in kind. How is it that he always gets to survive? Because it’s his story, friend. Why (or how) would you write a long running novel series about a thirteen year old whose greatest adventure was slipping on a banana peel and whacking his head on a lamp post? We’re writing about his story because it’s remarkable. We’re writing about him because he’s overcome ridiculous odds and emerged triumphant in the end, because he has greatness around him, for whatever reason. We’re chronicling his story as it happened in the past: we’re not blogging about it live. If only everyone learnt to admire greatness, instead of letting their insecurities develop into poisonous cynicism, the world would be a better place.

On the theme of Harry Potter, I find it astounding how many people ‘like’ Severus Snape and ‘dislike’ Albus Dumbledore. Come on, strip away all those cobwebs you’ve build around your convictions, isn’t it just pettiness? Is Dumbledore a Mary Sue? His character certainly seems to tick most of the criteria used to identify one. His perfection is resented, although he isn’t really, if you see the backstory. Isn’t a man who can’t seem to do no wrong more admirable than someone who does, and corrects himself? Maybe not, but I argue that the point is at least debatable. 

Look, mama, the world is helping Mary! 
Character development, character development. Where would the art of criticism be without you? Because although this criticism is outwardly directed against everything-working-out-for-Mary-Sues-all-the-time, the real gripe is always about some form of character development.

“She's perfect, everything always works out for her, she never learns from failures because she never fails, and that’s boring, and I so hate Mary Sues!”

Yes, if you have a character who knows everything, does everything right, beats everyone and walks away, there’s hardly a story there, so it’s a wee bit boring. But this criticism is often applied to stories where the character already has a more or less well-tuned moral compass, and the story is about his journey in discovering the system, and his own abilities/skills/powers. It is character development, only not the sort you’re expecting, dear haters.

There are people out there who are plain lucky, people to whom good things happen despite their best efforts to mess things up. I have had occasions when this has happened to me, I'm afraid. If it happens in real life, why can't it happen in fiction? Suspend your disbelief, step out of that little pond you think is the ocean. Strange things happen all the time. Take a deep breath, and enjoy your fanfic. 

The End
Ultimately a Mary Sue is a stereotype, and like all stereotypes it’s just a handy stick to beat people you don’t like, which is disappointing because some of the criticism has merit. Now though, Mary Sue has accumulated so many traits that there’s hardly any character out there that you cannot call one. And beware! A few even seem to have crossed over into non-fiction. :)

Friday, April 22, 2011

What's in a familiar face?

I’ve been thinking about this deceptively obvious concept a lot lately, because it’s paradoxical. I’m sure everyone has had instances in his/her life where random people have come up to them and asked:

‘Are you <put name here>’s brother?’

Friends and acquaintances aren’t exempt from this behaviour – the question’s a little modified though.

‘Did I ever tell you that you look a hell of a lot like this person I knew?’

If everyone’s had this happen to them, and if the beholder beholds what the beholder beholds, why all the pondering then? Because I’m convinced that this happens to me more often than other people, and it does not make sense.

There’s no palatable (to me) way to put this but: I have a very prominent lower jaw, kind of a like a gibbon. (I maintain that it’s developmental, brought about by a thumb sucking habit that refused to go away, rather than an inherited trait, but well.) My lengthened jaw might not look out of place at all in a congregation of Africans, but here, it’s rather exotic. Therein lies the paradox.

If something’s different, why do more people find it familiar? I think I know why. If there’s a feature that’s overwhelmingly conspicuous, a feature that’s the first thing people notice about a face, the face will come to be defined by it. Think large, curved noses. Different kinds of faces may possess them: fat faces, thin faces, white faces, brown faces, pimply faces, bearded faces , it doesn’t matter. The moment you see a face with a large, curved nose you think of the last face you saw with a similarly large, curved nose and you go to the owner of the face and say:

‘You look a bit like this karate instructor I used to have. Are you a relative?’

That’s not so bad then.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Part 1: The Nothing
So that’s that then. It has served me well, if not for long, like a beautiful woman. I spent most of last week in an indignant huff, and apparent well-wishers expounding on the five stages of grief only made things worse. (Yes, that’s a warning to you. I’m a professional kickboxer and there aren’t many things more kickable than your head.) Maybe this is only punishment for slacking out on one too many Mondays. (Sorry. I promise to be so conscientious from now on that it will border on masochism. There, I said it. Now can I have it back?)

Going late to work on Monday is easy to force my conscience into ignoring. But repeating the same sin on Tuesday is slightly less forgivable. Who knows? Maybe if I had left my house fifteen minutes early, it would not have happened? (Again I warn you. The next person who mentions ‘denial’ or ‘bargaining’ is going to not only lose his head but have it reattached backwards.) Well, it did and after a week’s worth of lamentation, I think I’ve made my peace.

It’s no biggie really, all that prologue-ing really gives the impression that I care too much, which I don’t, so I’ll stop. I lost my phone. To be precise, a-nimble-pickpocket-palmed-it-from-my-front-pocket-while-I-was-travelling-in-a-bus. Prepare to be gobsmacked, fellow Bangalorean bus travellers! For it happened in not just any bus, but in the bus of all buses – the Vajra. There’s nothing much to narrate here because (duh) I don’t know what happened, but I can give some context.

