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?