Sunday, August 11, 2013

Culture of Offendedness

"I do think one of the characteristics of our age is the growth of this culture of offendedness. It's got something to do with the rise of identity politics, where you are invited to define your identity quite narrowly … What's happened in this age is we are asked to define ourselves by hate."
–Salman Rushdie, speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Those Who Can Teach

See Philip Roth's excellent homage to his teacher here...

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

I Love Me Some PGW

"Old Stoker appeared reluctant to set himself up as a judge of male beauty. He made a noise like a pig swallowing half a cabbage, but refused to commit himself further. Dwight, a solemn child, was drinking me in in silence. Sir Roderick, who had turned purple, was now fading away to a lighter shade, but still looked as if his finer feelings had sustained a considerable wallop."

Courtesy: Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Facebook and You

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook his impression of what reading his old emails sounded like. He was surprised at the level of naivete that bordered on the risible. I agreed with him that he was not the only one with a not storied email past. Revisiting my Facebook (and some blog) posts informs me that I should have been incredibly vapid and neurotic those days.

I was quite a late starter as far as social media was concerned. My level of ineptitude was not down to the proper etiquette in response to a Like (should I thank him/her?), but was rather bad. The lack of shrewdness was soon countered with good ol' hard work. Well, if persistence could be considered hard work that is. From a supposed Luddite, I became someone who broadcast their interests, their views, and their awful days to the whole world. The reward? A little extra love delivered electronically. And what philosophizing and bashing and self-pitying and self-aggrandizing to go through. Needless to add the desire to put up something cool and clever on your Wall that sucks time. The wonderful Mindy Kaling says that if you have spent more than 45 seconds on a FB status/Twitter post, then god help you. The whole jambalaya viewed now makes me seem a little pretentious at its worst (in fact, even the word pompous seems too grand to me now). I have been accused of many things in my life–all these of course in person–but never of pretentiousness. The takeaway message from all this was, I was developing a personality quite different from what I was actually (some part was real all right truth be told). They say the important thing when you're watching an uncomfortable movie (or experiencing a nightmare) is to tell yourself that it is just a movie. I suppose you could extend the same calming rationality to social media too. 

The most dicey aspect for me was how to manage acquaintances and co-workers who were in your Friends list. I, for one, cannot be assertive enough to ignore a request or delete a person's name. I think it is childish besides the rudeness that rides on top. Had it not been for FB, I wouldn't know the receptionist's stand on such-and-such issue. The core question is do I really want to know? Would not my future interactions with her be a touch influenced by what I know? Worst of all is when you try to engage in a dialog, you being opposed to what they have to say. Going by the amount of vitriol spewed on online forums and discussion boards, it is a scary thing. I used to laugh inwardly when people here in the US used to say they don't get along with their sibling etc. because of their political views. How silly I thought! I could now begin to see what they meant.

Which brings us to the effect social media or any electronic media has on our psyche. A thing that I have noticed among many educated Indians here–I mean desi, not the alphabetized local version–is their subscription to the "truther" sentiment. I have known friends who seriously believe that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration. I was talking to a friend once on this. He referred to some film–Press for Truth or Loose Change most probably, though he said neither–which asked the right questions, so to speak. “You have to see it with an open mind. It will be interesting,” he said. I argued with him, purely on logical basis, that it is impossible to say for sure from a film with its technological and artistic advantages, to say nothing of time. He challenged me, I being an engineer, to give him a reasonable explanation on Galileo's falling body theory being proved false. Physics not being my strength, I couldn't give him a convincing answer. The curse of my life hitherto anyway has been the inability to formulate a response in real-time speed. He then, of course, gave an answer that lend credence to the explosion “hypothesis”. This plus a macedoine of other such “truths” make up the debating inventory of the doubters. I know an ex-colleague (he was also a friend) once argued with me and two others in our team at work. 
“I don't think it's an inside job” I said.
“Yeah, that's what you'll say now. Fifty years from now, you'll know the truth” he shot back.
“Do you think they'd deliberately kill two thousand of their own?”
“When they can decimate an entire race, why couldn't they?”
At that point, our manager cut in. He had been listening, and either allowed it because he was busy working or because he didn't want to appear too managerial.
“OK guys, no politics” he said, and we dispersed.
An otherwise nice person, he considered himself left of Attila the Hun. He detected conspiracies in everything. Now, I am not na├»ve to suppose any government, including the US, is saintly, though it still seems unlikely their eating their own as enough justification for Iraqi Freedom. For one thing, wouldn't you rather think they'd been, faute de mieux, subtle? Eminent intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, that tireless critic of US imperialism, has found the truthers' claims dubious. He has asked why isn't there any paper of note on the subject that has appeared in the scientific community. The supposed evidence provided by the truthers all seem fragmentary and speculative. I wouldn't place much confidence even on results from computer models that may help their case. Having worked as a modeling engineer for close to five years, I know that simulation is often not an exact replication of the complex thing that is outside. And what is inexplicable is adherents such as my friends are engineers and scientists (my colleague was a pretty astute engineer). Everything they point to are blissfully confined to the handful of nuggets from that fateful day. They don't have even a decent grasp of history. They don't have answers to the other broader implications and possibilities. So were al-Qaeda and bin Laden branded terrorist only as a build up to this? Or was their assuming responsibility a stroke of serendipity channeled to shore up passion that was starting to wane?  The majority of such people suffer from having too much time on their hands that they fill their leisure with such extreme documentaries on Netflix or YouTube or wherever. What they need is to get a life. Or to be blunt, a girlfriend (since all of them are male, supersingle and as far as I know straight). The English novelist Martin Amis said what the Islamist terrorists are looking for is the shortest way to get a girlfriend. The comparison is over-the-top I agree, but it is still relevant.

Social media may not be the lamp that houses a genie, but it is not a bane. I believe my tasteless faux pas were the result of my over-enthusiasm amid the newness of a technology.  What Facebook and Twitter have done is to lay out a bridge as invaluable as any physical ones that exist in the real world. As an instrument for revolution and change, there is a lot of potential (the friend who made appearance in the first few lines is an organizer of a few grass roots efforts in India). There was Arab Spring a couple of years ago. There is citizen journalism. Truth seems to be accessible more easily than it was possible in the past. Google even considers itself a bulwark against suppression of freedom of expression while missing the irony of its Big Brother-like behavior. The trick then is to tame the medium to achieve your own ends. My no nonsense cousin is not a fan of FB. The only constructive use he sees in it is networking, a la professional web sites like LinkedIn. He once gave me an article by Seth Godin, who's supposedly a management mastermind, where the author elucidates the "smart" way of using social media. The article is similar in its salient points to the Facebook Score some researchers developed last year. While I also tend to agree that your flu may well be horrible, a running documentation of its stages is meh. But isn't the whole point of having the medium exemplified in the act? 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013


My children give me
agonies of an
honest, soul-tearing labor
and are born like Caesar.
Yours are born
like Nature intended
and live like Caesar.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

L'esprit de l'escalier

is my favorite inability...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Kleinman: This is the first time in my life that I can actually do something I love.
Almstead: Love? Just make sure that love doesn't interfere with your duties.
–Shadows and Fog (1991), Dir: Woody Allen

For a bit that seems rather common place (the magician character Almstead replies to the recently fired bookkeeper Kleinman's acceptance of an apprenticeship with the former), seen from another angle it beautifully sums up the constant battle between the head and the heart. Allen is the P.G. Wodehouse of cinema with his mastery of the dialogue.