I got onto my regular bus, a high frequency air conditioned bus specially commissioned by BMTC for paunchy, sweaty software engineers, in my usual haze of solitude. Weirdly, because the time then was not on the right side of 10:30 AM, the bus was as crowded as a Lady Gaga concert. I barely got my backside in before I was nearly amputated by a lever attached to the sliding doors, which in its hurry to shut them decided to squish my right thigh.

My reserves of what-I-would-call propriety have dipped alarmingly in the recent past, neatly coinciding with my life as a bus traveller. I shouldered my way into the crowd and those whose propriety still hadn’t been burnt out of them (read: noobs) made way for me as I planted myself solidly in the middle of the concert crowd. Thinking back, that was probably when I first noticed something odd.

It didn’t matter though. My solitary bus journeys are spent in what is best described as a delirium. They’re as close as I can get to sensory deprivation without hallucinogens. Even in that state of mind, I noticed those poorly dressed, skinny Northie-types (excuse my lack of tact, but you know, I lost my bloody phone) who, with their paan-stained teeth, untucked shirts and French pencil moustaches were as out of place on the bus as Roshan Priyadarshi in a guys bathroom. I only barely noticed, mind you, because somebody in the aisle crowd decided to get down just then, and I used the opportunity to muscle my way into the infinitely more comfortable aisle area. That’s it.

That’s really it. There was lots of pushing and shoving going on, but if you think I can distinguish between pushing type A (both hands out, hip attached to nearby seat, head tilted up), pushing type B (hands inconspicuously placed behind back, shoulder leaning forwards, hip muscles working overtime) and pushing type C (one hand thrust, second hand in another’s pocket), you’re wrong. I really didn’t notice a sneaky hand groping my thigh. But, hold, that’s not it. There’s never a story which Lord Murphy does not like to pervert for his silly, childish pleasure, and this certainly was no exception.

I almost always plug in my earphones before I get on to the bus. Metal helps me hit the haze quicker, and I need to hit the haze because that’s the best way to enjoy three teaspoons of solitude. That time though, I didn’t do it. I’ve tried a thousand times over to capture what my state of mind was like then (in fact, if you kill me right now, I think you can use my -erm- analysis to reproduce my mind to the last molecule, to the extent that the first thing I would do would be to finish this blog post, or look for a cybertronic arm to do so) that I didn’t plug in the music, but all solutions lead to Murphy. If I had plugged myself in on my phone, nobody on Earth could have pocketed my phone without me noticing. Absence of metal lifts the haze in approximately 0.25 microseconds - plenty of time to chop a wandering hand off at the wrist.

The rest is well, predictable. It was when I eventually decided to listen to music that I noticed my strangely lighter left pocket. The incorrigible optimist that I am, I immediately assumed that a) it was probably in my bag, b) it was probably in the other pocket, c) oh no, it must have fallen down somewhere (not a disaster as I didn’t see any 120 kg dudes nearby), d) @#$%. I looked around and identified Smarmy Guy texting away on his swanky mobile phone ().

“Excuse me sir... I-think-I’ve-lost-my-phone-can-I-borrow-yours-for-a-minute-I-just-want-ring-it-and-see-if-it’s-fallen-down-here-somewhere-thanks!”

After a critical lookover which I apparently passed, Smarmy Guy typed out the number on his phone himself (no he didn’t hand it over. OK maybe I only partially passed. :/), and confirmed the worst. Switched off. And so I plunged into bottomless agony. Outwardly of course, my face became only blander than ever, prompting people around me (yes, my frenzy had alerted several of my ever-bored neighbours) to ask.

“It wasn’t an expensive phone, no?”

Some last shreds of dignity forced me to lie through my teeth. The effort made my usually awesome baritone voice gain several octaves, and I squeaked back that, yes it was only a cheap Nokia phone. A kind soul advised me to rush to the driver and ‘Stop the bus now!’; which I did so promptly, inspite of my grief induced lethargy, possibly because stopping the bus and checking everyone’s pockets was way cooler than just losing a mobile phone.

I told them. The conductor exchanged a significant look with the driver, who started off with the most ill-timed ‘I knew it!’ rant ever. Apparently, he had noticed this bunch of shady looking folks get in some time back. He had noticed how they had refused to move out of the standing space in the middle of the bus and move to the aisle, and how that made them even shadier. The slightly terser conductor simply nodded away, eyes politely downcast. Unfortunately, those shady looking folks (whom I was already convinced I had seen myself) had got down three stops ago, and there was nothing they could do. He added philosophically:

“It’s gone.”

Part 2: The Office

Office was agony, and I choose not to dwell on those painful moments when my colleagues amused themselves heartily at my expense. (Schadenfreude is a fad, I tell you.) I mean, how was it funny? It was just a straightforward pocket swipe. It wasn’t like I had been riding a motorbike when I had suddenly felt the urge to check out my handsome self in the rearview mirror, and had leant over, only for my brand new touchphone to fall out of my pocket and get squashed by a passing eighteen-wheeler. Now, that is lol-worthy. (And honest to Lord Murphy, true. A slightly more sympathetic colleague consoled me with that tale.) Most of what happened at work is better skipped, except for on little discussion on insurance.

“What? There’s. Such. A. Thing. Called. Insuring. Mobile. Phones?” incredulity forcing me into hyperventilation.

“Yes. It’s not easy to get, but it’s there. Wait, your phone wasn’t covered?”

And with that, the merriment resumed.

There's part 3, and naturally, it happens at the police station, but since I really need to get my backside off this chair and get some Sunday work done - until later.